Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

of Themistocles. From Athens the sport spread throughout Greece, Asia Minor and Sicily, the best cocks being bred in Alexandria, Delos, Rhodes and Tanagra. For a long time the Romans affected to despise this “Greek diversion,” but ended by adopting it so enthusiastically that Columella (1st century A.D.) complained that its devotees often spent their whole patrimony in betting at the pit-side. The cocks were provided with iron spurs (tela), as in the East, and were often dosed with stimulants to make them fight more savagely.

From Rome cocking spread northwards, and, although opposed by the Christian church, nevertheless became popular in Great Britain, the Low Countries, Italy, Germany, Spain and her colonies. On account of adverse legislation cocking has practically died out everywhere excepting in Spain, countries of Spanish origin and the Orient, where it is still legal and extremely popular. It was probably introduced into England by the Romans before Caesar’s time. William Fitz-Stephen first speaks of it in the time of Henry II. as a sport for school-boys on holidays, and particularly on Shrove Tuesday, the masters themselves directing the fights, or mains, from which they derived a material advantage, as the dead birds fell to them. It became very popular throughout England and Wales, as well as in Scotland, where it was introduced in 1681. Occasionally the authorities tried to repress it, especially Cromwell, who put an almost complete stop to it for a brief period, but the Restoration re-established it among the national-pastimes. Contemporary apologists do not, in the 17th century, consider its cruelty at all, but concern themselves solely with its justification as a source of pleasure. “If Leviathan took his sport in the waters, how much more may Man take his sport upon the land?” From the time of Henry VIII., who added the famous Royal Cock-pit to his palace of Whitehall, cocking was called the “royal diversion,” and the Stuarts, particularly James I. and Charles II., were among its most enthusiastic devotees, their example being followed by the gentry down to the 19th century. Gervase Markham in his Pleasures of Princes (1614) wrote “Of the Choyce, Ordring, Breeding and Dyeting of the fighting-Cocke for Battell,” his quaint directions being of the most explicit nature. When a cock is to be trained for the pit he must be fed “three or foure daies only with old Maunchet (fine white bread) and spring water.” He is then set to spar with another cock, “putting a payre of hots upon each of their heeles, which Hots are soft, bumbasted roules of Leather, covering their spurs, so that they cannot hurt each other.... Let them fight and buffet one another a good space.” After exercise the bird must be put into a basket, covered with hay and set near the fire. “Then let him sweate, for the nature of this scowring is to bring away his grease, and to breed breath, and strength.” If not killed in the fight, “the first thing you doe, you shall search his wounds, and as many as you can find you shall with your mouth sucke the blood out of them, then wash them with warm salt water, . . . give him a roule or two, and so stove him up as hot as you can.”

Cocking-mains usually consisted of fights between an agreed number of pairs of birds, the majority of victories deciding the main; but there were two other varieties that aroused the particular ire of moralists. These were the “battle royal,” in which a number of birds were “set,” i.e. placed in the pit, at the same time, and allowed to remain until all but one, the victor, were killed or disabled; and the “Welsh main,” in which eight pairs were matched, the eight victors being again paired, then four, and finally the last surviving pair. Among London cock-pits were those at Westminster, in Drury Lane, Jewin Street and Birdcage Walk (depicted by Hogarth). Over the royal pit at Whitehall presided the king’s cockmaster. The pits were circular in shape with a matted stage about 20 ft. in diameter and surrounded by a barrier to keep the birds from falling off. Upon this barrier the first row of the audience leaned. Hardly a town in the kingdom was without its cockpit, which offered the sporting classes opportunities for betting not as yet sufficiently supplied by horse-racing. With the growth of the latter sport and the increased facilities for reaching the racing centres, cocking gradually declined, especially after parliament passed laws against it, so that gentlemen risked arrest by attending a main.

Among the best-known devotees of the sport was a Colonel Mordaunt, who, about 1780, took a number of the best English game-cocks to India. There he found the sport in high favour with the native rulers and his birds were beaten. Perhaps the most famous main in England took place at Lincoln in 1830 between the birds of Joseph Gilliver, the most celebrated breeder, or “feeder,” of his day, and those of the earl of Derby. The conditions called for seven birds a side, and the stakes were 5000 guineas the main and 1000 guineas each match. The main was won by Gilliver by five matches to two. His grandson was also a breeder, and the blood of his cocks still runs in the best breeds of Great Britain and America. Another famous breeder was Dr Bellyse of Audlem, the principal figure in the great mains fought at Chester during race-week at the beginning of the 19th century. His favourite breed was the white pile, and “Cheshire piles” are still much-fancied birds. Others were Irish brown-reds, Lancashire black-reds and Staffordshire duns.

In Wales, as well as some parts of England, cocking-mains took place regularly in churchyards, and in many instances even inside the churches themselves. Sundays, wakes and church festivals were favourite occasions for them. The habit of holding mains in schools was common from the 12th to about the middle of the 19th century. When cocking was at its height, the pupils of many schools were made a special allowance for purchasing fighting-cocks, and parents were expected to contribute to the expenses of the annual main on Shrove Tuesday, this money being called “cockpence.” Cock-fighting was prohibited by law in Great Britain in 1849.

Cocking was early introduced into America, though it was always frowned upon in New England. Some of the older states, as Massachusetts, forbade it by passing laws against cruelty as early as 1836, and it is now expressly prohibited in Canada and in most states of the Union, or is repressed by general laws for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Cocks are fought at an age of from one to two years. “Heeling,” or the proper fastening of the spurs, and “cutting out,” trimming the wings at a slope, and cutting the tail down by one-third of its length and shortening the hackle and rump feathers, are arts acquired by experience. The comb is cut down close, so as to offer the least possible mark for the hostile bird’s bill. The cock is then provided with either “short heels,” spurs 1½ in. or less in length, or with “long heels,” from 2 to 2½ in. in length. The training of a cock for the pit lasts from ten days to a month or more, during which time the bird is subjected to a rigid diet and exercise in running and sparring. The birds may not be touched after being set down in the pit, unless to extricate them from the matting. Whenever a bird refuses to fight longer he is set breast to breast with his adversary in the middle of the pit, and if he then still refuses to fight he is regarded as defeated. Among the favourite breeds may be mentioned the “Irish gilders,” “Irish Grays,” “Shawlnecks,” “Gordons,” “Eslin Red-Quills,” “Baltimore Topknots,” “Dominiques,” “War-horses” and “Claibornes.”

Cock-fighting possesses an extensive literature of its own. See Gervase Markham, Pleasures of Princes (London, 1614); Blain, Rural Sports (London, 1853); “Game Cocks and Cock-Fighting,” Outing, vol. 39; “A Modest Commendation of Cock-Fighting,” Blackwood’s Magazine, vol. 22; “Cock-Fighting in Schools,” Chambers’ Magazine, vol. 65.

COCK LANE GHOST, a supposed apparition, the vagaries of which attracted extraordinary public attention in London during 1762. At a house in Cock Lane, Smithfield, tenanted by one Parsons, knockings and other noises were said to occur at night varied by the appearance of a luminous figure, alleged to be the ghost of a Mrs Kent who had died in the house some two years before. A thorough investigation revealed that Parsons’ daughter, a child of eleven, was the source of the disturbance. The object of the Parsons family seems to have been to accuse the husband of the deceased woman of murdering her, with a view to blackmail. Parsons was prosecuted and condemned to the pillory. Among the crowds who visited the