Journal of Western Martial Art
Cornish Wrestling, or "wrasslin" as we call it, is an ancient form of one-on-one combat, similar in style to many other forms of Celtic wrestling. It certainly has no similarity with the wrestling seen on TV where entertainment rather than competitiveness is the aim. Similar to Judo, and unlike most other Celtic styles, a jacket is used which enables opponents to gain a hold of each other. An important feature of this style, apart from the short canvass jacket [slide 1], is that there is no groundwork (wrestling whilst on the ground) whatsoever.
Lets first check out the equipment and play area. Equipment is simple, shorts and a strong canvass or hessian jacket. No boots or shoes are allowed in the Cornish style. The play area is any flat grassed area about the size of a tennis court.right
To be a formal bout, referees are required. In Cornish Wrestling these are known as "sticklers". That word has found its way into the English language to describe someone who is very strict in judgement and application of rules. A fitting usage, I believe. There are normally three sticklers, usually retired wrestlers who, as the name suggests carry a stick each. I"m told that this was originally as a form of crowd control, in times when the sport was at its most popular. I can"t say I"ve ever seen that, but the onlookers certainly become animated when two or more sticklers raise their stick aloft to indicate a victory has just been achieved.
A bout always commences with a handshake, but before that an apparently strange ritual of rolling the jacket up and tucking it under the left arm takes place [slide 2]. This is to prevent an opponent from gaining an early advantage by getting a quick free hold on the jacket and effecting an unexpected throw. My guess is that this ritual was introduced after the first time a throw called the "flying mare" was effected. more about the throws later.
The handshake communicates to each wrestler that the other is ready to commence. Wrestling always starts by getting into a "hitch". That is to say each wrestler takes a firm hold of the other"s jacket at the left shoulder and right underarm.
From this hitch, each tries to trip, lift or throw his opponent onto his back in order to achieve a victory [slide 3].
As we"ve already seen you must first shake hands, get in a hitch and not wrestle at all on the ground. As with other styles of wrestling, the aim in the Cornish manner is to defeat your opponent. To do this you must either "back" your man or effect a win over him by points. A "back" is scored when a man has been picked up and dropped flat on his back so that at least three of his four "pins" hit the ground simultaneously. "Pins" are the shoulders and hips. A "back" will win a contest whenever it takes place and the bout is over. As mentioned before, a "back" is signified by the sticklers raising their sticks straight up in the air. There"s no arguing or disputing the sticklers" decision.
You score points when a shoulder or hip hits the ground; one point for one pin and two points for two pins down. If, after a set time, no back has been scored, the stickers confer and compare the number of pins that they have recorded. Again, two out of three sticklers can carry the result in the event that they have not all recorded the same points.
If there is a draw, or no points at all have been scored, the bout will go to the wrestler who the sticklers considered made the most play; in other words was the most positive in his attempts.
Points can also be deducted if foul play is observed. Foul moves include the "cross collar", a choking action applied to the throat by crossing over the collars and pulling the jacket tight; pressure of the thumbs or knuckles on the throat; the crowbar hitch, where an arm is passed inside an opponent"s jacket and used as a lever. No holding is allowed below the waist, or striking with the foot above the knee. Deliberately touching the ground with a hand or knee to avoid being thrown is illegal, as is deliberately slipping out of the jacket. Grips can only take place on the jacket, It is an offense to grip an opponent"s wrist or fingers. In extreme cases, sticklers may disqualify a wrestler if they consider that unsporting or unfair play is made. "Marks" are given against offending wrestlers with three "marks" resulting in the deduction of a point.
When any part of the body, other than the feet, touches the ground or the jacket slips off, the hitch is broken and the wrestlers must shake hands and restart the contest.
Along with hurling, Cornish Wrestling is the oldest sport indigenous to Cornwall. Cornish Wrestling goes so far back in time that no one knows the exact origins of this ancient sport. In his epic work "Historia Regum Britanniae", written circa 1139, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of a legendary fight between Corineus and the Giant Gogmagog in which the champion Celtic wrestler, Corineus, throws the last remaining Giant in Cornwall over a cliff!
Somewhat more reliable are reports of the Cornish contingent at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, fighting under a banner depicting two wrestlers in a wrestler"s "hitch". Competitions between Cornwall and Brittany were first recorded in 1402, though wrestling between these Celtic groups probably pre-dates this considerably. Woodblock prints from the 1570"s depict the early evolution of the "wrasslin" jacket.
In the early 19th century St Mawgan boasted a champion, Parkyn, who carried all before him except one, James Polkinghorne, a native of St Keverne, but is better known in St Columb, my own home town. If we could turn the clock back to be customers at the Red Lion Hotel in the early years of the last century, we would have been served by a giant of a man, the same James Polkinghorne. He was described as having the neck of a bull, dark curling sideboards, piercing eyes and a determined jaw. There is a tablet on the roadside wall of the Red Lion commemorating Polkinghorne"s great match on 23rd October 1826 against Abram Cann, champion of Devon. This is oldest detailed account of a famous bout I can find. The match took place at Devonport and ten thousand people are said to have attended. The result appears inconclusive, though the Devon style, which was used allowed Cann to were heavy boots soaked in bullock"s blood, with which he kicked hard at the shins of Polkinghorne, something he would not have been used to.
Other wrestlers of renown from the St Columb region of this century have been John and William Capel, the Chapmans, Charlie Warne and Ross Oliver. Mike Roberts and Dean Henwood have the prestigious honour of being champions of every weight in Cornish Wrestling. Though he passed away at a relatively young age, I can remember Uncle Mike wrestling Ross Oliver and others, including in his last ever fight, against a young man called Gerry Cawley. Mike won but commented on the skill and strength of the young man. Twenty-five years later, Gerry is still wrestling and I was pleased to witness him, two years ago when I was over there, carry off the Middleweight Championship for the umpteenth time.
My favourite is the one where, many years before I was born, they needed one more wrestler to make up an even number in an open competition. They were trying to talk my Father into entering. Whist he was an able wrestler, he was cautious of meeting his younger brother, Mike, who was expected to win. He agreed as long as the organisers promised to fix the draw so as he wouldn"t be up against Mike. This they agreed, but it transpired that both Father and Mike kept winning, such that they were against each other in the final. This was not what Father had planned but he went ahead as he had committed himself to the competition. He ordered Mike to go easy on him, as he had to work the following day. Well, the bout didn"t last long, Mike won and Father was left with three broken ribs.
As one might expect, it was during the mass emigration of Cornishmen to South Africa, North America and Australia during a time when mining was diminishing in Cornwall and gold was being discovered around the world. A picture exists of one Professor William Miller from Australia fighting the American champion Colonel McLaughklin, though no date is identified. There are records of bouts on the Bedigo goldfields but to the best of my knowledge no Cornish Wrestling competitions have taken place in Australia for at least one hundred years This makes the planned open competition tomorrow a particularly historic event.
As one might expect, it is very much a younger man"s sport. Strength, agility and endurance are required, though it"s certainly not a question of "the bigger you are the harder it is to throw you". Many of the best wrestlers have been of a lighter yet strong frame.
A heavier, stronger wrestler is more inclined to rely on "heaves" or lifts to beat his opponent; while the taller, lighter man will use "crooks" to trip the other wrestler. In a heave, the other wrestler is literally heaved up into the air and "planted" on his back. To affect a crook, the leg is hooked around the leg of the other in order to pull it out from under the wrestler, tripping him onto his back. Other throws involve knocking an opponent backwards "the scat n back" or throwing him over the hip "the vore heap". The infamous "flying mare", referred to earlier, involves catching hold of the strings of the opponent"s jacket, swinging him right off his feet and planting his back onto the ground. Defensive techniques such as sprags can be used to counter an attack.
No festival, fair or formal gathering can fail to be more exiting than when the day"s festivities are topped off by the determined struggle of wrestlers, as each calls on all reserves of energy and skill in order to become the champion of the day.
In these days of Television, computer games and the Internet there is something fundamentally missing in our lives. I believe it is the ability to use the resources of our own bodies in the ultimate combat of Cornish Wrestling.
Colin Roberts, March 2000
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
Raby, I; The Book of St Columb & St Mawgan. Barracuda Books Limited, Buckingham, England. 1979
Journal of Western Martial Art