Today (June 11) in London History – Bear Attack

One of his bears attacked and “almost devoured” him. The victim was the proprietor of a bear-baiting establishment in Clerkenwell. The year was 1709. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

Served him right. If I’d been there I would have cheered on the bear.

And look, we don’t know exactly when the attack took place. All we know for sure is that it happened in 1709. I’m fitting it in here – on June 11th – because we have an advert for June 11th in the year, 1716. The bear did for Mr Bear Baiter – almost devoured him in fact – but, like Elvis Presley’s death, it was a good career move. The tragedy – if you can call it a tragedy, my every inclination is to call it just desserts – anyway, the bear settling scores with his tormentor did wonders for the business. His widow took it over and bigger crowds than ever turned out. The attraction wasn’t just an afternoon’s bear-baiting, everybody wanted to see where Bruno had done for – and eaten a good portion of – the proprietor. 

Here’s the ad: “At the request of several persons of quality, on Monday the 11th of this instant June, is one of the largest and most mischievous bears that ever was seen in England to be baited to death, with other Variety of bull and bear-baiting, as also a wild bull to be turned loose in the game-place with fireworks all over him. To begin exactly at three o’clock in the afternoon, because the sport continues long.

As for the 1709 bear attack on the scoundrel, scumbucket, vulture capitalist who was da man – we can go and stand there, watch, in our mind’s eye, a bear enjoying a spot of man-baiting. It took place at the victim’s business establishment, the notorious bearpit at Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell. We know exactly where that was. Today it’s the junction of Warner Street and Back Hill.  

Now, who’s for some programme notes. They’re a straight lift from the record that’s come down to us.

Basically, one of Slimebag’s bears got ahold of him and – here, word for word, is the programme note – he was “almost  devoured before his friends were aware of the danger.”

Good on ya, bear.

I’m going to close out by turning to Shakespeare. A bear figures in Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: Exit, pursued left by a bear.

And there’s that famous reference toward the end of Macbeth. All of Macbeth’s support has drained away. He’s practically alone in his castle. Surrounded by the armies of the English and the murdered king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain. And he says, “They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly like but bear-like I must fight the course.”

In Shakespeare’s day the unspeakably horrible, vile business of bear-baiting – along with cock-fighting and bull-baiting – took place at the Rose Theatre, on the Bankside, no more than a long stone’s throw from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The buildings there today are mostly nineteenth century. But the building line is 16th century.  Rose Alley suddenly widens out and, yes, those widened parameters mark out the site of the arena. It hardly bears – bears, there’s the verb for you – it hardly bears thinking about. They’d stack the deck against the dogs. Because dogs were a replenishable resource. Bears were harder to come down. So usually the bear would grallach – it’s an old old English word and it really sounds right for what it is – usually the bear grallach half a dozen of the dogs. Ok, the polite, tasteful, fastidious Latin-based equivalent of gralloch is “disembowelled.” The bear would gralloch several of the dogs and then the pack would cower away. Just occasionally the dogs would get the bear down and rip its throat out. 3,000 blood-lusted Londoners would watch this. Good Queen Bess, Queen Elizabeth, liked nothing more than to watch the bear-baiting.

For me, finally, lifting the curtain on that vile cultural sore is important because it gives us a good idea of the extremes the Elizabethan experience embraced. There in the Rose Theatre you had a terrified, maddened bear chained to a stake desperately trying to defend itself from a pack of terrified, maddened dogs and 3,000 maddened human beings were just yards away, besides themselves with excitement. And just over the way, at the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare was giving the most sublime expression to thoughts too deep for tears. Those were the extremes the Elizabethan experience embraced. I think finally we shouldn’t be too hard on them. When it comes to barbaric behaviour we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re vastly superior to our Elizabethan forbears. I’m just finishing Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s brilliant study of Winston Churchill. In his final stock taking, Wheatcroft reminds us that Winston Churchill was ultimately responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. 

Time for a handbrake turn. Time for this podcast’s Today in London recommendation. Why not head to Ottomezzo, the Italian deli in Thackeray Street in Kensington. Ottomezzo serves up the best toasted sandwiches this side of Tuscany. The one you want to ask for is called the Fellini. A heads up though, their lunchtime business is so brisk they don’t do counter service until after 2 pm.

Ok, sign-off time. I’m going to lead-in to this by putting the matter at hand – enlisting the services of a great guide – in sailing terms. Why would you sail without rudder, compass or ballast? Similarly, if you want to get to know London, why would you sail without a great guide?

Ok, you’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

None of this is rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to London, a Cambridge University Paleontologist, the former Editor on Independent Television News, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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