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

william wilson of ambleside


SIZE, position, and population considered, it must be allowed that the district of High Furness, in North Lancashire , has produced its fair quota of wrestling celebrities. Foremost comes William Wilson, then Miles Dixon according to Professor Wilson, "a match for any cock in Cumberland ''

his brother James, and Roan and John Long, all men of great stature and power, capable of hurling their opponents "Off the ground with matchless strength." These were all natives of the soil. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the wrestlings at the Ferry-on-VV'indermere, at Backbarrow, Bouth Fair, Finsthwaite, Oxenpark, Arrad Foot Races, and on many other village greens in Furness Fells, were often very keenly contested. Arthur Burns of Ullater, (who suffered from the deadly grip of Roan Long,) James Burns, a younger brother of Arthur's, Roger Taylor of Scathwaite, and John Wren of Bouth, the pealman, were all good wrestlers in their day and generation.

Then came John Harrison of Lowick, sometimes called " Cheeky," from the colour of his shirt, who carried off one or two prizes from the Keswick ring in its palmiest days ; later in life a landlord at Ulverston ; a man of enormous strength, standing fully six feet high, stout limbed, and weighing something like seventeen stones. One feat, forcibly illustrating his uncommon strength, deserves record. During one of the statute fairs, two sturdy country servant men got to fighting in his house at Ulverston. He made no fuss of any kind, but quietly took up one under each arm, and carried them both, vainly struggling to be free, into the middle ot the market place ; then set them down on their legs, and, giving each a good bang against the other, left them to fight it out. Joseph Jackson of Grizebeck, in Kirkby Ireleth, sickle maker, though barely a twelve stone man, gained many first prizes, and came off triumphant in a severely contested match with William Bateman of Yottenfews, near Gosforth.

Cannon of Subberthwaite, Robert Casson and Brian Christopherson of Oxenpark, and Marshall, the forgeman, also deserve a passing word of praise, although none of them ever went out of their own neighbourhood to wrestle. Christopherson put foith promising powers at the Ferry and other places, and was highly complimented by Richard Chapman. At the Ferry, he was backed by a local sporting man, in a match with George Donaldson a single fall for two pounds ; and, to the surprise of a crowd of anxious onlookers, won gallantly. There was little difference in the weight or height of the winner and the loser. Casson threw Harrison , Cannon, and all comers at Bouth Fair ; and Marshall did precisely the same thing at Sparkbridge. On the last occasion, the excitement amongst the spectators became so intense, that the forgeman's progress was urged on after the following primitive fashion : "If thou'll nobbut thra' Cannon," shouted one, " I'll gi'e the' a pint !" "Thra' Harrison," roared another, "an' I'll stand the' a quart !" "I think," responded Marshall , with a fine stroke of humour "I think, I'd better hev summat to be gaen on wi'. It'll mebbe help me to thra' them behth togidder."

WILLIAM WILSON was born and brought up at High Wray, a village pleasantly situated on the western banks of Windermere lake. Near to his birthplace there has been erected a lordly baronial residence Wray Castle on a beautiful commanding site, overlooking all the higher reaches of Windermere, and forming one of the many attractive objects for sight-seers on the lake. Wilson was a nephew of the Dixons of Grasmere, and was commonly spoken of as " girt Will Wilson," in order to distinguish him from "lile Will Wilson" of Grasmere , or "wicked Will," as the latter was sometimes called, from the bottom and endurance he displayed in frequent pugnacious encounters. It was "lile Will," we believe, who once wrestled up at Bowness, with William Thwaites of Staveley, an eleven-stone man. They each got a fall. The next one called by the umpires a dog-fall was claimed by Thwaites. who, in consequence, refused to wrestle over again. The ring was soon broken up in disorder, and in the melee which ensued, Professor Wilson struck

Thwaites over the head with his stick, and bulged his hat in. "Did 1 do that, my lad ? " asked Wilson . "Yes," replied Thwaites, "yee did it : I's suer an' sarten o' that." "Then," said Wilson , "here's a sovereign for wrestling so well. It '11 mebbe help to get thee a new hat."

William Wilson grew up a tall "lathy fellow," standing, when full grown, quite six feet four inches high, straight as a willow-wand and as lithe, and gradually grew until at twenty-two he weighed from fourteen to fifteen stones, with a good reach of arm, and a finely developed muscular frame. As a hyper, or "inside striker," as Litt calls him, he displayed superb form. For three or four years, he stood unmatched and irresistible in this particular stroke, and since his day no man has appeared worth calling a rival to him, except William Jackson of Kinniside. We are now alluding to the "standing hype," or as the author of Wrestliana more properly defines it, " inside striking." It is a chip in which a tall wrestler, like Wilson or Jackson, has a great advantage, particularly over shorter opponents. The "swinging hype," in which Chapman, Donaldson, and Longmire were such deadly proficients, is more showy and artistic, consisting of a quick swing off the breast once round or nearly so, and then a turn over with the knee inside the thigh.

Our information respecting Wilson 's career as a wrestler is neither so full nor minute as we could have desired. The probability is that he won his first prize on the banks of his native Windermere, but at what age or under what circumstances is not now known. When a young man, Roan Long and he had a severe bout at Ambleside sports, which ended in Wilson throwing his burly opponent cleverly with the hype.

The first definite notice, however, we have of him as an athlete was at the Keswick Regatta and Races in 1818, being at that time about twenty-two years old. While the Carlisle ring, on the Swifts, was closed for the space of four years, the wrestling in the Crow Park , Keswick, assumed an importance which it could scarcely otherwise have attained. In fact, for a time it was justly entitled to be considered the leading and most important wrestling gathering in the north. In aid of this distinction, there then existed on all sides of the metropolitan lake town, a numerous array of very distinguished athletes. Mr. Pocklington of Barrow House, was the chief supporter of the regatta and races at that date, and his personal exertions to promote the permanent establishment and success of these meetings were unceasing.

In the year 1818, some remarkably good play took place in the wrestling ring. The two most . successful competitors were in excellent "fettle," namely, Tom Richardson and William Wilson. The latter gathered his men quickly and cleanly, and threw them as fast as he came to them. Coming against Richardson in the final fall, he lifted him from the ground with the intention of hyping, but failing to hold his man firmly, the Dyer turned in, and, after a considerable struggle, managed to bring him over with the buttock. After this tussle, Wilson always spoke of Richardson as being "swine back't," meaning thereby that his back was extremely slippery and difficult to hold, from the nature of its peculiar roundness.

In the year 1819, Wilson carried off the head prize for wrestling, and a handsome belt, at the Ferry Regatta, Windermere. We have no account of the other competitors at this meeting.

Wilson attended the Keswick gathering of the same year, for the second time, and it proved memorable above all others in his wrestling career, stamping him as "the best wrestler Westmorland ever produced." Many dispassionate judges at this time held the opinion, that this eulogium might be extended also to the neighbouring northern county. We have no doubt, if he had continued a healthy man, this verdict would have been confirmed over and over again. Although he did not succeed in winning the chief prize this year, he nevertheless distinguished himself ten times more than the victor who did, by throwing the man with whom no one else had the shadow of a chance. We refer to his struggle with John Mc.Laughlan of Dovenby, more than two inches taller than Wilson , and at that time five or six stones heavier.

As a prelude to this fall, Clattan took hold of Wilson in the middle of the ring, in a good natured sort of way, and lifted him up in his arms to show how easily he could hold him. No sooner was he set down, than Wilson threw his arms around Clattan's waist, and lifted him in precisely the same way, a course of procedure which greatly amused the spectators. After these preliminaries had been gone through, the two men were not long in settling into holds, each having full confidence in his own powers and his own mode of attack. A few seconds, however, decided the struggle of these two modem Titans. No sooner had each one gripped his fellow, than quick as thought, Wilson lifted Clattan from the ground in grand style, and hyped him with the greatest apparent ease a feat that no other man in Britain could have done.

The cheering which followed the giant's downfall was tremendous, and might have been heard on the top of Skiddaw or Saddleback. " Hurrah! hurrah! Well done Wilson !" shouted a hundred voices, while round followed round of applause in rapid succession. It was one of these brilliant and exciting moments, when the miserable party feeling of envy and strife, which sometimes crops up between the two sister counties, was entirely swamped and forgotten. "Thoo wasn't far wrang," exclaimed a hard featured man, with an austere voice, to his next neighbour, sitting by the side of the ring "Thoo wasn't far wrang, when thoo said Wilson wad throw him." "Wrang!" replied the other in ecstasies, " I wad think nut ! Wilson's like a cooper, thoo sees. He kens hoo to gang roond a cask ! " An old "statesman," from about Mungrisedale or Penruddock wearing a pair of buckskin breeches, whose pint of nut-brown had just been upset in the furor is remembered as having been so worked upon by the excitement of the moment, that he threw his hat in the air, and, in derisive language, addressed himself to anybody and everybody, as follows :"Ha! ha! my fine fellow! If thoo says Clattan isn't a gud russler, an' wasn't olas a gud russler, thoo tells a heap o' lees, an' nowte but lees thoo confoondit taistrel, thoo ! " This fall is still talked of at the firesides of the dalesmen of the north cottars, farmers, and "statesmen" as one of the most wonderful and dazzling achievements ever witnessed in the wrestling ring.

Returning again to the next Keswick meeting which followed, Wilson found no difficulty in walking through the ranks of 1820. When only four men were standing, Tom "Dyer" was drawn against Isaac Mason of Croglin, who at that time was looked upon as a dangerous customer in the ring.

It was the opinion of some onlookers that the " Dyer" seemed to be afraid of Mason. Be that as it may, the two not being able to agree about holds a procedure which has sometimes discredited parties in the ring, and is sorely trying to the patience of spectators the stewards, after a considerable delay, very properly crossed them both out. Wilson and William Richardson were now the last slanders, and the former carried off the Caldbeck hero with ridiculous ease. Litt says, " Richardson had not the shadow of a chance with him."

This testimony is exceedingly significant, and says much for Wilson 's powers as a wrestler. "Hoo 'at thoo let him hype the' i' that stupid fashion, thoo numb divel, thoo?" said Tom "Dyer," reproachfully, to the loser of the fall, while the latter was engaged in putting his coat on. " What ! he hes it offzri that thoo kens as weel as anybody," was the sturdy reply, "/cudn't stop him, ner thee nowder, for that matter, if he nobbut gat a fair ho'd o' the'."

The year 1822, found Wilson "rayder gaen back, an' thin o' flesh." He laboured under an asthmatic complaint, which increased upon him about this date, and began to tell much against his athletic attainments. Nevertheless, he attended the Keswick gathering once more. The wrestling was carried on in the bottom of a meadow, and not on the higher ground as previously. The ground being wet and slippery, was consequently disastrous to many of the wrestlers. Wilson threw Jonathan Watson, a dangerous hand to meet, in the first round, for the head prize; and in one of the subsequent rounds was drawn against Weightman of Hayton. Lifting the huge East Cumbrian "varra clean," but not being able to keep his feet, from the slippery and lumpy state of the ground, Wilson overbalanced himself and fell backwards, with his opponent on the top of him. This untoward accident, in all probability, lost him the chief prize. Cass of Loweswater brought Weightman to grief, in the last round but one, by striking at the outside, and throwing him off the breast.

At the Windermere Regatta, held at Low Wood, during the same year where the rain fell in torrents it was generally expected that Wilson, who had conquered so many, would again be the conqueror. But the fates were against him. He came off the third stander, being thrown by Edward Howell, a clever wrestler from Greystoke, in the neighbourhood of Penrith, who won the belt and four sovereigns.

So far as we have been able to ascertain, the year 1822 was the last one in which Wilson figured in the ring. If this be correct, his wrestling career will be limited to four or five years duration, at the utmost. No doubt, the complaint under which he laboured, was the principal cause of his early retirement. Although Wilson loved athletic exercises much, it must be understood, however, that he viewed them more as a means of recreation and pastime, than in any other sense ; a thrifty ambition inducing him to look zealously to the main point of making both ends meet at home.

We have heard it asserted that when he and his first wife were married in 1820, they could only raise ten pounds of loose money between them. With this small sum to the fore, however, they ventured to take an inn at Ambleside, called the Golden Rule, which they rented for seven years, during which time they managed to save £700. They then took a larger inn, which was afterwards known as the Commercial. Some time elapsed, and they removed to the King's Arms, in Patterdale, at that period the only inn at the head of Ullswater. While he was an innkeeper at Patterdale, George Brunskill, the life guardsman, about the height of Wilson , and two stones heavier, was very anxious to try his skill with him. After much pressing, a friendly bout was consented to, on condition that Brunskill would be satisfied with one fall. The result was that Wilson "dud whack him ;" the soldier being carried clean off "befooar he reetly kent whoar he was."

William Wilson whose brief, but distinguished career, has helped to confer an enduring lustre on the northern wrestling ring died at Patterdale, in 1836, about forty years old, and was buried in Ambleside churchyard.