Holywell Cockpit and Bowling Green

Holywell Cockpit

Holywell Cockpit“The Cockpit Holywell Oxford” by Catherine Sharpe (after William Crotch)
Reproduced by kind permission of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norfolk Museums Service

This circular cockpit stood on the corner of Holywell Street and St Cross Road (formerly Church Street), and it was already in existence by 1675 when it is shown in a Loggan print. Its remains were discovered in 1992–3 during the excavations for a new dining hall at Holywell Manor.

The biggest cock-fighting events at the Holywell Pit pit took place during the Oxford Races at Port Meadow. Between 1753 and 1788 these fights were always announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, and while there were some local derbies between Oxford at Watlington, often the cocks represented their county against Berkshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, or Middlesex.

By 1753 there were two Cockpits at Holywell, known as the Great and the Lower Cockpit, and they were held by Stephen Eaton senior. The following advertisement appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 14 July 1753 for a fight against Buckinghamshire, with a fixed-price meal (an “ordinary”) available, probably at the adjacent house:

14 July 1753

This advertisement on 19 July 1755 shows the cockerels fighting for Oxfordshire against Wiltshire:

19 July 1755

In the 1772 Survey of Oxford, Mr [Stephen] Eaton, the Keeper of the Cockpit, was recorded as having a frontage of ten yards to St Cross Road.

The following advertisement for a three-day cock fight at the Great Cockpit in Holywell appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 22 January 1780:

22 Jan 1780

(A "subscription main" was a contest in which a number of cockers entered one, two or more birds each.)

On 17 January 1799 the following death announcement appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

Thursday morning last died, aged near eighty, Mr. Stephen Eaton, who kept the Cock Pit in this city forty years.

Stephen Eaton junior, who was probably his son, then took over the Cockpit.

Cock-fighting in Holywell continued into the nineteenth century. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 June 1801 advertised a “main” between cockerels and and “stags” (turkey-cocks of two years and upwards) of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire to be held at Holywell during the Oxford Races at Port Meadow A similar advertisement was placed on 23 July 1803, but this time the opposing county was Middlesex, and the prizes were lower: five guineas a battle, and “one hundred the main”. Prices were back as they were, however, at the cockfight against Berkshire during the races of 1807.

In the spring of 1809, 1814, and 1815 there was an annual subscription match of cocking. Then in the summer of 1815 the Gentlemen of Oxfordshire took on the Gentlemen of Gloucestershire during the Races (with Oxfordshire winning by one battle).

On 13 January 1816 the following death notice appeared in Jackson's Oxford Journal:

On Sunday last died, aged 73 years, Mr. Stephen Eaton, keeper of the Cockpit, Holywell; he had been totally blind for many years, and was well known as a feeder of fighting cocks for the matches that have been fought here during the races.

The last reference to Holywell Cockpit's original use was in Jackson's Oxford Journal of 31 March 1821, when the cocks of Gloucestershire fought those of Oxfordshire.

The sport was banned outright in England and Wales under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, which stated:

And whereas Cruelties are greatly promoted and encouraged by Persons keeping Houses, Rooms, Pits, Grounds, or other Places for the fighting or baiting of Dogs, Bulls, Bears, or other Animals, and for fighting Cocks, and by Persons aiding or assisting therein, and the same are great Nuisances and Annoyances to the Neighbourhood in which they are situate, and tend to demoralize those who frequent such Places; be it therefore enacted, That from and after the passing of this Act, if any Person shall keep or use any House, Room, Pit, Ground, or other Place for the Purpose of running, baiting, or fighting any Bull, Bear, Badger, Dog, or other Animal (whether of domestic or wild Nature or Kind), or for Cock-fighting, or in which any Bull, Bear, Badger, Dog, or other such Animal shall be baited, run, or fought, every such Person shall be liable to a Penalty not exceeding Five Pounds nor less than Ten Shillings for every Day in which he shall so keep and use such House, Room, Pit, Ground, or Place for any of the Purposes aforesaid: Provided always, that the Person who shall act as the Manager of any such House, Room, Pit, Ground, or other Place, or who shall receive any Money for the Admission of any Person thereto, or who shall assist in any such baiting or fighting or Bull-running, shall be deemed and taken to be the Keeper of the same for the Purposes of this Act, and be liable to all such Penalties as are by this Act imposed upon the Person who shall actually keep any such House, Room, Pit, Ground, or other Place for the Purposes aforesaid.

Malchair painted a view of the Holywell cockpit, and there is a miniature image of it on the Longmate map of Oxford of 1773. For more information, see Percy Manning, “Sport & pastime in Stuart Oxford”, in H. E. Salter, Surveys and Tokens, pp. 101–2.

On 3 May 1890 a letter from Herbert Hurst was published in Jackson's Oxford Journal where he wrote of his conversations with the Revd John Rigaud, including:

By the side of [the Sisterhood's Chapel] was a little public house connected with a well-known cock-pit, and there is perhaps still living in Holywell an old woman who remembers King George IV coming incognito to witness a set-to of two birds there.

The pub called the Cockpit

There was also a pub called the Cockpit adjoining the pit. It was described as being the home of Stephen Eaton and “near Holywell Church” when an auction held there was advertised in Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 17 February 1810. (Eaton, who died in 1816 was described as the owner of the cockpit from at least 1772.)

Inquests were held at the Cockpit pub in June 1825 and October 1847.

By 1851 the Cockpit Inn was run by Thomas Davis, sausage maker & publican, maker of the “original Oxford Sausage”. At the time of the 1851 census he lived there with his wife Mary (39) and his children Mary (15), Fanny (13), Thomas (5), Emily (3), and Charles (8 months). Five years later, however, the pub itself had closed, as the following notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 11 October 1856 indicates:

T. DAVIS, BRAWN AND SAUSAGE MAKER, (Late of the Cock Pit, Holywell,)
BEGS leave to return his thanks for past patronage, and respectfully to acquaint the public that he still carries on the above business on the premises erected for that purpose, adjoining the Old Cock Pit.
SAUSAGES sent hot to any part of the town, and may also be had at Mr. Creed’s, Holywell-street, and at Mrs. Slatter’s, Boar-street.

The Bowling Green

The Longmate map of 1773 shows the Bowling Green wedged between the back gardens of the houses at the north-east end of Holywell and the footway running westwards to the Parks, which was along the line of the present Jowett Walk. (Nearby Magdalen College had its own bowling green behind the New Buildings.)

James Woodforde records in his diary for 26 June 1761 that he was “At Bowles in Holiwell Green” with seven college friends; and again on 3 and 11 July that year he was “At Bowles in Holiwell lower Green”.

The 1772 Survey of Oxford lists Dr Vansittart (who also had a house with a frontage of over 12 yards in St Cross Road) as holding the bowling green, which had a frontage of exactly 53 yards. This is presumably Robert Vansittart (1728–1789), Regius Professor of Civil Law and member of the Hellfire Club.

The site of the bowling green was incorporated into the garden of 1 Holywell Street by 1876.

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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