Customs demised: The Stamford Bull Run

Standard

“Come all you bonny boys,

Who love to bait the bonny bull,

Who take delight in noise,

And you shall have your belly-full,

On Stamford’s Town Bull Running Day,

We’ll show you such right gallant play,

You’ll never saw the like, you’ll say,

As you have seen at Stamford.”

Such goes the folk song ‘The Stamford Bullards’ Often when discussing old lost traditions and customs, one can melancholically look upon their demise and cry for a revival; however the Stamford Bull run is doubtlessly an exception.

Like a bull at the gate the origin of the custom

In 1209, William, Earl of Warren  was standing of the castle wall and saw a local butcher enrage a bull by throwing water of it to stop it fighting another in a meadow over a cow. It turned on the butcher and his poor unfortunate dog and chased them into town.  The Earl followed suit, as did a number of local bystanders, local dogs and all and sundry, as the Bull charged down the Main street and was eventually caught. The story being that the impromptu piece of entertainment so amused the earl that he gave the meadow to the town so long as on the anniversary of the date 13th November and bull would be set free to re-enact the strange event…and so it is said to have arisen. The detailed account is given in Bygone Lincolnshire:

“The origin of bull-running dates back to the days of King John, when Englishmen were noted for their coarseness and brutality, rather than for refinement and culture. But we have made great strides since then, and our national character, though partaking happily of the same robustness and thoroughness as of old, has lost much of its cruelty and roughness. In every period of our history there has been a national game or sport which has had much to do with moulding the character of the people.

The sport of bull-running, which, through many generations, was practised with much spirit by our forefathers on St. Brice’s Day, found its origin in a very simple incident. Two bulls were found by some butchers fighting in a field. They did their best to separate them, but in doing so drove the infuriated animals on to the public highway. The beasts at once set off at a furious rate into the town, to the great alarm of the people. The

Earl of Warren, being on horseback and noticing the danger, rode in pursuit of the animals, which, after a most exciting chase, he succeeded in bringing to bay, and they were secured. The effort to catch the bulls proved good sport to the noble huntsman, and so pleased was he that he determined to perpetuate so prolific a source of amusement. He, for this purpose, offered to the town the gift of the meadow in which the fight took place, on condition that a bull should be provided every year for the purpose of being run to bay on St. Brice’s Day. The town of Stamford still holds, we believe, certain common rights in what is known as the “Bull meadow,” though these and the supposed origin of this old custom rest upon no documentary evidence, so far as we have been able to ascertain. Whilst the sport was in its heyday of popularity, wealthy inhabitants left sums of money from time to time to make the necessary provision for carrying out the custom.

A mayor of the town, in 1756, left a sum of money to encourage the practice, and, as appears by the vestry accounts, the churchwardens annually gave money to aid the bull-running. ”

A cock and bull story?

What about Pamplona? Well yes, although Stamford predates this and other Spanish bull running customs, it is unlikely to be even greater in age and the Earl was simply preserving an old pagan custom. Where at the end of the harvest, beasts would be slaughtered, and the date is significant lying close to the old Celtic date of Samhain or now Hallowe’en, as well as laying in the Saxon ‘blood month’ Blotmonarth. The slaughter is emphasized by the fact that the day, St Brice’s Day, commemorated when Ethelred the Unready slaughtered the Danes and as Stamford that side of the Dane law maybe it commemorated that. It does seem coincidental.

The Bull running day….

Started when St Mary’s church bells rang at 10.45 am, this was to announce the closing and boarding of shops and the barricading of the street with carts and wagons.  By 11 am the bull was released to cheers and cagoules of the surrounding crowds, being enraged by a man who would roll towards it in a barrel? It would then run down the main street down into the Welland River where often it would be caught and butchered. Its meat was often sold to the poor and as such the custom by the 1700s was supported as a charity by donations.

Taking the Bull by the horns

It was clear that not all enjoyed the Bull Run. Butcher’s ” Survey of Stamford,” will give a tolerably correct idea of how the sport was conducted : ” During the seventeenth century, the bull was placed overnight in a stable belonging to the alderman, in readiness for the sport. On the morning of St. Brice’s Day proclamation was made by the town bellman to the following effect :

Each person was to shut up his shop door or gate, and none, under pain of imprisonment, were to do any violence to strangers, for the prevention of which the town being a great thoroughfare a guard was appointed for the passing of travellers through the streets without hurt. None were to have any iron upon their bull clubs or other staves with which they pursued the bull. After this proclamation had been made, the bull-running commenced. All the gates were shut ; the bull was turned out of the alderman’s premises, and away he ran, helter skelter, with the men, women, and children, and dogs of the town after him in hot chase, goading him on. Hotter and faster the running became, until at last the poor beast, entirely exhausted, was brought to bay, and despatched with the bull clubs.”It was a barbarous diversion, and it is astonishing that it should have lasted so long. Doubtless its vitality was due largely to the patronage it received from the well-to-do classes. At one period the barbarities connected with this exhibition were most disgusting. All manner of cruelties were perpetrated on the poor creatures to call forth their rage. What is most surprising is that the people of Stamford considered this annual carnival as one of the chief glories of the town, and any attempt at interference was sharply resented.

An eye-witness describes the scene on the occasion of the running as quite appalling to the sensitive mind. Persons of the baser sort flocked in from all the neighbouring villages. Horse- jobbers, hostlers, cads, butchers, pig-jobbers, and men of this class came together in large numbers, and the town was delivered into their hands for the day. Then riot, yelling, shouting, and uproar of the worst kind held absolute sway. At the tolling of the bell, the animal was let loose from the dark shed in which he had been detained for the night. If his ferocity was not equal to the expectations of the mob, he was goaded to greater madness by all the arts which brutal natures could suggest or devise. Not infrequently the poor beast’s flesh was lacerated and spirits poured in. The first object of the billiards, after causing it to tear at a furious rate through the town, was to drive it to the bridge, where it was immediately surrounded and lifted bodily over the parapet and plunged into the river. If they succeeded in accomplishing this before twelve o’clock, they were entitled to another bull. Even young children were taught to admire this riotous proceeding, and permitted to listen to the awful swearing and unclean language so loudly used during the day.”

Many reporters suggest that it was the RSPCA and similar minded people who put an end to this event, and although doubtlessly they had a role, the authorities were already trying to suppress it in 1788, long before such concerns. The result appears to have been the opposite and it became more popular.  The main concern was the rowdy and bawdy characters the event attracted to the town with associated drinking and fighting. This is emphasized by a report of discussing the run of 1835 mentions the bull only in contrast but describes:

“large assemblage of between 200 and 300 persons of the lowest description….halted in front of various houses, particularly those of the inhabitants who were known to be adverse to such cruelties … where loud yells … were set up by the mob”.

In 1839, the government brought in the 5th Dragoon guards to suppress the event: they were unsuccessful directly but increasing presence of troops at the event was the final nail. Every time they appeared the excessive cost was laid at the feet of the ratepayers…soon a petition was signed by the towns folk that said stop sending in the troops and we’ll stop it. And they did. Interestingly, Sutton ‘s Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) notes that despite it being abandoned so long ago people alive still remembered it. A correspondent called E.J.P stated that:

“I’m 89 this year (1996). My father was born in 1862 and died in 1960 aged 98. His father, my grandfather, was taken as a boy to have a day out at the bull-running: sometime in the mid to late 1830s.They were living not far from Peterborough at the time and it was the custom for everyone to go to Stamford for the occasion. The Bull was run right across the town. It was caught, butchered on the spot and then roasted and dished up to the waiting crowd. Being a cold time of year, folk were ready for something warm to eat. It was an exciting thing for folk to watch and many made a day’s outing for the ‘do’.”

Today, on this day, the streets are relatively quiet and perhaps the vibrant and exciting frisson of the day is something that is missed on a cold and wet November day. Perhaps someone could start a run with a mechanical bull?

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