We spent the last week in Cinderford, nestled away in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire. We were expecting to see free-roaming sheep, perhaps a peregrine falcon or some fallow deer or even a re-introduced wild boar. We duly spotted a peregrine at Symonds Yat and a few wild boars strolling about on the side of a road (pictured). What we did not expect were the ubiquitous references to an episode involving animals that are definitely not native to the area.
Occasionally an event can become so enshrined in the consciousness of the people of a locality that the memory persists for decades. And so it is with the disgraceful episode of the killing of two travelling bears on Friday 26th April 1889. To this very day, the inhabitants of Ruardean and Cinderford continue to nurse grievances concerning this bizarre incident.
On that fateful day, four Frenchmen, none of whom could speak a word of English, arrived in Cinderford parading two Russian bears. As they made their way to neighbouring Ruardean, followed by a procession of children and youths, ugly rumours started to circulate in the local taverns. It was alleged that the bears had mauled a woman and killed a child. This prompted an angry mob from Cinderford to pursue the procession, intent on vengeance. It was early evening when the vigilantes caught up with the Frenchmen and their bears.
According to the Ross Gazette a week or so later, one of the animals was killed just outside Ruardean and two of the Frenchman were set upon and beaten up. Ruardean locals tried in vain to stop the attack. They took charge of the injured men who were eventually granted refuge in Drybrook Police Station. The other two Frenchmen had taken to their heels, turning up some days later in Cardiff. The second bear had been chased and killed.
Arrests were made, and on May 3rd at Littledean Police Court, George Wilkes, described as the worst offender, and his co-assailants were charged with unlawfully assaulting and beating four French subjects and ill-treating, torturing and unlawfully killing two bears. The chairman of magistrates described the case as the “most disgraceful one that had come before him on the Bench.” For the assault, Wilkes was fined £5. For killing the bears, he was fined £1 and £20 damages. The total amount of fines and damages came to 84 pounds and 10 shillings.
What was particularly contentious was the court’s description of the mob as “colliers and labourers of the Ruardean neighbourhood.” The indignation felt by Ruardean locals is still as palpable as ever. It remains a taboo subject to this day.
The trail has gone cold now, but during our visit Bianca and I encountered one or two Cinderford characters in the local taverns who, yes, may well be descendants of that despicable mob. (No offence intended – just doing our bit to redress the balance! Ha ha!)