Devonshire Wrestling

News of research into Devon Wrestling memorabilia and primary sources

Recently we were contacted via the website, by Jamie Acutt, who represents the Devonshire Wrestling Society. In Jamie’s own words:

“Essentially, a small group of us are working at compiling as much memorabilia and primary sources as possible on the topic of Devonshire Wrestling. We have contacted a few local museums and have been able to source a fair amount of information so far. We would like to compile as much as possible, and would therefore ask whether you would able to assist in any way with this project?

Besides the compilation of resources on the subject, we are also actively practicing the sport and becoming proficient in the skills too. This has been very fun and enlightening. We have been kindly taught the sport too by the wrestlers of the Cornish Wrestling Association, whilst further adapting the skills to match the descriptions of the Devon style from historical sources.

I myself have trained with the Cornish Wrestlers, but Devonshire wrestling is a different game altogether. Unsurprisingly, our shins can take very little punishment without skillibegs (traditional shin guards), which we rarely abandon. It just goes to show how hardy our ancestors were for withstanding such pain in the name of sport (and prize money)! Given that the sport was/is so different from the Cornish style, we have yet to compete with them (mainly because if we play by the CWA rules, then we can't use many of our core techniques). ”

Our senior archivist John Heal was delighted to be able to respond with some information from our archive about the leading Devon wrestler Abraham Cann, from the diaries of a gentleman called Alfred Edwards. Mr Edwards’ notes are reproduced at the bottom of the page. The amount of detail suggests he was an eye witness.

Jamie described Mr Edwards’ notes as “one of the most unbiased accounts I have read so far - a fantastic primary source! It's difficult to believe much from the period because of the biases which were prevalent.” If anyone is able to supply further information about Devonshire Wrestling, please contact Jamie via the Devonshire Wrestling Society website, email CAHMS, or just let John Heal, David Nation or Jon Kelsey know and we will forward the information.

Notes on Abraham Cann (born at Colebrooke in 1794)

The Devonshire style of wrestling allowed the contestants to wear shoes and to kick their opponent. This resulted in fearful injuries.

Mr Nicholas John of North Hill near Launceston who died circa 1813 was a man of about 6ft 2 or 3. He often used to show his legs which “from being kicked at Wrestling were completely scarred and tattooed”.

Probably Cann’s most famous fight was against the Cornish champion Polkinghorne. They met at Devonport on October 23rd 1826. This fight excited great interest throughout the two counties. Alfred Edwards' account of the fight is as follows:

“The influx of strangers into Devonport was immense. The beds of all the inns were engaged and numerous individuals were obliged to seek lodgings in private families. Visitors flocked from all the large towns of both counties and even from that ultima thule of England, the Land’s End, including great numbers of practical wrestlers of both counties.

The spot chosen for the contest was a large enclosed yard at Marice Town, the scene of many a struggle between the prime men of Devon and Cornwall, it being situated on the bank of the river Tamar which separates the two counties.

Seats were fitted up for the comfortable accommodation of 10,000 spectators. At one end of the yard an extensive range of warehouses were fitted up as an inn by Mr Elliott of the Devonport Hotel, for the purpose of affording accommodation and refreshment. The prices of admission to the ring were five shillings and half-a-crown.

At noon there were above 10,000 persons in the ring, and the money taken at the doors amounted to more than £1,300. The hills around were crowded with spectators and it is no exaggeration to state that the match came of in the sight of 20,000 individuals. At half past twelve the two champions entered the ring. When they stripped it was found that Polkinghorne was nearly twice as stout as Cann and 3st 4lb heavier. Cann weighing but 12st 7lb. They were however nearly of a height.

The terms of the wrestle were that the wager should be decided by the best of three back falls to be determined by four tryers – two Devonshire and two Cornish. Betting was considerably in favour of Cann before the set to.

1st Round both fell together, Cann under but not on his back.

2 Cann at first kept hold of Polkinghorne’s right arm, but the latter freed himself by a most gigantic effort and seized Cann by the jacket half way down his back. The efforts of the two rivals were now truly fine. The physical power displayed by both was astonishing. Polkinghorne, however, gained an advantageous hold round Cann’s body, when the latter to avois being thrown, partly disengaged himself and fell on his knees.

3 There was very little manoeuvring in this round. Polkinghorne made an impetuous onset and, having obtained his favourite hold, threw Cann the first fair back fall.

4 After the lapse of fifteen minutes, the time allowed between the falls, the champions again grappled each other, Polkinghorne showing his superior strength by frequently pulling his antagonist forward, but this ‘pully-hanly-work’ as wrestlers call it, demonstrated no superiority of skill. Polkinghorne had once nearly got Cann on the fare-hip, would have been the prelude of a fair throw, but Cann by by using a favourite crook of the leg, for which he is famous disengaged himself though they both continued their hold. They walked around the ring closely grappled together, Cann now and then inflicting a most severe kick on Polkinghorne’s leg, which discipline the latter by frequently flinching began to show symptoms of not liking. After a round of ten minutes they both fell.

5 This round displayed nothing peculiarly interesting. Both men instanced the astonishing strength of their hands by freeing themselves from the hold of each other. After a considerable time they mutually separated without either falling.

6 After considerable exertion on both sides the men fell together the Cornishman under.

7 and 8 These rounds were marked by some fine play and were evidently in favour of Cann, who showed that he possessed the valuable qualification of holding out. Polkinghorne appeared much distressed by the severe kicks which Cann inflicted with his right foot, and repeatedly attempted to close with Cann, in order to settle the matter by main strength, but Cann persevered in keeping him off evidently with the intention of wearing him out, for the Devonshire hero has the superiority over Polkinghorne in point of wind. Cann continued his kicking system for some time, when the Cornishman, by aq desperate effort closed with him and got him on the hip. Cann then had recourse to his favourite crook of the leg, and threw Polkinghorne, what was almost iniversally deemed a back fall, but, to the surprise of every one present, it was given against Devonshire. A dispute of nearly an hour first occupied the two committees.

9, 10, 11, 12 During these rounds Polkinghorne showed Play; that is he acted less cautiously, and more on the offensive. Cann continued to kick him most severely and was evidently getting a better man while Polkinghorne was losing ground. At last, however, in the 12th round, a desperate struggle took place, and Cann, contrary to the expectations of all present was thrown another fall, which by some was declared to be fair, and by others not.

Remarks –This match was decided by main strength. There is no doubt that the victory would have been Cann’s had not the dispute about the fall in the 8th round afforded Polkinghorne time to regain his wind, which he had almost entirely lost. Cann is a very modest unassuming man, and gave in to the decision of the umpires without dissenting a word; but when the dispute concerning the fall occurred, Polkinghorne did not show himself very ready to acquiesce in defeat. It was the feeling of the majority of the ring that Cann was not fairly treated. Let this be as it may, Cann would undoubtedly have thrown twenry men of his own weight, one after the other. The pride of Devonshire has no need to be ashamed of the issue of the match. He is an honour to the West, and should he again meet Polkinghorne, it is very likely that the palm will not be borne off to the western side of the Tamar. Cann has always been eager for another trial.


Cann and Gaffney

The match between the above came off on Monday Sept 24, 1827, at the Golden Eagle, Mile End Road, Cann betting £60 to £50, Three fair back falls out of five. Two to one and higher odds, were laid upon the ground and taken by the Patlanders[?].

The concourse of spectators was immense, amongst whom were great numbers of sporting characters. The crowd at length became excessive. The roofs of the long line of boxes or sheds which surrounded the green, were filled with spectators; and about two hundred who could get no better accommodation, climbed the poplars to witness the contest. At four Cann threw his hat into the ring; and shortly after, whilst expectation was on the stretch for the appearance of Gaffney, a tremendous crash was heard in fact, a large portion of the tiled roofs of the boxes gave way, and precipitated some hundreds of persons to the ground. As soon as it was ascertained that the fallen persons had nothing to bewail but dirty faces, crushed hats, and light bruises, shouts of laughter were uttered at their dismal and frightened appearance. At length the two champions shook hands and grappled, and the attention of the immense crowd was intense. Gaffney immediately after getting his hold set to work on the offensive, but Cann remained almost fixed to the earth, his face expressing great caution, and as great confidence as great confidence and self possession. Gaffney kicked very much at the shins of Cann, but they exhibited no signs of punishment, though the sound resounded through the ring whilst after Cann had inflicted a few retorts upon the shins of Gaffney, his worsted stockings were sopped with blood. After a contest of four minutes and fifty seconds, Cann gave his adversary a fair back fall.

“2nd Gaffney was thrown after a struggle of fifteen minutes but the umpires decided that it was not a fair back fall.

“3rd Gaffney succeeded in gaining the inner crook, but the superior science of Cann enabled him to avoid a back fall.

“4 Gaffney was thrown but the umpires decided that it was not a fair back throw. This bout lasted nearly twenty minutes.

“5 Gaffney was very quickly thrown, and the betting underwent considerable changes.

“6 Gaffney came to the scratch evidently exhausted, and was thrown, but not a fair fall.

“7 Gaffney was thrown a heavy fall, and on getting up said his shoulder was put out, and that he resigned the contest. The Devonshire men then threw up their hats in high glee and Cann left the  ground amid deafening cheers.

“Remarks – As a wrestler we have never seen any one like A Cann; he appears to use his legs with the same facility and judgement as Jack Randall exercised his fists in the P. R. This is saying quite enough to place Abraham Cann at the top of the tree amongst wrestlers.