Focus on Knaresborough: Cockfighting

By Gwyneth Endersby, Record Assistant

The private records we hold for Knaresborough are broad ranging in both subject matter and date. I’ve chosen to focus here on one of our smaller private collections, which offers a different perspective of the town and provides us with a short but unique snapshot in time.

Cockfighting agreement & list of gamecocks (Z.1484)

Collection Z.1484 (1745-1747) comprises two documents concerned with cockfighting – one having a definite connection with Knaresborough. Cockfighting was immensely popular throughout the north of England during the 1700s, appealing to many people across the social classes.

Iris Middleton, in her study of cockfighting in Yorkshire (2003), cites Knaresborough as a major centre for contests, along with York, Beverley and Wakefield. Cockfighting was not totally without opposition, however, and a few decades later William Wilberforce’s campaigns helped channel growing disquiet regarding the sport. This resulted in cockfighting being curtailed by the 1835 Act Against Animal Cruelty, eventually culminating in its being banned by law in 1849.

Whilst the sport itself is gruesome, the documents nevertheless provide generous details of an aspect of Knaresborough 18th century life. The first document is a cockfighting contract (15 March 1745) made between Henry Mellor of Knaresborough and William Thompson of Wetherby. The articles of agreement name Mrs Margaret Saville’s house in Knaresborough as the competition location, with match days set for Monday 15 to Wednesday 17 April and the weighing day for the birds arranged for Saturday 13th. The dates suggest an Easter contest – one of the most popular times for matches, and the Saturday weigh-in was designed to help boost gambling stakes and enable good sales of refreshments leading up to as well as during the contest. The contract also stipulates the number of birds to be entered for the “battles”, the running order of the contests, the specified weights of birds (no less than 3lb 4oz and not exceeding 4lb 4oz), their fighting condition (“trimmed in all respects”) and the use of metal spurs – plus, of course, the particular sums of money involved.

Z.1484 Cockfighting agreement, 1745

Middleton (2003) is clear about cockfighting being more than just a recreational pastime during the 1700s. Rather, it was a highly commercialised and lucrative business for all involved in its organisation – especially if the matches could be arranged to coincide with horse racing days.

William Thompson and Henry Mellor agreed to fight for a guinea each side for matches, and ten guineas each side for the “main” or “odd” battle – roughly equivalent to £92.00 and £1, 241 today! They agreed to put down the money in advance of the matches, once the weigh-in was completed, and the visiting owner – William Thompson – was to also receive one half of the takings at the pit door, to help cover his costs.

The second document, dated 9th June 1747, lists fighting cocks under the names of their two owners. Each bird is described in great detail, including plumage (“lemon winged, smoaky brested”), any distinguishing marks or disfigurements, condition of claws and beak and crucially its weight. The first owner listed is Mr Miles Warde or Wade (some slight damage or decay near the surname), whilst the second, interestingly, is “Sir John Kay” – possibly, Sir John Lister Kaye, 4th Baronet, the Tory MP and later Lord Mayor of York (1697-1752).  Each man has 52 birds to his name.

Z.1484 List of fighting cocks, 1747

The importance of cockfighting to Sir John is reflected in the high wages he paid his “feeders” (professional bird handlers). The cockfighting papers among the contemporary Spencer Stanhope MSS, 1744 (deposited at WYAS) record that Sir Kaye regularly engaged the services of expert feeder “Honest Harry” (Henry Bennett) of London, paying him 6 guineas plus expenses for each match (Middleton, 2003) – around £745.00 in today’s money.

For a full list of the Z collections we hold relating to Knaresborough, please visit our online catalogue.

Further reading

‘Cockfighting in Yorkshire During the Early Eighteenth Century’ by Iris Middleton, in Northern History, XL: 1 March 2003

Spencer Stanhope MSS relating to cockfighting, 1744, in the Spencer Stanhope family and estate archive (Ref: SpSt) West Yorkshire Archive Service (Bradford office)

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