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

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

robert rowantree of kingwater

 

ROBERT ROWANTREE, the subject of this brief memoir, was one of the big stalwart athletes of the wrestling ring in the "olden time," when wrestlers six feet high, and fourteen stones weight, were plentiful amongst the competitors of the northern arena. Rowantree was not so much distinguished for science as William Jackson, Richard Chapman, or the Donaldsons of more recent times ; but was formidable from possessing great strength, a long reaching muscular arm, much supple activity, and no end of endurance in a keen, protracted struggle with an adversary. Remarkable instances of this fierce endurance are to this day commented on, particularly in his memorable bouts with John Richardson of Staffield Hall, "Belted Will" of Caldbeck, and the celebrated bone-setter, George Dennison.

Rowantree was born in the vale of Kingwater, in the year 1779. The place of his birth, and where he continued to reside for a long series of years, is a lonely and sterile region, inhabited chiefly by sheep farmers, situate between the green woodland slopes of Gilsland, and the then wild unclaimed wastes of Bewcastle ; and was doubtless in the long ago border marauding times the scene of many a bloody raid; and later, too, of many smuggling affrays in getting across the border untaxed whiskey. Mailland's Complaint gives a vivid description of the lawlessness prevalent :

That nane may keip

Horse, nolt, nor sheip,

Nor yet dar sleip,

For thair mischeifis.

"The lordly halls of Triermaine," in the vale ot Kingwater, supplied the title to one of Sir Walter Scott's poems; but the once "lordly halls" are now reduced to a mere fragment.

Like William Jackson of Kinneyside, Rowantree was brought up a shepherd, and followed this pastoral occupation, with scarcely a break in the chain, throughout an extraordinarily prolonged life. He stood fully six feet one inch, his general wrestling weight being fourteen stones. "A lang-feac't, strang, big-limb't man, carryin' varra lile flesh on his beans," was the description given of Rowantree by a brother athlete, who, like himself, had carried off the head prize once from the Carlisle ring.

Litt speaks of him as attached to loose holds, and as being an extremely awkward customer to get at. It cannot be said that he was a quick, good, scientific wrestler, being too strong limbed and heavily built throughout, for excelling in these requisites. Nevertheless, he had tremendous powers when he could get them set agoing in full swing. His famous cross-buttocks in the Carlisle and other rings, which made men fly upwards, like a bull tossing dogs, are spoken of to this day. When young, like many another, Rowantree was such an enthusiastic follower of the wrestling ring, that he frequently went on foot twenty miles to wrestle in the evening for a common leather belt, not worth eighteen pence.

He won his first prize at "Mumps Ha'," Gilsland, at that time a noted hedge ale-house, whereat border farmers most of them nothing loth to spend a jovial hour or two when happening to meet a neighbour used to stop and refresh themselves with a "pint" or two, and enjoy a "good crack." The hostelry was at that time kept by a daughter of old Margaret Teasdale, immortalized as "Mumps Meg," in Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering.

Rowantree afterwards attended some sports at Stanners Burn, in North Tyne ; and in the final wrestle up, he came against an exceedingly powerful man, named William Ward, a rustic Titan, with a grip like a giant, resident in the neighbourhood. In the previous rounds the stranger from Kingwater had astonished the North Tyners, by disposing of his men without the least difficulty. In the last round, Ward lifted Rowantree clean off his feet, and caused much amusement among the spectators by crying out, whilst holding him in that position : " Hey, lads! See! I can baud him, nool" No sooner, however, did Rowantree set foot on terra firma, than in an instant the position of the two men was reversed, a sweeping cross-buttock sending Ward's feet "fleein* i' the air," amid loud plaudits the loser being sadly crestfallen by this unexpected turn of the wheel.

As a general rule, Rowantree did not go far from home to attend wrestling meetings; his principal ground being along the wild tract of Cumberland lying to the north-east of Carlisle . Occasionally, however, he strolled away from Kingwater and the adjoining country. In the year 1810, he had a trip "wid Nanny, the priest' son, o' Haltwhistle, ower th' fells," to try his luck at the noted gathering, known far and wide as "Melmerby Round." Along with the priest's son a promising youth in his way for "a bit of a spree" he entered his name. The Haltwhistle youth came to grief in one of the early rounds, being thrown by John Morton of Gamblesby (father to Tom Morton of the Gale) ; but Rowantree succeeded in working his way through the ring, and carrying off the head prize.

We next come to record worse luck, in a match with Thomas Golightly, a miner, who belonged to the Butts, in Alston town. Rowantree, though a much heavier and taller man, was overmatched by the 'cute Alstonian, and had to succumb to him. Golightly one of a wrestling family was a thoroughly all-round, scientific, first-rate wrestler; and though weighing only twelve stones, and standing five feet nine inches high, gained many head prizes in the neighbourhood of Alston, Workington, and Whitehaven. The match took place probably at Alston sports, then held annually on Easter Monday and Tuesday on the same days that a two-days main of cocks was fought.

Rowan tree attended the first annual wrestling meeting held at Carlisle , September, 1809, and in the first round he threw Thomas Atkinson ; in the second, one Younghusband, (who in the previous round had thrown John Rowantree, a brother of Robert.) In the third round, he had to face the celebrated Thomas Nicholson of Threlkeld. The first was a disputed fall ; but in the second, Tom was easily victorious. At Carlisle , in 1810, Nicholson again threw him.

Next year, John Richardson of Staffield Hall, near Kirkoswald, gained the second prize on the Swifts. For the first prize, he came against Rowan- tree, and after one of the most desperate and determined struggles ever seen in any ring, the latter won with a half-buttock, after giving his opponent a shake off the hip. In all the recorded meetings of athletes in the rings of the north, it has seldom happened that the spectators had the gratification of witnessing two men step into the arena, equal in stature and muscular power to Robert Rowantree and John Richardson. The latter stood six feet three inches high, and the former six feet one inch. Both weighed upwards of fourteen stones, and on stripping, presented remarkable specimens of athletic formation. Armstrong, familiarly known as the "Solid Yak," another gigantic Cumbrian, was also grassed in the same entry, by Rowantree.

At Carlisle , in 1812, when James Scott, the Canonbie man, won, we do not find that Rowantree contended. No record is known to exist, giving the names of those who entered for the prizes, and, therefore, nothing definite can be stated.

The following extract from the Carlisle Journal, will show that the prize twenty guineas given in 1813, was held to be something remarkable in wrestling annals, and created a wide-spread sensation throughout the north. At the present day, a considerably larger sum is given; but whether this profuse liberality has improved the morale of the ring, is a very doubtful matter:

On Friday, the 8th of October, the great prize of twenty guineas was wrestled for on the Swifts, in a roped ring of seventy yards in diameter, in the presence of the largest concourse of people we ever saw on a similar occasion. Notwithstanding the day was extremely wet during the whole of the contest, the curiosity that had been excited through all ranks of society, overcame every obstacle ; and we were happy to see on the ground the Duke of Norfolk, the Marquis of Queensberry, the Earl of Lonsdale, H. Fawcett, Esq.,M.P., together with a large number of gentlemen from all parts of the county, and from Scotland, to witness one of the finest exhibitions of activity, muscle, science, and resolution, ever seen in the north of England. The wrestling was of the most superior kind ; many of the combatants having been struck by their antagonists from the ground upwards of five feet. Robert Rowantree, the Cumberland shepherd, gained the first prize, having thrown the noted William Richardson and George Dennison, in two of the severest struggles we ever saw. We are happy to add that their peaceable and civil deportment to each other has been the subject of much commendation.

On the morning of the wrestling, Rowantree walked from Butterburn, a lone farm-stead, north east of Gilsland, and fully twenty miles from Carlisle , as the crow flies; and then wrestled through an exceedingly strong ring a proof of lasting endurance and pluck seldom parallelled. Seventy two men entered the ring for the head prize; exactly twenty four more than in the previous year. In the first round, Rowantree threw Joseph Richardson ; in the second, James Gibson ; in the third, Thomas Gillespie; in the fourth, William Earl of Cumwhitton; in the fifth, George Dennison of Stainton ; and in the final fall, William Richardson of Caldbeck.

It is somewhat singular that Rowantree, an enthusiastic follower of wrestling, should not again enter the ring of the Border City , or, indeed, any other ring, where winning might be considered to confer distinction. Soon after achieving at Carlisle, the highest distinction a wrestler can attain, he won his last belt in the same arena where he gained his first one at "Mumps Ha'," Gilsland. He got the belt without contesting a single fall ; no one thinking proper to try the chance of a single tussle with him.

Shepherding was his daily pursuit during the greater part of a long life; and at times he performed some extraordinary feats of pedestrianism. We regret, however, being unable to give exact data of the time and distances. They would have been interesting additions to his wrestling career. For many years he lived on an extensive sheep farm at Wiley Syke, near Gilsland, with one of his brothers. During the great storm of November, 1807, when the snow drifted in some places to the depth of nine and ten feet, Rowantree's brother John, lost four-score sheep, and at one time upwards of two hundred more were missing. A neighbouring shepherd, named James Coulthard, perished in attempting to fold his sheep in Scott-Coulthard's Waste.

At one time, Rowantree was tempted to enter the service of the Earl of Carlisle, as a game-watcher, on the Naworth Castle estates, and continued to be so occupied "a canny bit."

When more than four-score years old, Rowantree went to live with a relative Mr. Wanless, of the Bay Horse inn, Haltwhistle under whose roof he spent the last twelve years of his life ; and died there in April, 1873, at the patriarchal age of ninety four. Some nine or ten months before the latter end the final closing scene of a long life he " hed sair croppen in," and was in fact nearly bent double. But previous to that time, his appearance was so fresh and animated, his step so firm and active, his intellect and memory so clear and retentive, that no stranger would have taken him to be anything like his real age.

While living at Haltwhistle, if the old Kingwater athlete could only manage to fall in with any wrestling, dog-trailing, or hunting, or could get off shooting with a dog and gun, either by himself or in company, he was in the height of his glory. When sitting by the side of a wrestling ring, during this latter period of his life, as an onlooker, it was only natural he should become garrulous, and almost, as a matter of course, cynical in his remarks.

“Sec bits o' shafflin' things," he used to say, "git prizes noo-a-days ! If they'd been leevin' lang syne, we wad ha' thrown them ower th' dyke!" At other times, when a wrestler had laid down in favour of an opponent, he would exclaim : "Ah ! ah ! that wullent dea at aw, lads ! Theer was nea sec lyin' doon i' my time. It was aw main-strength an' hard wark, than !"

 

John Stanyan Bigg's rhyme, in the Furness dialect, slightly altered, presents a very apt picture of Robert Rowantree, as a cheerful and hearty old man, verging on ninety years :

Auld Robin Rowantree was stordy and strang ;

Auld Robin Rowantree was six feet lang ;

He was first at a weddin', an' last at a fair,

He was t' jolliest of aw, whoiver was there ;

For he keep't a lad's heart in his wizzen'd auld skin,

And work'd out his woes as last as they wer' in ;

Ye'd niver believe he'd iver seen trouble,

Tho' at times t' auld fellow was amaist walkin' double