'A collection of BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES OF CELEBRATED ATHLETES OF THE NORTHERN RING'

taken from 'NORTH COUNTRY SPORTS AND PASTIMES' published in 1893

Cumberland and Westmorland Style Wrestling

 

Wrestlers of Cumberland ,
Good fellows all;
Wrestlers of Westmorland,
Stout kids and tall:
Ye who are thrown to-day,
Rise more alert and gay,
Next year make the play,
Good fellows all.

(King Arthur's Round Table Ballad, 1824)

WRESTLING, as a matter of course, occupies a prominent position in our review of Northern Pastimes, more especially from the commencement to the end of the time to which our notices extend. Some of the other sports are now remembered only as illustrating the habits of a byegone period. In this last are to be classed Bull-baiting and Cock-fighting : condemned now as cruel and torturing by all classes, but deserving of record from their encouragement and popularity in times past. Others of a less objectionable type are extinct as well. That almost all were looked upon with disfavour by a considerable portion of the community, in the old Puritan times of Cromwell, the following curious extract will abundantly testify.

( It is quoted from THE AGREEMENT OF THE ASSOCIATED MINISTERS AND CHURCHES OF THE COUNTIES OF CUMBERLAND AND WESTMERLAND. London : Printed by T. L. for Simon Waterson, and are sold at the sign of the Globe in Paul's Churchyard, and by Richard Scot, Bookseller in Carlisle , 1656.)

"All scandalous persons hereafter mentioned are to be suspended from the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper : this is to say any person that shall upon the Lord's Day use any dancing, playing at dice, or cards, or any other game, masking, wakes, shooting, playing, playing at football, stool ball, Wrestling; or that shall make resort to any Playes, interludes, fencing, bull baiting, bear baiting ; or that shall use hawking, hunting, or coursing, fishing or fowling ; or that shall publikely expose any wares to sale otherwise than is provided by an Ordinance of Parliament of the sixth of April, 1649 These Counties of Cumberland and Westmerland have been hitherto as a Proverb and a by-word in respect of ignorance and prophaneness; Men were ready to say of them as the Jews of Nazareth, Can any good thing come out of them?"

This intolerant anathema did not put a stop to the practice of Wrestling, on fine summer evenings, at nearly all the villages of Cumberland and Westmorland a practice, we opine, less detrimental to the formation of a good rural peasantry than loitering about or brawling in village ale-houses. It was, however, upwards of a century and a half after, before back-hold wrestling assumed the importance it has attained. A passing notice of doings in the ring, in a long ago period, may nevertheless be interesting.

In King Edward the Sixth's time, somewhere between 1547 and 1553, a gigantic youth of great strength and in wrestling practice, resided at Troutbeck, near Windermere. His name was Gilpin, or Herd. His mother was driven away from Furness with child generally asserted in the neighbourhood to one of the monks of Furness Abbey. The mother afterwards led a tramping and begging sort of life, and drew to a house in Troutbeck belonging to the Crown. The house and some adjoining land were conferred by the king on a retainer, who on attempting to take possession, met with determined opposition from the desperate woman, and her wild son Gilpin, or, as he was familiarly called, the "Cork Lad of Kentmere." This led to the "Lad" then about twenty years old being summoned to London . He set off on foot, in a home-spun dress, and after many strange adventures and shifty expedients, reached the end of his long journey.

Soon after arriving, the king held a meeting for athletic contests. The wild-looking northerner was present, and ascended the stage to contend with the champion wrestler. He easily won the first fall. In the second, he threw the champion clear off the stage. After astonishing the spectators by several other muscular performances, the king sent for him, and enquired who and what he was, and where he came from. He told the king he did not know his own name, but "folk commonly co' me the Cork Lad o' Kentmere!" The king desiring to know the sort of food he lived on at home, received this quaint reply, "Thick porridge an' milk that a mouse might walk on dry shod, to my breakfast ; an' the sunny side of a wedder to my dinner, when I can get it." Being acknowledged champion, the king wished to confer some reward as a distinction, and asked him to state what he wished. He begged to have the house he lived in at Troutbeck, and land adjacent to get peat off, and wood from Troutbeck Park for fire. These were soon made over to him. He did not enjoy the generous gift for any lengthened period ; for at the age of forty-two, he got so injured in attempting to pull up a tree by the roots, that he died from the effects. Leaving no children or will, the estate reverted to the Crown, and King Charles the First granted it to Huddleston Philipson of Calgarth.

It appears that Kentmere Hall in Kentmere a secluded pastoral dale, some dozen miles north of Kendal, and running in another dozen miles up to the steep sides of Hill Bell, Nan Beild, and High Street was built at the time the " Cork Lad " was in the valley. During the building, he performed a surprising feat of strength, by placing, without any assistance, a huge beam on the walls. On a Mr. Birkett being applied to by James Clarke, the author of the "Survey of the Lakes," for particulars respecting the well nigh incredible feat, he replied in the following sensible letter :

" I have taken dimensions of the beam at Kent- mere Hall, which is thirty feet in length and thirteen inches by twelve-and-a-half in thickness. There is no inscription on it, as you mentioned. I shall inform you what has been given by tradition, (and I had it from a man that was one hundred and four years old when he died). When the Hall was building, and the workmen gone to dinner, this man, whose name was Herd, happened to be there, and while they were at dinner, laid it up himself. At that time the Scots made frequent incursions into England . He with his bow and arrows killed many of them in coming off the mountains, at a place which still retains the name of ' Scot's Rake,' which is about a mile from where he lived."

In the days of brave Queen Bess, lived Richard Mulcaster, whose father represented the city of Carlisle in Parliament. "By ancient parentage and lininal discent," Mulcaster was "an esquier borne; by the most famous Queen Elizabeth's prerogative gift," parson of Stanford Rivers church, in Essex . Being an earnest student, he became not only proficient in the Greek and Oriental languages, but also an expert archer, and thought it not unbecoming to his cloth to shoot by times, at " the targets for glory at Mile End Green." This good old clergy- man loved athletic exercises so well, that among other learned treatises, he issued one in 1581 entitled "Positions; wherein those Primitive Circumstances be examined, which are necessarie for the training up of Children, either for Skill in their Booke, or Healthe in their Bodie," which was dedicated to his patron, Queen Elizabeth. In this quaint old quarto volume, the author discourses on the ancient art of "wrastling" as becometh one reared on Cumbrian soil.

"Clemens Alexandrinus," says he, "which lived at Rome in Galenus' time, in the third book of his ' Pedagogue or Training Maister,' in the title of exercise, rejecting most kinds of wrastling, yet reserveth one as well beseemeing a civill trained man, whom both seemeliness for grace and profitableness for goode healthe do seeme to recommende. Then an exercise it is, and healthfully it may be used ; if discretion overlook it, our countrey will allow it. Let us, therefore, use it as Clemens of Alexandria commendes it for, and make choice in our market. Wherefore not to deale with the catching pancratical kind of wrastling which used all kindes of hould to cast and overcome his adversarie, nor any other of that sorte which continuance hath rejected and custome hath refused, I have picked out two which be both civill for use, and in the using upright, without any great stouping. It is a friend to the head, bettereth the bulke, and strengthened the sinews. Thus much for wrastling, wherein, as in all other exercises, the training maister must be both cunning to judge of the thing, and himself present to prevente harme when the exercise is in hand."

Leaving this loyal old parson to demonstrate still further his "Positions" to the boys of the Merchant Tailors' and St. Paul's, of both of which schools he was head master, we come across another worthy, Robert Dodd, commonly called "Miller Robin," who lived some years at Brough in Westmorland. He was possessed of such bodily strength as to be able to take a bushel of wheat, (a Carlisle bushel of ninety-six quarts,) between his teeth, and toss it over his shoulder. He would also lie down, and with six bushels of wheat placed on his back, weighing something like nine hundred and fifty pounds, rise up with apparently little exertion. He was also an expert wrestler, and very few who knew the man would contend with him for the annual prize belts. The following Epitaph on a Wrestler, from Miscellaneous Poems, by Ewan Clark of Standing Stone, near Wigton, 1779, is applicable to " Miller Robin."

Here lies the man beneath this stone
Who often threw, but ne'er was thrown :
Before him his antagonists fell,
As many a broken bone can tell ;
Death cry'd, "I'll try this man of strength !"
And laid him here at his full length.

Soon after Robin had succumbed, there came out a Herculean wrestler, named John Woodall, a small statesman, and a native of Gosforth in West Cumberland . At Egremont sports, he came against one Carr, a shoemaker. Carr gained the fall, and at the King's Arms in the evening, began charring Woodall, who in a fit of momentary excitement, caught hold of his antagonist, and held him up to the ceiling of the room ; and, by the waistband of his breeches, hung him dangling and struggling to a strong crook. We have alluded elsewhere to a wonderful feat of bodily strength, by Robert Atkinson, the Sleagill giant, in carrying a conveyance called a "carr" out of a dyke-back, on to the turnpike road, near Kendal. This unlucky vehicle had defied the efforts of three or four persons to drag it out, by tugging at the shafts and wheels. Very big men, since Atkinson's time, have somehow ceased to be wrestlers.

Two stalwart Cumbrians will, however, be brought under the notice of our readers in the following description of Ancient Sports upon Stone Carr, near Greystoke. This particular, and, at the time, highly popular meeting, is introduced to show the description of sports that prevailed in numerous villages throughout the two Northern Counties at the latter part of last and the beginning of the present century. No doubt, the reader will be struck with the wide difference in the value of the prizes, as compared with those given in the present day, when the two Pooleys would get over forty pounds in money and cups, at the Burgh Barony Races of 1877. Stone Carr Sports had been held for many years previous to 1787, and a similar list of prizes given annually to these enumerated; and they seemed to give entire satisfaction to the crowds who assembled from Penrith, Keswick, and all the neighbouring villages.

For the Horses - 1st, a Bridle, value i 6s.
Do. do. - 2nd, a pair of Spurs o 6s.
For the Wrestlers - - - - A Leathern Belt
For the Leapers A pair of Gloves
For the Foot Racers - - - A Handkerchief For the Dog Coursers A Pewter Quart Pot

Many other small prizes were given, and they brought out a strong determined spirit of contention amongst the competitors. The one who had finally after many sturdy contests the belt placed over his shoulders, was regarded as quite a distinguished individual. If there were a dance in the evening, it of course made him a personage of no small account. Old and young regarded wrestling science, wrestling distinction and strength, with keen relish. The Sunday following victory, the champion might be seen marching to church, decorated with the belt, and on the Sunday following showing off at another neighbouring church. And this was not the only distinction : the lasses, one and all, looked on him favourably. He had no difficulty in getting a sweetheart, and matrimonial engagements frequently followed the prize winning ; for amongst rustics, as well as in the higher classes, distinction is invariably looked on as a pretty good passport to a lady's favour. Sometimes disputes would arise for northern blood at sports and fairs is soon up and then probably a punishing fight ensues. This, however, rarely happens. When it does take place, it is a fair stand up fisty-cuff fight. A very severe contest occurred at the Stone Carr meeting, which from the amazing stature and strength of the combatants, is deserving of record. Mr. Andrew Huddleston an enthusiastic admirer of rustic sports threw up the belt as a competitor. The country people for miles round about his own neighbourhood gave him the sobriquet of " Girt Andrew," from his giant-like stature and great strength. He came against one Thomas Harrison of Blencow, another Titanic specimen of humanity.

Probably no two of like Herculean proportions ever stood together to take hold. "Girt Andrew" got grassed with a tremendous thud, and directly offered to fight his opponent. Harrison , no ways backward, accepted the challenge, and both prepared for a set-to. An unexpected interference occurred. A Presbyterian preacher, then stationed at Penruddock, persuaded them to desist, and apparently seemed to have got the burly combatants to depart home peaceably without a resort to blows. The feud, however, proved to be glossed over, and not healed, for even after jointly partaking of a friendly glass, Mr. Huddleston again threw down the gauntlet, and again it was taken up. The fight was obstinate and terrific, both receiving fearful punishment. In the end Harrison triumphed. In after years they continued good neighbours, without any manifestation of ill feeling. Thomas Harrison had a brother named Launcelot, residing at Penruddock, who followed the occupation of a blacksmith. This man also possessed amazing strength, and was of gigantic stature. When dead, his remains were taken to Greystoke, and buried there. Some years after, the grave digger, in making another grave, dug into Launcelot's. He took out the jaw bone, and it proved to be half as big again as the sexton's, who was a stout six feet man. Another Penruddock champion died in 1791, at the age of four score and six years, who was styled at that date, "the last of the northern giants." This was Matthias Nicholson, who, through a lengthened period, stood unrivalled at all the wrestlings and other athletic exercises and manly sports, which took place in the neighbourhood. His height was six feet two inches, and his bulk in proportion. The top of High Street, a mountain near Haweswater, in Westmorland, seems a strange situation for holding Wrestlings, Jumpings, Horse Races, and other sports. This mountain is 2,700 feet above the level of the sea a breezy elevation, forsooth, for such pastimes. Nevertheless, they were held annually on the loth of July for many years, and long continued to be a flourishing institution. The primary object of the gathering was this : On the heaves or pastures of mountain sheep farms, stray sheep are kept and cared for. The shepherds, on the day appointed, drive them to the place of meeting, and give them up to the rightful owners, who identify them by certain marks. After this important business has been gone through, a dinner is set out, and washed down with libations of ale or spirits, and, by the time keen appetites are satisfied, numerous additions have increased the assemblage, and then commence the wrestling, &c. It forcibly illustrates the deep hold these pastimes have in the minds of the rural population, when they are indulged in at such meetings and in such situations. From information which has been gathered from an aged native of Kentmere, it appears that the High Street gatherings fell into neglect, and were discontinued about sixty years since. They have been supplemented by similar ones minus the races and wrestlings held annually in November at the little road side hostelry on Kirkstone, and at the " Dun Bull " in Mardale, where sports and wrestlings are held annually on Whit-Monday. Mardale is at other times a lonely, little frequented dale, at the head of Haweswater. On one occasion the landlady of the " Dun Bull," on being remonstrated with for supplying sour porter in June, excused herself by saying : "Why, that's varra queer ! It was freysh enuff last grouse time ! " Other places situate advantageously for holding them have now their shepherd's gatherings. At the High Street meetings a fox hunt was mostly an important part of the day's proceedings. The following fearful incident happened during a hot chase. Blea Water Cragg is doubtless well known to many summer tourists. It has a sheer fall of about three hundred yards, and the rock in many places appears to jut out even with the bottom. A man named Dixon , from Kentmere, was following a hard run fox, when he slipped and fell from the top of the rocks to the bottom. He was carried home, with no broken bones, but bruised and battered in a shocking manner ; nearly all the skin and hair of his head cut off by the sharp-edged rocks scalped, in fact. In falling, he struck against the rocks many times, and yet, strange to say, by his own account, he did not feel the shocks from first falling over to finally landing at the bottom of the perilous descent.' Dizzy, stunned, and unable to stand, he had the chase uppermost in his mind, shouting as well as he was able to the first that got to him : "Lads ! lads ! t' fox is gane oot at t' hee end ! Lig t' dogs on, an' I'll cum seun ! " Insensibility soon followed this exhortation, and he was carried home, but recovered ultimately. The rocks have since been known by the name of "Dixon 's three jumps." Wrestling on High Street seems strange, but stranger still is wrestling on the frozen surface of Windermere lake. The one we have to record happened in 1785, during an excessively severe frost. When the ice had attained great thickness, a project was started for roasting a large ox on it. All preparations being made, " Rawlinson's Nab " was fixed upon as the locality for carrying on operations. The eventful day arrived without any break in the frost, and a vast concourse from all parts of the surrounding country assembled to enjoy the unusual sight. Creature comforts, in the shape of eatables and lots of beer, were not wanting.The enlivening strains of a band of music from Kendal, too, gave animation to the scene. The wrestling was in clogs, such as country people at that time generally wore. These primitive coverings for the feet, though well adapted for sliding on the ice, were clumsy to wrestle in ; nevertheless, the falls were eagerly contested, and delighted the throng of specators. The final victor received a belt. From the interesting autobiography of Thomas Bewick, the celebrated wood engraver, who visited an uncle at Ainstable about the year 1776, we learn the following particulars respecting the feats of one of his cousins in the wrestling ring :

 

" I remained at Ainstable about a week, during which time I rambled about the neighbourhood, visited my friends at Kirkoswald and elsewhere, and spent what time I could spare in fishing for trout in the Croglin. I began to think of moving abroad; and my cousin having occasion to go to Carlisle , I went with him there, where we parted. At Langholm, my landlord who was a Cumberland man and knew my relatives there, was very kind to me ; and among other matters concerning them, told me that my cousin who had accompanied me to Carlisle had won nine belts in his wrestling matches in that county."

We next come to a curious, remarkable, and noteworthy old custom at which, towards the latter end of the eighteenth century, and the early part of the nineteenth, wrestlings, and a variety of other sports, were much patronised. The celebration of BRIDEWAINS or BIDDEN WEDDINGS were extremely popular in Cumberland . All the people of the country side were invited. For the amusement of the spectators assembled, prizes were given for sports of various kinds, as will be found described in the graphic dialect poem of John Stagg, the blind bard.

Some for a par o' mittens loup't,
Some wrust'd for a belt ;
Some play'd at pennice-steans for brass ;
And some amaist gat fell't.
Hitch-step-an'-loup some tried for spwort,
Wi' mony a sair exertion ;
Others for bits o' 'bacca gurn'd,
An' sec like daft devarshon
Put owre that day.

If any reader wishes for a full description of the various incidents and details connected with this old wedding custom, he is recommended to consult 'Stagg's poem of The Bridewain', from which the preceding lines are quoted. The people of the district were generally invited to these weddings by public advertisement, speci- mens of which still exist in the files of one or two of the earliest local newspapers. The following is given as a curiosity in its way from the Cumberland Pacquet.