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

william dickinson of alston


ALSTON, the capital of a lead-mining district of East Cumberland, stands very conspicuously perched on the side of a hill, overlooking the river Tyne, which flows eastward through a narrow valley below, on its course to the populous towns of Hexham, Newcastle, and Shields, and is then lost in the German Ocean. The miniature town of Alston has a market cross of the quaintest order, and a main street so "brant" and twisting, that strangers watch with amazement the ascent and descent of any kind 'of conveyance or vehicle, which may chance to be stirring. As a people, the Alstonians are thoughtful, studious, and intelligent. There are few places in Britain where a healthful class of literature, and general knowledge, are sought after with greater avidity, than by the mining population of the town and neighbourhood.

At one time the district was fruitful in producing good wrestlers. Thomas Lee, the publican, Jemmy Fawcett of Nenthead, powerful John Horsley, Tom and Frank Golightly, William Dickinson, Tom Todd of Knarsdale, and other stars of lesser magnitude, rose and set in succession. At a period after those enumerated, the neighbouring valley of Weardale was equally celebrated in the production of a whole host of good wrestlers. Among them may be noted, John Milburn, Tom Robson, James Pattinson, John Emmerson, Joseph Allison, and many others. And we can bear testimony to their general conduct in the ring as being eminently praiseworthy.

WILLIAM DICKINSON was born at Spency-croft, near Alston, about the year 1792, and brought up in Alston town. He followed the trade or occupation of a lead miner. In height, he stood five feet ten-and-a-half inches, and weighed fully thirteen stones. In appearance, there was every indication of a stout compact built man, well made from top to toe, with nothing cumbersome about him. He had fine expansive shoulders, good loins, and was rather light built about the limbs. He usually appeared in the ring, dressed in a pair of Cashmere trousers, light coloured stockings, and high tied shoes. Though a great enthusiast at wrestling, Dickinson was generally considered to be indifferent about other recreations, and was rather easy about following his daily occupation very closely. Some of the more pugnacious Alstonians tried various means to get him enlisted among them as a fighter, but in this they were disappointed. " Dn thy snoot !" shouted a jeering comrade to him one day, "thoo can grip a chap's back smart eneuf; but thoo darn't hit a body for thy life ! Thoo's far ower muckle shoo'der-bund for a trick like that !"

Dickinson 's career proved to be exceedingly brief, and few particulars are now remembered respecting him. While still in his teens, he excelled in his own neighbourhood as a strong athlete, and succeeded in carrying off several minor prizes. We cannot learn whether he attended the then noted gatherings at Melmerby or Langwathby. However, in October, 1812, when twenty years old, we find him figuring at a great meeting held at Penrith, where a sum of fifteen guineas, subscribed for by the Earl of Lonsdale, Squire Hasell of Dalemain, and others, was given to contend for. From the first to the third round, Dickinson threw Thomas Parker of Pallethill, John Nicholson of Threlkeld, and John Harrison of Horrock-wood, and was himself toppled over in the fourth round by some one whose name is not now known. The head prize ten guineas was won by John Parker of Sparkgate, and the second by James Lancaster of Catterlan.

In 1813 the following year Dickinson attended the Carlisle wrestlings, where he attained considerable distinction. For the head prize, he threw Thomas Graham, Robert Forster, and Frank Watson. In the fourth round, he was thrown by Samuel Jameson of Penrith. On the second day, the young Alstonian beat down all opposition, and carried off the chief prize amid great applause. He threw in quick succession, and in a masterly manner the following men, namely John Forster, John Hope, Robert Forster, Simon Armstrong, and, in the final fall, John Lowden of Keswick, a really formidable opponent.

In 1814, he attained the highest wrestling distinction, by carrying off the head prize at Carlisle . It was calculated, from the amount of money taken at the gate, that not less than 15,000 people witnessed the wrestling on the Swifts. The meeting was disgraced by one pugilistic encounter, which did take place, and by the foreshadowing of another which did not take place. It appears a match had been arranged between Carter, a Lancashire man, and one Cooper, both professional boxers. The latter, for some cause or other, did not turn up, and Carter gave an exhibition of pugilistic science, in a large room at the Blue Bell inn, in the presence of the Marquis of Queensberry and a crowd of people, drawn by curiosity to witness the performance.

The fight which did take place, was for a purse of thirty-five guineas, between two local men Tom Ridley, seaman, a native of Carlisle, commonly known as the "glutton," and Tom Nicholson of Threlkeld, wrestler. The battle was fought in a roped ring on the Swifts, used for wrestling. The severe blows dealt by the "glutton," told much in his favour, while Nicholson baffled and punished his opponent materially, by bringin him frequently to mother earth, with a heavy "soss." After the contest had lasted for half-an-hour the Threlkeld man being much punished about the head, and Ridley about the body the constables interfered and put an end to the combat.

We gladly resume our account of the wrestling. Sixty-six men entered the ring, to compete for various prizes. Dickinson came upon the Swifts in excellent trim, looking every inch a man as he stripped for the contest. Although Tom Nicholson, William Richardson, Robert Rowantree, John Earl, and James Scott, failed to put in an appearance, still a good field of dangerous hands met to contend.

In the first and second rounds, Dickinson threw John Baillie and John Routledge; and in the third had a keenly contested struggle with John Watson a well known athlete in the early annals of the Carlisle ring and succeeded in throwing him. Among others who came to grief in the third round were Tom Richardson, " the Dyer" then a stripling in his teens, and Joseph Bird of Holm Wrangle. Turning out as fresh as a lark, in the fourth round, Dickinson grassed William Ward; and in the fifth, James Routledge; the latter of whom had previously done good service by disposing of John Nicholson of Threlkeld, William Earl of Cumwhitton, and Joseph Peart. In the sixth round, the hero of the day was fortunate enough to be odd man; and then at the last faced George Dennison, (who had previously carried off William Slee of Dacre, with a clean hype.) The final fall was a singular one. "Dennison," says Litt, "threw in his left side with much force, intending to buttock his opponent; Dickinson left go, and Dennison, disappointed of his object, staggered forward a considerable distance, but could not save himself from going down on his hands, otherwise he would have won the fall, as he had preserved his hold." The head prize a belt, and eight bright guineas was then handed to Dickinson , amid much cheering, especially from the Alstonians, and some commotion from the disappointed friends and admirers of Dennison.

After tracing Dickinson 's career, until his brow was decked with the green bay of victory, in the foremost wrestling ring of the kingdom, there ensues a sudden collapse. The Carlisle ring of 1814, was probably the last one in which he figured, for afterwards we lose sight of him altogether as a wrestler. About this date he married Sarah Eals, of Alston, innkeeper, who proved a shrew. Not living happily with her, and being himself a man who loved quietude and peace of mind, more than strife and contention, he left both the neighbourhood and his shrewish partner behind him, somewhat suddenly, and went into Scotland , where he lived for some time employed as a gamekeeper. He afterwards emigrated to America ; and although doomed to be an exile from Alston and his native district, it is said he returned again to England , and died many years ago.