Charles Dickens and Wrestling

Charles Dickens has his two hundredth birthday on February 7th. Though we cannot claim him as an avid follower of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, he did at least give a detailed account of a wrestling competition in his magazine, "Household Words" in 1858. "Feats at the Ferry" gives an appraisal of wrestling both in London and in the North, before focusing on the final bout at the Ferry Ring, Windermere, between Thomas Longmire and "Bonny" Robson". (No relation)
Whenever you read the old wrestling reports, you cannot help make comparison between then and now. To what extent is our wrestling unchanged over the last two hundred years. The Wrestling Association proposes to hold a meeting/course/gathering in March to keep wrestling abreast of the times. Wrestling may seem a sport from time immemorial, but we have to move with the times.
Kendal Academy would have been barred from their training mats at the South Lakeland Leisure Centre if their coaches had no qualifications, so the Wrestling association put in place a Coaching qualification scheme, which involved Child Protection issues as well as the minutiae of our wrestling style. Now we have Criminal Record Bureau checks, Health and Safety matters, and insurance.

What else differs from two hundred years ago? The CWWA website breaks new ground using the internet instant access technology, but also the Cumberland News continues the weekly reporting of wrestling initiated over two centuries ago with The Carlisle Journal, The Carlisle Patriot, and The Cumberland Pacquet (1774 onwards). The Cumbrian Library system stocks over thirty local newspapers on microfilm, the oldest dating back to 1811.
Digital cameras capture the action now, but in the 1870s wrestlers, judges and the crowd were captured in photographs. Detailed line drawings of wrestling were a constant theme of the illustrated newspapers of the time. The adverts for the wrestling at Carlisle Races in 1815 had a woodcut of wrestlers in action.
Even film of wrestling is older than most people realise, for Pathe News has action sequences of the pole-vaulting and wrestling at Grasmere Sports dating from 1919.

Microphone systems have transformed the way wrestling is presented to the crowd, but even in my wrestling days, I was called into action by the Bellman, a survival of the time when a sort of Town Crier figure kept the crowd informed.

Grasmere photo 1872. Fashions change, but wrestling strips remain. George Steadman takes hold with Richard Wright

The traditional wrestling strip is a continuous link to the past. The Victorians favoured more stripy centrepieces, but our present crop of wrestling strips would not have been out of place in the 1860s. Before that you wrestled in your sark and knee britches.
Wrestling fits into the social norms of the time, but at the centre is what happens between both wrestlers "tekkin hod" and hitting the ground. William Litt in 1823 uses words such as "chips, hipe, buttock and cross-buttock" in describing the action, terms still in constant use for our wrestling. "Grandystepping", "hankering the heel" and "henching" seem to have been lost along the way, though the action they describe will still occur in modern bouts.

The wholesome and astonishing fact is that we have a vigorous and active style of wrestling in this region which has thrilled the crowds for more than two hundred years with all its basics unchanged.

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (2012)

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