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The 'Royal Sport' - Cockfighting in Newcastle

The once popular blood sport of cockfighting was especially widespread in the north of England prior to its legal ban in the mid-nineteenth century. It was known as the ‘royal sport’, possibly on account of its appeal to all levels of society, who would regularly mix around the confines of the cock-pit and lay small fortunes on betting. Many from the upper echelons of society were known to dabble; among them no less than the prime minister, Charles Grey, and the Duke of Northumberland. And, though never strictly legal in its standing, cockfighting received clear royal patronage when Henry VIII joined the fray by establishing the ‘Royal Cock-pit’ at Westminster, which became the ‘Wembley Stadium’ of the sport, hosting fights into the nineteenth century.

Birds, or ‘game-cocks’, would be specially bred for the ‘pit’, given fancy fighting names, and betting on the poor beasts – the main purpose of the exercise – was often heavy. After decades – centuries, even – of ramshackle meets, cockfighting became much more organised during the eighteenth century. Pubs and inns were the usual ports of call for interested parties (though specially built venues did occasionally pop up), and there were many different types of contests, or ‘mains’, ranging from simple one-on-one fights, to multiple, knock-out competitions (known as ‘Welsh mains’). There were also different categories of birds, including ‘blinkards’, being one-eyed older birds! Either way, the cocks would inflict terrible, deadly wounds to one another by way of specially fitted steel spurs.

William Hogarth's "Cockfighting", 1759

Newcastle was recognised as a hot-bed of the sport. Race week drew considerable numbers of enthusiasts, or ‘cockers’, to pits all over the town for some quite high-profile gatherings, where stringent sets of laws concerning the sport would have to be adhered to. It was recognised by many at the time to be cruel and immoral, but it didn’t stop the pastime thriving. In 1832, when the sport was perhaps slightly on the wane, it was claimed that Newcastle could “challenge all the world for cocking.” By way of a series of Acts of Parliament in the 1830s and ’40s, it was finally and properly outlawed in 1849 … after which the activity, naturally, moved underground.

As for its shadowy past, there is reference in the history books to a tradition that cockfighting took place during the Commonwealth (1649-60) when, it being a period when all such public amusements were outlawed, the sport continued without the Westgate, a few yards beyond the town corporation’s jurisdiction. The Crown Inn, being in just such a spot, was certainly an early venue (from at least 1712). And at another site at “the Head of Gallowgate, on the west side”, there was another, well-known cock-pit at another pub – again situated a short distance without the town limits. Race week, Easter, Whitsuntide and the Christmas holidays all attracted major meets, or ‘mains’. Such major occasions, and a good deal of the lesser ones, too, were widely advertised in the local press as a matter of course. It was said that during the 1700s, the Newcastle Chronicle contained, quite routinely, at least half a dozen advertisements every issue for forthcoming cockfights in the town; and pits were said to be “attached to many of the principal inns of Newcastle.” In its eighteenth century heyday, there were at least eight ‘official’ pits operating in the square mile of the town centre. This, however, was most certainly a gross underestimation.

So Newcastle was a major player. As well as the aforementioned, there were widely known venues at the Flesh Market (Bull & Crown), Newgate Street (several sites), Forth Street, and The Turk’s Head (on the site now occupied by the start of the northern stretch of Grainger Street – the very top of the Bigg Market). And there would have been plenty more besides, especially those accommodating the lower classes (pitmen were particularly keen participants). Indeed, as you can see from a quick scan of any of the town’s old maps, there were plenty of pub names, thoroughfares and yards, etc., which

hinted at the presence of a pit on their premises. In fact, one source tells us that in one week alone, 1,000 birds were killed in Newcastle.

Finally – and as if all that wasn’t enough – Newcastle lays claim to the dubious distinction of being home to the last active public cock-pit in England, until, in 1874, the infamous Gallowgate pit was closed after multiple brushes with the law (police raids, fines and several large doses of adverse publicity). It probably went on even longer, though, in secret, including among members of the upper classes, many of whom maintained private pits for the pleasure of both themselves and carefully invited guests.


Mick Southwick is a prolific North East history writer, publishing a number of books on the city and its surrounding areas in benefit of the Great North Children's Hospital. You can browse his publications on Amazon, and find his 'North-East History Tour' blog and other links here:


[main sources: the excellent Played in Tyne and Wear, by Lynn Pearson (2010); A Handbook to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by John Collingwood Bruce (1863); The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore & Legend of March 1887; Lawson’s Tyneside Celebrities (1873)]


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