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

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

James Fawcett of Nenthead

 

THE following brief memoir of JAMES FAWCETT of Nenthead one of the most accomplished wrestlers on record will carry the reader back to a byegone period, when wrestling and various other amusements, which filled up the day's programme, were far more a rural following than at present ; when "Rounds" like Melmerby and Langwathby, when West Cumberland " Bridewains," when country meetings like Stone Carr, near Greystoke, produced at stated periods an exciting animation in almost all northern villages, and afforded a brief holiday to a numerous body of small "statesmen" and farmers, their sons, and servants. Such gatherings are now, however, nearly all given up are only " lang syne" remembrances, and wrestling meetings are held mostly in the large towns, and considerable sums offered to contend for. In many cases they are got up by innkeepers, who depend on "gate money" to recoup the outlay. Whether this change conduces to fair, manly, unbought wrestling, is a matter of grave doubt. Wrestlings, we are afraid, will never again be contests, like those of ancient Greece and Rome -for honour and fame. We cannot look on this change otherwise than as unfortunate for the rural population of the northern counties, who may justly asseverate.

There never was a game like the old English game,

That's played 'twixt the knee and the tee ;

You may roam the world o'er, but the game at your door

Is the very best game you will see.

We regret being unable to furnish anything like a detailed account of Jemmy Fawcett's feats in the ring, or more than a meagre outline of the general particulars of his life. But what we do know of his career is so important in wrestling annals, that we are inclined to believe it would be considered injudicious to omit all notice of such a high class athlete. Most of his achievements have become well nigh traditionary, and yet, in many respects, his memory is as green as ever it was in the northern counties, and particularly so in a wide circuit round Alston Moor.

Fawcett lived at Greengill, Nenthead, a mining village in East Cumberland , four or five miles from Alston town, where he worked at his daily occupation, in what is called a "hush," connected with the mines. His height was five feet seven inches, and his general wrestling weight from ten to ten and a half stone. His modes of attack and defence, and manner of disposing of his opponents, seem to have been innumerable ; in fact, he appears to have been an adept in turning the most unlikely emergencies to account. He was as active as an eel, could twist and wriggle like one, and was nearly as difficult to hold. When an opening presented itself, he was partial to getting his left side into play, and then immediately ensued a decisive onslaught.

Robert Rowantree, a big six foot, fifteen-stone man, who practised a slaughtering cross-buttock, used to say that no man could so effectually stop it as Jemmy Fawcett. Litt designates him, as "the very best wrestler of his weight Cumberland , or indeed the United Kingdom , ever produced." And again, "Jemmy must have been the most wonderful wrestler of his own or any other time."

It was about the beginning of the present century that Fawcett attained his prime. His wonderful success in carrying off the head prize at the Melmerby "Rounds" for seven consecutive years, added considerable celebrity to his other achievements. On one of these occasions, he went to Melmerby in company with his friend, John Woodmas of Alston, with a full determination of winning. A great stumbling block in the way to victory, presented itself in the person of one "Pakin" Whitfield, who weighed from sixteen to seventeen stones, and who had the reputation of being, at that time, the strongest man in Cumberland . All went well and smoothly through several rounds, until Fawcett and Woodmas were drawn together. What was to be done ? Woodmas, who weighed at least three stone heavier, argued thus : "Noo, Jemmy, my man, what ! thoo can dea nowte wid greit Pakin. Thoo's niver fit to mannish him. Thoo'll just hev to lig doon to me !" "Nay, nay," was the determined reply, " I'll lig nin doon to thee, ner neabody else. I can throw him weel eneuf, I know I can." When "Pakin" and Fawcett came together in the next round, Woodmas used to say afterwards : " Sist'e ! I fair trimmelt agean for t' lile fellow. I thowt nowt but t' varra life wad be crush't oot on him !" Standing side by side in the ring, the contrast appeared so great, that it looked as if the struggle was to take place between a giant and a pigmy. When the little man tried to span the back of the big man, and failed to do so, derisive peals of laughter broke out in various parts of the ring; and when the novel spectacle was presented of the little one lengthening his reach by the aid of a pocket handkerchief, the risible propensities of the spectators were tickled to a still greater extent. Getting fairly into holds, the tussle, however, was not one of long duration. " Pakin" commenced operations by making two or three futile attempts to draw Fawcett up, so that he could hold him more firmly ; but the latter being fully prepared for any emergency, skipped about nimbly, and evaded all the attempts made to grip him ; then he suddenly slipped under the big-one's chest with his left side, "gat in amang his legs, an' browte him neck ower heels." No sooner was the immense mass of humanity rolled out on the green sward, than the crowd went wild with excitement, and "varra nar split Crossfell wid shootin' an' hurrain'!"

The annual Easter sports, held at Lowbyre, Alston, continued for many years to be a centre forwrestlers to congregate, from the districts round Weardale, Harewood, Knarsdale, Nenthead, and Garrigill. To one of these meetings, came Cuthbert Peart from Weardale, a powerful well built man, weighing sixteen stones nine pounds. Being drawn against Fawcett in one of the rounds, Peart lifted him like a child, and while holding him dangling in the air, asked, in a swaggering manner, where he would like to be laid. Jemmy, however, "mannish't to bit on his feet, like a cat;" a nd then, quick as lightning, down went the Weardale man, like a shot, from the effects of one of Jemmy's deadliest chips. "Noo," said Fawcett, with mock gravity, while stooping over the prostrate figure of Peart, " thoo can lig me whoariver thoo likes ! "

The brilliant manner displayed in carrying off Peart, filled the fallen man with so much wonder and amazement, that he declared Fawcett to be the cleverest wrestler in Britain , and forthwith took him over to Blanchland, on the borders of Northumberland and Durham . At that place he wrestled a match, with a sixteen-and-a-half-stone man, for a pair of leather breeches, and won easily. On this occasion he had again to resort to the use of a handkerchief.

Another fall, similar in some respects to the one with Peart, occurred at Nentberry sports, about three miles from Alston, with one Thomas Stephenson, a man of considerable stature and bulk, who was accounted a good wrestler in his day and generation. On going into the ring for the final fall, Stephenson repeated again and again, with much confidence: " The little man must go down the little man must go down, this time! " When hold had been obtained, the big one led off very briskly with the swing, but failing signally, Fawcett at once introduced the buttock, and brought him over so quickly and effectually, that as soon as Stephenson had recovered from his surprise, he burst out into passionate language, exclaiming : "Jemmy Fawcett's nut a man, at aw ! He's a divel a fair DIVEL ! an' neabody 'ill convince me to th' contrary !"

Jemmy continued to wrestle occasionally till he was nearly fifty years old. Litt speaks of him figuring at Smaledale in Yorkshire , where he resided about 1823.

During a lengthened career, Fawcett continued a great enthusiast in wrestling matters. When lying on his death bed, while wrestling with a foe sure to triumph in the end, the "ruling passion" exercised a strange influence over him. He actually induced his son and daughter to take hold in the room, for a tussle, in order that the son might be benefitted by his instructions, relative to certain favourite chips. This anecdote is well authenticated.

Fawcett died at Nenthall, near Alston, aged fifty- five or fifty-six years, about 1830.