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John Clare and Bull Running 1819

Chris Hunt 2018

John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings which are preserved in the archive at Peterborough City Library leads us into the early life of the poet. In manuscript A32 (p18-22) after stating that he left employment at the New Inn at Great Casterton, he continues with: - ‘I left Casterton on the Bull running day at Stamford and on calling on Drury I fell in with John Taylor whom I found was the Editor of my poems then in the press and nearly ready for publishing, he was visiting at Mr Gilchrists and in the evening they sent one of the servant maids to Drurys to invite me to go.’ John Clare’s first collection of poems – Poems, Songs, and Sonnets, Descriptive of Rural Life – was published in January 1820.

Bull running day in 1819 was a Saturday. The previous day on Friday November 12th 1819 the Stamford Mercury published two of Clare’s poems. ‘To A Primrose’ and ‘The Setting Sun’, under the by-line ‘Sonnets by J.Clare, An Agricultural Labourer, of Helpston, near Stamford. These poems, are ones that he had revised again and again having starting them back in 1807/1808 when he was only fourteen or fifteen. The versions published in the Mercury are slight variants of the ones that appeared in print the following year.

On the adjoining column was an anonymous anti-bull running letter to the Editor of the Stamford Mercury. A view strongly supported by Richard Newcomb, the then owner of the paper.

Perhaps Clare read the paper on the Friday at Casterton and then walked into Stamford on the Saturday feeling flushed at seeing his name in print. Stamford’s famous, or should that be infamous, annual bull running taking place on November 13th would have been a further draw to Clare as it must have been to others of his class from surrounding villages and towns. It can be best described as being a local public holiday and a day when the judiciary was powerless to control what could become an unruly mob.

Between 1809 and 1834 we are lucky to have in Stamford two local newspapers of very differing political views. Drakard’s Stamford News and the Lincoln, Rutland and Stamford Mercury. Although, it would be true to say that the Mercury was more a regional paper than a local one. At this time the Mercury supported the Burghley interest whose Members of Parliament followed the Tory line. The 9th Earl of Exeter in 1788 having supported the Borough Council in its first attempt to outlaw bull-running.

Drakard on the other hand was pro bull-running, and took every opportunity to highlight hypocrisy amongst the nobility and his paper supported radical causes. On one occasion he was horsewhipped in his own Office by one of the Brudenell family, he was taken to court by Newcomb for libel, and spent time in prison for an article published in his newspaper on corporal punishment in the British Army.

John Drakard’s view of the 1819 bull-running was that: - It grieves us to acknowledge that the sport was unusually bad. The bull did not face one of his followers, and dishonoured the character for courage and ferocity which he had obtained in his native pasture, and which, as usual, caused his selection. We regret this, because we like the sport, and, more especially, because the want of spirit in the animal encouraged the mob to load his horns, and press upon it, and give an appearance of cruelty to the diversion, from which we affirm no amusement is, broadly speaking, more exempt. We say this advisedly, and are prepared to stand up against all contradiction to the assertion, ‘like Atlas unremoved’.

The Stamford Mercury however took a different view, stating: - The lower orders of Stamford had their annual uproar, the bull-running, on Saturday last. It is creditable to the town that the taste for this sport seems to be dying away: it was with difficulty that a sufficient subscription could be raised for the purchase of a bull. A person of Pickworth for £9 delivered his poor animal for the torture. The manner of the bull’s death, after it had run about the town for several hours, was, extremely savage and shocking: at the back of St Paul’s Street it was stuck, but before the life was out of it, numbers of persons, each eager to have his shilling’s worth of the flesh, cut pieces (hide and all) from the lacerated and reeking carcase, and bore them off in triumph for their feasts. One fellow in his haste, actually fell into the paunch of the animal, and was nearly suffocated.

Whatever was happening on the streets of Stamford that Saturday it would be true that John Clare was at a turning point in his life? The previous day he had had two poems published in the Stamford Mercury which would be picked up by other regional papers around the country. He had met his London editor for the first time and whilst with Edward Drury he wrote some more poems that appeared in his first volume.

Talk of the forthcoming book of poems resulted in Drury’s advert the following week in the Mercury including the line: - Shortly to be published by E.Drury, Poems, Songs, and Sonnets, Descriptive of Rural Life by John Clare a Northamptonshire Peasant.


Welcome, pale primrose starting up between,

Dead matted leaves of oak and ash that strew,

The every lawn, the wood, and spinney through,

Mid creeping moss, and ivy’s darker green,

How much thy presence beautifies the ground,

How sweet thy modest unaffected pride,

Glows on the sunny bank and wood’s warm side

And where thy fairy flowers in groups are found,

The schoolboy roams enchantedly along,

Plucking the fairest with a rude delight

While the meek shepherd stops his simple song,

To gaze a moment on the pleasing sight,

Overjoyed to see the flowers that truly bring,

The welcome news of sweet performing spring


This season how beauteous to the musing mind!

That now swift slides from my enchanting view.

The sun, sweet setting you are hills behind,

In other words his visit to renew,

What spangling glories all around him shine,

What nameless colours cloudless and serene,

(A heavenly prospect brightest in decline),

Attend his exit from this lovely scene.

So sets the Christian’s sun in glories clear,

So shines his soul at his departure here,

No cloudy doubts nor misty fears arise.

To dim hope’s golden rays of being forgiven,

His sun sweet setting in the clearest skies,

In safe assurance wings his soul to heaven.

Source Stamford Mercury November 12th 1819

A print version can be downloaded HERE

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