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

william richardson of caldbeck


WHEN Professor Wilson wrote a review of William Litt's popular "Wrestliana," for Blackwood' s Magazine he stated that WILLIAM RICHARDSON of Caldbeck, the winner of two hundred and forty wrestling trophies or "belts," was "better entitled than old Howard of Castle Dacre himself to the cognomen of 'Belted Will.'" From this sweeping dictum of the presiding spirit of old Maga, we are inclined to dissent. William Richardson doubtless gained his formidable list of prize "belts" mostly in well contested but harmless fields of strife, and is fully entitled to the proud distinction of having his familiar Caldbeck patronymic, "Will Ritson," elevated into "Belted Will." How, however, he is "better entitled" than the grand border chieftain of the Howards one of the most celebrated heroes that shone in the long and deadly feuds which prevailed for generations between the rival border houses of Scotland and England we are at a loss to conceive. Besides, they earned a similar designation in such different fields. One is rendered for ever famous as one of the most renowned actors in the fierce border raids that were wont to arise between England and Scotland a historic celebrity handed down to all time ; and whose sword and belt still preserved amongst the Howard relics astonish everyone attempting to handle them. It is inconceivable that any one ever existed with sufficient strength to wield such formidable weapons, without we fall back to that giant of a "long time ago," yclept Samson, or to the other strong man of heathen mythology, Hercules. Richardson, holding a high place in the wrestling arenas of the north, and formidable from his overpowering strength, contended only in fields where, it is true, there was keen determined rivalry, but of an entirely harmless description to life or limb plenty brought to grass in a rough, tumble-down, unwelcome manner, but not ending with the death-struggles of infuriate moss-troopers, hating each other with a savage bitterness almost inconceivable at the present day. William Richardson was born at Haltclift, in Caldbeck parish, in March, 1780. In the rural districts of Cumberland , families were frequently numerous. The Richardsons were of this description the subject of our present memoir being the eldest but one of thirteen children. In his own neighbourhood, indeed almost throughout Cumberland , he became familiarly known as " Ritson," or "Rutson." In order to make his way in the world, he was brought up to the occupation of a joiner, and continued to follow the business for some years; but having a strong inclination for farming, and breeding Herdwick sheep, he gave it up, and settled on an estate called Netherrow, near Caldbeck. This farm was in the occupation of his father and himself for eighty years.

Richardson measured in height, five feet nine- and-a-half inches, and weighed fully fourteen stones. He was a man well and strongly built from "top to toe;" slightly round shouldered and round backed; with a fine, broad, expansive chest; possessing tremendous strength of arm; and had a " neck like a bull." He lived till February, 1860, having attained his eightieth year; and it became a common remark that up to nearly the final shuffling off this mortal coil, he had the lightest foot, and was the "lishest" walker of any old man in the neighbourhood of Caldbeck. At Faulds Brow sports, when a hale hearty stager of more than three-score-and-ten years, he challenged to wrestle any man in England of his own age. We once witnessed, too, at Newcastle , in 1861, another septuagenarian, named Thomas Fawcett, from the neighbourhood of Kendal, challenge any man in England or Scotland of a like age. He stood six feet one inch, appeared uncommonly active, and straight as a maypole. Real "grit" these, our transatlantic cousins would say. Yes, it is such men that make Cumberland and Westmorland athletes superior to all the world.

The hype became Richardson 's main chip; and a favourite method of stopping an opponent at which he was allowed to be a great adept was to give him a sudden click "kind o' bear him off his feet" and then lift and hype. If an opponent should attempt buttocking, his unrivalled strength of arm enabled him to gather his adversary up with a vice-like grip, anything but pleasant. Indeed, he never was buttocked but once, in the whole of a long career, and that once by John Nicholson of Threlkeld, in private practice one summer night in the neighbourhood of Ouse-bridge.

"Will" scored his first prize when only eighteen years old, at Soukerry, in his native parish. The sports held there annually ranked amongst the oldest and best local gatherings in Cumberland, and being in the midst of a good wrestling country, several noted men attended yearly. From the manner in which the youngster disposed of all comers, he was pronounced to be a promising "colt" for future work. After gaining this, his first victorious effort, in a strong entry, Richardson wrestled with marked success through many rings of course, like others, getting a "topple over" now and then. When about twenty-one years old, he entered into the spirit of the sport with wonderful enthusiasm, and determination not to be beaten.

Two remarkable circumstances, in a prolonged career, are worth relating. He was never "felled" a single fall, by any mortal man, between the age of twenty-one and twenty-eight; that is to say, from 1801 to 1808 or 1809, during which period he attended almost all the sports held between Calderbridge on the south-west, Pooley-bridge on the east, and all through the north to the Scottish borders. And he was never "felled" two falls together but once in his life, when a mere stripling, at Harrop sports, between Embleton and Lorton. Job Tinnian of Holme Cultram (one of a distinguished wrestling and fighting family, a good striker, and proficient with the buttock), and Richardson , were matched for a guinea, the best of three falls. Job got the two last, and his opponent the first. Tinnian who measured six feet six inches in height doffed his shirt, and had his back so thoroughly soaped, there was no holding him. Previous to the match, Richardson had thrown him for the head prize at the sports, and then again next day at a "Bride wain" at Southwaite, about two miles from Cockermouth, on the Lorton road. Job Tinnian had a daughter, who, we believe, grew to be such a giantess, that she was taken about as a show, and exhibited in the Blue Bell at Carlisle , and various other places.

During the latter part of the last century, and in the early part of the present one, the head prizes at the various wrestling meetings were of a most primitive description, consisting either of a homely leather "belt" with an inscription, giving name of place, date, and name of winner or a "brutches piece," a suitable length of buckskin or broadcloth, for making a pair of breeches ; and occasionally, but very rarely, a silver cup. Unlike the present day, liberal money prizes did not tempt competitors on the village greens.

While the century was still young, some enterprising individual announced that a "golden guinea" the first ever given in Cumberland for a like purpose would be presented to the winner of the head prize at Highmoor sports, near Wigton. The offering of such a gilded bait quite a novelty naturally drew together a strong field of active young athletes. William Richardson of Caldbeck, among the rest, put in an appearance. Much resolute wrestling occurred, as round after round passed over. When the ranks became thinner and thinner, the two last stand ers proved to be one Todd, a spirit merchant from Wigton, and Richardson. The former was familiarly spoken of in the neighbourhood as "Brandy Todd." He was a powerful built man, nearly six feet high, and a great enthusiast in wrestling, pedestrianism, and dog-trailing. The two men should have been matched on several previous occasions, and this being the first, indeed, the only time they ever met in any ring, the excitement became intense. The Wigtonians being in great numbers, "crowed very crouse." Some of the more boisterous ones tried to banter and upset the self-possession of Richardson , by shouting in derision "Browte up wid poddish an' kurn milk ! what can thoo deu, I wad like to know? Go bon ! Brandy 'ill fling thee oot o' t' ring, like a bag o' caff!" The men stood up ready for action. Holds were obtained, after some delay in fencing ; a brief struggle ensued, and the huge spirit-merchant measured his full length on the green-sward. His friends were dumb-foundered at the sudden fall of their hero. The opposite party, highly elated, cried out, much to the discomfiture of poor Todd "Ha ! ha ! Codbeck kurn't milk's stranger ner Wigton brandy efter aw t' rattle ! "

When Richardson was in his prime, sports or races were held at the Beehive Inn, Deanscale, near Lamplugh. One Shepherd Pearson, from about Wythop, made a curious and, to look at the terms, foolish wager. He bet a ten pound note that he would find a man to win the wrestling; another to win the foot-race ; and a hound to win the dog-trail, at the Beehive sports. Now, it is well known how very much odds increase on a double event, but here are evens to win three events. Exceedingly foolish ! but nevertheless the bet was won. The chosen champion proved to be Richardson for the wrestling ; John Todhunter of Mungrisdale, near Threlkeld, for the foot race ; and "Towler," belonging to John Harrison of Caldbeck, for the dog-trail. Curiously enough, all three nominations succeeded in winning the head prize in their respective entries ; and Pearson carried off his risky wager with a triumphant flourish.

A feud of long standing, it appears, had existed between William Litt and Richardson. This feud no doubt gave a colour to various statements, and places us on rather delicate ground in endeavouring to do justice to both parties. Our object, however, is to speak of each man truthfully and impartially to let neither colour "the even tenor of our way." The couple had met at several sports in West Cumberland; and on one occasion, when drawn together, Richardson had succeeded in disposing of Litt. The latter, however, was, as he termed it, in his "novitiate." No doubt the fall was highly unpalatable to the loser, and at length resulted in a challenge being given and accepted. The meeting ended unsatisfactorily. Both men drew up to their posts at the appointed time, Litt shewing unmistakeable signs of being "fresh i' drink." When requested to make ready for the contest, he gave a point blank refusal, saying he "wad nowder strip nor russell !" Here was an awkward fix ! What was to be done ? After a considerable amount of "higgling" had been gone through, another match was made, for ten pounds a side, to come off at the Green Dragon, Workington Litt being backed by his brother, a medical man of good standing. On the appointed day, Richardson and his friends were on the ground to the minute. For some reason or other, Litt did not put in an appearance. His brother the doctor went into the ring, and held his watch till the full time specified in the agreement had expired, and then very honourably handed the money over to Richardson , saying: "I can give no reason why my brother has not fulfilled the conditions of his engagement." In after years, when the bitterness of old feuds was nearly, if not altogether worn out, Litt expressed regret that he had treated Richardson's merits as a wrestler somewhat scurvily in Wrestliana.

Rowland Long of Ambleside, an immense big,_ burly man, the winner, it was asserted, of nearly one hundred belts, issued a challenge, that he was open to wrestle any man in England . An enthusiastic Cumbrian, named Thomas Bell, residing at Goose Well, near Threlkeld, took up the challenge, not for himself, but with the understanding that he should produce a man at the appointed time and place. He first tried his neighbour, Tom Nicholson, but Tom "thowt hissel rayder ower slender" to engage such a giant as Rowland, and recommended William Richardson of Caldbeck. Bell set off, and after some trouble and delay, fell in with Richardson at Rosley Hill fair, on Whit-Monday. Without much ado the two agreed ; got a conveyance, and drove off for Ambleside without further preparation : a long course of training never being thought of in those good old days. After reaching Ambleside, they took a boat, and rowed down to Bowness, where sports were held on the Tuesday. Richardson's name was entered for the wrestling, but being stiff and tired with the long ride from Rosley, he didn't, according to his own version of the affair, "git weel away wid his men." He succeeded, however, in working upwards till the final fall, and then encountered John Long, a brother of Rowland's. The two had a hard struggle for the prize, but in the end the Caldbeck hero proved victorious.

Whether John Long considered the fall doubtful or unsatisfactory, cannot now be ascertained; but he said, tauntingly, to Richardson , after the tussle was over, "If thoo can du nowte nea better ner that, my man, thoo'll hev d d lile chance wi' oor Roan, I can tell thee !"

On Wednesday the day following the match with Rowland was appointed to come off on the bowling green of the Salutation Hotel, Ambleside, for, we believe, ten guineas a side, the best of three falls. Richardson , looking from a window of the hotel, got a first sight of his huge opponent, coming up the street. After an attentive survey, and noticing the awkward, heavy sort of rolling walk that Long had, a smile stole over the features of the Caldbeck man, who thought then he could win easily ; setting it down in his own mind, that one so slow and ungainly would not be quick enough in his movements in the wrestling ring. This mental calculation proved correct; the two first falls settling the match, and enabling the winner to walk away with the amount contended for.

The two Cumbrians left Ambleside on Thursday, and drove back to Threlkeld. Wrestling and other sports were being held there the same day. The victor in the match of the previous day was greeted with hearty cheers, by a crowd collected on the village green. A score or more of clamorous voices were raised in pressing entreaties that he would enter his name for the wrestling. Tired with the three previous days' exertions, "an' nut feelin' hofe reet, wi' gittin' sups o' drink of aw maks," he didn't want to take any part in the proceedings. He was, however, very reluctantly persuaded to enter the ring, but "niver stripp'd nor doff'd a thing off," Notwithstanding these drawbacks, he again proved victorious, throwing in the course of the day, both Tom Nicholson and his brother John. On Friday the following day he won at Soukerry, in Caldbeck parish ; and on Saturday gained the head prize at Hutton Roof, near Penrith ; thus finishing a heavy week's work, by winning at four different places, and gaining an important match besides.

On Ascension Day, at Kingmoor Races, Carlisle , in 1809, the subscription belt was won by William Richardson of Caldbeck ; and the Mayor's belt by Joseph Stalker of Welton. At the first annual meeting on the Swifts, Carlisle, where there was a purse of five guineas to contend for, Richardson was thrown, in the third round, by John Harrison of New Church , who wrestled second to Tom Nicholson. In the same year, at Penrith, in October, the three favourites were Tom Nicholson, William Richardson, and Harrison of New Church. All three champions went down ; Richardson , after throwing John Oliphant, James Lancaster, and Joseph Brownrigg, was thrown in the fourth round by John Nicholson of Threlkeld.'

At Carlisle in 1810 Tom Nicholson's second year of winning Richardson got capsized by a person of no note whatever; but succeeded in winning the second day's prize, Joseph Slack of Blencow being second. At Carlisle , in 1812, the head prize was won by James Scott, Oarnlee, Canonbie, throwing in the final fall William Richardson. On the following day, the loser in the wrestle up proved victorious, throwing finally John Forster of Walton Rigg; William Mackereth of Cockermouth being third. The winner received four guineas, and the second two guineas. At Penrith, in October of the same year, ten guineas a large sum to wrestle for in those days was given to contend for, where Richardson was thrown by John Parker of Sparkgate, the winner.

At Carlisle , in 1813, for the chief prize, the Caldbeck favourite threw William Waters, John Cowen, Walter Phillips, and Samuel Jameson of Penrith; and was thrown in the final fall by Robert Rowantree of Bewcastle, after one of the severest struggles on record. Richardson's own account of the fall was this : after having lifted Rowantree to hype him, his foot slipped, owing to the wetness of the day, and consequent slipperiness of the ground; losing his balance, he fell clean backwards, thus throwing away the fall. He had met Rowan- tree on two or three previous occasions, and always threw him. At Keswick, in 1820, the Caldbeck champion was thrown by William Wilson of Ambleside, said by a high authority to be the best man Westmorland ever produced.

On the revival of the Carlisle wrestling in 1821, after three years' cessation, Richardson , then forty one years old, drove to the meeting in a conveyance with Tom "Dyer" and others. On leaving home he had no thoughts whatever of wrestling "ower oald" and withstood all the persuasions of his friends, till reaching Durdar village, where he consented once more to try. He wore at the time, a pair of old-fashioned knee-breeches, which held him too tight to wrestle in, and had therefore to borrow an easier pair before entering the ring. The gathering was an immense one. The numbers assembled on the Swifts were estimated at twenty thousand. A long array of highly respectable ladies, including the Countess of Lonsdale, were interested spectators. Sixty-four men entered, and nearly all were calculated to weigh fourteen stones or upwards.

In the morning, when the Caldbeck party were at Durdar, Tom "Dyer" one of the very best hypers of his time, indeed, a first-class man altogether was very full of winning. The first man called into the ring, and the first that went down, proved to be Tom, being thrown by one John Hetherington.

It is very probable there never met on the Swifts as good a field of wrestlers. Richardson acknowledged afterwards that he stood most in awe of Joseph Robley of Scarrowmannick, from the exceeding clever manner in which he swung his opponents. Robley, by the way, has been credited with being the first introducer of the swinging hype. They met in the third round, and the Caldbeck veteran suc- ceeded in disposing of the one he looked upon as his greatest bugbear. The third round also proved fatal to several other good wrestlers Jonathan Watson, James Graham, and Joseph Abbot going down. Weightman then twenty-two years old, all bone and muscle, standing six feet three inches high, and weighing fifteen-and-a-half stones fell in the fourth round. Glendinning, (a rough tearing hand, from the neighbourhood of Penrith, compared to whom a bull in a china shop was as nothing,) fell in the fifth round; leaving Ford of Ravenglass victor over Weightman at Egremont, weighing over fifteen stones, and measuring six feet two inches for the final fall with Richardson. The latter succeeded in throwing the young, formidable West Cumbrian, and carried ofif the head prize amid much shouting and cheering.

Richardson won the chief prize at Faulds Brow,near Caldbeck where annually some of the best wrestling in Cumberland could be witnessed fornineteen years in succession, a continued series of successes unequalled in wrestling annals. Flushed with victory crowning victory, he went with the full determination of carrying off the prize for the twentieth time, if possible, but the spell was broken : fate had ordained otherwise. A raw-boned rustic, unknown to fame, named Young, (afterwards a publican at Dalston,) sealed his fate. The stewards were inclined to bring the fall in a "snap," but the vanquished man very honourably declared himself to be fairly thrown. Nevertheless, he was so chagrined at the untoward event, so grievously disappointed at not having achieved this highly prized distinction, that it was asserted he fairly cried for vexation over it.

The wrestling at Faulds Brow always very injudiciously, we think took place late in the evening. On the occasion of "Belted Will's" final discomfiture, it was not concluded till two or three o'clock, in the cold grey atmosphere of a July morning, many rounds being finished up by the aid of lighted candles.

The following reply to a novel wrestling challenge, which appeared in the columns of a Whitehaven newspaper, explains itself without note or comment.

It is dated October i6th, 1843, and, we believe, it proved to be the end of the matter :


A paragraph lately appeared in the Whitehaven Herald, stating that Charles Lowdon, of wrestling notoriety, who resides near Keswick, and is sixty years of age, would wrestle a match with any individual of the same age. The veteran William Richardson of Caldbeck, aged sixty-two years, will be happy to accept the challenge, and wrestle Mr. Lowdon, the best of five falls, for $ or 10 a side. The friends of W. R. will be happy to meet the friends of his rival, at the house of Joseph Ray, of the Royal Oak inn, Cockermouth, on or before the 3oth instant, to make the match, and to settle the other preliminaries usual on such occasions.

I am, Sir, yours, &c.

J. M.

During the last forty years of Richardson 's life, he became noted as a good farmer on the Netherrow estate ; and was remarkably successful in the breeding and rearing of Herdwick sheep, a class of animals peculiarly adapted to the mountainous districts of Cumberland and Westmorland, which are likewise held in high repute for the excellence of their mutton. He obtained many local prizes for different classes of fell sheep; and attended the tup fair at Keswick regularly; but though enthusiastic about his Herdwicks, his conversation, it is said, had at all times a tendency to " bristle o'er" with feats in the wrestling ring. A tale is told of him which illustrates this tendency. Arriving at Keswick, according to annual custom, to exhibit and sell tups, he happened to meet an old crony whom he had not seen for years. The two sat down, "cheek by jowl," and soon became absorbed in an animated conversation, in which " nowte but russlers an' russlin' was h'ard, amang aw t' chang ; an' t' tips was niver yance thowt on, till t' fair was varra nar ower, an' theer was hardly sec a thing as a buyer to be fund."

Richardson could be either a good friend or a good hater, as circumstances might call forth. One illustration of his kindly feeling and warmth of heart towards a struggling neighbour, may be mentioned. An industrious man, named Jeffreys a blacksmith at the Caldbeck lead-mines either occupied a field of lea grass, or had cut a few carts of peats, high up the fell-side. During a dreary wet season, when everything was spoiling, Richardson volunteered the use of a horse and cart to assist in clearing the field on the first fine day. From some unforeseen cause the horse took fright, galloped down the mountain brow, and either broke its leg by falling, or else was unfortunately killed. The accident placed the poor blacksmith in an awkward position, especially as the horse was a valuable one, estimated at that time to be worth thirty or forty guineas. He offered, however, to pay what money he had, and clear off the rest by instalments. "Nay, nay," said Richardson , " it was as pure an accident as iver yan h'ard tell on, an' med ha' happen't to anybody. I'll tak nowte frae thee nut a fardin' ! "

A fell-side rhymer, named Richard Nicholson, of Caldbeck, has done his best to embalm Richardson 's memory in verse, something after the following fashion :

"When youth bloom 't on him, few were as grand

His fame was spread through aw the land,

Wid active russlin' an' strang reet hand.

At Faulds Brow reaces, 'twas his profession

To run when young withoot intermission,

And prizes nineteen he won in succession !

The shipperds aroond med weel dred his name ;

For Herdwick tips oft the prize he'd claim,

Till far an' wide was spread his fame,

As ye may read :

But noo i' the dust lies his noble frame :