Edward Hunt's Forest of Dean Miscellany

Fact, Fiction and Fantasy

Who Killed the Bears?

There are ups and downs in any history of any location and that of the Forest of Dean is no different. The hounding to death of two dancing bears and the harrying of their four French keepers is a definite low point in the history of the Forest of Dean.

Nearly 120 years later and this is still a sore point with the people of Ruardean who are unfairly taunted as the perpetrators of this crime.

This is a story that has been distorted over time. In a recent book about Gloucestershire, the four Frenchmen and two bears had become one Italian and a bear. In this version the unfortunate people of Ruardean are again fingered as the offenders. They are not. The source of this variation of the story is probably Dennis Potter's play; A Beast with Two Backs.

Unfortunately, the gist of the story is true: this incident did really happen. In 1889, on April 26th, four Frenchmen and their two performing Russian black bears, touring the Forest of Dean, arrived in Cinderford. The muzzled and chained bears danced and jigged their way around the town entertaining and delighting children and adults alike.

The joyful spring atmosphere was not to continue: by the time the bears arrived at Nailbridge, a rumour was circulating that the bears had killed a child and mauled a woman. This rumour was taken up by drinkers at a couple of local pubs. The drinkers poured from the pubs and chased and harassed the bears and their keepers from Cinderford to Ruardean.

Pursued by the two hundred strong mob, the Frenchmen and their bears were abused, shoved and beaten with stakes and stones. Two of the Frenchmen seeking shelter, hid in the woods. As they approached Ruardean, one of the bears was killed. The other bear got nearly as far as Marstow Farm, on the way to Ross-on-Wye, before it was shot. Two of the Frenchmen were taken in by a compassionate (and brave!) Ruardean household.

This terrifying ordeal for the Frenchmen was exacerbated by the fact that none of them could speak English and therefore could not understand their tormentors or make themselves understood.

It was not until late that evening that the police were called and arrests were made. Fourteen colliers and labourers were put on trial at the Littledean Police Court on May 3rd 1889. They were charged with ill-treating, torturing and maliciously killing two bears and assaulting the Frenchmen. All but two were found guilty.

With the passing of time this incident has lost its immediacy and thus its ability to shock and repulse, but there is no doubt that this was a shameful and disgusting episode.

My understanding is that none of those put on trial was an inhabitant of Ruardean!

For an excellent report on this story, I recommend the booklet, "Who Killed the Bears?" by Leonard Clark (published by Forest of Dean Newspapers in 1981).

Edward Hunt (2008)

See Also:

Who killed the bears?By Harry Beddington

Edward Hunt