The blood-sport of bull-baiting became popular in England in the 17th and early 18th centuries. It was born out of a misconception that, if a bull was baited just before market, its meat would be more tender. The cruel practice involved tethering a bull with a rope or chain attached to its collar, or a ring through its nose, within a bull-ring, or a pit, approximately 30 feet in diameter. The hapless creature had pepper blown up its nose to agitate it and was then set upon by up to three bulldogs.
A good dog would practically crawl upon its belly, to avoid being kicked or gored, and attack the bull’s stomach – although many were injured or killed in the process. The other dogs would then try to fasten on to the bull’s withers. In some variants, the dogs would try to force the bull to the ground by attacking its snout. Once the bull had been immobilised, the dogs’ owners would prise apart their jaws with a stave.
This barbaric sport was particularly popular in Leeds and continued well into the 19th century at Wortley, in an area subsequently known as the Bull Ring, and at Woodhouse Moor. There was once a Methodist church in Wortley known as the Bull Ring Chapel. The sport was outlawed by the passing of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835 but appears to have continued illegally well beyond that, judging by a reference to the Bull Stone of Guiseley in Philemon Slater’s ‘History of the Ancient Parish of Guiseley’ (written in 1880):
“fastening bulls to it [the Bull Stone] when they were baited by dogs, a custom still known to the Carlton farmers.”
It could be a dangerous practice and there are at least two recorded deaths from bull-baiting in Leeds. The first was at Quarry Hill on 1 September 1755 when John Westerman “had his thigh terribly gored by the bull, of which wound he languished until Saturday [5 September] and then expired.” (Leeds Intelligencer, 9 September 1755)
The other was at Beeston on 28 August 1782 when three dogs attacked a bull being led by its owner. The bull broke free at kicked out, striking its owner with “so violent a blow to his breast, as to occasion his immediate death.” (Leeds Intelligencer, 3 September 1782).
After the sport was finally eradicated, the Old English Bulldog breed became extinct and the modern equivalent lacks the necessary physical qualities to tackle a bull – it is more docile and has a much shorter muzzle.