Devonshire Characters and Strange Events
by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924)
First published in 1908
Pages 514-528


WRESTLING was the favourite sport in former days in Devonshire and Cornwall.

Evelyn, in his Diary, speaks of Westcountrymen in London contesting in London against men of the North, and in all cases the former were the victors. And Ben Jonson, in his Bartholomew Fair, 1614, introduces a Western wrestler, who performed before the Lord Mayor of London.

If we may judge by As You Like It, wrestling in the Elizabethan period was a murderous sport. Charles, the wrestler, plays with an old man's three sons. "The eldest of the three wrestled with Charles—which Charles in a moment threw him, and broke three of his ribs, and there is little hope of life in him, so he served the second, and so the third." When Le Beau laments that Rosalind and Celia had not seen the sport, Touchstone wisely remarks, "Thus men grow wiser every day! It is the first time that ever I heard breaking of ribs was sport for ladies."

At Marytavy, in the churchyard, is the tombstone of John Hawkins, blacksmith, 1721:—

Here buried were some years before,
His two wives and five children more:
One Thomas named, whose fate was such
To lose his life by wrestling much.
Which may a warning be to all
How they into such pastimes fall.

There is a Cornish ballad of a wrestling match between Will Trefry and "Little Jan" that ends thus:—

Then with a desperate toss
Will showed the flying hoss,
And little Jan fell on the tan,
And never more he spake.
Oh! little Jan, alack!
The ladies say, O woe's the day
O little Jan, alack.

And it concludes with a verse stating that Little Jan was to have been married that day.

Of the "flying hoss" or "flying mare" more presently. The wrestling dress peculiar to the West Country consisted of breeches or trousers and a wrestling jacket, the only part of the dress by which a hold, or as it was technically called a hitch, could be got by the rules of the play. The jacket was short and loose, made of untearable linen stuff, and had short loose sleeves, reaching nearly to the wrist. Wrestlers wore nothing else, except worsted stockings, and in Devonshire shoes, soaked in bullock's blood and baked at a fire, making them hard as iron. Three men were appointed as sticklers to watch the players and act as umpires, and decide, in the case of a fall, whether it was fair back or not. For a fair back both shoulders and one hip must touch the ground at the same time, or both hips and one shoulder. Such a fall was called a Threepoint Fall.

The men having stepped into the ring, shook hands, and then separated, and the play began by trying for a hitch. This led to much dodging.

A player who gave his adversary a fall remained in the ring for the next antagonist, and when he had given two falls he was reckoned as a standard. Supposing there were twenty standards left in, the double play would begin by the sticklers matching them with each other, and ten would then be left for the treble play. The players would then be reduced to five, then to three, and finally the two best would be matched against one another.

The play in Devonshire and Cornwall was different in this, that in the former county there was kicking, but this was not allowed above the knee. In some cases skillibegs were worn in Devon, that is, haybands wound about the calves and shins as a protection. In the Cornish play there is hugging and heaving; in the Devonshire play, kicking and tripping. It might be thus defined: in Cornwall, the shoulders and arms were mainly relied on; in Devonshire, the legs.

A player, having got his hitch, would proceed to very close quarters, and taking his man round the body, not lower than the waist, would throw him over his shoulder, giving him the Flying Mare, and turning him over on his back when falling, give him the Back Fall.

Besides the Flying Mare, there was the Cross-buttock fall in shoulder play, the Back-heave, and others. In the leg play there were the Fore-lock, the Back-lock, Heaving-toe, Back-heel, and others. The Cornish player would, when he had secured his hitch, endeavour to drag his man in for the hug and the fling; whereas the Devonshire man would play for his hitch to keep him off, till he had disabled him.[1]

Sir Thomas Parkyns, about whom more in the sequel, thus describes the cast of the Flying Mare: "Take him by the right hand with your left, your palm being upwards as if you designed only to shake him by the hand in a friendly manner in the beginning, and twist it outwards, and lift it upwards to make way for your head, and put your head under his left armpit, and hold his head stiff backwards, to hold him out of his strength; then put your right arm up to the shoulder between his grainings, and let your hand appear behind, past his breech; but if you suspect they will cavil at that arm, as a breeching, lay your arm across his belly, and lift him up as high as your head, and in either hold, when so high, lean backwards and throw him over your head."

Sir Thomas insists that a good wrestler must be temperate. "Whoever would be a complete wrestler must avoid being overtaken in drink, which very much enervates, or, being in a passion at the sight of his adversary, or having received a fall, in such cases he is bereaved of his senses; not being master of himself is less of his art, but showeth too much play, or none at all, or either pulleth, kicketh, and ventureth beyond all reason and his judgment when himself."

Wrestling matches usually began at Whitsuntide, but were most in practice at the period between the hay and corn harvests, when the cereals were assuming a golden hue, and the orchards were bending under their burden of fruit. There was hardly a village in the West that did not offer a prize and enjoy the time-honoured spectacle of a game of wrestling. The prize was either a silver-plated belt or a gold-laced hat. The wearing of the latter was held to free the wearers from liability to be pressed for the Navy.

The wrestling ground was laid with tan. At Moreton Hampstead the games took place in the Sentry or Sanctuary field. At Sheepstor in the still well-preserved Bull-ring, and the spectators sat on the churchyard wall to watch the sport. At Liskeard, matches took place in the Ploy, or Play-field from Lady Day to Michaelmas.
In the kicking, usual in Devonshire play, the wrestler about to administer a kick had but one foot on the ground, and having an off-hitch was liable to be thrown by a quick player with a trip or a lock. The kick could be prevented by bending the knee so as to bring the heel up to the buttock, and projecting it, when the knee caught the administering player on the leg-bone above the knee with such force as to paralyse it for a while, and it has even been known to break it. This was entitled the stop.

Several of the Devonshire wrestlers became famous beyond the confines of the county; and matches between Devonians and Cornishmen were not uncommon; and the latter do not seem to have been at all afraid of the kick, for by closing on their antagonists for the hug, they could prevent them from kicking with toe or heel, at all events with full force.

Thorne was a man of Widdecombe-on-the-Moor, a man of splendid build and muscular development. He had made his name as a wrestler, when he was induced to join the Life Guards, and in the battle of Waterloo took part in the famous charge against the French cuirassiers; as he was cutting down his tenth victim a shot laid him low, at the age of twenty-three.

Then two young Devonian giants took the lead in the ring, Johnny Jordan and Flower, each six feet high and weighing a trifle over eighteen stone apiece. Jordan was a redoubted kicker, and the bravest wrestlers shrank from challenging him. On one occasion Flower and Jordan were opposed to one another, and after a struggle of seventeen minutes, Flower gave way.

In 1816, Flower was confronted with Polkinghorne, a St. Columb taverner, and the champion of Cornwall. The latter was too much for Flower, and he was thrown amidst enthusiastic cheering and hat-tossing and kerchief-waving of the Cornishmen.


Jackman, another Devonshire man, confronted Polkinghorne next day, and he was cast over the head of the Cornubian, describing the "flying mare." William Wreford, at the age of eighteen, achieved reputation by throwing Jordan over his head with such force that Jordan came down with a "crash similar to that produced by felling an oak tree." But Wreford met his match in a wrestle with "the little Elephant," James Stone. Simultaneously the men grappled each other; and although Wreford had the advantage at the outset, he was hurled into the air, and fell with such violence on his back that for a time he was incapacitated from taking part in a similar contest. Eventually the return match came off at Southmolton, and Stone was again victorious. Nevertheless Wreford remained a prominent figure in the ring, and threw Francis Olver, a Cornishman, although he came out of the contest with several of his ribs crushed by the deadly "hug." But a greater than Wreford and Jordan arose in the person of Abraham Cann. He was born in December, 1794, and was the son of Robert Cann, a farmer and maltster at Colebrook. His father had been a wrestler before him, and Abraham inherited the old man's skill, and learned by his experience, and soon defeated Jordan, Flower, Wreford, Simon Webber, and other redoubtable Devon champions. He was above the middle height as a man, with long legs, and was endowed with surprising strength of limb. He was a kicker. Abraham had a brother James, also a well-known wrestler, but he did not acquire the celebrity of Abraham. In his later years he was an under-gamekeeper, respected for his fearlessness when poachers were to the fore.

There were other mighty men in the ring, as Bawden the Mole-catcher, and Frost, of Aveton Gifford; but these were no match for Cann.

At Totnes, in 1825, Jordan had thrown a fine player, of the name of Huxtable, in one minute, and the liveliest interest was felt in a match that was to be played between him and Abraham Cann, who boasted that he could kick to rags the legs of his antagonist in "vive minutes."

When his turn arrived Cann awaited Jordan in the ring, upright, undaunted, with a smile of conscious superiority on his face. Jordan eyed the tall, athletic, and muscular form of Abraham, and withdrew without trying for a hitch. This caused lively disappointment, and loud cries of anger broke forth. But Jordan felt that he was not in good form at the time. Two days later he was roughly handled by a young Cornishman named Hook, and was too much injured to resume the contest.

On 21 September, 1826, at the Eagle Tavern, City Road, London, Cann contended without shoes for the first prize with James Warren of Redruth, and although the latter made a gallant struggle and Cann was at a disadvantage playing without his proper and accustomed weapons, the indurated boots, Abraham Cann came off the victor.

He now challenged Polkinghorne, the champion of Cornwall. James Polkinghorne was 6 ft. 2 in. high, weighed 320 lb., and had not wrestled for some years, but had carried on business as landlord of the "Red Lion" in St. Columb Major. Cann was but 5 ft. 8 1/2 in. high, and weighed 175 lb. This match was for £200 a side, for the best of three back-falls; and it took place on Tamar Green, Morice Town, Plymouth, on 23 October, 1826, in presence of 17,000 spectators. According to some accounts, Abraham on this occasion was allowed only one shoe. There had been much previous correspondence between the champions; Polkinghorne had postponed meeting Cann as long as was possible.

Finally a meeting was arranged, as said, on the 23rd October, 1826.

"Tamar Green, Devonport, was chosen for this purpose, and the West was alive with speculation when it was known that the backers meant business. On the evening before the contest the town was inundated, and the resources of its hotels and inns were taxed to the utmost. Truculent and redoubtable gladiators flocked to the scene—kickers from Dartmoor, the recruiting-ground of the Devonshire system, and bear-like huggers from the land of Tre, Pol, and Pen—a wonderful company of tried and stalwart experts. Ten thousand persons bought tickets at a premium for seats, and the hills around swarmed with spectators. The excitement was at the highest possible pitch, and overwhelming volumes of cheering relieved the tension as the rivals entered the ring—Polkinghorne in his stockings, and Cann with a monstrous pair of shoes whose toes had been baked into flints. As the men peeled for action such a shout ascended as awed the nerves of all present. Polkinghorne had been discounted as fat and unwieldy, but the Devonians were dismayed to find that, great as was his girth, his arms were longer, and his shoulders immensely powerful. Three stone lighter in weight, Cann displayed a more sinewy form, and his figure was knit for strength, and as statuesquely proportioned. His grip, like Polkinghorne's, was well known. No man had ever shaken it off when once he had clinched; and each enjoyed a reputation for presence of mind and resource in extremity beyond those of other masters of the art. The match was for the best of three back-falls, the men to catch what hold they could; and two experts from each county were selected as sticklers. The feeling was in favour of Cann at the outset, but it receded as the Cornishman impressed the multitude with his muscular superiority. Repeatedly shifting their positions, the combatants sought their favourite ’holts.' As soon as Cann caught his adversary by the collar after a contending display of shifty and evasive form, Polkinghorne released himself by a feint; and, amid 'terrible shouts from the Cornishmen,' he drove his foe to his knees.

"Nothing daunted, the Devonian accepted the Cornish hug, and the efforts of the rivals were superb. Cann depended on his science to save him; but Polkinghorne gathered his head under his arm, and lifting him from the ground, threw him clean over his shoulder, and planted him upon his back. 'The very earth groaned with the uproar that followed; the Cornishmen jumped by hundreds into the ring; there they embraced their champion till he begged to be released; and, amid cheers and execrations, the fall was announced to have complied with the conditions. Bets to the amount of hundreds of pounds were decided by this event.’

"Polkinghorne now went to work with caution, and Cann was conscious that he had an awkward customer to tackle. After heavy kicking and attempted hugging, the Cornishman tried once more to lift his opponent; but Cann caught his opponent's leg in his descent, and threw him to the ground first. In the ensuing rounds both men played for wind. Polkinghorne was the more distressed, his knees quite raw with punishment, and the betting veered in Cann's favour. Then the play changed, and Cann was apparently at the mercy of his foe, when he upset Polkinghorne's balance by a consummate effort, and threw him on his back by sheer strength—the first that the sticklers allowed him. Cann next kicked tremendously; but, although the Cornishman suffered severely, he remained 'dead game,' and twice saved himself by falling on his chest.

"Disputes now disturbed the umpires, and their number was reduced to two. In the eighth round Polkinghorne's strength began to fail, and a dispute was improvised which occasioned another hour's delay. With wind regained and strength revived, the tenth round was contested with absolute fury; and, taking kicking with fine contempt, Polkinghorne gripped Cann with leonine majesty, lifted him from the earthin his arms, turned him over his head, and dashed him to the ground with stunning force. As the Cornishman dropped on his knee the fall was disputed, and the turn was disallowed. Polkinghorne then left the ring amid a mighty clamour, and, by reason of his default, the stakes were awarded to Cann. The victor emerged from the terrific hugs of his opponent with a mass of bruises, which proved that kicking was only one degree more effective than hugging.

"A more unsatisfactory issue could hardly have been conceived, and the rival backers forthwith endeavoured to arrange another encounter. Polkinghorne refused to meet Cann, however, unless he discarded his shoes."

Various devices were attempted to bring them together again, but they failed. Each had a wholesome dread of the other.

But Cann went on as a mighty wrestler. He tried a fall with "Irish Gaffney." It ended in Cann throwing Gaffney over his back and dislocating his left shoulder, besides cutting his shins to pieces with his boots.

His next famous encounter was with Frost, a moorman of Aveton Gifford, and after a most desperate contest, Cann landed him on his back.[2]

There were other mighty men of the ring, such as a blind wrestler mentioned in the ballad of "Dick Simmins." In Cornwall wrestling continues, especially at S. Columb and S. Austell, but in Devon it is extinct: it was thought brutal to hack the shins, and after the hobnailed boot, or boot hardened in blood and at the fire, was discarded, it lost its interest.

Sir Thomas Parkyns has been quoted. He published a curious work entitled The Inn Play, or Cornish Hugg Wrestler, and died in 1741. He was an enthusiast for the noble science—the Cornish, and not the Devonshire mode—and would only take into his service men who were good wrestlers. His coachman was one who had shown him the Flying Mare.

Sir Thomas, by his will, left a guinea to be wrestled for at Bradmore, Nottinghamshire, every Midsummer Day, and had his monument carved for him during his lifetime, representing him in wrestling costume, sculptured in marble by his chaplain, prepared for either the Cornish Hug or the Flying Mare. On one side is a well-limbed figure lying above the scythe of Time, the sun rising and shining on him as a wrestler in the prime of life; on the other side is the same figure stretched in a coffin, with Time triumphant above him brandishing his scythe, and the sun setting. There are Latin verses appended, that may be thus translated:—

Here lies, O Time! the victim of thy hand,
The noblest wrestler on the British strand,
His nervous arm each bold opposer quell'd,
In feats of strength by none but thee excell'd,
Till, springing up, at the last trumpet's call,
He conquers thee, who will have conquer'd all.

At the time of the European war, it sometimes happened that a wrestling match was interrupted in an unpleasant manner to some of the parties by the appearance on the scene of the press-gang. There is a favourite song relative to Dick Simmins, published in Mr. Collier's memoir of Hicks of Bodmin. I will give it here:—

Come Vaither, Mother and Brothers all,
And Zistur too, I pray,
I'll tell ee a power o' the strangest thing's
As happen'd to me at say.
I'll tell ee a parcel o' the strangest things
About the winds and tide,
How by compass us steer'd, and o' naught was afear'd,
An' a thousand things beside.

'Tes true I lived i' ole Plymouth town,
My trade it were ostling,
Dick Simmins and I went to Maker Green
To turn at wrasteling.
The prize o' buckskin breeches a pair,
And ne'er the wuss for wear,
Dick and I us tried two vails apiece,
The blind man got his share.

Bevoor the play was o'er half way,
'Tes true upon my word,
There came a set o' press-gang chaps
Each armed wi' stick and sword.
Dick Simmins swore a dreadful oath
I didn't like to hear,
But when King ca'd blind man a fule,
That—darn't—I couldn't bear.

I went to t' chap wi' upcock'd hat,
"No odds where you may be,
But if thou thinks thyself a man
Come wi'out the ring wi' me."
So he did stand, his sword in hand,
I knocked it from his hand,
Then three or vour gurt toads came up
And knocked me down on t' land.

Along came one of Plymouth town,
Prentice to Uncle Cross,
Wot run away 'bout a bastard child,
A terrible lad he wos.
Said he, "Don't sarve the young man so,
'Tes an onmanly thing;
Pick up the lad, put him on board
That he may sarve the King."

They took me up by neck and heels,
They dra'ed me to the boat,
The master came 'longside of me
Wi', "Send the lubber afloat."
They took me up by neck and heels,
They dra'ed me to the say,
But Providence a-ordered it
I shuldn't be killed that way.

They picked me out, put me aboard
A ship then in the Sound,
The waves and winds did blow and roar,
I thought I shu'd be drown'd.
Then one called " Tack!" another "Ship!"
A third cried "Helm a lee!"
Lor' bless'y, I dun knaw Tack from Ship,
An' Helm to me's Chinee.

The Master ordered I aloft,
'Twas blawin' cruel hard,
And there was three or vour gurt chaps
A grizzlin' in the yard.
When down came mast and down came yard,
Then down came I likewise.
Lor' bless'y! if the church tower vaall'd,
'Twouldn't make half the noise.

Some vaall'd o'erboard, and some on deck,
Some had a thundrin' thump,
The Master ordered all hands up
For pumpin' at the pump.
Us pumped at the pump, my boys,
And no one dared to squeak,
The Master ordered all below
To stop a thunderin' leak.

When us had stoppéd up that leak
A French ship us spied comin',
The Master orders all to fight
And the drummer to be drummin'.
So when the French ship came 'longside,
A broadside us let flee,
Lor' bless'y! what for smoke and vire
Us couldn't smell nor see.
The Master wi' his cocked-up hat
He flourishéd his sword,
Wi' "Come and follow me, brave boys,
I warn't we'll try to board."
I vollowed he thro' thick and thin,
Tho' bless'y I culdn't see'n;
The gurt French chap was on to he
Wi' sword both long" and keen.

I rinn'd up to the Master's help,
I niver rinn'd no vaster,
I zed unto the gurt French chap,
"Now don't ee hurt the Master!"
Then "Wee, wee, wee, parlez vous Frenchee!"
He zed—I reck'n he cuss'd—
But "Darny," sez I, "if that's your game,
I reck'n I must kill ee fust."

The Master jumped 'bout the French ship
And tore down all her colours,
And us jumped 'bout the French ship, too,
A whoppin' them foreign fellers.
As for the chap as Master threat'n'd
I beat that Parley-vous,
From the niddick down his lanky back,
Till he squeaked out "Mortbleu!"

Now here's a lesson to volks ashore,
And sich as ostlers be,
Don't never say Die, and Tain't my trade,
But listen, and mark of me.
There's nobody knaws wot ee can do,
Till tried—now trust me well,
Why—us wos ostlers and ort beside,
Yet kicked the Frenchies to——Torpoint.

Carew gives us an account of the way in which wrestling was conducted in the West of England in the days of Charles I. "The beholders cast or form themselves into a ring, in the empty space whereof the two champions step forth, stripped into their dublets and hosen, and untrussed, that they may so the better command the use of their lymmes; and first, shaking hands, in token of friendship, they fall presently to the effects of anger; for each striveth how to take hold of the other with his best advantage, and to bear his adverse party downe; whereas, whosoever overthroweth his mate, in such sort, as that either his backe, or the one shoulder, and contrary heele do touch the ground, is accounted to give the fall. If he be only endangered, and makes a narrow escape, it is called a foyle."

He then adds: "This pastime also hath his laws, for instance; of taking hold above the girdle—wearing a girdle to take hold by—playing three pulls for trial of the mastery, the fall-giver to be exempted from playing again with the taker, but bound to answer his successor. Silver prizes for this and other activities, were wont to be carried about, by certain circumforanei, or set up at bride-ales, but time or their abuse hath now worn them out of use." Double play was when two who had flung the rest contested at the close for the prize.

If wrestling was declining in Carew's time, it certainly revived in vigour in the reign of Charles II, and continued till the beginning of the nineteenth century, when again it declined, and is now in Devon a thing of the past.

Blackmore has given an excellent description of a Devonshire wrestling match in his early novel of Clara Vaughan.

1. ↑ See W. F. Collier, " Wrestling," in the Cornish Magazine, Vol. I, 1898.
2. ↑ For a full account, most graphically written, and from which I have quoted, see Mr. Whitfeld's Plymouth and Devonport, in War and Peace, Plymouth, 1900; also the Sporting Magazine for 1826-7; the Annual Register, 1826.


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