William Litt was the first

ANYONE interested in the history of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling knows the name of William Litt, for in 1823 he published Wrestliana, the first book about the sport. In it he traced the history of wrestling from ancient times, looked back to 18th-Century wrestling traditions in Northern England, gave a detailed account of his contemporary wrestlers, and proposed a set of rules to regularise the sport. Even in a book on wrestling the character of the man shines through, for his egocentric style leads him to boast about his wrestling career, express opinions on all subjects and flaunt his education.

A more objective assessment of Litt and his life is published in The Cumbrian Family History Society Newsletter (No 109, Nov 2003). William and Margaret Hartley of Egremont in tracing their own family name found a link to Litt whose daughter had married Robert Hartley in 1847. Exploration of this connection has led to a detailed account of Litt's origins and achievements, and ends with a mystery about his death. He was baptised at Cleator Church in 1785 and brought up with all the advantages of a wealthy childhood for his father was "Commissioner for the Inclosure of Waste Lands in the area and he also owned coal and iron mines. His classical education was supposed to lead to Ordination in the Church of England, but his real interests lay in writing poetry for the local newspapers, horse racing and wrestling. The result was that he led a life where he did not settle to anything for long: in turn he was an agricultural labourer, collector of king's taxes, victualler of the King's Arms, Hensingham, author not only of Wrestliana, but also a novel Henry and Mary written in 1825. The money he made from his books he invested in a brewery in Whitehaven but lost 3000 in just over a year.

The Hartley family's long-held understanding was that Litt then turned to smuggling. His novel, Henry and Mary, shows detailed knowledge of smuggling and in the preface Litt claims that 'This work was more truth than fiction". A book on John Peel refers to Litt making "a great deal of money by dealing in illicit spirits". And in 1832 he hastily emigrated to Canada leaving behind his wife and seven surviving children, the youngest only months old.

In Canada he tried to make a living as a contractor in the cutting of canals, then as a writer for the press before finding a more successful role as a schoolmaster. While in Canada in 1840 he wrote long articles for the Cumberland Pacquet about his new country.

Officially he died in 1847 in Canada, but the Hartleys' research indicates that he may have returned incognito and lived in a daughter's house with his blind wife under the name of Thomas Bousfield.

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (May 4th 2011)

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