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

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

miles & james Dixon of grasmere

 

MILES AND JAMES DIXON OF GRASMERE .

WHEN MILES and JAMES DIXON, whose doings in the ring we are about to chronicle in a brief memoir, were to the fore, wrestling was a great institution in the Lake District. Patronized and encouraged by Professor Wilson himself a host in upholding the manly pastime ; and afterwards by Captain Aufrere of Bowness, a distinguished and liberal patron; and assisted by many of the resident gentry, it attained deserved eminence in the northern parts of Windermere. In reaching this eminence, the sport was greatly indebted to the active exertions and judicious management of the late Thomas Cloudesdale of the Ferry hotel. Why the once popular pastime should be almost entirely snuffed out round Windermere, is a matter of surmise. The principal reason assigned weighs heavy on the wrestlers themselves : it is no less than glaring collusion, engendered by unprincipled betting men.

For a long time, wrestling in the immediate vicinity of lake Windermere, and the adjacent parts of Westmorland, and North Lancashire , was kept up and followed more after the amateur fashion than the professional. It was looked on more as a thing to be enjoyed for the real love of the science, than as a means of filling the coffers of speculators. In what may be called its holiday aspect, the sport contrasted favourably with the art as practised in the sister county of Cumberland . The Windermere wrestlers, in thus shaping their courses, probably escaped many snares which those fell into who courted more publicity, and were envious of achieving greater fame. In fact, there were many good scientific men at the palmy period of the lake wrestling rings, who abstained from attending public gatherings almost entirely, and yet were quite as good as those who may be termed professionals.

One instance we can select from many, will suffice to prove this. Jonathan Rodgers won the championship of many local meetings in his own immediate neighbourhood. He was born and brought up at Brotherelkeld, the highest farm in the vale of Eskdale. In his infancy, it was a lonely farm, seldom visited by strangers, but now well known to tourists crossing Hardknot. His forefathers had held the fell farm a very- extensive one, carrying between two and three thousand sheep for generations. He once got as far as the Flan, and won easily in a strong ring, finally disposing of Joseph Parker of Crooklands, a really good man, supposed to be the coming champion of Westmorland. At another time, climbing Hardknot and Wrynose, he put in an appearance at Skelwith-bridge, near Ambleside, where Mr. Branker of Clappersgate, and a few gentlemen, had got up a meeting. Singularly enough, he came against four of the best men in the north, and threw the lot, namely William Bacon and Jemmy Little, both of Sebergham, Thomas Grisedale of Patterdale, and finally Richard Chap- man of Patterdale. Having every requisite, he might have gone on winning but gave up ; and is now the respected and prosperous tenant farmer of Brotherelkeld.

Towards the close of the eighteenth and the commencement of the nineteenth century, the most distinguished exponents of wrestling in the Windermere portion of the lake district, were John Barrow, the Dixons of Grasmere, the Longs of Ambleside, William Wilson of Ambleside, the Flemings of Grasmere, well to do farmers and "Young Green." We should have felt an interest in giving more lengthy sketches of the more prominent men, but, unfortunately, there exists a great paucity of information. Every exertion has been made to gather together whatever was available ; but the gleanings are exceedingly imperfect and fragmentary. Local newspapers did not then collect much local intelligence ; and although they kept a keen eye to business as regards wrestling advertisements, they scarcely ever mentioned even the names of any prize winners.

The celebrated Windermere champion, John Barrow, flourished in the wrestling ring in the early part of the present century. The author of Wrestliana one whose judgment may be relied on pays him a deserved compliment, when he rates him as "the most renowned wrestler of this period," and "a match for any man in the kingdom." He stood fully six feet, and weighed fourteen stones. His favourite chip was the inside stroke indeed, it was generally considered he invented the inside chip, and that "Belted Will" got it from Barrow. Most assuredly, the pair have grassed scores with it, and were quite as clever as Adam Dodd of Langwathby, with the outside stroke. These two men, and Abraham Brown, (afterwards the jovial curate of Egremont,) were all about the same height and weight: equally scientific; and all veritable "cocks of the north."

Litt is astray with some particulars of John Barrow's tragic fate. He makes it out he was drowned in shallow water, and that he was an "excellent swimmer." Now, the fact is, he was no swimmer, and where the boat upset and went down, the lake is of considerable depth. He was out trying the sailing qualities of a new boat of his own building. The mainsail being injudiciously fastened to the belaying pin, a violent gust of wind struck the boat ; it upset, and the strong man went down, unable to wrestle with his remorseless foe. Two plucky girls at Belle Grange, saw the accident; got a row boat, and set off to the rescue. They were successful in saving all in the boat, except the unfortunate builder. One of the persons in the boat when it upset, was John Balmer, and he lived to the patriarchal age of one hundred and one years.

After the boat went over, he managed to grasp and keep hold of a floating plank, and was safely landed near Gill-head, a little below Storrs Hall. The first words he spoke after the disaster were, " Them 'at's born to be hang't, is suer nit to be droon't !" This proverbial saying came to be linked with his name, and is still quoted in the neighbourhood as , "aid Jack Balmer' sayin'. " His portrait, painted by Sammy Crosthwaite, a short time before his death, is still preserved.

The sunken boat still remains at the bottom, and is well known to the Windermere fishermen, who reckon to clear the wreck with about twenty-five fathoms of netting out, and generally catch when they let go an additional fathom or two. Professor Wilson saw the catastrophe and the rescue. This distinguished man had had, no doubt, many boating excursions with poor Barrow, and being himself a capital wrestler, and keen of the sport, it is likely he would have many a tussle with the Windermere champion. It is said that on one of his excursions out of Wasdale, to the top of Scawfell, with Will Ritson, the cheery, popular, yarn- spinning landlord of the well-known Wasdale-head hostelry, that on arriving near the summit of the hill which is the highest ground in England the two, surrounded on all sides by mighty mountains, had several keenly contested wrestling bouts. The writer remembers well the famed Professor, when time had wrought a change in the manly form, visiting the Flan in its palmy days, and receiving respectful attention from all parties on the crowded grandstand.

After this short digression, recording the fate of " a great wrestler and a good man," we must return to …………………..

MILES DIXON

He was born in the year 1781, at either "Far" or "Near Sawrey." They form two villages, but are so little apart that they may both be classed as "Sawrey;" and are situated half-way between Hawkshead and the Ferry on Windermere. No more beautifully located, clean, bright looking, secluded villages are to be found in all the Lake district . The most prominent and interesting view from "Near Sawrey," is Esthwaite lake; and all around to the south, south-west, and north-west, there appears a wide extent of richly wooded undulating country. From "Far Sawrey," there is a view of the lower reaches of Windermere, and a vast panorama of undulating hill and vale.

Miles's father followed the primitive occupation of a wood-cutter, felling timber trees and young trees of fifteen or sixteen years growth, called coppice wood, used for making hoops and charcoal. While his sons were "lile lads," he removed across Windermere to the vale of Troutbeck, and then in a short time migrated to Grasmere , where he settled.

Miles Dixon's full stature was six feet three inches; and his general wrestling weight, fifteen- and-a-half stones. His favourite move in the ring was to lift his opponent from the ground one way, then throw him quickly back the other and dispose of him, so to speak, with a twist. His herculean powers enabled him to do this effectually. He had other tactics on which to fall back, but occasions very rarely occurred when these had to be called into action. His quiet habits, and mild enthusiasm for wrestling, often made him careless. Had he possessed a greater amount of ambition, and followed the wrestling ring more closely, we should undoubtedly have had to record a much more numerous list of achievements. Professor Wilson hits off some of his leading characteristics very happily when he says : "Honest and worthy Miles, if put into good heart and stomach, and upon his own dunghill, was, in our humble opinion, a match for any cock in Cumberland "

Young Dixon won his first belt at Grasmere , when only about sixteen years old. John Fletcher, the village carrier, a powerful sixteen-stone man, wrestled second. It so happened the carrier was very ambitious of winning first honours, and feeling sorely disappointed at being thus checkmated by a beardless boy, tore the waistcoat off his opponent's back, in a passion, and for a long time bore the victor a grudge.

During one of the militia meetings at Kendal, a good deal of "braggin"' took place respecting the wrestling abilities of one Harrison, a man who stood six feet high, and weighed fully fifteen stones. Miles Dixon was pressed to take Harrison 's challenge up, but gave his friends no encouragement that he would do so, and seemed to be very careless and indifferent about the matter. Ned Wilson and William Mackereth at length backed Dixon , the best of three falls, for a guinea, being all the money they could muster between them. Harrison in the match lost the two first falls easily, and was so chagrined at the defeat, that he absented himself from drill for several days.

At the Windermere gathering, held at Waterhead, near Ambleside, in 1810, there was a considerable amount of rivalry displayed as to whether the belt should stay in Westmorland, or go to Cumberland . John Wilson, the young squire of Elleray, then fresh from Oxford , was the principal getter up of the sports. He was all enthusiasm, and heartily backed Westmorland. In Miles Dixon's absence the previous year, Tom Nicholson had carried off the first prize. He now returned again, to do all that lay in his power to be the winner a second time, bringing with him his brother John, and Joseph Slack from Blencow. William Litt came over Hard- knot and Wrynose, from West Cumberland , riding on a good horse, and wearing a pair of high top boots. He called at Skelwith-bridge for refreshment and stayed there all night, previous to the meeting.

Getting a little "fresh" at the snug hostelry, as the hours went on, he began to be communicative about the morrow's proceedings, and laid down the law with great precision. According to his theory, Tom Nicholson would be first, and "yan Litt" second : of this there could be no doubt whatever. " Nay, nay ," said mine host, not then knowing who the traveller was, "Nay, nay, I think nit! Theear' some Dixons o' Gersmer' meast sowan good 'ans 'ill be to fell first !" An old miller "com' ower t' Raise," in the rear of the Cumberland men, on purpose to bet, and rifle the pockets of the Westmorland lads. Tom King, owner of The Hollins, in Grasmere, annoyed at the never ceasing din made by the miller, said to Dixon : " Miley, if thoo's gaen to du' thy best, noo, I'll away an' tak' yon aid fule up." He forthwith went and bet guinea after guinea, until the miller began to think it prudent to venture no further.

Early on, Miles threw a Yorkshire waller, named Harrison, a heavy man, and a good wrestler. He was afterwards called out against William Litt, with whom he had a hard tug. The excitement was extreme. Curiously enough, the two men started with the same tactics. "Te'an triet to lift, an' tudder triet to lift," and both being heavy men, the exertion became very irksome work. The result was that Litt was thrown "lang streak't" on his back, amid deafening cheers. Like many men who are losers, Litt complained in Wrestliana of "unfair play," and brings half-a-dozen excuses forward as the reasons why he lost the fall. In the case of Miles Dixon and Litt having had another fall, Professor Wilson says: "Whether Mr. Litt could or could not have thrown Miles, can never be positively known in this world." The final fall, between Dixon and Tom Nicholson, was not of long duration. No sooner were they in holds, than the former lifted his opponent clearly from the ground, and disposed of him easily with a twist. The belt was then handed to Miles Dixon, by Mr. Wilson, who complimented him warmly on the victory he had gained. The future Professor of Moral Philosophy took the belt to Edinburgh with him. After the lapse of a couple of years, it was returned to the winner, with the following inscription engraved on a silver plate : "Won by Miles Dixon, at a Grand Wrestling Match, between the Westmorland, Lancashire , and Cumberland Lads, 1810." The belt is still in the possession of the family at Grasmere . It is made of leather, about two inches broad, and mounted with silver buckle and inscription plate.

In 1811, Dixon did not wrestle at Ambleside.

In 1812, when thirty -one years old, he put in an appearance again, and virtually carried off the first prize. Litt says, "Miles Dixon and a butcher in Ambleside were the two last slanders. They agreed to wrestle two or three falls for the gratification of the gentlemen who had subscribed towards the wrestling, and in this friendly trial Miles Dixon was victorious."

Miles died in June, 1843, aged sixty-two years. A headstone in Grasmere churchyard bears the following testimony to his worth :

"The uniform integrity of his conduct, has induced one who appreciated his worth, to erect this memorial."

His widow a thrifty, sensible, managing housewife died in 1875, aged ninety one years. Wrestling meetings, and similar gatherings, she treated with marked contempt. A frequent saying of hers, about her husband as a wrestler, was : "Ivery shillin' he wan, cost us two !" She used to compare those who took part in such exercises to "a lot of potters an' tinklers, 'at dud nowte but nip an' squeeze yan anudder to deekth ! "

 

JAMES DIXON

……….. brother to Miles, was born at the before-mentioned village of Sawrey . He died at Beck Houses, Grasmere , in 1866, aged seventy- eight years. In height, he stood six feet three inches, and his general wrestling weight was fourteen stones. His favourite chip in the ring was an outside stroke. When young, he wrestled at a gathering of militia at Kendal, and won. In 1809, at the Ambleside meeting, he came against Tom Nicholson of Threlkeld, in one of the latter rounds. According to the most reliable information we have been able to gather, the latter lost fairly enough, but owing to some oversight on the part of the umpires, they decided it must be a wrestle over, to which course of procedure Dixon naturally objected.

In 1811, he won the head prize at the Ferry Inn wrestling, Windermere. Richard Luther Watson, of Calgarth, a son of the Bishop of Llandaff, officiated as steward. In addition to the wrestling, which commenced early in the afternoon, there was a regatta on the lake, and prizes were given also for leaping and running. The belt won at the Ferry is still kept, in a good state of preservation, at Grasmere . It is made of leather, about four feet six inches in length, by two inches in breadth, with a silver buckle, and inscription plate:

" Presented by the Steward of the Windermere Regatta, to the conqueror at the Grand Wrestling Match, on the iyth July, 1811."

At one of the Windermere gatherings, with Miles and James Dixon both thrown, a general buzz ran round the ring that Roan Long was sure to be the final victor. Just at the moment when this opinion was prevalent, George Dixon, an elder brother, very bow-legged, stepped into the ring, exclaiming, "Tak' time, lads ; tak' time ! Aw t' Dixons errant doon yet ! " Coming as a counter-blast to the prevailing opinion, this saying created much merriment among the spectators. Surely enough, the current of the tide which had set so strongly against the Dixons, was turned, for Roan was cleverly thrown. George was a stiff stander, difficult to get at, and often very bad to move.

Besides prizes incidentally mentioned in this narrative, the three brothers won many others, records of which, it is to be feared, have passed away with the contemporary generation who witnessed and took part in them.

The Dixons were wallers by profession, and many of the bridges in the immediate vicinity of the lake country were built by them. One notable fact relating to their bridge-building is worth mentioning. About the year 1828, Muncaster bridge, over the river Esk, near Ravenglass, was built by some one whose name has not been recorded. The bridge had a considerable span, and a high tide, and a furious mountain torrent pouring down out of Eskdale, washed it away. Another man then undertook the rebuilding of it, but failed to carry out the details, and finally gave up in despair. Lord Muncaster being disgusted with the unsuccessful attempts, and hearing of the celebrity of the Dixons, sent to Grasmere for them. The three brothers set about the work in good earnest, and in the month of June, 1829, the keystone of the bridge was fixed, with considerable ceremony. A handsome sum of money was collected, for a day's festivity and sports, and the Dixons gave twa barrels of ale. The prize for wrestling fell to one William Dickinson of Langley Park, a farm on the Bootle side of the bridge. The foot-race and leaping were both carried off by a young man from Eskdale, named William Vickers.

Lord Muncaster was so well pleased with the skill and persevering industry displayed by the builders, that he caused the following inscription which remains to this day to be placed on the east side of the bridge :

MDCCCXXIX.

THIS BRIDGE BUILT BY MEN FROM GRASMERE .

Commercially speaking, Muncaster bridge was an advantageous affair for the Dixons. The successful accomplishment of the work spread their fame as builders far and wide, and assisted materially towards establishing them nicely in the world. Miles and James became purchasers of estates, through industrious and economic habits.

We have heard it stated that Lady Richardson of Lancrigg the wife of the arctic explorer once contemplated writing an account of Miles and James Dixon (who, by the way, are both mentioned in the interesting memoir of her mother, MRS. FLETCHER). How she intended treating the subject-matter of their lives, we cannot tell; probably more in their domestic relations to the people of Grasmere vale, than as athletes in the wrestling ring.

After John Barrow and the Dixons, it is somewhat singular and remarkable to note the large number of first-rate lake-side wrestlers that came out ; and it may not be amiss to bestow a passing notice on the foremost. Before the Dixons had retired, the two Longs Rowland, commonly called Roan, and John the one a giant in size and strength, and the other a big burly man figured in the ring; then most renowned in the galaxy William Wilson of Ambleside. He appeared all over the beau ideal of a heavy weight wrestler; "lish as a cat," straight as a wand, good shoulders, and long arms. When about his best, there had never before been seen such a consummate master of the hype ; and no one since can claim to be his equal. His action was so quick and irresistible, that his opponents went down as if completely helpless. In 1822, William Richardson of Caldbeck, a most successful hyper, had not "the shadow of a chance" with Wilson ; he also struck down the gigantic Mc.Laughlin of Dovenby, in such a style as "no other man in the kingdom could have done." In appearance he resembled William Jackson of Kinneyside, with the same gentlemanly conduct in the ring, and the same good tempered bearing to his opponents. Unfortunately, this bright particular star became subject to a wasting disease when hardly at his best, and was soon lost to the wrestling world, and a large circle of admiring friends.

Then followed Tom Robinson, the schoolmaster, Richard Chapman, George Donaldson, Joseph Ewbank, a Haweswater lake sider; William Jackson, an Ennerdale lake sider; and Thomas Longmire men whose names and deeds will be cherished as long as "wruslin"' is a household word in the north. These have all gone hence, or are " in the downhill of life." At present there is not one man of note on the immediate borders of Windermere, Ullswater, or Derwentwater.