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Who Killed the Bears? A Forest of Dean Tragedy

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

While bears became extinct in England towards the end of the Anglo Saxon period, they continued to be imported and bred as exotic pets, performing animals and later on as unwilling participants in the cruel practise of bear baiting. Occasionally some of the bears escaped and there are odd accounts of feral groups in some of the more uninhabited areas of forest of England. One story about bears and a forest in Mercia is still a controversial subject even today, with the wild events of that day and the aftermath spawning a rivalry between towns that has become a permanent part of the lore of the Forest of Dean.

Four French men were travelling through the Forest of Dean in 1889 with a pair of tame Russian bears, which they would display to gatherings of people as they went in return for what money they could collect. On Friday the 26th of April they arrived at the town of Cinderford. Two men would usually handle the bears while the other two walked round the crowd shaking their collection tins, and on this day they went about their business as usual. The muzzled bears would be led round on chains to the wonder of the assembled townsfolk, sometimes encouraged to stand up on their hind legs but no acrobatics or humiliating stunts, and the reception they received in Cinderford was very good.

The four men, with their bears, began to move on towards the next town as the light began to fade and the crowd followed them along the road as they went. It is here that events took a dramatic and tragic turn. As the group passed through the village of Nailbridge the crowd became swelled by men pouring out of the local pubs, drunk and excited by the gathering mass of people. A rumour had passed quickly through the inns that the bears had attacked and killed a little girl and mob rule rapidly took hold. Shouts and jeers turned to objects thrown at them, then shoving, then a full on violent attack. The men were beaten with sticks and bottles as they went down the road to Ruardean, with one Frenchman being struck hard on his neck with a brick and falling. The mob was now numbered at around 200 and completely wild. The fallen man was beaten as he cowered and one of the bears was bashed over it's head, killing it instantly.

Two of the handlers ran for the woods and managed to escape into the darkness but the remaining pair with their bear staggered on. As the riot approached the town of Ruardean they released the animal from it's leash and let it escape into the forest, before collapsing to their knees. Unable to speak a single word of English and having no idea why they were being attacked, they begged for mercy. Some people from Ruardean bravely came out and tried to stop the madness, taking the battered Frenchmen into their homes and giving them what medical attention they could. The bear that escaped? It didn't roam the Forest for long – shot down by locals as it neared Ross on Wye.

Arrests were swiftly made but difficulties arose. Many, if not most, of the men were miners of the Forest, still wearing their work clothes and black faced. This made identification difficult once they had cleaned up and changed. Many were prepared to stand against them in court though, so with witnesses ready to testify a large group of men was brought before Littledean Court just week later. Still to this day the blame for the appalling attack is aimed at the folk of Ruardean, where the attack climaxed, while they themselves will categorically state that the defendants were all from Cinderford where the incident began. “Who killed the bears?” is a phrase still heard in the Forest of Dean even now, a jeer from Cinderford towards their rival and not a phrase that is warmly received in Ruardean pubs today.

So what is the truth of the matter? Where were the attackers actually from? Court records show that six of the eight accused were actually from the Ruardean locality. However, the man identified as the ringleader was actually George Wilkes, the landlord of the Jovial Colliers pub in Nailbridge, which was where the drunken section of the mob originated. He may well have started the unfounded rumour of the bears being killers, and his son Robert was another one of the accused. It's fair to say that men from Cinderford were a large part of the mob as they had followed the group along the road and would have joined in the violence, and I think this is the source of the resentment between the towns – as Ruardean saw it the Cinderford men got off scot free.

While undoubtedly a sad point in Forest of Dean history and an incident nobody is proud of, it has become a permanent part of the story of the Forest, passing into folklore as years pass. Another hundred years from now I have no doubt locals will still utter the taunt - “Who killed the bears?”...but will they have forgotten why...?

Ruardean today

The Forest of Dean

Cinderford in the 1940s, later than the events but the period picture gives a fairer impression of the town then

French wandering bear handler in England. It is unclear if this is one of the men attacked that day, the picture cannot be 100% verified

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