Part 17: Devious Devonians

What with all the kicking, injuries were inevitable.

"After the wrestling match is over… the wrestlers ought to have room for themselves… to dress one another's legs," he recommended.

But some wounds were beyond doctoring. In an accompanying poem, he recalled seeing a particularly vicious bout as a boy: "One man got kick'd so in four rounds,/That in very few days died of his wounds."

In the West Country, the only place that frowned on shin kicking was Cornwall, home of what may be England's oldest wrestling style.

Originally, Cornish combatants were allowed to use their feet and legs, but only to trip their opponents or hit them with their heels and insteps.

Frontal toe-to-tibia attacks were forbidden, not least because wrestlers usually fought barelegged from the knees down.

Trust their archrivals from the next county over to twist the rules to their advantage.

By the early 1800s, wrestlers in Devon had made two vicious innovations: not only did they trip their opponents, they also whacked them in the shins.

What's more, the devious Devonians took to wearing heavy shoes and hobnail boots—sometimes even baking the soles to make them extra hard.

"By the abuse of this latitude of rules (for it cannot be otherwise regarded than as an abuse) the shoes had been allowed to develop into a hideous weapon armed with a thick sharp-edged sole," a Victorian wrestling expert wrote.

In their defence, Devon's bruisers claimed that kicking had a long pedigree in wrestling: the Greeks had allowed it in their ancient Olympics; unlike Devon's wrestlers, though, the Greeks had fought in the nude.

If Cornish wrestling was brutal, the Devon style could be lethal.

In 1840, a Devon wrestler threw his rival "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," a newspaper reported.

On another occasion, a 22-year-old died from his wounds.

Not surprisingly, Cornish wrestlers were somewhat… reluctant to fight the Devonians.

But they couldn't walk away from a challenge—especially not from those scoundrels across the River Tamar.

Women wrestling in Devonshire, circa 1898

One of the earliest known showdowns between the two styles took place in 1826 in Devonport, on the county line.

Devon champ Abraham Cann fought Cornwall's James Polkinghorne, a pub landlord.

Whereas the barefoot Cornishman reputedly had a neck like a bull, Cann's boots were soaked in bull's blood.

The match ended in a draw, but Cornwall won out in the long run: although Cornish wrestling has survived to this day, its Devonian pretender eventually died out.
©J.R. Daeschner

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