London’s streets: cock fighting, bear baiting, and hunting

Cock HillI see in the news that an animal rights group has asked (or demanded, depending on whose report you read or listen to) that Britain’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, change its name to Ye Olde Clever Cocks, “in recognition of society’s growing compassion for animals and in celebration of intelligent, sensitive chickens”.

People have accused me on occasion of being cynical (yes, really), and I guess they might accuse me of it again when I say that my first thought was, “Is this a joke?” and then, “Is this a publicity stunt? If so, who for? Or both parties?”

But let me get relatively swiftly to the subject of this blog post. The whole cock fighting thing –naturally – made me think of London’s street names and how many of them the animal rights group should look to change.

Staying with the cock fighting theme, straightaway we have Cock Lane near Smithfield, probably named because it was a breeding ground for cocks. The fighting kind. The intersection of Cock Lane and Giltspur Street marks the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 finally halted. The spot is commemorated by the statue of a fat little boy (the Golden Boy of Pye Corner).

Cockspur Street signHeading west, we get to Cockspur Street, off Trafalgar Square. That is so named because the spurs with which the birds were equipped to ensure even greater flow of blood were made and sold there. Incidentally, the gilt spurs that gave the Giltspur Street its name were those used by knights on horseback so arguably could fit into the cruelty to animals category.

(There are a lot of ‘cock’ street names in London but maybe not all of them are related to cock fighting so would be able to keep their names. One I like is Cock Hill, which has a statue of a large ram overhead.)

Birdcage WalkMoving on, again a little further west, we arrive at Birdcage Walk, which is the site of an aviary started by James I (ok, to give him his full titles, James VI and I) and enlarged by his grandson, Charles II. However, the site also once housed a royal cockpit. Cock fighting, incidentally, is said to be the world’s oldest spectator sport.

Let’s leave cock fighting and head south to Bankside where we arrive at Bear Gardens, once the site of a 17th-century bear pit. Bear baiting involved chaining bears in pits of this type and setting dogs on them. The dogs were replaced if they got too tired or were killed. Sometimes, for extra sport, the bears were released so they could chase the dogs –  or the spectators.

Bear GdnsThe Bear Gardens pit was visited by the diarists Samuel Pepys, who described it as “a very rude and nasty pleasure; and John Evelyn, who noted that it was a “rude and dirty pastime”. However, Henry VIII was apparently a fan of the sport, and had a pit built in the grounds of Whitehall palace so that royalty could watch the sport in comfort from the palace windows. Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth I, was also a big fan and overruled parliament when the members tried to ban bear baiting on Sundays.

Before we leave blood sports generally, it’s worth mentioning that the area of Soho in London is named from a hunting cry, apparently, the cry made by huntsmen when they uncouple the dogs in hunting the hare.

So that’s just a few of the names that may need to be changed to reflect society’s growing compassion for animals.