No. 3: Royal Pastime, Rabble Darling

At its height in the 18th and 19th centuries, cocking permeated British culture without exclusion, occupying crown, court, church and countryman for centuries. Called the “Pleasure of Princes” or the “Royal Pasttime” in books from that time, it was at the same time a rabble darling, a people’s diversion.

In his 1909 book on the history of cockfighting in England, Sir Walter Gilbey writes, “No pastime has ever held in England the position which was held for centuries by cockfighting.”

Gwenap Pit, said to be the oldest and largest outdoor cockpit in England, is located in Cornwall and still exists today. The pit was created by a collapsed mining cavity.

Gilbey was no homer to the sport, but wrote extensively on agricultural topics and served as president of the Royal Agricultural Society. Writing over a century ago, Gilbey takes pains to impart the role of cockfighting in England.

“It was the spirit of the age,” he writes. “It is very difficult for us to realise how great was the place in the life of our ancestors held by cockfighting. Many among the clergy took active part in the sport; it was not unusual when town beat town in a long main to ring the church bells in celebration of the victory.”

Illustration of Astley's invention
Dr. Richard Astley’s device for measuring size of roosters before scales were widely used in England .

Cornish history claims Cornwall as the origins of British cockfighting. The county is home to Gwenap’s Pit, said to have been the oldest and largest cockpit in the country, starting operation before the Romans arrived, and serving as an open-air venue of the sport until at least the 1760s. The bowl-shaped amphitheater still exists today, and is the result of a depression in the ground caused by a collapsed mine cavity.

It is 150 yards around at its upper-most teir of seats, which descend down toward its cockpit floor in 12 rows, each a foot-and-a-half high and 3 feet wide. The center cockpit is 13-feet in diameter. Capable of seating around 1500 people, the venue is today a historical landmark—not because of its original use for cockfighting—but because of its host to the founding of Methodism.

Between 1762 and 1789, John Wesley—an opponent of cockfighting and other public diversions—delivered 18 sermons at the location, and according to Gilbey, at least one of the sermons was delayed when the preacher arrived to find a protracted battle in progress, forcing Wesley to wait patiently until it had concluded.

Next episode begins with the 1700s in England, a boom period the sport of cockfighting.

William Hogarth’s “The Cockpit” shows a scene at the Royal Cockpit in Westminster, circa 1759.

Transcript: Royal Pasttime, Rabble Darling