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Collectables: reminder in pottery of a cruel ‘sport’

PUBLISHED: 11:18 05 February 2018

Reminder of crueller days: a bear jug, from around 1750.

Reminder of crueller days: a bear jug, from around 1750.

Archant

Mike Hicks looks at objects linked to bear-baiting.

You would like to think that in the 21st century, all cruel sports would have been eradicated throughout the world. Great progress has been made, but sadly some exceedingly cruel activities are still carried on.

In the 18th century and earlier, there were sports which, today, would seem totally abhorrent, and one such event led me to look into this activity. It was quite an innocent object that came up for sale - a brass dog collar. What separated it from a normal collar was the fact that the edges of the collar had a serrated finish.

The dog collar was reputed to have belonged to Lord Byron, who when banned from taking his dog to his Cambridge University rooms so took a bear instead. Yes, a real live bear because even in the late 18th century, it was still fashionable to partake of a cruel pursuit known as “bear-baiting”.

The likes of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and monarchs before them had their own bear-baiting pit. The bear would be tethered and dogs would then be allowed into the circular enclosure to taunt and attack it. The bear would try to pick up the dogs and kill them. Gruesome stuff, and it is good to know that by the early part of the 19th century such pursuits had died out.

The collar I mentioned earlier was one of a very rare collection of items relating to bear-baiting. There are numerous caricatures done by the cartoonists of the late 18th century, who quite cleverly portrayed politicians and other members of the establishment as both bears and dogs, fighting in the pit.

Also, we had jugs made of pottery. I suppose they could have been a type of Toby jug, many of them associated with Nottingham as the area of production. These show a bear, normally with a simple white or oatmeal colouring. The bear had a ring in its nose, one of the methods how the bear was tethered. These jugs are popular among collectors.

Very specialist collectors are prepared to pay high prices for such artefacts linked with this exceedingly cruel sport. The dog collar with the Byron connection made some £14,000.

Incidentally, there was a ready market for dead bears as they were rendered for ‘bear grease’, which was very popular as a hair dressing in mid-Victorian times.

I do hope this article is not too ‘grizzly’!

Mike Hicks runs Stalham Antique Gallery at 29 High Street, Stalham (NR12 9AH). You can contact Mike on 01692 580636 or info@mikehicksantiques.co.uk.

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