The Oxford English Dictionary defines sparrow-mumbling as "the action of holding a cock-sparrow's wing in the mouth, and attempting to draw in the head by movement of the lips", and according to Erastus Cornelius Benedict writing in 1860, it was once, together with bear-baiting and dog-fighting, one of "the kindred manly sports of the lower classes". Certainly Francis Grose, author of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, felt obliged to devote the whole of his definition of the word sparrow to a description of the practice.
According to Grose it was;
a cruel sport frequently practised at wakes and fairs: for a small premium, a booby having his hands tied behind him, has the wing of a cock sparrow put into his mouth: with this hold, without any other assistance than the motion of his lips, 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
Of course by the time that both Grose and Benedict were writing attitudes to such traditional sports were changing, and whilst the "hedonistic and profligate" Francis Delaval (1727-1771) once "organized a great contest of sparrow-mumbling for his friends", by the nineteenth century such practices were frowned upon, at least by the great and the good, and generally discouraged. Nevertheless it was once a popular and widespread entertainment, and the Jacobean poet and dramatist George Chapman once wrote in his Andromeda Liberata of 1614, of 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".
The exact details of sparrow-mumbling appear to have varied from district to district. In some cases the sparrow was prevented from escaping by being "fastened by a string" as described by Grose, but in others the sparrow's wings were clipped and it was placed in a hat, and the objective was, having succeeded in placing the sparrow's head in the mouth, to bite its head off. Cornish miners also practised their own slightly less barbaric version in which the sparrow was tethered by a string fastened to the teeth, and the objective was to strip the sparrow of its feathers using the lips alone. However irrespective of the method adopted, sparrow-mumbling became a victim of the increased public concern for animal welfare that led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824, and would now probably be in breach of at least a half a dozen separate acts of Parliament.
- Steve Roud, The English Year, (Penguin, 2006)
- Simon Dickie, Joseph Andrews and the Great Laughter Debate,
from Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture Volume 34 (JHU Press, 2005)
- Erastus Cornelius Benedict, A Run Through Europe, (Appleton, 1860)