Holywell Cockpit and Bowling Green

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

The big cock-fighting events at the pit took place during the Oxford Races at Port Meadow. Between 1759 and 1788, the fights (which were announced in Jackson’s Oxford Journal) were generally between Oxford and Watlington, but in August 1790 the cocks started to represent their county, and the fight was between Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

Cock-fighting in Holywell continued into the nineteenth century. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 27 June 1801 advertised a “main” (a match between fighting cocks) between cockerels and and “stags” (turkey-cocks of two years and upwards) to be held at Holywell during the Oxford Races at Port Meadow:


During the above Races a MAIN of COCKS will be fought at the Cockpit, Holywell, Oxford, between the Gentlemen of Oxfordshire and the Gentlemen of Warwickshire. — Each Party to shew Twenty-one Cocks and Thirty-one Stags, and to fight for Ten Guineas each Battle; and Two Hundred the Odd.

Feeders, WALTERS for Oxfordshire, GLADISH for Warwickshire


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 (Oxfordshire won by one battle).

There is no mention in the newspaper of cockfighting after 1815, and the sport was banned outright in England and Wales under the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835.

Malchair painted a view of the Holywell cockpit, and there is a minature 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.

The pub called the Cockpit

There was also a pub called the Cockpit, 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. As Eaton was described as the owner of the cockpit in 1778, it seems likely that the pub and the pit were closely connected.

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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