The cockpit on Chislehurst Common is sometimes described as unique. Webb’s History of Chislehurst, is rather more modest, describing it as “one of the few perfect examples of a cockpit which still exist”.
Situated opposite the west gate of St Nicholas church, the cockpit is not the remnant of a bomb crater as commonly believed. That story no doubt arises from the fact that during the last air-raid of WW1, on Whit Sunday 1918, a bomb fell near the cockpit, causing no damage.
The cockpit is the principal feature of the triangle of common land known as the Village Green, which is bounded by Church Row, School Road and Watts Lane. In their book, Discover Chislehurst, Darrell Spurgeon and Roy Hopper speculate that the depression started life as a medieval gravel pit and was later allowed to grass over in order to be used as a cockpit.
Cock-fighting was outlawed in 1834, not on grounds of its cruelty to animals, but because it generated so much troublesome behaviour among the excitable spectators. The cockpit was then used for single-stick fighting until that was stopped in 1862, by decision of the Vestry (the equivalent of local government) because it had become the resort of all “the commonest and lowest class of persons.”
The earliest Conservators (now known as Trustees) inherited this concern about misbehaviour, including the use of bad language, on the Common, especially when large crowds were attracted by the funfairs traditionally held on the Village Green on bank holidays.
The cockpit is a circular structure 40 metres in diameter and 1.5 metres deep, with sloping sides. On the floor of the pit there is a slightly raised circle some 32 metres in diameter. In the 20th century it became an arena for great public events, such as the homecoming service for the returning troops in 1919. It is marked by an engraved stone donated by a former member of the Board, Mr A. Gunn.
Joanna Friel of The Chislehurst Society has found another claimed cockpit near Chichester. Unlike ours, it is roughly octagonal in shape, rather than circular, and about 3 metres deep. It is thought to have been dug as a reservoir, or as a fishpond, providing food for the nearby Halnaker House, a semi-fortified manor house, dating from the 12th century. At some point it was drained and then may have been used for cock-fighting.
Aerial photograph courtesy of The Chislehurst Society.