A number of traditional sports, called ‘cock-threshing’, ‘throwing at cocks’, ‘cock-running’, were particularly popular at Shrovetide. In its basic form a live cock, or hen, is tied by one leg to a stake or other immovable object. Players take it in turn to throw heavy sticks at the bird, and the one who kills it wins it. The game existed at least since 1409, when the Corporation of London was trying to stop youths exacting payment from passers-by to fund their activities, but it is clearly much older and involved all levels of society, including royalty. Over the years, however, it gradually became the province of the lower classes and children. Schoolchildren were typically allowed to play the game at Shrovetide, with the schoolmaster's assistance, although cock-fighting was more common in this context. So prevalent was the game that Cesar de Saussare, a French visitor in 1728, warned,It is even dangerous to go near any of these places when this diversion is being held; so many clubs are being thrown about that you run the risk of receiving one on your head. (Quoted in Malcolmson, 1973: 48–9)
It is even dangerous to go near any of these places when this diversion is being held; so many clubs are being thrown about that you run the risk of receiving one on your head. (Quoted in Malcolmson, 1973: 48–9)
‘Threshing the fat hen’, mentioned by Tusser in 1580, involved a live hen suspended from a man's back, with straw stuffed into his clothes to protect him, and some horse bells attached. Players were blindfolded, and had to kill the bird by hitting it with sticks (Hone, 1827: 123–4). Alternatively, a cock was placed in a specially made earthen vessel, with its head and tail protruding from the pot, which was then suspended across the street about twelve feet above the ground (c.1760, Hone, 1827: 126).
These cock-based customs were the first of the blood sports to come under sustained pressure for abolition, partly because they were deemed particularly unsporting, but also because by that time the game was a purely working-class activity. By the end of the 18th century the custom was regarded as nearly extinct, with Quainton (Buckinghamshire) being cited as the last place it occurred, in 1844. A memory of the sport continued in the form of throwing sticks at lead figures (made in the shape of a bird, animal, or man) and trying to knock it over. This could be a fairground game, or boys could own their own leaden ‘cocks’ and play at the game (Hone, 1827: 127).
Hone, 1827: 122–5;Malcolmson, 1973: 48–9, 118–22;Hutton, 1996: 153–9;Wright and Lones, i. 1936: 2–24;Dyer, 1876: 65–9.