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

tom nicholson of threlkeld


AMONG the distinguished athletes of a byegone period, not one in the long list has conferred a more enduring celebrity on the wrestlings of the north, than the Threlkeld champion, Tom Nicholson. He owed this high position not to over- powering strength and weight, but to what lends its principal charm to back-hold wrestling science and activity. These, added to entire confidence and fearlessness, rendered him a match for any of the big ones of his day.

In youth he was a wild, harum-scarum sort of a fellow, hardly ever out of one scrape before he was floundering into another. A fight or a fray seemed always welcome. "He cared for nowte." A Jem Belcher of the wrestling ring and the pugilistic ring, too, of the north; one who never feared the face of man, and had so much confidence in his own powers, that whoever he chanced to meet in the ring, whether as " big as a hoose side," or " strang as a yak tree," he felt confident he could throw him.

He stood close upon six feet ; lean, muscular, with broad and powerful shoulders; had remarkably long arms, reaching when at full length, and standing perfectly upright down to his knees ; his weight never exceeding thirteen stones ; without an ounce of superflous flesh. He generally commenced the attack by striking the back of his opponent's heel with the right foot.

Tom was born at Threlkeld, near Keswick, about the year 1785, and died at Keswick in February, 1851. His father, "oald Ben Nicholson," acted as parish clerk and sexton at Threlkeld for many years, following, too, the occupation of a builder. He brought up his two sons, Tom and John, as builders, or in the vernacular of the district, "wo'ers." Tom was the elder brother, and a much more powerful man than John. The latter, in the opinion of many good judges, was superior both in science and quickness. Being a light weight, his name does not appear with much prominence in the wrestling records of the time. Special prizes were not then given for light weights ; and in consequence, John did not often become last stander. The two brothers were, however, sometimes first and second. It was not alone in wrestling that Tom became a noted character. He could probably display more feats of activity in his day, than any man in the north of England . He has been known to " hitch an' kick" ten feet high: that is to say, if a hat were placed on a pole, or hung on the ceiling of a house ten feet high, he could leap up, and hit the hat with one foot, without falling to the ground. Among other places, this was done at the Red Lion inn, Grasmere , in 1810, where Miles Dixon, Harry Chapman, and other athletes were onlookers.

Another feat of his consisted in covering twelve yards in three leaps of three rises, measuring from heel to heel. This he often did, leaping the full distance forwards, and then turning round and leaping the same distance back again. A frequent saying of his was, that he could "stand a yard, stride a yard, an' tak' a yard under ayder arm."

We have no reliable means of recording all the victories Tom achieved; and we suppose no chronicler is left who can tell where he gained his first belt. We know he became such an enthusiast as to rise often at three or four o'clock in a morning, in order to get his day's work finished by noon ; and afterwards has travelled a dozen miles, to wrestle for "a lal bit iv a ledder strap, nut worth mair ner fifteen-pence. " Luckily, there is a record of the more important prizes gained at Carlisle, in 1809, 1810, and 1811 a succession of unbroken victories seldom accomplished by a thirteen-stone man.

In the year 1809, Nicholson, then twenty-three or twenty-four years old, attended some sports or merry-making at Penrith. While there, he chanced to see an advertisement setting forth the liberal prizes for wrestling, offered on the following day at the Waterhead, Ambleside. Having some little acquaintance with the Dixons of Grasmere, through working with them at the Bridge-end, Legberthwaite, Tom felt a strong desire to attend the meeting. After dancing all night at Penrith, he left by way of Patterdale and Kirkstone Pass. Having reached Ambleside, he found the head of the lake crowded with pleasure boats and yachts ; flags flying, drums beating, and an immense gathering of people assembled in holiday attire, anxiously waiting to witness the sports.

Being overcome by fatigue and want of rest, he went into one of the tents for some refreshment, and soon fell fast asleep in a chair. A waller, named James Benson, who belonged to Ambleside, chanced to hear one of the Dixons say incidentally to the Longs : "I suppooks Tom Nicholson's here. If we don't mind what we're duin', he'll fell us aw !" Seeing a stranger asleep soon after, Benson went and gave him a tap with his foot, saying: " Do they co' yee Tom Nicholson?" Being thus aroused, Tom started hastily to his feet, and replied in the affirmative. " Well, then ," said Benson, " if ye've come to russel, ye'll hev to be stirrin' yersel' ! They're thrawirf f belt up for f last time!"

Hastening to the scene of action a small field near the lake Tom got his name entered in the list. No doubt, the previous fatigue and consequent exhaustion would, in some measure, detract from the dash and force of his wrestling. Notwithstanding this, he managed to pull off the chief prize, throwing both Rowland and John Long. Two of the Dixons George and James of Grasmere, also contended, and both came against the Threlkeld man. The former was unmistakeably thrown; but the latter, in the opinion of a great many spectators round the ring, ought to have had the fall. The umpires, however, came to the conclusion it was a dog-fall, and Dixon felt so chagrined at the decision, that he refused to re-enter the ring.

In after life, Nicholson used to "brag" that at this Ambleside gathering, he threw four of the biggest men he ever grassed in one day in his life, namely, Roan and John Long, and George and James Dixon. In relating this exploit, however, the fall with the last mentioned had always to be passed over as quietly as possible, lest some "un- believing dog" should think proper to retort, and mar the harmony of the relator's narrative.

Next year, Tom again attended the Ambleside meeting, accompanied by his brother John, and Joseph Slack from Blencow. William Litt also figured, as one of the West Cumberland great guns, but had to succumb to Miles Dixon. Slack laid down to Tom, who threw Roan Long and his brother John. Coming against Miles Dixon, for the final fall, he was cleanly lifted from the ground without any difficulty, and thrown with a twist.

In 1811, we find Tom at the Ambleside meeting for the third and last time. William Mackereth of Cockermouth accompanied him on this occasion. Tom had an arduous struggle with John Lowden of Hussecar in Newlands, " a stoot good russeler," who had then scarcely reached maturity. Lowden always claimed the first fall, but acknowledged that he lost the third one fair enough the second one being a dog-fall. In the third round, Tom again disposed of Roan Long, but was cleverly thrown by John Long the next time over. It will thus be seen, the Threlkeld champion succeeded at Ambleside once only in the three years of his attendance ; while at Carlisle, where he also contended three years, he came off victorious in each entry. This is strong testimony to the celebrity of the Windermere wrestlings.

For two years previously, John Wilson of Elleray had encouraged the wrestlings at Ambleside, by subscribing liberally, and taking a personal interest in so conducting the sports as to render them worthy of the patronage of the neighbouring gentry. All who have attended wrestling meetings, cannot but be aware that occasions will often occur, when the presence of such gentlemen as the squire of Elleray is of great use. There is ample evidence to show that he was devotedly fond of the sport. When he left the lakes to make Edinburgh his permanent place of residence, the wrestlings at Ambleside, which had attained extraordinary celebrity, declined for a time, but again shone with renewed brilliancy at Low Wood, Bowness, and the Ferry.

Before taking leave of Nicholson's Windermere exploits, we must record a fracas he had once with John Wilson, at the "Nag's Head," Wythburn, a little wayside inn, eight miles from Ambleside, lying immediately under the shadow of the "mighty Helvellyn," and much frequented up to the present time by pedestrian tourists. Some sports wrestling being the principal, of course were held at the above out-of-the-way hostelry. At that time, considerable rivalry existed between the wrestlers of Cumberland and Westmorland. The Elleray squire freely backed the Westmorland men, and Tom Nicholson was not a whit behind-hand in as freely backing the Cumbrians. Now, it so happened, they both got excited over a doubtful fall. The future literary luminary insisted that his man had got the fall ; while Tom vehemently maintained an opposite opinion, and bandied ugly words very freely.

In a fit of momentary passion, Wilson struck Tom over the shoulders with his stick. This bellicose style of argument instantly led to a violent scene, and there appeared every likelihood of a most determined contest. Wilson was at that time a match for almost any man in the kingdom. A professed pugilist, after receiving a sound thrashing from him on the banks of the Isis , had been heard to say : " This must be either the devil or Jack Wilson !" And Nicholson had proved the victor in many a hard fought contest. A battle between the two disputants at the " Nag's Head," would have been a fearfully punishing affair to both of them. This was happily avoided, in consequence of their friends stepping in, and putting a stop to any further infringement of the peace.

The ball thus set rolling at Ambleside for two years of giving handsome money prizes was followed up at the Carlisle Races, where the first annual wrestling on the Swifts took place in the month of September, 1809. The successful establishment of the great northern wrestling meeting, was due principally to the endeavours of Mr. Henry Pearson, solicitor, Carlisle .


The following extract from the Carlisle Chronicle, will demonstrate the gratifying result of what may be called the first metropolitan meeting :

The athletic sports were superior to anything ever exhibited in Carlisle . The wrestling commenced on Wednesday morning, at ten o'clock, in a roped ring, thirty-five yards in diameter. There were present on the occasion not less than five thousand spectators, who came from all parts within a circuit of thirty miles, to see these gymnastic exercises. This was probably the best wrestling ever seen in Cumberland , as each competitor had been the winner of a great number of belts in the respective parts they came from. Every round was most severely contested, but the last one was the finest struggle ever seen : each of the combatants having given the other the cast three or four times ; and they respectively recovered in a most surprising manner, to the astonishment and admiration of every one present. At length Nicholson, who comes from Threlkeld, gave Harrison the knee, and gained the prize.

The following is a list of those men who wrestled for the Purse of Five Guineas, on the Swifts, on Wednesday, September 13th :


Stood. . Fell.

Robert Rowntree. Thomas Allison.

Younghusband. John Rowntree.

Joseph Dixon. John Thompson.

Thomas Nicholson. Daniel Wilson.

Goodfellow. John Waugh.

John Watson John Jorden.

Matthew Armstrong. Moses Hodgson.

Frank Moor. John Relph.

Thomas Dickinson. Thomas Cowen.

John Nicholson. Joseph Bird.

John Dawson. William Douglas.

Joseph Slack. Thomas Burrow.

William Ritson. Matthew Dickinson.

William Hodgson. James Phillip.

John Harrison. John Hudless.

Michael Hope. Romney.


Robert Rowntree. Younghusband.

Thomas Nicholson. Joseph Dixon.

John Watson. Goodfellow.

Matthew Armstrong. Frank Moor.

John Nicholson. Thomas Dickinson.

Joseph Slack. John Dawson.

William Ritson. William Hodgson.

John Harrison. Michael Hope.


Thomas Nicholson. Robert Rowntree.

John Watson. Matthew Armstrong.

John Nicholson. Joseph Slack.

John Harrison. William Ritson.


Thomas Nicholson. John Watson.

John Harrison. John Nicholson.


Thomas Nicholson. John Harrison.

Mr. HENRY PEARSON, Head Manager.



Mr. TOPPIN, Umpire.


At the Penrith Race Meeting, in October, 1809, Tom Nicholson contested in the wrestling ring, but his career was soon cut short. In the first round, he threw Thomas Matthews ; and in the second round, had to succumb to one Joseph Dixon, who was disposed of afterwards, in the fourth round, by John Gowling, the victor on that occasion.

At the Carlisle Wrestling, in October, 1810, there was an immense gathering of people on the Wednesday morning, to witness the wrestlers compete for two purses of gold. Sixty-four almost all picked men entered the ring, the head prize awarded being six guineas. This sum at the time considered an important prize fell a second time to Tom Nicholson, who threw again the formidable Robert Rowantree of Bewcastle, and the no less celebrated John Earl of Cumwhitton ; and, in the final fall, floored Joseph Slack of Blencow. In connexion with the races, a ball on a grand scale was held attended by more than three hundred ladies and gentlemen. The amusements of the week were concluded on Friday, by the Carlisle pack of harriers throwing off at Whiteclose-gate, when three hares were killed, and some excellent sport witnessed.

Tom and his brother, John, again figured at Carlisle in 1811, when Tom succeeded in carrying off the first honours for the third time, in the most difficult of all rings. The money prizes amounted to twenty pounds in all, and the sport was enjoyed by a dense mass of nearly twelve thousand people. The Earl of Lonsdale, the Marquis of Queensberry, Sir James Graham of Netherby, and various other gentlemen, were spectators. In the first round, Tom Nicholson threw John Forster easily. In the second, John Watson laid down. In the third round, he threw John Jordan of Great Salkeld. In the fourth, William Earl of Cumwhitton. In the fifth, John Douglas of Caldbeck; and, finally, John Earl of Cumwhitton.

John Nicholson threw John Taylor in the first round ; and was thrown in the second by Joseph Richardson of Staffield Hall, a first-rate wrestler, and winner of the second day's prize.

Immediately after the general wrestling, Tom Nicholson was defeated in a match with Harry Graham of Brigham, an event which broke in somewhat abruptly upon the three consecutive victories gained by him on the Swifts. A lengthy account of this match will be found in Litt's Wrestiiana,

The Carlisle ring of 1811 was the last in which Tom Nicholson contended for a prize. Whether he desired to retire, and rest upon the laurels he had gained, or not, we cannot say. He was rendered totally incapable of competing at Carlisle the following year, by having accidentally dislocated his shoulder at the Duke of Norfolk's jubilee, held at Greystoke Castle , in the middle of September, 1812. He married in 1815, and went to live at Keswick, where he settled down as a builder. Some years after he joined the firm of Gibson and Hodgson, builders, as a partner ; and as a tradesman, was respected by all who knew him.

Tom used to say he could wrestle best at twenty years old. When at this age, and for some time after, he used to practice with George Stamper of Under-Skiddaw, an excellent wrestler ; but being of a retiring, quiet disposition, he very seldom entered a ring. "Gwordie" could, however, get quite as many falls as Tom, out of a dozen bouts.

Some years after Tom had given up contending for prizes, he chanced to be at Cockermouth, with his friend and former pupil William Mackereth, and the conversation running a good deal on wrestling topics, they agreed to adjourn to a field in the vicinity, in order to try a few friendly bouts. After having had two or three falls, "Clattan " a gigantic athlete was noticed to be leaning listlessly, with both arms over the wall, looking at them. "Come, Clattan," shouted Mackereth, "an' thee try a fo'. I can mak' nowte on him !" Thus invited, "Clattan" gathered up his huge carcass six feet six inches high, at that time bony and gaunt-looking and went stalking into the field, saying: "I's willin' to try him ya fo'; but, mind's t'e, nobbui yan." In taking hold, the giant tried to snap, but didn't succeed in bringing Tom down. After this they had two or three falls, in all of which Clattan was worsted. In referring to this incident, the victor always said he felt certain it was a made-up thing between Mackereth and the big one, that the latter should be "leukin' ower t' wo'," at a given time and place, as if by accident.

There is still another science in which Tom Nicholson excelled, namely, the art of self-defence ; but as we have no sympathy whatever with any form of pugilistic encounter, except that which resolves itself into the purely defensive order, we shall only touch lightly on the subject. As a boy, Tom's undaunted courage, daring spirit, and sur- passing activity, made him dreaded as a combatant; and from the time he thrashed "Keg," (McKay or Mc.Kie,) the Keswick bully, when trying to ride rough-shod over the Threlkeld youths, his fame as a boxer was fully established in his own neighbourhood.

In the summer of 1812, two Irishmen who were paring turf in Skiddaw forest, came to Keswick, and asked Joseph Cherry, the landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton, for Tom Nicholson. Tom being sent for, was soon on the spot ; when one of the Irishmen thus addressed him : "Shure, an' I suppose you're the champion of Cumberland ?" "Well," replied Tom, " I don't know whedder I is or I issn't." "Faith ! but I'm afther telling you, you are," said the Irishman, very crousely; "and by jabers ! me and my mate are ready to fight anny two men in Cumberland !" "I know nowte aboot nea mates," replied Tom, whose spirit would never allow him to brook an unprovoked insult " I know nowte aboot nea mates ; but I's willin' to feight t' better man mysel', if that 'ill satisfy ye !" Accordingly, a wager was made for five pounds, and the two combatants went into the market-place without further parley no county police to interfere at that time and set to work in good earnest. Pat was beaten in nine rounds; and Tom, who sustained little injury, finished up "as fresh as a lark."

In the encounter on the Carlisle race ground, with Ridley, \heglutton, in 1814, the issue was of a very different character, although the Threlkeld man was never in better "fettle" in his life. After half-an-hour's severe fighting, during which time the waves of victory flowed sometimes to one side, and sometimes to the other, the constables interfered, and very properly put a stop to the brutal sport.

As some palliation for the part which our hero took in the combat, Litt says : " We have the best authority for saying, that when Tom left home for Carlisle, he knew nothing of the match in question; and that the behaviour of Ridley, who was on the look-out for him, and the wishes expressed by some amateurs to witness a trial of skill between them, made Tom erroneously think that his character was at stake, and that he could not decline the contest without incurring the charge of having 'a white feather in him.' "

Tom's love for daring adventure, or sport, seems never to have forsaken him. Even in middle life, when between forty and fifty years old, this idiosyn- crasy would manifest itself. Among other pursuits, he has been known to follow salmon poaching in the river Derwent and its tributaries. Once when working at Mirehouse, for Mr. Spedding, he was joined by Pearson of Browfoot, John Walker, weaver and boatman, and four or five other men from Keswick, as lawless as himself, and almost as daring. The meeting had been previously arranged at the Shoulder of Mutton, then kept by Betty Cherry. Having chosen Tom as their captain, the gang started for Euse bridge, at the foot of Bassenthwaite lake, which place they reached a couple of hours after night-fall. Operations were commenced by placing two sentinels in commanding positions, one on the bridge, and the other John Walker on the opposite side of the hedge, a little lower down the river.

A "lowe" being "kinnel't," the stream was found to be literally swarming with fish. Little more than laying out their nets had been done, however, when Walker shouted out: "Leuk oot, lads! they're comin' !" And just at that moment, a strong body of river watchers, numbering something like a dozen who had evidently been laying in ambush rushed pell-mell upon them. Walker being the first within reach, was knocked down and kept down ; and the fight soon swayed fiercely from side to side. Maddened at the treatment of their mate, the poachers broke through the hedge which intervened, and fought desperately. Tom Nicholson punished one of the watchers, named Cragg, so severely, that the man had good reason to remember it for many a long year after. Walker being rescued, and the keepers chased from the ground, the poachers again took to the river, and returned home heavily laden with spoil.

During the latter part of his life, Nicholson officiated frequently as umpire or referee in the Carlisle and other rings. Having dislocated his ancle by accidentally falling on the ice, his appearance in the capacity of umpire, impressed spectators with the idea that they looked on the shattered and broken-down frame of a muscular built man, supporting himself while moving about with a stout walking-stick. The last trace we have of him as umpire, was at the match between Jackson and Longmire, which came off at Keswick, in 1845.