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Devon wrestling was a well-known sport in the West Country boasting its own style and champions. A description of one match held in Ilfracombe is typical. One man paraded the town with six silver spoons tied around his hat. Arriving at the church he placed the hat on one of the lamp standards as a challenge to all-comers. Any challenger would toss his hat into the makeshift ring constructed on the local ‘green’. After drinking a glass of beer each the two wrestlers would put on ‘loose coats of duck, one bearing the device of a black fighting cock and the other that of a red bird.’ Thus dressed they stepped into the ring and tried to grab the coat of their opponent and then ‘kick each other’s shins as hard as they could.’
Devon wrestling wasn’t for the faint-hearted - especially when one considers that hob-nailed boots were worn for the contest! Apparently some wrestlers protected their shins with pads made of horn and leather but ‘others scorned such things.’ If a man was kicked to the ground he lost that round whilst the victor was he who could ‘throw’ three men. If three were thrown the victor was awarded the 6 spoons, if two were defeated he got 4 spoons and so on. Records are fairly scarce although there are accounts from Bickington in 1824, Lynton in 1827, Appledore in 1832, Berrynarbor in 1836 and Kentisbury in 1849 these were small village meetings, larger events being concentrated in the towns.
South Molton saw the Devon champion Abraham Cann visit in 1825, whilst a contest in 1827 saw 44 different matches. This latter meeting was even celebrated by a poem written by a keen follower of the sport. Another match in the town in 1842 had E30 worth of prizes on offer - at a time when the average labourer only earnt 10/- (50p) a week. Another important centre was Barnstaple where, for example, matches took place on at least 8 occasions between 1827-49 most of these occurring during the Fair Week. Sites seem to have been variable, in 1830 the matches took place at the Newington Inn in the Derby area of the town. A contemporary advertisement noted that ‘A Spacious Booth will be erected and every accommodation provided.’ Admission to the ‘Booth’ was 1/- (5p) whilst spectators around the ‘Ring’ only paid half that.
Twelve years later the matches were being held ‘in a field at the head of Bear-street’ whilst in 1843 there is mention of ‘the wrestling ring near Barnstaple Bridge’ - a site also used in 1849. Champions were celebrities and their marriages, eath and brushes with the law were noted by the Journal. Thus when John Flower died, aged 46, at Chulmleigh he was recorded as the greatest prizewinner ever known and famous for never cheating. The marriage of George Paige of Sheepwash was recorded in 1843, as was the fact that he was a ‘celebrated wrestler’.
Not everyone thought the sport acceptable. In 1827 a J.Barry wrote to the Journal attacking wrestling and backing their argument with biblical quotes. An editorial comment in an issue of the Journal in 1845 began, We are sorry to announce that the brutal and disgraceful sport of wrestling has been again attempted in this town’ whilst a month later the sport was labelled a ‘brutal pastime’. Brutality was certainly evident. In 1827 for example William Elworthy of Torrington broke his leg in a match, as did William Parkin of Barnstaple in 1837. Three years later at Ilfracombe a wrestler called Calking threw his opponent Jewell ‘with so much violence to the ground, that his neck was dislocated and his back dreadfully injured, so that his life for some time despaired of, and he now lies in a precarious state.