The Victorian era was one of strange and questionable interests. Some people had curiosity cabinets for the of keeping bones, weapons and shrunken heads; some attended freak shows; some took photos with dead relatives; and some went to bear pits.
A Brief History Of Bear Pits
By Victorian times bear abuse was nothing new in Britain. In fact, it was going out of fashion.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, bloodsports were all the rage and the most popular of all was bear-baiting. A pack of dogs would be set upon a lone bear to either gnaw him into submission or die trying. The crowds loved it... for the most part.
There were some however who saw it for the 'carnival of cruelty' it was, and, during the 1700s, public opinion began to sway. Despite this, animal baiting wasn't banned altogether until 1835.
One year later, Sheffield Botanical Gardens' bear pit got its first resident: Bruin the bear.
Sheffield Bear Pit: A Failure
What sort of creature had they chosen to pioneer this strange new world of non-violent bear pits? A quite boring one, apparently.
Sheffield bear pit was fitted with a single tree, but Bruin wasn't interested. Soon the papers were calling him a 'disappointment' and saying that he was 'exceedingly loath to climb'.
You can imagine how the spectators would have reacted: rolled eyes, tired murmurs , one or two suggestions that maybe they bring back baiting.
Bruin didn't last long.
Two More Bears
In 1855, following his death, two more bears were donated to Sheffield bear pit. This did not, however, lead to a revival in interest. People complained that their stench and noise wasn't in keeping with the gardens, and an 1856 meeting suggested the bear pit be converted into a vinery.
There are no mentions of it in print after that, but there is an 1859 Sheffield Daily Telegraph advert stating, bears for sale. Whether or not anyone bought them is unknown, but one way or another the bears were moved on. The pit on the other hand survived long enough to become a legend.
The Myth Of Sheffield Bear Pit
A rumour, today, states that the bear pit was closed after a child was killed by the bears. The story goes that a nursemaid held a baby up to them, only for them to snatch it from her hands.
There is no first hand evidence of this ever happening and, when the pit's size and depth is taken into account, it seems unlikely. In my opinion, its inevitable that, if you keep an empty bear pit long enough, sooner or later someone will spread a grizzly rumour as to why it was closed.
You know what they say, 'there's no smoke without a bear pit'.
One More Thing...
Sheffield bear pit now features a 2.4m steel bear, its coated rusted to a grizzly brown.
Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Sheffield Treasure Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of England.