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

william litt of bowthorn


THE name prefixed to our present biographical notice, is that of a gentleman who, by his writings and conduct in the ring, has conferred greater lustre on, and added greater distinction to the "backhold" wrestling of Cumberland and Westmorland, than any other individual. His historical account of ancient and modern wrestling Litt's Wrestliana, was considered, in 1823, when Blackwood 's Magazine was at the summit of its fame, worthy of a highly eulogistic notice from the pen of Christopher North. Litt's wrestling notices and anecdotes have reference to the existence of the noble pastime, and a record of its most famed heroes and their contests, from 1770, and for the fifty years following. Before this period, the names and places of abode; the various and noteworthy achievements; the distinctive excellencies of celebrated wrestlers ; andthe places where their triumphant contests occurred, were little known beyond their immediate locality; and the meagre information to be gathered not invariably to be relied on had been handed down, and circulated mostly as village gossip, or been derived from the tales of some one whose knowledge rested on hearsay, and not from actual observation. This arose in a great measure in consequence of the slight intercourse that existed, eighty or a hundred years ago, between places only fifty or sixty miles apart. At present thanks to William Litt's research and literary labours all the great contests from 1780 to 1822, are familiar to us, and can be resorted to, for furnishing those who take a delight in the manly pastime of our fore- fathers, with a perfectly reliable description of its heroes, and their several peculiar excellencies.

The individual actors, too, in those great contests, have become familiar to all who take an interest in the northern wrestling ring. We are introduced, not alone to the name and doings of Tom Nicholson, and a host of remarkable wrestlers, his contemporaries, and the surprising manner in which they could, with consummate dexterity, grass an opponent; but we have graphic descriptions of many who, at an earlier period, became entitled to the distinction of champions, in many a hard contested ring in rings where pecuniary prizes were rarely given, and if given at all, trifling in amount The great incentives to successful com- petition were honour and fame, typified by a gilded leather belt, of no greater intrinsic value than the laurel crown of the ancient Greeks. Sometimes on very particular and rare occasions there was offered for the final victor a silver cup.

From Litt's description, we are familiar with the best and most renowned men, whose stars were in the ascendant, from 1780 to 1820. From Adam Dodd, " the cock of the north," a prime favourite, possessing all the requisites that go to the formation of a first class wrestler; from the Rev. Abraham Brown, a clergyman at Egremont, and previously a Bampton scholar, to Tom Nicholson of Threlkeld, another prime favourite, whose scientific wrestling acquirements, and wonderful success in the ring, were patent to Litt from frequent observation. The above Abraham Brown better known in his day and neighbourhood as "Parson Brown" is the self-same individual that a well known " Professor of Moral Philosophy" designated, "the most celebrated wrestler that the north, perhaps, ever produced." This gentlemen had no objection to show his friends, or even a stranger, how easy it was for a parson to upset a layman. The professor cannot find the least fault for thus indulging in a friendly fall, and stigmatizes his detractors for so doing, as "prim mouthed Puritans," who may "purfle up their potato traps," and hold their tongues till the arms of the athlete are encased in lawn sleeves, and he becomes a "Bishop."

Our readers, or a majority of them at least, are doubtless aware, from witnessing the brilliant falls resulting from a vigorously put in " buttock," that it is one of the most showy and effective chips that wrestlers bring into play. Nothing finer than one of those dashing somersaults, that were wont to electrify the opponents of James Little or John Ivison. To the Barapton scholar Abraham Brown before settling for life at Egremont, a remote West Cumberland market town, is due the credit of inventing and bringing "buttocking" into use. The two men, Adam Dodd and Abraham Brown, were certainly worthy representatives of the very best class of wrestlers in the "olden times." They were close upon six feet high, and fifteen stones weight ; were especial favourites of the public, as well as the historian of early wrestling. Both were straight slanders, ready at taking hold, good with either leg, and at work as quickly as possible, following up the first attack with such rapidity, that their opponents had but small chance of avoiding a final and fatal stroke.

After all this deserved praise, however, we cannot class them much, if any, superior to William Litt ; and if Adam Dodd was justly styled "Cock of the North," the other is almost equally deserving of being hailed "Star of the North." In all their contests, there is nothing to shock the most fastidious moralist; nothing to outrage the feelings of the most humane ; nothing that the most delicate minded need blush at. Unlike the scenes of violence and fearful punishment depicted in the records of the pugilistic ring now all but abolished they can be dwelt upon without any degrading associations. Compare the description in Wrestliana, of the fight between Carter and Oliver at Gretna Green the head of the latter, in the fourth round, " terrifically hideous " and the author's eleven bouts with Harry Graham, on Arlecdon Moor, and the reader will not find anything approaching to cruelty in one, while the other is indeed "hideous."

WILLIAM LITT, the author of Wrestliana, was born at Bowthorn, near Whitehaven, in November, 1785. His parents held a highly respectable position in society, and he received a liberal education, with the object of fitting him for a clergyman in the Church of England. This intention was, however, given up, in consequence of a manifest tendency to out-door sports, and a "loose" sort of life. The parents seeing that young Litt had rendered himself in some measure unfit for the Church, placed him with a neighbouring farmer to get an insight into practical, as well as theoretical, agricultural pursuits. On arriving at manhood, with a vacillation much regretted in after life, farming was neglected and abandoned.

Christopher North, in old "Maga," says,

"Mr. Litt is a person in a very respectable rank of life, and his character has, we know, been always consistent with his condition. He is in the best sense of the word a gentleman," was an "honest, upright, independent Englishman. We remember Mr. Litt most distinctly : a tall, straight, handsome, respectable, mild-looking, well dressed man. If we mistake not, he wrestled in top-boots, a fashion we cannot approve of."

Top-boots to contend in on the Swifts, at Carlisle , at the present day, when wrestlers make it a study to don a costume that gives the greatest facility to freedom of motion, both in the limbs and body, would undoubtedly be considered by the whole ring, a strange spectacle, and subject the wearer to no end of chaff.

We will now proceed to give a few incidents that will establish Litt's undeniable claims to superiority in the wrestling ring. We are not aware that he ever contended in the Carlisle ring but twice in the year 1811, and again a few years after that date, on both of which occasions he was unsuccessful. His appearance in 1811, was a foolish act, for according to his own statement, he had been unwell for some time in fact, out of form for wrestling. After a keenly contested bout,

Joseph Bird, a well known wrestler from Holm Wrangle, succeeded in throwing him. The same year a match the best of eleven falls was entered into with Harry Graham of Brigham, and arranged to come off, on Arlecdon Moor, for sixty guineas at that time a larger sum than had ever been contended for in any wrestling ring. From the celebrity of the parties, too, and the great amount of the stake, the match created a greater interest in the wrestling world than any hitherto contested.

Harry was considered one of the most active men that ever entered a ring ; indeed, a first rate man in every respect, the favourite and pet of a large district. He had contested many matches with the best men going ; one of which was with the celebrated Tom Nicholson, in which he gained five falls for the Threlkeld champion three.

When Litt and Harry appeared in the ring, the former was desirous to postpone the contest, on account of ill health ; but the Brighamites, with an absence of that good feeling generally displayed by wrestlers one to another, refused, and insisted that the match should go on then and there. Harry gained the three first falls, which so elated himself and friends, that they looked on the final issue as a foregone conclusion, and indulged in some unseemly chaff. The defeat, however, served to rouse the energies the courage and resolution of the loser, and he easily gained seven out of the next eight falls. John Fidler of Wythop Hall defeated Harry at Cockermouth, and afterwards at Arlecdon. Litt threw them both, and had the year before, when in good health, thrown Harry with the greatest ease. These repeated defeats of a man who could dispose of such as Tom Nicholson, William Richardson, and others, will go far to establish our favourable opinion of the wrestling historian. Other, and as strongly conclusive, testimony, is at hand to be produced. John Lowden, from the neighbourhood of Keswick, who had thrown several of the cleverest wrestlers of his day -winner of a silver cup at Carlisle was obliged to succumb to Litt.

Many of our wrestling readers will have heard of the "public bridals," at Lorton, where some of the best wrestling in the county might be seen. One hundred and twenty names were entered in 1807. For the final fall, William Armstrong of Tallentire, an excellent wrestler, and winner the year before, contended with Litt, and sustained defeat. At the revival of Blake Fell races in 1808, there were two good entries, and Litt carried off first prize on both the first and second day, notwithstanding being drawn against all the best men, including the two Tinians, and other well known names.

We have now to notice a series of consecutive successes, to which we believe there are few parallels in wrestling annals. In the early part of this century, the best meetings in West Cumberland took place on Arlecdon Moor. The meetings were numerously attended, and held two or three times a year. For ten years, from 1805 to 1815, Litt contended for all the prizes except in 1814, when he omitted to enter his name and was never thrown. Conceive a man being able to wrestle successfully through a really strong ring upwards of a score of times. After such a noteworthy series of exploits, no further testimony need be adduced no more satisfactory evidence wanted to prove William Litt's claim to be ranked among the brightest wrestling stars of the north.

In concluding this notice, we should have been glad to state that his career through the world, in more important respects, had been attended by gratifying results. The truth, however, is that from the time he left the paternal roof, his course through a checkered life to the bitter end, was marked by a series of disastrous failures. Attending wrestling and racing meetings unfits many persons for a steady and attentive devotion to business. This in a marked degree was the case with Litt. Farming duties became neglected, and then given up. Next he embarked in a large brewery at Whitehaven. A collapse, and loss of nearly all the capital employed, followed in little more than twelve months. He then went to reside at Hensingham, finding part employment in some triflingly remunerative parochial offices, expecting daily that he would get an appointment from the ruling powers at Whitehaven.

Disappointed in this expectation, he resolved on emigrating to Canada , in 1832, and retrieve his broken fortunes in taking the cutting of canals, and works of a like description. A break down again occurred, and he tried to gain a living by writing for the Canadian journals. This failing, he became a teacher. Suffering, however, from " home sickness" a craving often fatal to natives of mountainous regions his mental as well as bodily powers began failing before attaining his sixtieth year.

" I gaze on the snow clad plain, see the cataract's foam,

And sigh for the hills and dales of my far distant home. "

He died at Lachine , near Montreal , in 1847, when sixty-two years old; regret and sorrow at

forced banishment from his native "hills and dales," no doubt, hastening decay and the destroyer's final blow.

"Dearly lov'd scenes of my youth, for ever adieu,

Like mist on the mountain ye fade from my view,

Save at night in my dreams . "

(The Emigrant.)

The following extracts from letters, are quoted from a controversy which sprung up between WILLIAM LITT and some one who signed himself ATHLETICUS, in the columns of the Carlisle Patriot, November, 1824:

Mr. Litt deems me but a "theorist in matters appertaining to the ring. " His own athletic feats, as detailed in Wrestliana, are heroic and numerous, and it would be presumptuous in me to attempt comparison ; therefore, compared with Mr. Litt, I must (borrowing a phrase from the ring) consider myself as a fallen man. But, notwithstanding the vaunted achievements of the champion of Arlecdon Moor, there are those now living old enough to remember his being thrown in the Carlisle ring by very ordinary wrestlers, when in the zenith of his fame. The village green on a summer's evening or during a holiday, is frequently the scene of many a rustic amusement. And on this arena, when athletic exercises were going on, I have often borne a part where the old men inspired the young with emulation, by reciting the achievements of their youth and the applause of the rustic spectators was the only meed of victory. Here, sir, I have seen many a manly struggle ; and though I have never entered a public prize ring, I flatter myself I have gained something more than a theoretical knowledge of athletic science. An ardent temper, and the buoyancy of youthful spirits, no doubt gave considerable zest to the sports, and my memory fondly recalls, and dwells with peculiar delight, on the hours which I have spent amidst happy villagers engaged in these rustic scenes of innocent amusement. I will also venture to assert, that amongst the peasantry assembled on the village green, not only Weightman, Cass, Abbot, Wright, and the Dobsons of Cliburn, but even Mr. Litt himself, imbibed his earliest knowledge of the rudiments of wrestling.


"Athleticus" says, and thinks he is cutting deep when doing so, ' 'there are those now living old enough to remember my being thrown in the Carlisle ring, by very ordinary wrestlers, when in the zenith of my fame. " Now, Mr. Editor, do you not think this is rather a stinging remark, as it relates not to any point of issue between us, and was therefore as uncalled for as unnecessary ? I never wrestled but twice in the Carlisle ring, and never saw it when "in the zenith of my fame." The first time was in 1811, when, as I have stated elsewhere, I was thrown by Joseph Bird, who was surely no very ordinary wrestler. When taking hold, Bird got below my breast, and pinned my right arm close to the elbow, down to my side ; and a person, ignorant enough, surely ! insisted, that because he found by pulling my left arm over his back, that he could make my fingers meet, I should either take hold or be crossed out. I foolishly chose the first, thinking that I perhaps might better myself after. I was mistaken ; though those who are "old enough" to remember the circumstance, may remember likewise that, considering the situation in which I was placed, I was not disposed off easily. The other time I entered the Carlisle ring, I met one of the Fosters no ordinary men and I can only state that after our contest, I was ordered by one of the umpires to wrestle the fall over again, and I waited until the end of the round in expectation of doing so, when I found that a bet of half-a- guinea made by the other umpire, (and which I was aware of at the time,) had turned the scale against me. I can, if required, name the umpire, and the person he betted with ; which bet, however, he never recovered, and this circumstance deterred me from wrestling the next day, and determined me never to wrestle more at Carlisle . This was in 1815. My best day was in 1806, 1807, and 1808; therefore the assertion of "Athleticus" is doubly incorrect.


Mr. Litt admits being thrown in the Carlisle ring by Joseph Bird of Holm Wrangle, in 1811, which he says in Wrestliana, was a "smartish contest ;" and he adds that his "best day was in 1806, 1807, and 1808." But, sir, this is only three short years past the time when Mr. Litt was in the zenith of his fame ; so that even writing from recollection, my assertion is not altogether incorrect, and certainly not intentionally so. Mr. Litt and Joseph Bird had some dispute, it appears, about taking hold : be this as it may, I was justified in stating that

Mr. L. had been thrown at Carlisle by ordinary wrestlers ; for Bird was never considered more than a third-rate player in the Carlisle ring. He was a powerful man enough, though not heavier than Mr. Litt at that day possessed little or no activity, and scarcely any science as a wrestler. I have no account of the wrestling in 181 1 in my possession ; but I have an account in 1815, and strange as it may appear, Mr. Litt's name is never mentioned ! It would be well, sir, if my opponent would recollect that his statements have to meet the public eye. In the year 1815, Bird, in the first and second rounds, came against Byers and Grisdale, both of whom he threw, and was himself thrown in the third round by Thomas Peat. Though I may admire Mr. Litt's general judgment on athletic sports, I must again doubt it, if he deems any of the Fosters first-rate wrestlers, or any more in the ring than ordinary men ; for in the scale of athletic science, they were not even so exalted as Bird. One of the Fosters fell in the first round, and another in the second ; but I shall enter no further into this part of the controversy, as Mr. L's. name appears entirely unconnected with the wrestling of 1815. When I recall to my recollection the feats of agility, science, and pith, displayed by Thomas Nicholson in the Carlisle ring, in carrying off with eclat, the first prize for three successive years ; and when I also recollect with what facility this athletic hero discomfitted Bird, Mr. Litt's opponent, I very much doubt the truth of the panegyric which Mr. L. passes upon himself in Wrestliana for his performance on Arlecdon-moor, wherein he states (though in poor health and condition at the time,) that he defeated Harry Graham, the successful opponent of the once celebrated Thomas Nicholson.