A Lion fight in England…


By Warren H. Blaisdell, III

The story of the famous bulldog fancier Bill George and his trip to attend the lion fights happened in the year 1825 in England.

That such a cruel exhibition of bulldogs fighting a lion could take place in public today, and the fact that it occurred only 100 years ago is striking evidence of the strides that we have made since that day toward humane consideration for our dogs. A snarling, vicious fighter in those times, entirely because he was bred and trained to be such, the bulldog today is recognized for his completely opposite characteristics of docility and steadfast devotion. Such a complete change is a credit indeed to present day fanciers.

Notices of the lion fights appeared in issues of The Sporting Magazine in 1825, and the scattered facts have been gathered together to present this story, not as a glorification of the cruel “sport” to which the bulldog was subjected, for it is not a pleasant tale, but rather because, due to its very viciousness, it brought about the end of fighting bulldogs and eventually the different animal which we know today. As such it assumes importance as the turning point in bulldog history and is recorded for that reason.

Bill George was an apprentice at the establishment of Ben White who operated a bulldog kennel for the “fancy” in a deserted section on the outskirts of London. The fancy, in those days, consisted of “sports” whose chief delight was to fight the bulldog in the pit with other bulldogs, or sometimes with a badger or even a monkey.

They also fancied the art of bullbaiting and bearbaiting, which at one time became so popular as to amount to a national pastime. However, by the year of which we are speaking, such exhibitions had already fallen into popular disfavor, and many towns had local ordinances against them. Nevertheless, White carried on a brisk business in breeding, training, and selling fighting bulldogs, and his establishment was notorious throughout England.

The lion fights took place on July 30, and the day was unusually hot even for that time of year. It was just noon when Bill George trudged into Warwick. The parched, dusty road had blistered his tired feet, and he headed straight for the horse-watering well in the village square to wash and cool off. At the well there was quite a crowd, mostly farmers from out of town, but interspersed with a few suspicious looking characters smacking of the race track who were busy booking bets on the outcome of the lion fights which were to take place that evening.

It had been a long trip from London. On Friday morning, after he had swept the kennels, cleaned the dog pens and the fighting pit, Ben White had told him that he might go, but issued a stern warning to be back by Monday evening in time for the dog fights at Westminster Pit.

He had made good time on Friday, thanks to a ride out of the city with a dairyman. By eight in the evening he had reached Brackley where he looked up “Scrap” Taylor who ran a small kennel of bulldogs for the “fancy” and who, at various times, had bought bulldogs from Ben White. “Scrap” had said that Bill might sleep in the barn that night if he would assist at a couple of dog matches first. Instead of a couple fights, there turned out to be seven, and it was two in the morning before the last dogs had been taken from the pit and the crowd gone home.

The barn was rank with the odor of the men, the blood in the pit, and stale tobacco smoke. Since the shutters had been nailed shut to keep light from attracting passersby, there was no way of airing out the place.

Tired as he was, Bill could not get to sleep. He lay thinking about the fights that evening and the cruel purposes for which his favorites were bred. Bulldogs were not naturally vicious. He knew that well. Raised as they were and encouraged to fight, any breed would become vicious and ill-tempered, but treated with kindness they became devoted companions. He tried to think of some other purpose for which they might be bred. But what was there? They were bred solely for the pit. Without that there would be no reason for breeding them at all. Anyway, tomorrow he would see Billy! There was a real bulldog! He turned over to try to get some sleep before morning.

At six on Saturday morning, Bill set off for Warwick. He got a ride into Leamington; and with that help, he arrived in Warwick in good time. It would give him the whole afternoon to be with Billy. Billy had been whelped at White’s about a year and a half previously, and from puppyhood had been the favorite of Bill. He had made a pet of Billy much against White’s wishes who said that Bill would ruin him for the fighting pit. The dog became so devoted to his master that he became known as “Bill’s dog” which was later shortened to “Billy”. However, at eight months, Billy showed evidence of becoming the best dog in the kennel, and White began to spend a great deal of time training him for the pit.

By the time he was a year old, he could lick any dog his size and was sold to the well-known promoter, Sam Wedgbury, at a high price. Wedgbury had since fought him with so much success that he was known to the fancy all over the British Isles.

At Factory Yard, Wedgbury greeted Bill with obvious pleasure, and it was not long before he was telling him about the first lion fights which had taken place on Tuesday over in Cannon. The Great Wombwell, proprietor of the famous traveling circus, had promoted the fights by offering to bet any “Sporting Gentleman” in England up to 5,000 sovereigns that his famous lion, Nero, could whip any six bulldogs in the land. The bet had been taken by a nobleman who engaged Wedgbury to furnish the dogs. The fight had drawn a tremendous crowd on Tuesday, and betting had run high with the odds five to one in favor of Nero.

At seven in the evening, Nero had been rolled out into the arena in his cage where he sat surveying the crowd placidly, accustomed as he was to being on exhibit. At 7:30, Wedgbury brought the dogs forth, and three were selected to make the first attack. One dog was named Turk, a brown-colored dog weighing about 40 pounds whose many scars were ample evidence of his experience in the fighting pit. The second dog was Captain, a fallow-and-white with a wry face; and third was Tiger, a brown-and-white heavyweight.

The three dogs had been aroused to a state of utmost excitement by their handlers, and were anxious to start fighting. As soon as they were let loose, they sprang into the cage and attacked Nero from both sides. Poor Nero, who had been lying on his paws not suspecting any danger, whirled with a roar of anguish, and tried to beat off the dogs with his claws. Undaunted, they came back to attack again and again, until Tiger pinned the lion by the lower lip; and Nero, in defense, caught the dog a severe blow, tearing his side wide open. Suffering badly from the wound, Tiger turned and fled outside the cage where he stood barking furiously, but not daring to enter again.

The other two dogs repeatedly tore at Nero’s nose and face until the poor animal was bleeding profusely. Finally, he fled, at full speed, around and around his cage seeking refuge from his tormentors. The crowd howled victory for the bulldogs which were dragged from the cage, and Nero was given a 20-minute respite.

The second trios to attack Nero were Nettle, a brindle bitch with a black head; Rose, a brindle-pied bitch; and Nelson, a white dog with brindle spots. Here the scene was the same. Poor Nero, driven to distraction by the pain, tried in vain to run away from his antagonists until he finally collapsed from utter exhaustion and was dragged to the side of the ring by the dogs.

Wombwell, ashamed at the poor showing of his King of Beasts, at once came upon the stage and offered to match his other lion, Wallace, against six more bulldogs. The bet was taken and the fight was arranged to take place that Saturday night.

Wedgbury had brought Tiger again and five new bulldogs for this combat, and took it for granted that they would be more than a match for Wallace. Besides Tiger, he had brought Billy who was so delighted at seeing his former master again that he would not leave Bill’s feet all afternoon. Then there was Ball, a tawny-and-white, two and a half year old weighing 40 pounds; Tinker, a red dog, four years old, weighing 46 pounds; Turpin a 60 pounder; and Sweep, which weighed less than 40 pounds, but known to be a fighter of great merit.

During the afternoon, a Quaker by the name of Wheeler came into the yard looking for Wedgbury. With Wheeler was the sheriff, and the former did his utmost to persuade the sheriff to arrest Wedgbury and put a stop to the proposed fight. The sheriff, however, was reluctant to enter into the affair, especially since the event had been well advertised and promised to bring the largest crowd of the year into town. After appealing to Wedgbury in the interest of being humane toward his dogs, Wheeler left to look up Wombwell but without much hope of stopping the fight, for he had tried to stop the Tuesday fight at Cannon only to be beaten up for his pains.

By seven o’clock, the town was teeming with people who had come from far and near to witness the big event. In front of the single entrance to Factory Yard, Bill George came upon a gathering of members of The Society of Friends who were urging the crowd to refrain from patronizing such a disgraceful exhibition. However, the mob was in holiday mood and they either paid no attention to the Quakers or taunted them with jibes while filing into the arena.

Bill paid 10 shillings for standing room in the pit and went into look at Wallace who was already ensconced in his big cage in the middle of the arena. Wallace was not the domesticated type that was Nero. He had been whelped in Scotland, and his mother had died when he was only two days old. He had been reared by a bulldog bitch, but had never taken to captivity. He was now pacing up and down his cage, eyeing the crowd with a most unfriendly mien as though suspecting that no good could come of this.

Notwithstanding the disgraceful defeat of Nero, and perhaps because of the different attitude displayed by Wallace, the betting was once again five to one in favor of the lion. At 7:15, Mr. Wombwell, having made the necessary disposition of his customers, announced his intention of beginning immediately and proceeded to enter the cage. His appearance was hailed with applause; and like a second Daniel, he walked about with great gravity armed with nothing but a switch. The band struck up “Rule Britannia” and played until it was silenced by cries of the crowd, impatient to get started.

Finally, Mr. Wedgbury was instructed to bring out his dogs, which appeared and were fastened to collars to heavy chains attached to stakes outside the cage. Ball and Tinker were selected for the first of three attacks and were led out by their handlers to an inclined ramp which ran up into the cage directly in front of the lion. Wallace’s attention was immediately attracted by the barking and anxious straining of the dogs which were endeavoring to break loose and begin the attack.

After repeated calls from the crowd, Wombwell finally left the cage, and the words “Let go” were given. Wallace, by this time was crouching down, and on hearing the cry of the dogs instantly sprang at the side of the cage. His head was erect, the hairs of his fine, bushy mane stood up like bristles, his eyes sparkled from fire, and a general convulsion seemed to shake his entire frame.

Both dogs, although excited to the highest pitch of fury by the handlers, appeared overawed at the terrifying appearance of the royal beast, and remained for several minutes on the platform without making any attempt to enter the cage. At length, Ball, going too close to the bars, was caught and dragged into the ring by one of Wallace’s paws. The poor dog had scarcely got to his feet before the lion caught him in his mouth and carried him around the cage as a cat would a mouse.

Tinker, in the meantime, had entered the cage and began attacking the legs of the lion, finally succeeding in annoying the latter to such an extent that he dropped Ball to rush at his attacker. Ball, more dead than alive, dragged himself from the cage to die a few minutes later.

Wallace grabbed Tinker furiously by the shoulder and would have crushed him to death had not one of the handlers enticed the lion by holding out a piece of meat on a pike. Wallace dropped Tinker who was dragged out of the ring by one of the men, and thereby saved. By this time the crowd, who had seen the tables turned, was wild; and bets were being offered as high as 50 to one in favor of Wallace winning the next two engagements, but there were no takers.

After 20 minutes, the next two dogs were sent in. This time it was Turpin and Sweep, both of whom attacked boldly from the front. Turpin was severely injured almost at once and fled from the cage. Sweep put up a noble fight but was no match for Wallace which took the dog in his mouth and hurled him to the side of the cage allowing him to escape with his life.

The third attack was delayed in starting owing to an attempt on the part of a large crowd outside the yard to rush the gate and gain entrance without paying. While this was going on, Bill sought out Wedgbury in a vain attempt to persuade him not to send Billy in against the lion. Wedgbury, who was now greatly concerned for his dogs, two of which had already died, was inclined to agree with Bill but dared not back out in the face of such a large crowd of spectators.

It was nearly nine when the third match took place, and Bill hardly had time to get back to the ring before the two dogs were released. This time it was Billy, and Tiger, which had done so much barking but little fighting, in the fight on Tuesday night. Both dogs seemed terrified at the beast which was now so ferocious that not even his keepers would go near the cage. Neither dog would approach the bars for some time. Finally, there were forced into the cage by the handlers, and Tiger made a precipitate attempt to pin Wallace by the nose but failed and rushed from the cage where he remained barking, as in the former match, while the crowd booed loudly and shouted “Cur!”

Billy, however, maintained the combat singly for some time with great spirit, until Wallace seized him by the loins and would have done away with him entirely had not one of the keepers again lured the lion away with a piece of meat allowing the dog to drop and escape.

As soon as Wallace discovered that the dogs had made their escape, he displayed his anger by lashing his tail against his sides and roaring tremendously. His jaws were foaming with blood, and he strode back and forth in his cage for several minutes strewing it with gore. He was kept on exhibition for an hour after the fight to be inspected by the crowd which was harangued loudly by the boasting Wombwell, who stood at a safe distance from the cage appearing well pleased at having proved the worth of his lions.

Bill rushed out to look at Billy which, though severely wounded, was expected to recover. Ball and Tinker had died, and Sweep lay in a very dangerous state. Although the fight had attracted a crowd of more than 1500 persons and had taken in a gate of 600 pounds, nevertheless both sides agreed that never again would there be a fight between lions and bulldogs.

Bill spent Saturday night at Factory Yard and set out for London early Sunday morning. He arrived there late Monday afternoon to find that news of the fights, which had already reached London, had aroused the public to a high state of indignation. A city ordnance had been passed hastily, forbidding not only the practice of fighting dogs, but even prohibiting establishments dealing in such animals. By order of the sheriff, White’s establishment had been closed that morning and a deputy had been placed there to see that no business would be carried on.

From that time on, the practice of fighting bulldogs rapidly declined. Exhibitions no longer took place in public, and the few that were held at all were private affairs taking place at night, in secluded rendezvous, to which only those known to the fancy were admitted. White moved his kennels out of London and continued to carry on his business for several years. In 1835, Parliament finally passed an act which forbade animal fighting throughout the British Isles. This, of course, brought about, for good and all, an end to the purpose for which bulldogs were then bred; and for some time thereafter the breed diminished until it became nearly extinct.

Ben White died about that time, and Bill George succeeded to the establishment. Naming it the “Canine Castle” he continued to raise his favorite breed. Indeed, he succeeded in establishing an enviable reputation for honesty in this profession which was still viewed with suspicion by the general public. The advent of dog shows in 1859 found George with an established strain and the best specimens in the land. In his declining years, he enjoyed the reputation of being the foremost breeder of bulldogs in England, and many of the first winners in the show ring came from his kennels.

Indeed, succeeding generations of show bulldogs sprung directly from his stock; and practically all of our dogs today, which enjoy a happier lot, trace back directly through his strain to the fighting dogs of the early nineteenth century.

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