This post comes from first year undergraduate student in History at the University of Gloucestershire, Owen Adams.
Despite becoming a top starry-skied destination for glampers, wildlife-watchers and mountain bikers, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire has never managed to shrug off its reputation as the darkest of backwoods badlands, due to a horrific incident which took place more than a century ago which no one has been allowed to forget.
On Friday April 26, 1889, two Russian performing bears were killed by a crowd of 200 colliers egged on by an innkeeper with a wooden pole: a shameful event, and an indelible and still festering sore in folk memory. Taunting residents of Ruardean (myself included) with the mocking refrain “who killed the bears?” still raises hackles – as I saw from terse comments on local social media pages last week, when two separate reminders were shared around.
The first was BBC 6 Radio regular Oliver Cherer’s just-released dark and NSFW progressive folk concept album, The Myth of Violet Meek. I know Ollie from watching him play in a succession of post-punk bands at Forest venues from 1985, when we were both teenagers. Now based in East Sussex, working as a fine artist and musician, Cherer’s new work has drawn comparisons to “Nick Cave if he had grown up in the Forest of Dean” (Shindig Magazine, October 2017).
Cherer told Delusions of Adequacy:
I spent my teenage years living in Cinderford in the Forest of Dean and there is a local true story about two bears that were hounded and killed by a drunken mob. Dennis Potter wrote a TV play about it [in 1968] where he expanded the idea that a girl had been attacked in the woods into something even darker. All I’ve done is take this story and bent it into a myth so that I can discuss the misogyny I remember from when I was in my teens.
In the same week as Cherer’s sublime, dark, aural fiction hit Bandcamp and the shops, the BBC and Gloucestershire Live reported the accidental discovery of a summons relating to the “bears incident” in a chimney. The name on the summons – Arthur Tom Brain – is significant, as is the findspot, a house at Crooked End just outside Ruardean (and now joined to the village by post-war housing). Brain described – South Wales Daily News reported on May 3, 1889 – how one of the Frenchmen tried to take refuge in his father’s pig sty, pursued by the mob and “witness was very much frightened by what took place”. This was soon after the smaller bear had been clubbed to death with a wooden clothes prop in a neighbour’s shed. This gives us more of a clue of the geography of the chaotic events luridly detailed in the day’s newspapers.
The “bears” incident slighted the honour and virtue of the village and its inhabitants particularly, because it culminated there. Defenders of the village maintain Ruardean was victim to the itinerant murderous mob, rather than being part of it. This 1964 short film and Leonard Clark’s 1980 pamphlet lament that Ruardean has wrongly shouldered the blame because the first newspaper report, in the Gloucester Citizen, quoting the justices, said all those accused were from “the neighbourhood of Ruardean”.
Census research shows the men prosecuted lived in Ruardean Hill – a hamlet separate from Ruardean – and Nailbridge, two miles from Ruardean, where the mob threw their first stones. The bears and their keepers were beaten all along the Morse Road, and the accused, and horrified witnesses, lived en route. The court heard 200 people were egged on by innkeeper George Wilks, mostly colliers (the majority of Forest men and boys worked in pits at this time).
Regardless of who killed the bears what remains unconfirmed is precisely why the mob turned on the bears and their keepers, following a well-received afternoon performance in Cinderford. The bears were followed through the town and on towards Steam Mills, Nailbridge and Ruardean by children, while fake news was, by most accounts, simultaneously spreading through the pubs lining the route. All contemporary reports stress there were no attacks by bears and the rumour was wholly untrue. Potter and Cherer use artistic licence to explore the possibility the bears and the Frenchmen were scapegoats to mask a local case of infanticide and/or assault on a woman – and this conjecture prevails among many locals I’ve spoken to – although no evidence has yet been found of any crime.
Or was the violence fuelled by pure xenophobic hatred and the rumours conjured out of thin air by malice alone? It requires a brave historical detective to get to the bottom of the mystery, if that is possible. We know who killed the bears, but we still don’t know why.