‘Why’s it called The Bear Pit?’: the history behind one of Stockport’s oldest landmarks
The rather morbid fact and/or fiction behind one of the town's familiar site that most people know nothing about.
If you grew up in and around Stockport or have simply passed through the Greater Manchester town with someone who knows the area, you yourself might have asked the age-old question, ‘Why’s it called The Bear Pit?’
We are, of course, referring to the oft-unexplained landmark that sits on Mersey Square between the shopping centre, the bus station and the precinct underneath the stretch of Wellington Road that leads to the A6.
The stone rotunda which is set into the square and sits as somewhat of a disused amphitheatre — apart from the odd busker playing drums, people eating their lunch, memorials, or the site of Stockport‘s Christmas tree — and has long existed as one those places everyone knows but knows very little about.
Speaking as a native Stopfordian myself, I too will confess that it was not until recently that I finally learned the history behind The Bear Pit and how it got its name. It sounds a bit daft to admit now but it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.
Yes, believe it or not, legend has it that the landmark may have once played host to big furry beasts hundreds of years ago as part of the cruel tradition of ‘bear-baiting‘, which was prominent throughout England and the UK from the 12th-19th century.
Greater Manchester and the North West included.
Although it might seem weird to picture a bear in the middle of Stockport now, it is said that much like many city centres and town squares back then, people would gather around the now-empty landmark to watch as bears were poked, prodded, taunted and forced to fight dogs on chains.
Not the finest chapter in the region’s history.
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The bears were reportedly kept in large caves cut into the sandstone at the foot of the High Bank Side towards Underbank and Stockport’s famous Air Raid Shelters, though they were obviously sealed up not long after. In fact, the area located just next to the shelters is called ‘Bear Hole’ for that very reason.
Bear-baiting was eventually abolished in 1835 just before the beginning of the Victorian era and the site which earned its name from the cruel blood sport was no more, but its slightly eery legacy lives on without most people even knowing it — especially when you think of teddies left there for memorials.
It may have stopped functioning as an actual bear pit a long time ago, but it has played host to various other public demonstrations in the 188 years since and is still known by that same morbid moniker. Pretty cool, right? As for how much truth there is to it, we’d love to know as much as you.
The Bear Pit in its present form was rebuilt in 1935 as part of the other Mersey Square improvements and obviously looks a lot different to how it did back then the same goes for the ever-changing face of Stockport, but at least now you know how it came to be in the first place. Random pub chat trivia sorted.
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Featured Image — Gerald England (via Geograph)