Cornish Wrestling (England)

Name of sport (game)

Cornish Wrestling

Name in native language

Cornish Wrestling

Place of practice (continent, state, nation)



Wrestling is a distinct Cornish tradition that survives to the present day.
The history of Cornish Wrestling goes back so far it is lost in the midst of time. The first mention of Celtic Wrestling appears in the ancient book of Leinster, referring to the sport being included in the Tailteann Games which date back to at least 1829 BC. We know Wrestling was established in Cornwall before the Roman invasion and that the Cornish meetings on Halvager Moor were held during the dark-ages.
The Cornish contingent with Henry V at Agincourt (1415) marched under a banner depicting two Wrestlers “in a hitch”. The banner needed no words; the pictures of the wrestlers was enough to let anyone know the men of Cornwall were behind it.
During the famous meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France (on the Field of the Cloth of Gold) a team of wrestlers representing the English king defeated the champions of France. This contingent, which humbled the French team, consisted entirely of men from Cornwall. Godolphin the chief wrestler had received the Royal command direct to bring his men to uphold the king’s honour at Calais.
Wrestling is national sport in Cornwall, a direct living link with our ancestors handed down through an un-broken chain, from father to son, brother to brother and friend to friend for over 3,000 years.
Many times, Cornish Wrestlers have displayed their prowess before a royal audience. King Charles II believed that the Cornish were “masters in the art of wrestling” after attending a tournament at Bodmin while on his way to the Isles of Silly. It was during his reign that Tomas Hawken of Cubert threw Lyttleton Weynorth, who claimed to be the champion wrestler of “all England”.
Richard Carew, famous for his survey of Cornwall (1602) said that at about 1590 even their Breton neighbours did not match the Cornish in the art of Wrestling. Men from all walks of life took part in the sport. One of the best known wrestlers of the 17th century was Richard Stevens, the head master of Truro Grammar school; inventor Richard Trevithick was another. In the 18th and 19th centuries for which information is more readily available, we see records of tournaments that ran for a week to find the standing men to contest the semi-finals and finals on the Saturday and Sunday. With crowds of upwards of 10,000 for such finals or big name challenge matches, large sums of money often changed hands.

Wrestlers from those times are still remembered today. Thomas Treleaven and Benjamin Samble both stood 6’ 2”, while from St Mawgan came six-footer Richard Parkyn; at 16½ stone he competed until his 50s. Parkyn was born at Parkyn’s Shop, at the point of three parish boundaries: St Columb Major, St Columb Minor and St Mawgan. From 1806 he enjoyed a staggering 20 years undefeated and became known as The Great Parkyn, celebrated from Saltash to St Just.
Richard Parkyn was followed by James Polkinghorne, a truly huge man. At 5’ 11” and just under 20 stone – according to some reports he weighed 320 lb – he was an intimidating prospect for any opposition. He duly became Cornish champion and was also landlord of St Columb Major’s Red Lion public house, which must have been handy on Saturday nights if anyone dared become playful.
During 1826, late in the season on 23October, Morris (or Morice) Town at Devonport saw the last great wrestling battle between Cornwall and Devon. Watched by as many as 17,000 people, the purse was a staggering £200. For Cornwall appeared the giant 38-year old Polkinghorne, while Devon fielded their champion, Abraham Cann, at 32 a mere 5’ 8½” and weighing around 12½ stone.
At first sight the outcome might have been felt a foregone conclusion, but the bout was fought under Devonian rules. Polkinghorne’s upper body attacks were pitched against the kicking, with boots, of his opponent; Cann was reportedly strong in the leg, and nimble. Today the result of the encounter isn’t clear to us, but it seems the contest was a long one and finally ended in a draw.
Nearly 20 years following their retirement from wrestling the two old adversaries worked together, acting as sticklers at the Inter-County Wrestling Championships at Camden in London. They officiated at the clash between Thomas Gundry and Chapple of Devon, which ended in victory for Cornwall. A sour Exeter newspaper correspondent accused Gundry of winning through bribery but when challenged by the Sithney man, his accuser melted away.
In hard times at home, as Cornish miners emigrated they took Cornish wrestling with them. Competitions sprang up across America, Australia, and also South Africa where the renowned Sam Ham, originally from Condurrow near Camborne, became Middleweight Champion. Finally, in 1923 the Cornish Wrestling Association was formed at Bodmin, to provide a uniform set of rules under which all could compete. Wrestlers became registered, and an annual Cornish championship was held.
During the 1930s and ‘40s, several members of the Chapman family achieved great wrestling success; grandfathers, fathers and sons all fought. Many Cornish towns and villages held tournaments, and hundreds would turn out to watch the contests. Other well-known wrestling families were the Hawkeys and the Warnes, but the most famous competitor of his day was heavyweight champion Francis Gregory of St Wenn.
Gregory had his first match at the age of 13, and was youngest of the Cornishmen who showed their skills at London’s Palladium threatre in 1927. Seven times from 1928 he represented Cornwall at the official Cornu-Breton Championships: seven times he won, on four occasions in Brittany. Later he moved north, changing his sport to play rugby league for Wigan and Warrington, and was capped for England. Taking up professional wrestling he became known as Francis St Clair Gregory, and during November 1955 appeared in the first wrestling match shown on British television.
More recently though, in the face of fierce competition and promotion of other sports, interest in Cornish wrestling waned until just a small band of stalwarts were left. To put a stop to the decline, help raise awareness and secure funding, during 2004 the Cornish Wrestling Association became affiliated to the British Wrestling Association. Publicity was increased, while training sessions for would-be wrestlers were established in Helston, Truro and Wadebridge.
The measures have helped ‘wrasslin’ make a strong comeback. Based at St Columb Major, today Ashley Cawley is Cornwall’s current Heavyweight Champion; he’s also the CWA’s PR officer, while his uncle Mike Cawley is the Association’s Chairman. Last year, Ashley’s father Gerry came out of his wrestling retirement to win two championships.
Over the summer months the CWA runs tournaments in villages and towns across the Duchy, and also features at the Royal Cornwall Show. All ages are welcome to try the sport; categories include under-18s, under-16s, under-14s, under-12s, even under-10s. Today too there’s a tablet on the frontage of the Red Lion, commemorating St Columb Major’s James Polkinghorne and his mighty 1826 contest against Abraham Cann.


The object is to throw your challenger, from a standing-up position; no grappling or holding on the ground is allowed, a measure intended to bring out skill and technique rather than relying on strength alone. A bout begins when the competitors grasp each other’s jackets by collar, lapel or sleeves in what’s called a ‘hitch’. To win you must score a ‘back’, throwing your opponent onto his shoulders and hips – his four ‘pins’; at least three pins must touch the ground at once. Once a back’s scored the contest is over, but single-pin scores can accumulate toward a points win if no back is achieved.
Sound’s easy? In fact there are many different techniques and throws you can use to defeat your challenger. Crooks and heaves are among the most popular, crooks being variations of trip to catch your adversary unawares, while heaves are often used by heavier, more powerful wrestlers to lift the opposition up in the air and fling him down on his back. If any part of the body except the feet touches the ground, the hitch ends and the bout must restart. And always there’s the traditional courtesy of the handshake, before the bout, prior to each hitch, and at the end of the contest.
Cornish wrestlers go barefoot or wear socks, together with simple shorts. Their most important piece of clothing is the canvas jacket, in past times sometimes made of sailcloth or even sacking, laced at the front and with baggy half-sleeves. It’s an indispensable item which must also be durable; contenders are only allowed to grip each other by the jacket. Specialist moves such as the ‘flying mare’ involve grabbing your opponent’s jacket strings, swinging him off-balance and onto the ground.
As they gain experience, Cornish wrestlers develop their own moves and counters, but some methods aren’t allowed. Finger- or wrist-twisting is forbidden; throat-holds, using your foot above your opponent’s knee or gripping his jacket below the waist are also out, as is touching the ground with your hand or knee to avoid being flung through the air.
Wrestling matches take place mainly in the summer, outdoors on grass; a 6-metre radius ring is marked out, together with an outer ‘no-man’s land’ into which spectators may not enter. Typically, for senior competitors one 10-minute round is allowed, overseen by three ‘sticklers’. These umpires are usually ex-wrestlers themselves; they carry walking-sticks traditionally used to enforce the rules if needed. The sticklers score the bouts, watch for illegal moves and their decisions are absolute – there’s no right of appeal for feeling hard-done-by and the wrestlers accept judgements with good grace.

Current status




The Cornish Wrestling Association 

Sources of information

- Sir Thomas Parkyns, The Inn-Play or Cornish Hugg Wrestler, London 1727
- Michael Tripp, The Socio-Genesis of Cornish Wrestling, A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MSc in the sociology of sport and sports management, University of Leicester 1995
- Graeme Kent, A Pictorial History of Wrestling, Spring Books, Middlesex 1968
- Dickson G., The Origins of Cornish Wrestling. Sydney. 1999
- Kendall B., The Art of Cornish Wrestling. Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. 1990
- Willams M., Curiosities of Cornwall. Bossiney books, Bodmin, Cornwall. 1983
- Gregory C., Historic Inns of Cornwall. Bossiney books, Bodmin, Cornwall. 1986
- Johns, C., Cheer Like Mad for Cornwall: the story of Cornish wrestling, the author, St Stephen-in-Brannel, 1995

- The Wrestling Championship Of Cornwall in The Cornishman (258). 21 June 1883. p. 6
- Holmes, R., Cornish-style wrestling, in Jaouen, G. (ed.) Celtic Wrestling Our Culture! International Federation of Celtic Wrestling, Lesneven, 1990, pp. 14-15
- Hooper W.T., The Story of Cornish Wrestling and its Relations with Brittany in Royal Institution of Cornwall Journal, N.S.II, II (1954), 88-97
- Hooper, W.T., Cornish Wrestling, in Cornish Review, vol. 1, no. 5, Summer 1950, pp. 30-32
- Hooper, W. T., Cornish Wrestling, in Old Cornwall, vol. 5, no. 1, 1951, pp. 13-15
- Hooper, W.T., Cornish Wrestling, in Cornish Magazine, vol. 1, no. 4, 1958, pp. 28-29
- Johns, C., The story of Cornish wrestling, in Canadian Wrestler, 10, (1), Fall 1986
- Jolly, Rev. L.V., Cornish Wrestling, in The Scillonian, no 13, March 1928, pp. 10-18
- Noall, C., A Cornish Champion Wrestler: James Polkinghorne, The Cornish Magazine, vol. 7, no. 6, 1964, pp. 183-188
- Pascoe, H., Cornish Wrestling, in Old Cornwall, vol. 1, no. 5, 1925, pp. 8-14
- Pascoe, H., Cornish wrestling, The Cornish Annual, 1928, p. 63-69
- Rowe, L.M.G., Cornish Wrestling in Nevada County, in Nevada County Historical Society, vol. 23, no. 4, 1969, pp. 1-6
- Sam Sam‘s Son, Wrestling in Cornwall and Devonshire, in The Table Book, 1827, William Tegg and Co., London, pp. 499-502
- Collier, W.F. Wrestling: The Cornish and Devonshire Styles, Cornish Magazine, vol. 1, 1898, pp. 193-201
- About Cornish Wrestlin,
- Ken Pfrenfer, Early Cornish Wrestling, Journal of Western Martial Art, March 2000,
- David Stone, Cornish Wrestling,