Down Your Alley: The Two Bears

Bear baiting, a popular ‘sport’ in Elizabethan England, where dogs would be set upon a bear chained to a post, snarling bloodhounds or mastiffs were set loose from their kennels to snap and tear while the restricted bear could do little in defence other than rear up on its hind legs.

Frequently the tether was too weak or the bear was too strong and the real fun started when the wild animal broke loose.

Bear Alley EC4
[F]rom Ludgate Circus walk north along Farringdon Street. Bear Alley is about 250 yards on the right,
Bear Alley is known to have existed prior to the Great Fire of 1666 and probably took its name from the Bear Inn which stood near to here.

As a tavern name ‘The Bear’ became popular in the early 16th century when bear baiting hovered around the top of the list of popular sports. Sporting tavern keepers, in an effort to poach custom from neighbouring hostelries, were always eager to promote tournaments of one kind or another in their yards and we have no reason to suppose that mine host at The Bear on the banks of the Fleet was any different.

Up until 1874, Bear Alley used to turn in a south-easterly direction to link up with Old Seacoal Lane but the laying of railway lines into the newly constructed Holborn Viaduct Station caused it to be turned into a cul-de-sac.


Bear Alley

In the same year as the Alley lost its dignity, Farringdon Street lost its market. In those days Farringdon Street was the widest street in the City and almost opposite to Bear Alley, on the west side, the Farringdon Market had flourished for 45 years. It replaced a market of much longer standing, known as the Fleet Market, built on the banks of the stinking river in 1737, and cleared away in 1828 through an appalling reputation gained from the unlawful occupants of the dozens of alleys leading from its perimeter. Although the Farringdon Market had endured the inadequate conditions of its sloping site for so many years, market days came to an end when the stalls were transferred to Smithfield.

Bear Gardens SE1
[F]rom London Bridge Station cross to the west side of Borough High Street and continue in a southerly direction. Cross Bedale Street, bear right onto Southwark Street and then turn right into Stoney Street. Take the first left into Park Street following it round to the right and then left. Bear Gardens is about 240 yards on the right, just to the west of Southwark Bridge Road.


Bear Gardens

On the site of Bear Alley there stood one of Southwark’s most popular entertainment attractions – that of bear baiting; the macabre spectacle that drew men and women from miles around. As gory as it might have been, the sport allured droves of spectators from all over London and from all walks of life.

Bear baiting around Bankside began in the 1540’s as an alternative nice little earner to line the pockets of the racketeers who ran the unvirtuous establishments which once graced these parts. It all started when a bill was passed by Parliament to abolish the ‘stewhouses’, or brothels as we know them, and led by Henry VIII the members actually promoted the instigation of bear baiting arenas. Henry was an enthusiastic sports spectator and with his first experience of baiting, he became riveted to the blood-thirsty contest. So enthralled was he with the sport that he ordered his henchman to bring him an assortment of the finest grizzly animals to be had. It happened that the servant returned with specimens that His Majesty would be pleased to show in any circle, and as a result, the man was appointed Yeoman of His Majesty’s Bears.

The arena which occupied the site of the Alley was a circular construction surrounded by fencing to protect the spectators who gathered around the perimeter. Against the force of hundreds of bodies, it was not unusual for this fencing to give way, leaving the spectators exposed to the vicious beasts, which all too often resulted in tragic consequences. With the entertainment about to begin, as the tension mounted and the crescendo of shouts from the crowd reached a peak, the bear was led out and tethered to a stake, already handicapped through the common practice of filing down the teeth.

Bear baiting steadily diminished in popularity towards the end of the 17th century and the proprietors found it increasingly more difficult to attract sufficient spectators to support the events. The Bear Gardens closed down in about 1682 but the sport continued in other parts of the City and was not declared illegal until 1835.

The approximate site of the Bear Gardens arena is estimated to have been a few yards north of Park Street, where the Alley opens out into a small square. A little further to the north were the out buildings where the bears were caged, and the gnashing dogs made ready for the bloody fight. Also around the site would have been the houses of those associated with the running of the arena – the promoter and livestock handlers.

On the corner of Park Street is the Shakespeare Globe Museum with its entrance in Bear Gardens. Exhibits on view are models of some of London’s early theatres together with other models depicting Shakespearean history, and upstairs is a functional reproduction of a 17th-century playhouse. The Georgian warehouse housing the Museum faces onto a street of attractive cobble stones.

Images: Bear Alley off Farringdon Street. First mentioned by Leake, 1666 Stow tells us that the Market-house for meal stood there (1722). By Basher Eyre (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sackler Studios on Bear Gardens. Providing Globe Education with four workshop studios and a rehearsal space for students and theatre practitioners. Located close to the Globe Theatre, the Sackler Studios are on the corner of Bear Gardens and Park Street, on the site of Sam Wanamaker’s first office in Bankside and where he developed his ideas for Shakespeare’s Globe. By Patrick Mackie (CC BY-SA 2.0)


CabbieBlog-cabMuch of the original source material for Down Your Alley has been derived from Ivor Hoole’s GeoCities website. The site is now defunct and it is believed Ivor is no more. Thankfully much of Ivor’s work has been archived by Ian Visits and Phil Gyford.

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