Lancashire Wrestling (England)
Name of sport (game)
Name in native language
Place of practice (continent, state, nation)
Lancashire wrestling (Catch-as-catch-can) was a folk freestyle wrestling culturally unique to the residents of East Lancashire, England. Historically, it was practiced on the territory which now includes Greater Manchester, as well as Blackburn, Burnley, Pendle, Rossendale and etc. Traditionally, those areas were known as Salford (South) and Blackburn (North) Hundreds of Lancashire County. This wrestling style was also popular among the residents of the places bordering with those areas namely Stockport, Stalybridge, Dukinfield, Hyde of Cheshire, Glossop, Marple Bridge, Woodhead of Derbyshire, and Saddleworth, Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford, Batley, Dewsbury of West Riding, Yorkshire. The major Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can towns listed from West to East were Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Middleton, Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Traditionally, Lancashire folk wrestling amateur competitions (wrestling for love) were held during the local folk and religious festivals, such as Wakes week (Rushbearings), May Day, Easter, Whit Monday, Shrove Tuesday, even weekly markets on Sundays and etc. The challenge matches were usually played out of curiosity “who is the better man” or for a quarter or a half gallon of beer. The earliest semi-amateur eliminations tourneys were wrestled for the “trophy pig” or a silver watch.
Professionalism in Lancashire catch wrestling was introduced in the 1820s and since then this style of wrestling was often referred to as a Catch-as-catch-can after the Lancashire fashion. The majority of professionals were recruited from the local colliers, and the most skilled of them were called the “black diamonds.” The wrestling matches between the champions of Lancashire towns of Bolton and Oldham were the earliest known Lancashire Catch Wrestling Derby. The first written ruleset of Lancashire catch wrestling was issued in 1856 by the proprietor of Snipe Inn Grounds (Audenshaw, Lancs) Mr. Nelson Warren, aka the Snipe Inn Rules. During the early stage of the Era of Professionalism the main center of catch wrestling was established in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancs the town which produced the greatest number of champions in the 1860s aka the Golden Era of Catch Wrestling. During that time the first official titles in the form of “challenge trophies” were introduced in catch wrestling. The most prestigious among them were 9st championships: the Copenhagen Grounds Silver Belt (Newton Heath, Manchester) and the Snipe Inn Grounds Gold Cup.
In the late XIX century the epicenter of catch pro wrestling moved to Wigan, Lancs. This town which gave birth to so many generations of top-notch catch wrestlers maintained its superiority in the XX century as well and is known among the fans and practitioners of catch wrestling as the “Mecca of Catch-as-catch-can.”
In the 1870s-80s the Lancashire Wrestling Association (LWA), which was established in 1875/76, was running the annual championship tourneys for professionals at the Grand Circus on Peter-street, Manchester. The founders of that organization were former owners of the famous sporting venues (grounds) of the city of Manchester and the surrounding areas. The LWA competitions were governed by the Manchester’s “Sporting Chronicle” Rules (evolved version of the original Snipe Inn Rules) which soon became standard catch-as-catch-can rules in East Lancashire and remained as such for decades. During that time the following official weight classes were introduced in Lancashire catch wrestling: 116lb, 126lb, 138lb and 154lb. Just like in the 1860s the most prestigious and “competitive” weight division was the 9st championship.
In 1899 Lancashire catch wrestling finally conquered London, the capital of Empire. The open to all British men tourney was held at National Athletic Grounds, in Kensal Rise, London during the Easter holidays. The championships were promoted in two weight divisions: middleweight (12st limit) and lightweight (10st4lb limit). Joe Carroll of Hindley, Lancs won the middleweight tourney and was proclaimed the first official British champion wrestler and became the holder of the magnificent gold and silver belt emblematic of that title. The lightweight championship was undecided.
List of the most famous XIX century pro Lancashire catch wrestlers by decade: 1820s/30s John Rowland of Bolton, William Buckley (Trout) and John Holt both of Oldham; 1840s/50s Adam Ridings (Dockum) of Bury, James Matley (Barrel) of Ashton, George Swithenbank of Saddleworth, undefeated heavyweight champion William Swann of Ashton, as well as champion heavyweight boxer of England Sam Hurst of Stalybridge; 1860s the best pound for pound catch wrestler of XIX century Teddy Lowe of Whitworth, John Meadowcroft and David Bentley both of Bury, William Schora, Frank Robinson, John Massey, Joseph Newton (Teapot) all from the Ashton areas; 1870s Edwin Bibby of Ashton, John Lees, John Butterworth (Dockum) both of Oldham, undefeated heavyweight champion William Snape (Dipper) of Bolton, John Tonge (Eckersley), Joe Acton, William Moullineux (Sellars), Miles Sweeney all of Wigan; 1880s/90s Abraham Travis (Ab-o-Wags) of Oldham, James Faulkner, Isaac Smith, William Winstanley (Soap), Tom Connor, Charles Green, Tom Jones (Burgy Ben), Joe Carroll, James Morris (Stockley) all from the Wigan areas, Tom Clayton (Bulldog) of Bolton, James Mellor, Jack Smith both of Stalybridge, Sam Moores of Salford.
The transformation of professional Lancashire catch wrestling into a present-day sport occurred during the so-called British Wrestling Boom Era in the 1904-1910. National Amateur Wrestling Association of Great Britain (NAWA) already existed (est. in 1904) but their wrestling, though also being called catch-as-catch-can wasn't after the "old Lancashire fashion", it was a style which originated in London. Since 1904 NAWA Catch-as-catch-can Rules (pinfalls or a referee decision based on points in case the back fall wasn’t achieved) were generally accepted by both amateurs and professionals of Great Britain. During that era all catch wrestling contests (for both amateurs and professionals) in East Lancashire were governed by the updated version of the Manchester’s "Sporting Chronicle" Rules which were in harmony with the current NAWA Rules.
Among the most famous pro Lancashire catch wrestlers of the British Wrestling Boom Era were: Harry Mort of Oldham, Tom Rose of Bolton, Willie Collins, Jack Carroll (nephew of Joe Carroll), Jack Brown, William Charnock, Jim Foster and Bob Berry all from the Wigan areas, Job Shambley of Westhoughton, Peter Bannon of Burnley, Jack Winrow of Heywood.
The true revival of the catch wrestling in East Lancashire happened in the 1920s during the glorious era of British amateur wrestling. Lancashire County Amateur Wrestling Association (LCAWA) was established in October 1923 and remained a member of NAWA till April 1927 when a decision was made to expel them from affiliated membership for promoting “their own championship titles.” The best among the LCAWA champions, holders of the challenge gold and silver belts also became British Amateur Wrestling Champions. The greatest of them was a 9st champion Joe Reid of Leigh, Lancs, a collier by trade, he held 6 British titles for 5 consecutive years between 1930 and 1935 inclusively, and represented Team Great Britain at 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, USA. Reid was "Teddy Lowe of XX century" and was considered among the best and most scientific pound for pound catch wrestlers of the modern era from East Lancashire. Despite LCAWA’s membership in NAWA was discontinued they didn’t stop promoting and holding their own amateur tourneys (titles) in East Lancashire till mid-1930s. George Gregory of Bolton who during his amateur years was LCAWA champion (welterweight and heavyweight divisions) later became a world-class pro wrestler, the British All-in wrestling heavyweight champion.
In order to popularize professional combative sports among local men in 1930 the Wrestling and Boxing Comrades’ Association (W&BCA) was established in Wigan, Lancs. The chairman of W&BCA was a former pro wrestler and famous rugby coach T. McCarthy. Among the associates of that organization were legendary Joe Carroll and famous Billy Riley, who was a father of the modern Wigan catch wrestling (“Snake Pit” Catch).
After WW2, the British Amateur Wrestling Association changed the name “catch-as-catch-can” to “freestyle” wrestling. It was the beginning of the modern era of amateur catch wrestling in Great Britain. The greatest representative of that generation was ten-time British Champion Herbert Hall of Oldham, Lancs.
The origin of Lancashire catch wrestling goes all the way back to the 1300s. Outside the area of East Lancashire a wrestling style which allowed catch-holds of any part of the person’s body as well as the ground wrestling was unknown in Medieval England. Those two major features of Lancashire catch wrestling were of the Continental origin. The German folk wrestling style called “Bauern-Art Ringen” (wrestling after the farmers’ fashion) had no limitations regarding the holds and featured ground wrestling. Variations of this style of wrestling were popular among Germanic people on the Continent during Middle Ages.
Ironically, the English verbs “to wring” and “to wrangle” and German words for wrestling “Ringen” and “Rangeln” share origin. A variation of Ringen freestyle wrestling was brought to East Lancashire by the immigrants from Flanders, the textile workers aka the “Flemish weavers”, who were adepts in that particular style of wrestling. In Netherlands and Flanders this freestyle wrestling was known as Stoeijen (to touse, to tangle, to scuffle, to handle roughly). The etymology of the word Stoeijen explains the original rules of that wrestling game. The Dutch Soeijen, Flemish Stuwen/Stouwen, German Stauen, and Old English Stowian (the modern English verb “to stow” is derived from this word) basically meant to hold back, to restrain, to block or to suspend from any movement.
The first Flemish immigration to East Lancashire goes all the way back to the XIV century. The earliest Flemish weavers arrived to Bolton, Lancs in 1337. That is why the rough Lancashire up and down style of wrestling was often called the “Bolton Method.” Flemish immigration reached its peak during the persecution of Protestants in Spanish Netherlands in the XVI-XVII centuries. During the era of religious wars in Europe, besides Flemish, the German and French Protestant textile workers also fled to the areas of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Arrival of those Continental weavers largely influenced the growth and rise of textile industry in that region of England. The variations of Ringen which were practiced by Flemish people as well as other immigrants from the Continent merged with English folk catch-hold wrestling style and over time evolved into a new unique wrestling style the Lancashire Catch-as-catch-can.
Since the times of the English Civil War (XVII century) in East Lancashire and West Yorkshire the most common way of resolving disputes between two men was to have a fight after the Lancashire fashion. This fighting style was known as Lancashire up and down fighting, or purring. It usually was described as a combination of “wrestling, throttling, and kicking.” The best purrers of Lancashire came from the Rochdale areas.
The up and down fighting match featured a wide variety of brutal, non-wrestling tactics and was an “all-in wrestling” affair. Lancashire fighting was a degenerated form of up and down catch wrestling. In that sport fighters appeared in the ring stripped to the waist, wearing a loin-clothes and a pair of spiked clogs. The wrestling skill was a decisive factor for winning the up and down fighting contest. According to the rules of Lancashire up and down fighting the victory was awarded only on either “submissions” (usually a strangle hold, a hang) or “unable to continue” condition. The defeat had to be admitted verbally, or by raising the hand. Despite being called a fighting style the Lancashire fighting often didn’t allow punching with the fist during the matches.
Professionalism (prize ring) was introduced in Lancashire fighting at the very early stages of its existence. Before pro Lancashire catch wrestling ring was established up and down fighting was the only professional combative sport of local men. Due to the great number of deaths which occurred during up and down fights this combative sport became illegal in the 1820s. Because of that up and down fighting prize ring was soon replaced with the pro Lancashire catch wrestling. After the introduction of professionalism into Lancashire catch wrestling up and down fighting slowly ceased to exist and by the end of the XIX century it became extinct. Most of the professional Lancashire catch wrestlers of the 1830s and 1840s generation had up and down fighting background. All first pro catch wrestling stars were former purrers.
Notably, the transformation of up and down catch wrestling style into an “all-in wrestling” (fighting) style was happening on the Continent as well. German rough-and-tumble style of wrestling and fighting combined called Raufen had a lot of similarities with Lancashire up and down fighting. Similar evolution also occurred in Netherlands, Flanders and France.
Historically, there were two modes of Lancashire catch wrestling: the standing freestyle (“wrossle for a thrut”, wrestling for a throw) and the up and down freestyle. In the former style the goal was to give a back fall (sometimes just like in other English folk wrestling styles it was substituted with 3 falls on any part of the body except hands, knees and feet) from the standing position (flying fall) with or without attacker falling down himself, and in the latter the wrestling match continued on the ground until the fair back fall (rolling fall or pinfall) was achieved.
The original up and down Lancashire catch wrestling was basically Dutch/Flemish Stoeijen. In that style to pin adversary wasn’t enough and the wrestler who achieved a dominant uppermost position had to keep his man immovable (captured) under him for the previously agreed amount of time or making him admit his defeat verbally or by raising his hand.
The two original modes of Lancashire catch wrestling perfectly correspond to the “Half Wrestling” (Halber Ringkampf) and “Full Wrestling” (Ganzer Ringkampf) conditions of German folk freestyle wrestling Ringen. In Netherlands and Flanders those two modes of wrestling were known as Neergooi (throwing someone down) and Ondergooi (throwing someone down and keeping him underneath) respectively.
In Lancashire catch wrestling the wrestlers, after shaking hands in a sign of fair-play, started their match on the “green sward” at a distance from each other carefully looking for an opening and then suddenly attack, rushing into their adversary. Often they would snatch one another by the hands intertwining their fingers and using all their strength will try to force their opponent down to his knees. Another common start was to catch-hold adversary by the back of his neck. By proceeding this way they would close and break until the proper close quarter clinch hold (hug) was achieved. This wrestling style was a hand-to-hand combat. Wrestlers were allowed to take any hold of their opponent’s body above and under the waist and switch holds as often as they pleased in order to achieve the advantageous hold which led to a throw. The use of legs and feet for throwing (hooking and tripping respectively) was allowed but it wasn’t favored. Instead the “lift and throw” technique dominated that style. This freestyle wrestling featured such techniques (holds and throws) as various Headlocks, Fireman's Lift and Crossbuttocks (both versions, arm around the neck and arm around the body) as well as different kinds of Nelsons (both ways, from the standing position and on the ground). Throws which were given from the leg attacks were mostly the Double Leg and the High Crotch (single leg attack) lifts. In par-terre a various techniques were applied from both the front and behind of the opponent.
The objective of the wrestling match after the Lancashire fashion was to give opponent a fair back fall, the back fall when both shoulders touched the ground simultaneously. If the victory wasn’t gained from the standing position the struggle continued on the ground until one of the two achieved a fair back fall. All kinds of back falls counted, namely quick falls (flying falls and rolling falls) and pinning falls. The Lancashire wrestlers’ attire was limited to shorts (originally drawers) and socks (originally spiked pumps, hob-nailed light shoes which were worn in order to prevent slippery).
According to the above mentioned Snipe Inn Lancashire Catch-as-catch-can Rules, just like in the old Lancashire up and down fighting neither party could use resin or be rubbed with pernicious (ingridious) drugs or grease of any description. All foul acts or willful brutality, any unmanly techniques and tactics of the past (atrocities which were common during the up and down fighting contests), namely hanging (putting on the hang) or throttling, kicking, as well as head-butting, biting, gouging and scratching and etc. were strictly prohibited. Putting someone in a hold was allowed not for delivering the punishment to make the opponent quit the contest (as it was in up and down fighting) but for the sole purpose of achieving a fair back fall (flying fall, pinfall, rolling fall). The Referee had to stop the match if he saw a wrestler applying any dangerous holds on another wrestler for the purpose of willfully hurting, maiming him or to make him quit.
NOTE: this painting portrays a final contest of the Nudger Sports’ Lancashire Catch Wrestling Tourney, 1844. James Buckley of Middleton, Lancs defeated Adam Ridings of Bury, Lancs.
Currently the Lancashire catch-as-catch-can wrestling in its original folk wrestling format is not practiced anymore, but instead a wide variety of pro catch wrestling styles which evolved from it or were inspired and influenced by the Lancashire wrestling can be found all around the world.
Sources of information
The summary on Lancashire wrestling by Ruslan C Pashayev, based on his book “The Story of Catch” (2019).