A number of scholars have suggested that the sport died out because it was unsafe. We're making it safe.
The practice of the Art predates the founding of modern sporting and athletic organisations. We're organising it.
We're aiming to put the 'art' back in the sport, by avoiding the forms of 'ungentlemanly play' which brought it into disrepute.
We're gathering and pooling all we can from original sources to ensure our practice is authentic.
We're improving the sport's accessibility to ensure everyone that wants to experience it can experience it.
We're interested in promoting both Cornish and Devonshire wrestling, to see them flourish in modern times.
After many, many years of lamenting the loss of Devonshire wrestling and often declaring 'someone should bring it back', we decided to 'bite-the-bullet' and do it. After researching sources, digging into local archives and gathering info from local museums, we've collected an archive of sources. We call ourselves 'The Devonshire Wrestling Society' in tribute to the 'Cornwall and Devonshire Wrestling Society' which actively maintained the sport in the 19th century.
Westcountry Anthology (item 12)
Their ancient exercises have been archery, hurling, wrestling, football, dancing, and such like forcible exercises of strength and activity; recreating and hardening, and enabling their bodies and minds for more noble (though more uneasy and dangerous) martial employment; for which they are apt and in readiness with the foremost at all times. But these exercises have been of late (by a strong and potent zeal, and a severe execution of laws) forced out of the country, neglected and out of use; and hunting, hawking, and bowling crept in, and somewhat in request with the better sort; and with the inferior, actions of far worse quality.
Westcountry Anthology (item 112)
This county [of Devon] as it is populous, so are the natives of a good and healthy constitution of body; of proportion and stature generally tall, strong, and well compact; active and apt for any forcible exercises (and if I may have leave to borrow a stranger’s words in their encomium); bold, martial, haughty of heart, prodigal of life, constant in affections, courteous to strangers, yet greedy of glory and honour. And Diodorus Siculus saith the Danmonii were accounted most civil and courteous people.
And our pleasant witted poet, Michael, extolleth them extraordinarily for valour and strength of body; and yet taketh not therein the liberty allowed to poets, to add to the subject whereof they write, but truly reporteth what is well known and seen by them performed; who in activity surmount many other people, especially at football, hurling, and wrestling, wherein they are generally equal with the best in any county. Arid I may boldly say of my countrymen as Horace did of his,
... In wrestling we The skilful Greeks surpass in high degree.
A full report of their skill in wrestling and nimbleness of body whereof the Danmonii have been and still are so famous you may find in the Survey of Cornwall. But to make a question (as one hath done) whether they have it from their first planter, Corineus (that famous wrestler) or from the nature of the climate of the country, or (as I may best say) from their diurnal practice, I think it will not be answered without some difficulty, unless you say from all.
In knowledge of arts and variety of studies in all sciences and learning, very capable and ingenious; and hath yielded, and presently doth (whom in their convenient places I shall have fitter opportunity to remember), as many worthy divines, civilians, physicians, and men excellent in all other pro-fessions and arts as are elsewhere in any so small a compass to be found.
In matters of civil policy, causes of justice, judicature, and government of the common weal, wise, pregnant, and politic, discreet, and of sound judgment and integrity; so that the chief seats of justice have been very often most worthily supplied: which this our age can very sufficiently testify, as well as many former. For martial affairs, by land or sea, forward and valiant; and, as a great and noble commander of late times said of one (intimating, as it seemed, the like in general), in service, painful; in peril, resolute; in action, in¬dustrious; in execution, quick and ready; in council, provident; fierce, yet with judgment: as their fierceness was nothing abated by advisement, nor their advisement dazzled by their fierceness, but both so equally compounded and conjoined, that they have been bold to take QUID NON? for a motto, (as Sir Humphrey Gilbert).
Westcountry Anthology (item 116)
John Prowse, who had now taken me under his protection, was a good specimen of the North Devon peasant; lively and intelligent, stout and muscular, nearly six feet high, and with shoulders that would not have disgraced Hercules. Besides this, he was upright as a dart, a grace he had acquired by having been some time in Colonel Orchard’s volunteer fencibles. As men are usually most attached to that art, pursuit, or employment in which they most excel, so John’s ruling passion pointed towards wrestling, or as he called it, in the dialect of the country, wraxling; which he confessed to me he loved better than victuals or drink. Living near the confines of Cornwall, he burned with all the emulation of a borderer, and observed triumphantly, that the Devonians were at last confessed to be better men than their neighbours; for in a great wrestling-match, held at a Cornish town in the vicinity, a short time since, every Devonshire lad had thrown his Cornish antagonist, without receiving a single fall himself. He asserted it was the prettiest play he had ever seen; and on my asking him whether any accidents had occurred in the course of these amusements, he answered, nothing to speak of, only three ribs broken, and a shoulder dislocated! He would fain have tried a fall with me, whose skill, as an east-country-man, he wished much to experience; and I could perceive he did not hear me declare myself totally ignorant of the wrestling art, without some emotion of contempt.
Western Times - Saturday 16 March
This Japanese form self-defence is, without doubt, far superior either to ancient or modern style of Devonshire or any other county form of wrestling, when matched side by side. The grips used are entirely different, and they are both effective and deadly in character. If the opponent struggling against them determined to their methods, at once becomes liable to a broken arm or something equally as serious. That is, of course, if the Ju-Jit-Su player is equally determined to hold his opponent to submission. An exhibition between the two forms of wrestling took place in the Crediton Volunteer Drill Hall this week, when a well-known country gentleman, possessing a full knowledge of the Japanese method of self-defence, met lightweight Devonshire wrestler "well in the know" of his County's style, with scarcely more than 20 summers passed over him. The Ju-Jit-Su wrestler stripped a model of English manhood, at about stone, looking as fit as a trivet to uphold the honour of his grips against all rival styles. The Devonshire player stripped at stone, and, notwithstanding his 37 years, he looked as willing for the fray schoolboy. This player led off, and obtained the leg lock, and for a time the both men bent to and fro like willows in the grip of an angry blast. Eventually, and as slippery an eel, the Dumpling changed over to the fore hip and brought his man down. This move rules at 10 to 1 on it for obtaining a fair back if caught the nick of the balance. When down, however, the Ju-Jit-Su player left off the defensive, and sought for advantage, knowing well that his opponent was then in troubled waters, Devonshire wrestler, according to rules, not being allowed to wrestle when once down. Coiling about, however, as a whip from a fishing rod, his opponent ran over the vital parts of the Devonshire player's body with the speed of a musician running an octave until he reached a desired spot. Finally he placed double leg lock around his opponent's body, just below the abdomen. This brings one to a sitting position, and when once in it, his limbs are as useless to him as those of a fly in newly-made web. Several interesting bouts followed, which the Devonshire player excelled in his own style, and the Ju- Jit-Su player likewise his own game.
Western Times - w/c 26th January
Devon wrestling differs from most other modes. It would, however, be easy to demonstrate its superiority over that practised by other wrestlers, who are unable, with any amount of success, to meet any stranger who does not conform to their own style, whereas knowledge of Devon wrestling enables man to successfully meet whomsoever cares to confront him. The following will be found the rules which are observed in all matches or contests :— Each contestant chooses umpire, and if a referee cannot be agreed upon mutually, the two umpires toss for one. Sometimes power is given the stakeholder to name one ; when this done the preliminaries are more easily got over at the ring side. The men after to the drawers put on a strong canvas jacket, though ordinary ones would do equally well, if very strong. man may get his holds upon any part of his opponent's jacket, but he must not take both collars in one hand, neither is he allowed to catch hold of the legs, drawers, or belt. To obtain a "back" one must be pitched flatly upon his back. The articles should state whether "three pin" or "four pin" match agreed upon; if the former, two shoulders and one hip, or two hip and one shoulder must touch the ground ere back is won ; if the latter, the two shoulders and two hips must simultaneously pitch upon the ground. No back allowed if a man's leg, side, or shoulder first reach the ground ; neither is there, if in throwing a man, the thrower allows any part of his own body to be undermost; even the hand or arm, if between a man's back and the ground, is sufficient to disqualify back, no matter how "flat" the back is otherwise given. Backs are often disallowed only on account of this slight infringement. The rules should be read to the men by the referee before play begins. All arrangements being made, the order is given to commence play ; each man then walks to the centre of the ring, and shakes his antagonist's right hand. The hands must then be separated, after which each tries his best to get good holds. This accomplished the struggle for the falls take place.— Sporting Life.
'Argus' for the Western Times - Friday 18 October
That this once famous sport is rapidly dying out, no one who has watched it for the past ten years can for a moment doubt. Various reasons are given as the cause, and of course the competitors come in for a large share (perhaps deservedly so) of blame. But those well acquainted with the matter know that the parties chiefly to blame are those who miscall themselves the promoters. Only few years since a notice of an open contest was certain to attract a large number of good spectators, but now all this is changed. Scarcely any whose presence is worth anything, can be seen present. Their reasons are all alike—"'Tis only sells now-a-day." About five years ago great match was announced to take place at a large hall in the neighbourhood. A champion's belt was to be given to the best man. It being market day many hundreds of gentlemen and farmers were present. The early play was only acting, and in the final the man who could and should have won the belt, pretended to have broken his collar bone — he gave up, to the disgust of everyone. Year by year since that the sport has been rapidly dying. Devon wrestling is much inquired after in London. Three years ago the proprietors of the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News sent eminent artists specially to Exeter make ing for their paper of the so-called "play" which was taking place at Mount Radford. He was surprised at the tameness of what he expected to have been exciting play—scarcely anyone was present, and the wrestling was a mere sham. About the same time the Daily Telegraph in an article asked what had become of the grand old Devon wrestling, and many influential sporting men suggested big wrestling (Devon style) contest in London ; but this could only be done by bringing the principal men from Devon and Cornwall in teams, and every team has a master, and the members would have to "go to orders" just as if they were sheep. Thus the idea was abandoned. I will, with your permission, in a future note, give what must be patent to all observers of past contests the principal causes of the decline of the sport. Argus
The Graphic - Saturday 30 April
WRESTLING THOSE who see wrestlers on a London arena of sawdust, whether they represent France against England or Cumberland against Westmoreland, gain thereby a very imperfect idea of this famous athletic sport. It is a country game. It belongs aright to wild regions wherc the turf is virgin, and the wrestler, like Anteus in the old myth, gains fresh strength and spirit by his contact with his mother earth. The French and English contests which recently attracted some attention, were simply nonsensical. Of the French performance it may fairly be said that it was ni "la guerre” ni "la magnifique": the French-men had not an elementary notion of wrestling, and would have been mere infants in the grip of a Devonshireman of the old school. For it is in Devon and Cornwall that the art has reached perfection, and, although much has been said about the cruelty of kicking, which forms a part of the West Country practice, it should be remembered that the wrestler uses every limb, every muscle indeed, and this is the cause for its superiority claimed for the sport over boxing, single-stick, fencing, and the like. The leg is not an unimportant weapon of offence and defence that few tricks are more fatal than the French savate. We need not attempt to describe the various holds and falls which wrestlers practise. They are manifold, and must be described in technical language, and when the thing was done the reader would not be converted into a wrestler. Anybody who would like to become an adept should go into some wild part of Devon and take lessons from the young farmers. The pursuit of the gallant science might thus be combined with the enjoyment of delicious scenery, not forgetting cider as fine as Rhine wine, and the inimitable cream of the county. When we add that female beauty reaches perfection in Devon, we have already said enough…
Western Times - Friday 04 June
[excerpt]...The combatants had on canvass jackets with lion painted on the back each—one red, the other black. When the wrestlers entered tho arena betting commenced. Two to one on the red or black as the case might be was the language of "betting ring," and the public gave expression to their feelings by " bravo black" (or red), and "well done little one," their sympathies always being with the latter. In some cases the contest was a mere trial of strength; in others a weaker opponent gained the victory over his adversary by his tactics," those of a Cornishman being different from the " science" of the Devonian, and it was said the Somersetshire style different again. Sometimes there was a tacit understanding between the athletes not to kick; when however kicking was commenced, some terrific thuds wore given on each side, which sounded painfully on the ear. Thore were some fine examples of British pluck and endurance, and the physical capabilities of the men were now and then shown by an opponent taking his antagonist his arms and throwing him on tho ground flat on his back. According the rules, every man to become a "standard" must throw two men or throw one man and hold two others eight minutes...
Western Daily Press - Monday 13 April
These annual matches took place on Good Friday, at Hackney Wick, the open air. The custom of wrestling in boots was done away with, and all the men wrestled with stockinged feet. The value of the prizes was £60. The following are the results:— R. Haywood (Devon) and Richard Dear (Cornwall)— After a dog throw, Haywood threw his opponent cleverly by the back-lock. Charles Moore (Cornwall) and R. Haywood (Devon) played time. Joseph Menear (Cornwall) and Charles Moore (Cornwall) —Menear, the champion, declined to wrestle with one of his countrymen, and accordingly a fresh competitor entered in the person of Samuef Haywood, of Devon. After some splendid play, in which Haywood once overthrew his opponent, Haywood, at the end of eight minutes, gained a splendid back fall by the backlock. Joseph Menear (Cornwall) and Samuel Haywood (Devon)— Menear at once tried the inside hank but failed, and after playing ten minutes neither had obtained a fall. Joseph Menear (Cornwall) and R. Haywood (Devon)— After playing one minute Menear got pull under and threw his opponent fair back fall. Joseph Menear (Cornwall) and James Culling (Devon) —Culling gave in, and Menear was declared first standard amidst loud cheering. John Bescomb (Cornwall) and John Slade (Devon) — Bescomb, as usual, wanted most of the ten minutes allotted, and they consequently played time. James Cornish (Cornwall) and John Slade (Devon) — Slade refused to play, and Cornish accordingly got his back. James Cornish (Cornwall) and Charles Moore (Cornwall) —Cornish at once threw his man by the inside hank, and became second standard. Thomas Haudre (Cornwall) and Thomas May (Devon) played time. Thomas May (Devon) and R. Haywood (Devon) —Haywood immediately get the backlock on, and threw his man cleverly, May's advanced age being against him. R. Haywood (Devon) and Abraham Salby (Somerset) Haywood threw his man in three minutes by the inside hank. The wrestling will be continued to-day and to-morrow.
Penny Illustrated Paper - Saturday 22 March
The Cornwall and Devon Wrestling Society have resolved to divide the £l00 to be given away on Friday, April 18, and at Easter, as follows :— Four money prizes for wrestling, open to all the world, for men under twelve stone, when several of the best men from the two counties have promised to come up and contend for the prizes. There will also be prizes for standards and double players, likewise two money prizes for pole-leaping; to take place on Easter Monday. Also 250 yards, 440 yards, and one mile handicap, for £50 in money prizes.
Sherborne Mercury - Tuesday 18 September
Mr Langdon, of the Bull Inn, Exeter, assisted by other gentlemen, has succeeded in obtaining £180 for the veteran wrestling champion, Abraham Cann. After much deliberation it has been decided to purchase an annuity in the Norwich Insurance Office, and yesterday the proposal was effected and £200 paid. The champion wrestler will thus receive £21 10s per annum, to be paid quarterly — a sum which is sufficient to keep him in comfort during the remainder of his days. — Western Times
The Era - Sunday 11 April
HORNSEY-WOOD TAVERN - Wrestling in the Devon and Cornish style, will take place in the enclosed grounds, at Hornsey-wood Tavern, upon Easter Monday and Tuesday, when the lovers of old English sports will have a grand Opportunity of witnessing the wrestling in the above style, which will come off under a spacious marquee, capable of accommodating several thousand spectators, comfortably seated, commanding an un-interrupted view of the sports, under the management of a committee of the above counties. The proprietor will give £10 in prises to be wrestled for; there will also be Single-stick, Rifle and Pigeon Shooting for a chased silver cup and a handsome silver snuff box. This being the first time of the Devonshire and Cornwall wrestling at Hornsey-wood Tavern, since the present proprietor left the Brecknock Arms, the wrestling at Easter may be considered as preliminary to large prizes, which will be given by the Devon and Cornwall Wrestling Society, to which the proprietor will add a handsome silver belt, to be wrestled for on Whit-Monday and Tuesday.
Western Times - Saturday 14 August
A grand Wrestling match came off at Honiton, last week, and some capital play was witnessed. The double play was commenced on Friday morning with the following results:—Clapp threw Dymond; Rounsewell was thrown by Henry Pratt, after minutes five play; Samuel Matthews threw John Loud; James Moore threw James Cox. In the treble play Clapp threw Prat; Wm. Trace threw Samuel Matthews a fine turn, after 40 minutes; Wm. Matthews threw Moore. The quadruple play commenced with Wm. Matthews and Clapp, but the latter was thrown after 15 minutes. The next match between Wm. Matthews and Trace excited much interest from the superior qualities of both men. After half an hour's fine play a dispute arose; Matthews contended he had thrown his man, but on an appeal to the triers they decided by a majority of two to one against him. He in consequence refused to play again, and the first prize of 3 Sovereigns was therefore awarded to Trace. The second prize of 3 Sovereigns was given to W. Matthews; the third of one Sovereign to John Clapp. The play was the best ever seen here, and great credit it due to the Committee for the excellence of the arrangements, and for their judgment matching the men.