Lost London – Bear Garden, Southwark

The Bear Garden as depicted in Visscher’s Map of London which was published in 1616 but represented the city as it was several years earlier.

The Bear Garden was among numerous structures built in Southwark during the Elizabethan era for public amusement: in this case the “amusement” being what we now see as the rather cruel activities of bear and bull baiting and other “sports” involving animals.

Built sometime prior to the 1560s, the Bear Garden (also written as Beargarden) itself was a polygonal wooden, donut-shaped structure, much like the theatres such as the Rose and Globe, where the activities took part on the floor in the middle while the audience sat around the donut’s ring.

While it’s known it was located in Bankside (among several other premises showing animal sports), its exact location continues to be a matter of debate (and it is thought to have moved location at least once).

The Bear Garden was patronised by royalty – Queen Elizabeth I apparently visited with the French and Spanish ambassador – but it was also marked by tragedy when part of the tiered seating collapsed in 1583, killing eight people and forcing the premises to close down for a brief period.

It was torn down in 1614 and replaced with the Hope Theatre with the intention of it serving as a dual purpose premises, providing both stage plays and animal sports like bear-baiting, but the latter eventually won out and it simply became known once again as the Bear Garden.

The Hope may have pulled down in the 1650s after animal sports were banned by the Puritans (the Commonwealth commander Thomas Pride was apparently responsible for putting down or shooting the last seven bears). Whether it was demolished or not, it was again in use after the Restoration – Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn both visited during this period – but the last mention of it was in the 1680s.

The street named Bear Gardens in modern Southwark stands today in the approximate area where the Bear Garden is generally thought to have been located.

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