Our attitude towards animals has changed for the better over the centuries, although some might say that the organised and indiscriminate slaughter of wild creatures has simply been replaced by the systematic erosion of their natural habitats. What has changed, undoubtedly, is our aversion to acts of cruelty directed at one or more animals, a change in attitudes that led to the passing of the first Cruelty to Animals Act in Britain in 1835. This Act, following lobbying by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, itself formed in 1824, expanded protection afforded to bulls, dogs, bears, and sheep in earlier legislation and prohibited bear-baiting and cock-fighting.

These, though, were not the only pastimes which in 1860 Erastus Benedict called “the kindred manly sports of the lower classes”. Other activities such as badger-baiting and dog-fighting prevailed (and still do, albeit clandestinely and illegally) affording the spectator a dubious form of entertainment and the opportunity to wager on the outcome. These contests were usually fatal to one or more of the contestants. If there was any merit to the bizarre practice of sparrow-mumbling, a pursuit popular at fairs, the odds were slightly in the favour of the bird.

That observer of the language and customs of what were deemed to be the lower orders, Francis Grose, included a description of sparrow-mumbling in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1811. Even by the standards of the time, he felt moved to call it “a cruel sport”. What he called a “booby”, a stupid or silly person, paid a fee to participate in the contest. His hands were tied behind him and “the wing of a cock-sparrow put into his mouth: with this hold”, Grose explains, “he is to get the sparrow’s head into his mouth: on attempting to do it, the bird defends itself surprisingly, frequently pecking the mumbler till his lips are covered with blood and he is obliged to desist: to prevent the bird from getting away, he is fastened by a string to a button of the booby’s coat”.        

Grose’s description was of a version of the pastime practised in London, but there were other variants. In Cornwall miners would attempt to strip the feathers from a sparrow by just using their teeth, after the unfortunate bird had been tethered by a string to their teeth. A more extreme version was to clip the bird’s wings and place it in a hat. Using just their lips, the contestant was supposed to manoeuvre the bird into their mouth and bite its head off.

One of the earliest references to the custom appeared in George Chapman’s Andromeda Liberate from 1614. There he writes how it was “most pleasing to sit in a corner and spend your teeth to the stumps in mumbling an old sparrow till your lips bleed and your eyes water”. In the 18th century one of John Arscott’s party pieces, when entertaining at his family pile of Pencarrow, was to put a live sparrow into his mouth and using his teeth to pluck all its feathers off. His guests were invited to guess whether it would fly again. He would also swallow a live mouse and regurgitate the creature from his stomach. Not to be outdone, Francis Delaval once “organised a great contest of sparrow-mumbling for his friends”.

The practice fell into disfavour in the 19th century.

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