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

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

rowland & John Lang of ambleside

 

ROWLAND LONG, generally called "Roan," may be considered one of the biggest of our northern athletes, but by no means one of the most distinguished for science and activity an immense, but somewhat inert, mass of humanity. He was born and brought up at Graythwaite, a beautiful country of woodland slopes and green dells, laying contiguous to the west side of lake Windermere, in North Lancashire . The father of John and Rowland, farmed a small estate of land under the ancient family of Sandys of Graythwaite Hall.

Rowland was born about the year 1778. While even a lad, he developed into gigantic proportions of body, limbs, and bone. When only seventeen years old, he weighed seventeen stones, and was looked on at that time as a wonder by all the country side, for size and strength. On arriving at maturity, his full stature reached six feet two inches, and he weighed never less than eighteen stones. In truth, a man of colossal appearance, looking "as breead as a yak tree across t' shooders," as big limbed and heavy footed as Goliah of Gath, and with a grip like the hug of a polar bear. His principal move in the ring was to make a rush at his adversary, push him backward, and throw in the "ham''; then, if well got in, woe to the unlucky wight who felt the crushing weight of eighteen or nineteen stones.

From a well known deficiency in points of science and activity, it may naturally be conjectured that most of his achievements were gained by main strength, on one hand, and stubborn standing on the other.

In one sense, Roan Long's career is the most perplexing one with which we have to deal. The fact is pretty well established, that he won no less than ninety-nine belts ; and at various places he tried hard to make the number up to an even hundred, but laboured in vain. The perplexing point is where, and at what dates, did he win those belts ? We may take it for granted that the field of his operations was confined principally to Windermere and its neighbourhood ; and that his successful career as a wrestler commenced about the year 1796, and ended in 1812. Most of the details during those sixteen years are, unfortunately, not forthcoming.

We learn incidentally that he "yance hed ater'ble hard day's russlin' at Bouth fair, whar he fell't three or fower o' t' biggest chaps he iver fell't in his life." Probably this was the time he had the fearful tug with Arthur Burns, one of the Ullater family, near Rusland. Burns stripped off a tall, active, wellbuilt, six-foot man, who stuck to the giant most determinedly, and tried hard to get him to make play without effect, until the struggle became one of mere animal strength. The upshot was that Burns came to grief, and unluckily came out of the ring so much mauled about the ribs, that he never recovered fully from the punishment inflicted.

At one of the village gatherings, held at Grasmere , Tom Ashburner, a "statesman" of the valley, entered his name among the wrestlers for the sole purpose of trying a round with Roan. Being fortunate enough to be called against him, and having succeeded in getting the fall, he retired from further contest, saying as he did so, to the younger hands : "Noo, lads, I've clear'd t' rooad for yee : work yer way ! "

In 1811, Roan, then about thirty-three years old, attended the third annual meeting held at Carlisle , but was singularly unfortunate. He was thrown in the first round, by John Watson, who the next time over laid down to Tom Nicholson.

At the Windermere Regatta, held at the Ferry hotel, in July, 1812, he won his ninety-ninth and last belt. Previously he had won several belts at the same place. No part of this final trophy is left, but the inscription plate in the possession of Mr. Backhouse, farmer, near Low Wood which runs: "To the Hero of the Regatta, on Winder-mere, 1812."

After this date, we obtain passing glimpses of Roan entering various rings, and trying in vain to make up the hundredth prize. In 1824, the old veteran having then contended more or less for twenty-eight years was thrown at Low Wood Regatta, by one Hodgson, who wrestled third; and even as late as 1828, he wrestled at Ambleside fair, where he was disposed of by John Holmes, a tall six-foot tailor. This proved the last time he ever contended for a prize saying, as he bade farewell to the ring, " I think it's time to give ower, noo, when a bit iv a tailyer can thra' me !"

Roan's match with William Richardson of Cald- beck will be found described in the sketch of Richardson 's career.

Many years elapse, and Roan is sitting among the onlookers of the wrestling, at Ambleside sports. After Longmire had carried off several big men with the swinging hype eliciting the admiration of all beholders old Roan said to the young aspirant, in a drawling tone of voice : " Thoo cudn't ha trailed me by t' neck i' that way, my lad ! "

If Roan Long was deficient in science and activity, and did not cut the brilliant figure in the wrestling ring that some of his contemporaries did, he, nevertheless, habitually maintained through a long span of existence, many points of much greater importance, in a social view such, for example, as plodding perseverance, singleness of purpose, and sturdy independence of character traits in themselves truly commendable, and far above any merely nominal honours which the wrestling arena could bestow.

Roan's occupation was that of a wood-cutter and wood-monger. In company with the Robinsons of Cunsey two brothers he worked in the woods around Windermere, for many years. Robert Robinson, one of the brothers, was a very powerful man, nearly six feet high, with broad massive shoulders, and herculean thighs. During the height of the wood-cutting season, these men toiled and wrought from daybreak to dusk, more like galley slaves than free-born Englishmen ; often continuing their laborious employment half through moonlight nights. On certain occasions, when arriving at the woods before daybreak, they have been known to sit down and eat their dinners " while they'd time," as they phrased it, in order to keep themselves "frae hankerin' efter 't throo t' day." With coat, waistcoat, and shirt off, Roan used frequently to yoke himself in a cart, heavily laden with wood, and had to "snig" like a horse, while the two Robinsons placed themselves behind the cart, and regulated their motions according to the necessity of the case.

One time, in Finsthwaite woods, when going down a steep hill, so "brant" that horses were practically useless, the Robinsons let go the cart for nothing else but pure devilment, and off went Roan, taking giant-like strides, until he could hold on no longer; and was obliged to throw the cart over into the steep incline below, and extricate himself as best he could. After having been a considerable time in partnership, he began to think the Robinsons were not doing the clean thing by him, in some other matters, and in consequence dissolved all connexion with them.

Later on, Roan who through life was a pattern of industry and integrity kept a nursery and vegetable garden at Ambleside. While so occupied, it was his wont to overlook operations from a small wooden house in the garden, where he sat as closely wedged up almost as a veritable Gog or Magog.

A few days before his death, he sent for his neighbour, John Cowerd, a joiner by trade, to give him instructions about the making of his coffin. "Noo, John," said he, " I s' nit be lang here, I kna' I shallant ; an' I want to speeak to yee about my coffin. Mak' me a good heart o' yak yan, an' nowt but yak. Noo, mind what I's sayin'; I want nin o' yer deeal-bottom't sooart nin o' yer deel-bottom't sooart for me/" repeated the dying man again and again. Many coffins had been made in the same shop, but never one anything like Roan's for size. It measured two feet three inches across the breast, inside measure. A custom prevailed in the workshop to try most of the coffins made, by the length of some workman. On this occasion, one Michael Rawlinson, the biggest man employed, was press-ganged into Roan's coffin, but scarcely half-filled it, and presented a very ludicrous picture for the time being.

Roan's death took place at Ambleside, about the year 1852 ; aged seventy-four years.

JOHN LONG, born also at Graythwaite in Furness Fells, about the year 1780, formed in many respects a marked contrast to his brother Roan, and was considered by good judges to be much the better wrestler of the two. In height, he stood five feet ten inches, and weighed about fourteen stones. In his prime, he was a remarkably fine built man: firm, compact, and well developed in every part, with clean action ; in fact, from head to foot he might be said to be symmetry typified.

John had the credit of winning many prizes on the banks of his native Windermere; but not having the ambition of his brother for wrestling distinction, he never rambled far from home in search of adventure ; nor did he follow the sport for anything like the same lengthened period. We are sorry that no available and reliable means can be come at touching his feats in the ring. His well known accomplishments as a wrestler richly entitle him to a more extended notice than it is in our power to give.

At the Ambleside wrestling, in 1811, John Long was second to William Mackereth, the winner, a young man from Cockermouth, a friend and companion of Tom Nicholson. Nicholson had grassed the well known John Lowden of Keswick, but suffered a grievous defeat in the fourth round when he met John Long. This of itself must be considered sufficient to stamp the victor a wrestler of considerable ability, as Tom was then at his best, and was looked upon by his admirers as a match for any man in the kingdom.

In early life, John followed wood-cutting through the spring and winter months; and in autumn, he generally went off to the "shearings" in Low Furness and West Cumberland . For a lengthened period he was chief boatman at the Ferry inn, Windermere, in which capacity he is well remembered. When up in years, he displayed a good deal of ready wit and droll humour. He has been spoken of by the most successful wrestler that Windermere has produced as "a queer sly aid dog, 'at nin o' t' young 'ans cud reetly mak' oot, whedder he was in fun or earnest."

In the Folk-Speech volume of dialect stories and rhymes, Alexander Craig Gibson describes the sturdy figure of the old wrestler as follows, and then proceeds to make him relate the tale of the "Skulls of Calgarth," in his native patois.And Benjamin's chief ferryman was stalwart old John Long,

A veteran of the wrestling ring, (its records hold his name,)

Who yet in life's late autumn was a wiry wight and strong,

Though grizzly were his elf-locks wild, and bow'd his giant frame.

Yes; though John Long was worn and wan, he still was stark and strong,

And he plied his bending "rooers" with a boatman's manly pride,

As crashing past the islands, through the reed stalks crisp and long,

He stretch'd away far northward, where the lake spread fair and wide.

"Now rest upon your oars, John Long," one evening still said I,

When shadows deepened o'er the mere from Latterbarrow Fell;

For far beyond broad Weatherlam the sun sank in the sky,

And bright his levell'd radiance lit the heights around Hillbell.

"And tell me an old story," thus I further spoke, "John Long,

Some mournful tale or legend, of the far departed time ;

The scene is all too solemn here for lightsome lay or song,

So tell, and, in your plain strong words, I'll weave it into rhyme. "

Then old John Long revolved his quid, and gaunt he look'd and grim

For darker still athwart the lake spread Latterbarrow's shade

And pointing o'er the waters broad to fields and woodlands dim,

He soberly and slowly spake, and this was what he said …etc

John Long died at the little hostelry on Kirkstone Pass , the highest inhabited house in England , about the year 1848.