For 200 years Carlisle has been a 'mother ring'.....

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.........for Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling. This year's Heavyweight Centenary Challenge was held in Rickerby Park. Before that Bitts Park and the Cumberland Show hosted major wrestling competitions. And earliest of all, the old racecourse at the Swifts was the major event of the wrestling year.

In 1809 wrestling, sponsored by the local aristocrats and gentry, was added to Carlisle Races programme to boost flagging attendances. In October 1811 on the first day of the races, 20 guineas were wrestled for on the Swifts in a roped ring, sixty yards in diameterthe wrestling was most severely contested in the presence of 10,000 people, by some of the most sinewy and active youths we ever saw enter a ring. We observed among the spectators the Marquis of Queensberry, the Earl of Lonsdale, Lord Lowtheretc.

The Carlisle wrestling was a major sporting event, and that is confirmed by a watercolour of two wrestlers painted in 1813. Two paunchy men stripped to their sark and britches grapple on what is clearly the Swifts, with the River Eden meandering behind them and a horse-race in action. To the left of the figures is the finishing post and flag; to the right in the background is Rickerby House, later to become Eden School.

The painting, however, is not recording a wrestling event, but is a political cartoon.

The painting was loaned to Tullie House as part of the Blood Sweat and Tears exhibition earlier in the year and Matthew Constantine, Keeper of Social History at the time, but now moved on to Bolton Museum, wrote a short paper about the cartoon's interpretation. The image is a fascinating piece of political commentary from a crucial period in the social history of Carlisle and Cumberland. Like many pieces of satire from the past, the exact contemporary meaning is now obscure, but some educated guesses can be made.

His educated guesses explore the political power struggle between the Tories and the Whigs, and a new factor, the wealthy middle classes who had lots of money but no vote in the old electoral system. After years of expensive and violent political rivalry between the Tories (the Lowther family) and the Whigs (the Howards of Corby Castle) a cosy arrangement was drawn up for them to share the two Carlisle seats between them. For the 1812 General Election the pact was shattered when a third candidate entered the scene, supported financially by the mill owners such as Dixon and Ferguson. The Whig candidate James Curwen had made himself politically unpopular over several years and he came to realise that he was going to lose, so he resigned leaving the independent, Sir Henry Fawcett to become an MP.

Under the wrestlers' bellies a three horse race is underway with the jockeys wearing silks of the appropriate political colours. Fawcett is in the lead, and Curwen is last. The two wrestlers who dominate the picture wear ribbons in their belts, blue for the Whigs and yellow for the Tories. Matthew Constantine suggests that the likeliest interpretation is that although an independent' MP had won the election race, in fact the age-old county power struggle between the yellows and the blues was continuing as it ever had.

The picture is unsigned, but from the style it may possibly be by William Brown, a local artist who painted other scenes loaded with local references.

Two international wrestling events are on offer to our wrestlers next year. We have been invited to send a team to the Breton Backhold Championships which take place on Saturday 24th of February in the town of Carhaix. The organisers are willing to subsidise transport if we take twelve male, six female wrestlers and two referees.

The European Senior Championships of the IFCW will be held in Leon, Northern Spain April 19th to 23rd

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (December 21st 2006 )

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