In 1695 John Nesbit and John Gair were paid 1 shilling for this stone, and another 7s. 11d. for attaching an iron ring. In 1871 J. A. Wilson explained what the stone was for.
“One of the favourite, but most disgusting, sports to which people of Alnwick were formerly addicted was that of bull-baiting, which was practised in the Market Place where is still seen a stone, and originally an iron ring, to which was attached one end of a rope, the other being tied round the horns of the bull, when one dog after another, trained for the purpose, was let loose upon the wretched animal“.
The Old English Bulldog was bred specially for baiting. Bewick described the breed: “It is the fiercest of all the dog kind, and is probably the most courageous creature in the world. It is low in stature, but very strong and muscular. Its nose is short and the under-jaw projects beyond the upper, which gives it a fierce and unpleasing aspect. Its courage in attacking the bull is well-known. Its fury in seizing and its invincible obstinacy in maintaining its hold are trult astonishing. It always aims at the front and generally fastens upon the lip, the tongue, the eye or some part of the face, where it hangs in spite of every effort of the bull to disengage himself“.
The baiting of a bull is shown in the background of Bewick’s wood-cut, and Tate describes what happened: “The rope by which the bull was fastened to the ring, was tied around the root of the horns and was about fifteen feet long, and dog after dog was let loose on him and endeavoured to tear his flesh, till maddened with rage he sought to gore his aggressor or toss him into the air“.
Tate saw the last two bull-baitings in Alnwick. “Though a miserable, it was still an exciting scene; the market was crowded with women as well as men; they were clustered in the windows, on the cross on the Town Hall stairs, and on the Shambles. I still seem to hear the loud bellowings of the bull, the deep barkings of the dogs, the shouting of men, mingled with the shrieking of women, as the crowd swayed to and fro with the changing fortunes of the fight“.
Bull-baiting had been thought to improve the quality and tenderness of meat: it was not just a form of recreation. Tate tells of one butcher in Alnwick who was prosecuted for slaughtering a bull without baiting. However, baiting came to be seen both as cruel to the animals, and a public nuisance. The practice was beginning to die out by the early nineteenth century, and the Cruelty of Animals Act finally prohibited it in 1835. Long before that, according to Tate, bull baiting had come to an end in Alnwick as public opinion turned against the practice. In time, the Old English Bulldog breed also died out. Tate was, however, keen that the stone should be preserved, as a reminder:
“…instruments of torture are preserved in museums, so may this stone remain in the market as a historic memorial…”