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

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

John Mclaughlan of dovenby

 

IN the early part of the nineteenth century there lived at the rural village of Dovenby , a few miles north-west from Cockermouth, by far the tallest man in Cumberland a man who stood six feet six inches in height, and who was one of Pharoah's lean kine, having at that date an hungry, unsatisfied look about him, which was anything but pleasant to the vision. This was John Mc.Laughlan, a labouring man, better known as "Clattan," who at certain seasons of the year, gained a livelihood by working in the woods at Isel, and at other times by paring turf on the pastures about Aspatria.

The parents of this gigantic youth were both natives of the Highlands of Scotland, having migrated early in life southwards, and settled in Cumberland . The father was remarkably dexterous at sword exercise and fencing with the stick ; who, in a friendly contest, sometimes took delight in showing his skill by hitting his opponent at pleasure, and on almost any part of the body he chose.

"Clattan" was born about the year 1791; and as a lad practised wrestling upon the village green,. with other Dovenby boys of a similar age. Growing up to manhood, and becoming master of a moderate share of science and action, he invariably lifted his opponents from the ground, and carried them off with the outside stroke ; his principal mainstay, however, being his great height and immense weight. In the ring, he was exceedingly good-natured and affable, and would put himself to any amount of inconvenience rather than allow his body to fall awkwardly or heavily on a vanquished foe. He did not, however, follow wrestling closely. He only appeared upon the horizon by fits and starts, as it were; and in tracing his career, it will be found that two or three lengthy intervals intervene between his retirements and reappearances.

As an athlete, Mc.Laughlan was somewhat late in flowering, having reached the age of twenty-six before he accomplished any feat worthy of record.

In 1817, he put in his first public appearance at Carlisle , at the wrestling in Shearer's Circus. Here he managed to mow down all competitors, including Tom Todd of Knarsdale, James Robinson, the gamekeeper, and, finally, his friend and neighbour, John Liddle of Bothel. About this date he was "a lang, thin, strip iv a chap, like a ladder ; hed a varra laddish like leuk ; a feut gaily nar as lang's a fender ; an' was rayder wake aboot the knees." Or, to change the simile as a native of Cartmel- fell once aptly phrased it : "Big an' beany as he was, he was nobbut like a splinter blown off a man ! "

After his temporary success at Carlisle , fortune seems to have deserted him for many years. In 1819, he suffered his most memorable defeat at the hands of William Wilson of Ambleside, in the Keswick ring, who carried him off with a sweeping hipe. In 1824, he appeared at Wigton sports, and was thrown in the third round by Thomas Hodgson, the police-constable ; and again in the third round of the second day, by James Graham of Kirklinton.

In August, 1825, however, Clattan carried off the head prize at Whitehaven ; Jonathan Watson being second.

We are not aware that he wrestled in any ring from the last date mentioned, until his return in the year 1828, when he had grown amazingly in bulk, being then about twenty-two stone weight. At that time he was considered to be the most powerful man in Cumberland , and as an athlete had no rival, if we except Weightman of Hayton. It was an exaggerated, but nevertheless a very common saying, that he could lift a cottage house with ease, and carry it away with him on his back !

The year 1828 with its curious winding-up scene was the most noteworthy one in Clattan's wrestling career. In the month of August, he carried off the head prize at Workington races, with the greatest ease; George Irving of Bolton-gate being the second stander.

At Keswick in September, almost the self-same scene was enacted, with Irving again second. Big men, like Cass of Loweswater, being, as it were, mere children in Clattan's arms.

Following immediately in the rear of the Keswick races, came the annual gathering at Carlisle , where the Earl of Lonsdale still continued to give the sum of twenty guineas for prizes. Notwithstanding the morning on which the wrestling took place being gloomy and foreboding, hundreds and thousands poured into the old Border city from every available direction, and it was computed that at least 6,000 persons were gathered round the wrestling ring.

Whilst ninety two names were being enrolled for the head prize, including most of the crack men of the day, a group of itinerant ballad singers stood bawling to the assembled multitude, such home-spun staves as the following :

"Now, Weightman, you must do your best

To bear the prize away ;

For Clattan he is coming ;

Don't let him win the day."

We have reasons for saying that Weightman was not at the wrestling on the Swifts that year. We believe he was engaged driving cattle at the time, at some considerable distance from Carlisle . His name was certainly entered by some person or other, and he was called out in the first round against Hutchinson of Featherstone Castle; but there being no response on Weightman's part, the ticket naturally fell to Hutchinson 's lot. Having only to contend against men of ordinary calibre the heaviest and tallest of whom would be fully six or seven stone deficient in weight, and about the same number of inches in height Clattan, wearing a pair of Nankeen trousers, stalked through the Carlisle ring, in the most unobtrusive manner imaginable, and without making the least display of his giant strength. In the first round he was called against Rickerby of Old Wall, and Robinson of Renwick in the second. Despite some futile struggling on the part of these two men, he lifted them up and laid them down as easily as Gulliver would have done a couple of Lilliputians. In the third round, William Earl of Cumwhitton went to work with a will, and completely foiled Clattan by keeping well away from him. Not being able to gather Earl and hug him as he had done the previous ones, the tussle became an animated one, and for a time seemed to be of a doubtful character; but on improving his hold, the big man managed to twist Earl awkwardly to the ground by sheer strength. Next followed, in quick succession, the overthrow of Joseph Graham of Dufton, James Graham of Kirklinton, and Tom Richardson, the Dyer, at the hands of Clattan.

Only two men were now left standing, namely,George Irving of Boltongate, and Clattan ; and by Irving asking Clattan, as a favour, not to throw himself heavily on him, the result was understood to be a foregone conclusion. Good-naturedly acting upon this request, Clattan without more ado, whipped Irving off his feet, turned him smartly round, and then let go his hold, in order to avoid falling on his man. Meanwhile, Irving having cunningly retained his hold, claimed the fall, which according to the rules of the game, was awarded to him by the umpires. The scene which followed baffles all description. The crowd danced, laughed, yelled, and ran wild with commotion. Clattan was completely nonplussed by the ruse, and bore the result for a time with Job-like patience; but at length his good nature fairly broke down. He fumed and tore about like one half crazed, ground his teeth, and swore he "wad russel him for fifty pund to a pund for a hundred pund to a pund for any amount he liket!" But Irving , having accomplished his ends, was far too wary a customer to be drawn into any further trial which meant defeat. Meanwhile, Irving's friends hoisted him shoulder high, and bore him away in triumph ; and poor Clattan could only content himself with a final shot at his enemy by crying out: " If iver I git hod o' thee agean, my lad, I'll mak the 1 put thy tongue ootr “.

After this mishap, the tide of popularity seems to have set in against Mc.Laughlan in all directions. At Dovenby races, held in June, 1829, he put in an appearance, but no sooner was his name called than it created much discontent among the competitors : one wrestler swearing that he was "as big as a hoose side," and another asking derisively for a ladder, " to dim' on t' top of his shooders wid!" In order to dispel this outburst of feeling, the stewards offered the giant a liberal sum if he would take the post of umpire, and give up contending ; which proposal he accepted in the most cordial manner. The chief prize for wrestling (after the withdrawal of the big man,) was carried off by Jonathan Robinson of Allerby mill.

A correspondent of the Cumberland Pacquet, in speaking of the Penrith races in 1829, says, he " cannot imagine upon what principle of justice the individuals acted, who brought a man fifty miles from home by an open advertisement, and then debarred him." The same correspondent, also, complains that Mc.Laughlan was excluded from the Carlisle ring of the same year, in the face of an advertisement which distinctly stated it was "open to any man."

At the great gathering at Cockermouth in August, 1830, Clattan was allowed to enter his name without opposition in the first day's list, where he carried off the head prize, throwing James Little, George Murgatroyd, John Birket, and finally William Earl.

In 1837, his last victory, we believe, was gained at Liverpool , after mowing down John Nichol of Bothel, Jonathan Thomlinson, and Thomas Armstrong of Carlisle , in the heavy weight prize.

Clattan figured again in the Liverpool ring in 1840, at which date he would be about fifty years old ; but the fates were against him. He was drawn against John Selkirk of Beckermet. It is worthy of remark, (says a report in the Carlisle Journal) that Selkirk's father threw Mc.Laughlan twenty-six years ago; and Mc.Laughlan was overheard to say, it would be a shame to let both father and son throw him. But so it proved, for after a very severe struggle, in which Selkirk showed himself to be a wrestler of no ordinary ability, the first fall was given in as unfair, and they had to wrestle over again. In getting hold a second time, Mc.Laughlan put all his powers in requisition, but to no avail, for Selkirk threw him in a masterly manner.

One incongruous element of Clattan's character has still to be mentioned, namely, his weakness for sparring and boxing. His temperament was made up of too many good-natured components to allow of his ever degenerating into a mere prize-fighter. The big man, to the best of our knowledge, had a determined "set-to" once, and only once. It occurred at a Bridewain held in the Vale of Lorton. William Mackereth and Clattan who had been close friends for years fell out over some trifling affair, and a keenly contested fight was the result. After the struggle had continued some time, Mackereth succeeded in driving Clattan from one stand to another, until the giant finally gave in. Clattan threatened to "fettle him off when he com back frae sparring," with the professors of the noble art mentioned hereafter ; but he proved to be far too good natured to attempt to carry any such threat into execution.

Clattan's "experience with the bruising fraternity " we quote from a clever notice, which appeared in the Whitehaven News:

"was confined to travelling with the celebrated pugilists, Tom Molyneaux, the Black, (who twice contested the championship with Tom Cribb,) and Jack Carter, the latter of whom fought a terrible battle with Oliver at Gretna Green in 1816. With these heroes, John made a tour in the provinces and Scotland, extending over four or five years, in the course of which he gave and took more hard knocks, as an exhibition sparrer, from his formidable and dexterous colleagues, than would satisfy the ambition of most men ; but, as we have said, the big man never acquired a taste for fighting. It was scarcely possible, under any circumstances, to surprise him out of one of the quietest dispositions and finest tempers with which giant was ever blessed; and the sole use he made of the hard schooling he received at the hands of Molyneaux and Carter, and the countless yokels, ambitious of fistic distinction, was to amuse a few of his patrons. The art and mystery of bruising was practised nowhere more extensively and industriously than by a chosen band of youths who frequented John's house in the Market-place, Whitehaven. To oblige these young gentlemen, and test their dexterity, 'Clattan' has been known to sit down in a chair, to ensure something like equality of height, and 'set himself; and very dexterous had young Whitehaven to be if it could hit and get away, even under these circumstances, without a counter tap, as from a playful steam hammer. Many wonderful tales are told of 'Clattan.' He could crack nuts with his thumb and forefinger as easily as a schoolboy could crush a gooseberry, and we forget the enormous weight he could suspend round his wrist while he wrote his name against the wall."

Mc.Laughlan was an innkeeper in Whitehaven for a great number of years, being the landlord of "The Highlandman," or "Rising Sun," in the Market-place. Here he drove a flourishing trade, which resulted in a great measure from frequenters of his house always finding him to be civil and obliging.

At Whitehaven, Clattan joined the town band formed by Mr. Heywood, clerk to the magistrates. In this capacity, he invariably marched first in processions, and did what he could to make sweet music out of the instrument he played, an immense trombone, his giant-like form towering above his fellows, like that of Goliath of Gath among the Gittites.

Leaving Whitehaven about 1838 or 1839, he settled in Liverpool , where he was employed about the docks for several years. His wife, Betty, afterwards kept a lodging-house in Sparling-street ; but more latterly they lived retired and in comfort- able circumstances, principally through the kindness of one of his sons, the captain of a trading vessel.

Mc.Laughlan died in Liverpool , in October, 1876, at the advanced age of eighty-five years.