What Whitechapel Road and Pamplona Have in Common
Walking around the ever-changing Whitechapel, I spotted a nice looking half timbered facade. Definitely a Victorian copy I thought, but I wondered about the Indian buffet restaurant’s previous life.
Like most things in London, it turned out to have a great story behind it, introducing me to the 19th century East End tradition of Whitechapel Road bullock running.
What was here before?
A good general guess for London is ‘a pub’ and here it was exactly the case. The Black Bull pub was here from 1812 until 2007, so far, so usual.
However, the name hints at something far weirder to our contemporary sensibilities, the age-old London tradition of animal cruelty.
You may have heard of bull and bear baiting? This was popular entertainment in London taverns and theatres. It was most famous in Southwark, but today it’s only the street names; Bear Gardens and Bear Lane which serve as reminders.
But in the 17th century audience members like Samuel Pepys would treat themselves to some post-dinner light relief;
“After dinner with my wife and Mercer to the Bear Garden and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs – one into the very boxes.”
Bulls, as you can imagine, were far more readily available than bears, so it was the practice of bull baiting (which apparently made for tastier meat) that continued well into the 19th century.
Whitechapel Road Bullock Running
So what of Whitechapel Road in particular?
Cattle was usually driven down this East London artery, from Essex into Smithfield market. So with this ready supply you’d cobble together cash with your mates in a pub to buy a bullock, then goad it into a rage and chase it around Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, frightening many and injuring a few. What fun!
Image from The New Book of the Dog. Image captioned ‘Bull Broke Loose’ (1820) from WikiCommons
A Parliamentary bill was introduced in 1802 to stamp it out, but was rejected, so it only became illegal in 1835. From around 1820 though, authorities were trying to quash the tradition.
An article in The Times from 1822 says some respectable inhabitants when seeing a bullock hunt underway, approached local constables to stop the “brutal pastime” but “were not to be seen”. This turning a blind eye also caused the rector of Bethnal Green – Joshua King – to complain back in 1816;
“I cannot learn, that they took any steps to put a stop so wanton and disgraceful an outrage; on the contrary, I have reason to believe that the officers of my parish frequently connive at and sanction such activities.” – Crime Prosecution and Social Relations; The Summary Courts of the City of London in the Late Eighteenth Century (D Gray 2009)
Eventually, it was the need of the growing urban metropolis (rather than concerns over animal cruelty) that caused the end of bull running and baiting and The City placed tighter restrictions on bring livestock into London.
So there you go. Who knew London’s Whitechapel Road had so much in common with the Spanish town of Pamplona?
Did you know about the pub, perhaps you’ve visited it before? Let me know in the comments!
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The Spirit of Spitalfields is my 90 minute walking tour through Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch. Full of contrasts and known as the “cradle of migration”, the East End is an area of constant change with an ancient history. Placed on the fringe of the encroaching City we will discover the past, present and future of this vibrant and bustling area of London.
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