Sports and Festivities

  > It is almost impossible to separate the sports of the Cumberland and Westmorland people from the festivals, inasmuch as some of the pastimes were prominent items in gatherings even of a semi-religious character. Wrestling1, that finest of North-Country exercises, has been practically killed by the competition of other athletic games, but more than all by the "barneying" so often practised by the wrestlers. To this cause must be ascribed the fall of the "mother ring" at Carlisle, and the disfavour into which the sport has dropped in all parts of the two counties, albeit the Grasmere exhibitions are still kept up to a fair standard of honesty. For centuries it was the greatest amusement of fellsider, dalesman, and town dweller, and it was no uncommon thing for men to walk, in the pre-railway days, twenty miles to a wrestling meeting. Pure love of sport must have been the motive, because the prize usually consisted only of a belt of the value of from ten shillings to a sovereign - often much less - and a small sum of money which would now be looked at with contempt even when offered by way of "expenses." The men whose prowess gained them more than local fame were often almost perfect specimens of what athletes should be at their respective weights, and their skill cannot be approached by any of the medium and light weights now in the ring. For several other reasons the sport is entitled - unfortunately so - to be classed among things belonging to the bygone, and to the next generation wrestling, as understood at the Melmerby and Langwathby Rounds fifty years ago, will be unknown.

Clergymen have often been included among the best wrestlers of their time, especially in West Cumberland, though some who as young men were noted for their prowess in this direction gave up this sport when they took holy orders. William Litt, whose name will always have a place in local sporting annals through his book, "Wrestliana," was intended for the Church. His tastes were so obviously in other directions that the plan had to be abandoned, and he developed into one of the finest wrestlers of his time. The Rev. G. Wilkinson, Vicar of Arlecdon, and the Rev. 0. Littleton, Vicar of Buttermere, were also ardent followers of the sport; while the Rev. A. Brown, Egremont, and the inventor of the "chip" known as buttocking, was described as one of the best exponents of the old game to be found in the north of England.

A sporting custom peculiar to the two counties - for the nobleman most concerned has immense possessions in each - is the race for the Burgh Barony Cup. The meeting has been well described as "a singular old-world institution, one of a number of antiquated customs mixed up with the land laws." The races are held to celebrate the "reign" of a new Lord Lonsdale, consequently no earl ever sees more than one - at least when he is the head of the family. The last meeting on Burgh Marsh was in March, 1883, when the arrangements were on a royal scale, thousands of persons being present, an enormous number of them as the guests of his lordship. Wrestling formed an important part of the proceedings during the two days, but the central item was the race for the cup. The competitors were confined to animals owned by free or customary tenants within the Barony, and the winner of the hundred guineas trophy was greeted with frantic cheering.

Carlisle possesses a unique racing relic. The "horse courses" were formerly held on Kingmoor, and the "Carlisle bells" were doubtless prized as much in their day as the stakes for 10,000 are now. The articles frequently figure in the Municipal Records as the Horse and Nage Bells, and were for a long time lost, being ultimately found in an old box in the Town Clerk's office. Mr. Llewellyn Jewitt, F.S.A., some twenty years ago gave this description of the relics: "The racing bells are globular in form, with slits at the bottom, as is usual in bells of that class. The loose ball which would originally lie in the inside, so as to produce the sound, has disappeared. The largest, which is two and a quarter inches in diameter, is of silver gilt, and bears on a band round its centre the inscription [each word being separated by a cross] :






This lady was probably Elizabeth, daughter of George Talbot, fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, and wife of William, Lord Dacre of Gilsland, who was Governor of Carlisle in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The other bell, also of silver, is smaller in size, and bears the initials H.B.M.C. (Henry Baines, Mayor of Carlisle), 1559. On Shrove Tuesday Kingmoor became a busy scene, and the contests created much excitement among the men and others. The bell was not an uncommon prize, either in horse-racing or cock-fighting, and was held by the victor, as challenge cups and shields are at the present day, from one year to another, or from one race to another. To win this race was of course a mark of honour, and gave rise to the popular expression of 'to bear away the bell.' At York the racing prize in 1607 was a small golden bell, and the Corporation Records of Chester about 1600 show that in that city a silver bell was given to be raced for on the Roodee; but I am not aware that any of them are now in existence. Probably the Carlisle examples unique.

There are many other evidences that racing has for several centuries been a favourite pastime with the people of Cumberland and Westmorland. The race meetings seem to have been occasions for county gatherings of other kinds, and especially for cock-fights - a sport which has not yet entirely died out. The following advertisement of Penrith races in 1769, which appeared in the St. James's Chronicle for that year, may be quoted as an example of many others, relating not only to Penrith but to other towns in the two counties:-

Penrith Races, 1769.

To be ran for, on Wednesday, the 24th of May, 1769, on the new Race Ground at Penrith, Cumberland.
Fifty Pounds, by any four Years old Horse, Mare, or Gelding, carrying 8st. 7lb. Two mile Heats.
On Thursday, the 25th, Fifty Pounds, by any Horse, &c., five Years old, carrying 9st. Three-mile Heats.
On Friday, the 26th, Fifty Pounds, by any five, six Years old, and Aged Horse, &c. Five-year Olds to carry 8st. 3lbs. Six-year Olds 9st., and Aged 9st. 8lb. Four-mile Heats.
All Horses, etc., that run for the above Plates, to be entered at the Market Cross on Saturday, the 20th Day of May, between the Hours of Three and Six o'Clock in the afternoon. The Owner of each Horse, &c., to subscribe and pay Three Guineas at the Time of Enterance towards the Races, and Two Shillings and Six-pence for the Clerk the Race.
Certificates of each Horse, &c., to be produced at the Time of Enterance. Three reputed running Horses, &c., to enter and start for each of the above Plates, or no Race.
If only one Horse, &c., enters, to receive Ten Pounds, if two Fifteen between them, and their Subscription paid the time of Enterance returned.
All the above Plates to be run for in the royal Manner, and any Dispute that may arise to be determined by the Stewards, or whom they shall appoint.
The several Plates will be paid without any Deduction or Perquisite.



A Cock Main, Ordinaries, and Assemblies, as usual.

Not less interesting than the foregoing announcement is the report of the event. There was never much attempt at descriptions, either of races or cock-fights, though one would like to know the names of the gentlemen indicated in this closing paragraph of the report: "At this Meeting a Main of Cocks was fought between the Gentlemen of Cumberland, David Smith, Feeder, and the Gentlemen of Westmoreland, Thomas Bownas, Feeder, which consisted of 21 Battles, 16 whereof were won by the former, and 5 by the latter; and of the 15 Bye-Battles Smith won 6, and Bownas 9."

Dalston was long the headquarters of cockfighting in Cumberland - "Dalston Black-reeds" are still spoken of as the best birds of the kind in the world. There is a tradition to the effect that cock-fighting was once carried on at Rose Castle, in the parish of Dalston, but the Rev. J. Wilson* took particular pains to disprove the assertion. Against that must be put the following sentence which appeared in Good Words for December, 1894: "One curious adjunct to an episcopal residence, speaking loudly of the change of manners and the amelioration of tastes, is the cock-pit, where matches are said to have been at one time fought for the amusement of the Bishop and his friends." The favourite day for cockfights was Shrove Tuesday.

Cock-fighting was far from being the only barbarous sport enjoyed by the people of the northern counties. Bull-baiting and badger-baiting were probably never more popular than at the time when they were prohibited by law in 1835. There is still the bull ring at Appleby, and the spectators' gallery was removed within living memory. At Kirkoswald and several other market-places in the two counties the rings are still firmly fixed to which the bulls were tethered during the baiting process. Mr. W. Wilson, in his brochure on "Old Social Life in Cumberland," says: "In Keswick a large iron ring was formerly fixed in a stone block in the market-place; this was called the bull ring, and to this a bull, previous to being slaughtered, was fastened by the ring in its nose, and then baited and bitten by savage dogs amid dreadful bellowing till the poor beast was almost covered with foam, and quite exhausted. Great excitement prevailed when a bull was being baited, and large numbers assembled to witness the sport. On such occasions the market-place at Keswick was crowded, and many in order to obtain a good view, might be seen sitting on the roofs of the adjoining houses. Beyond the excitement which the exhibition produced among the spectators, the system was thought to be of great value in improving the quality of the beef, an aged bull being especially tough unless well baited before slaughtering. When the flesh of a bull was exposed for sale, it was the rule in Keswick and probably elsewhere, to burn candles during the day on the stall on which the meat was exposed for sale, in order that customers might be aware of the quality of the meat sold there." In some other places in the two counties the penalty for killing and selling an unbaited bull was 6s. 8d.

For a very long period archery was practised in Cumberland and Westmorland not only as a means of defence and attack, but also as a recreation. The numerous places called "Butts," or bearing synonymous names, indicate that few towns neglected to set apart a shooting ground. In his "Survey of the Lakes" Clarke blamed the severity of the game laws for keeping up skill in archery amongst the poachers in the forests of the north-western counties. He added: "It was this that produced so many noted archers and outlaws in the forest of Englewood as well as that of Sherwood. For not to mention Adam Bell and his partners, tradition still preserves the names of Watty of Croglin, Woodhead Andrew, Robin 0'th'Moor's, Gruff Elleck3 (Alexander), and of several others as of persons distinguished in that line even amongst the people who were almost to a man of the same stamp. Besides, as their squabbles and the subsequent maraudings made the skill thus acquired at times absolutely necessary to the inhabitants on each side of the boundary, we may easily conclude that a necessity of this kind, continually kept alive, must produce no small degree of dexterity.

"Whoever will consider the circumstances of the battles which were then fought, will find that wherever the ground or circumstances favoured the archer for a number of regular discharges, they generally produced such a confusion, particularly amongst the enemy's horse, as gave the men-at-arms of their own party an opportunity of easily completing it. I need cite no further particulars of this than the battle of Homildon4, when the forces of the Northern Marches encountered the gallant Archibald, Earl of Douglas; the men-at-arms stood still that day, and the bowmen had the whole business upon their hands. It is recorded that no armour could resist their arrows, though that of Earl Douglas and his associates had been three years in making. It would seem, indeed, that the Scots excelled in the use of the spear, and (excepting the Borderers) neglecting the bow; since one of their own kings is thought to have recommended its more general use by ridiculing their imperfect management of it."

The Kendal bowmen celebrated the prowess of their fore-elders of the same name by establishing a competition and festival for September 9th in each year. It was on that day in 1513 that the Kendal bowmen were particularly distinguished in the battle of Flodden Field5. The prizes shot for every year were a silver arrow and a medal, the members appearing in a uniform of green, with arrow buttons; the cape green velvet with silver arrow; the waistcoat and breeches buff, and the shooting jacket was of green and white striped cotton.

Whitehaven also had its Society of Archers, and in 1790 had a medal designed by Smirke as a trophy for competition. On one side were the bugle-horn, quiver, and bow, above them being the words, "Per Has Victoriam," and underneath the three place-names, "Poictiers," "Cressy," and "Agincourt.6" On the reverse was the name of the shooting ground, Parton Green, and the date, while round the edge were the words, "Captain's Medal, Cumberland Archers."

The Kendal "Boke of Recorde" contains several references to the pastimes of Westmerians from two to three centuries ago. On one occasion it was ordered by the Corporation "That whosoever do play at the football in the street and break any windows, shall forfeit upon view thereof by the Mayor or one of the Aldermen in the ward where the fault is committed the sum of 12d. for every time every party, and 3s. 4d. for every window by the same broken, and to be committed till it be paid, the constable looke to it to present it presently at every Court day." That knur and spell, the game so popular still in Yorkshire, was once a favourite pastime in Kendal is attested by the following entry, dated April, 1657: "It is ordered by the Court that all such persons, inhabitants within this borough, above the age of twelve years, that hereafter shall play in the streets at a game commonly called Kattstick and Bullvett shall forfeit and incur the penalty of 12d. for every offence, to be levied of their goods, and where they have no goods to be imprisoned two hours."

The somewhat questionable glories of Workington Easter football play have passed away, partly in consequence of the occupation of a portion of the playing ground by railways and works, and not less because of a change of feeling. How long these Easter Tuesday matches between "Uppies" and "Downeys7" have gone on no man can tell. Half a century ago it was reported in the Pacquet that the game in 1849 "was played with all the vigour of former days, from times beyond 'the memory of the oldest inhabitant.'" The goals are about a mile apart, one being a capstan at the harbour, and the other the park wall of Workingham Hall. There are no rules except those suggested by cunning and skill, while brute force is of the greatest importance. If the ball is "haled" over the park wall a sovereign is given by the owner of the estate to the winners, and of course it is spent in liquor. The players sometimes number hundreds, and thousands of people attend as spectators.

In several places in the two counties "mock mayors8" were annually elected, and the occasion at Wreay was marked by somewhat uncommon festivities. The Rev. A. R. Hall, Vicar of the parish, in a lecture delivered some time ago, gave an account of these Shrovetide observances, which made the village famous in its way. Up to 1790 the chief feature was a great cock-fight, managed by the boys at school. A hunt of harriers subsequently took the place of the cock-fight, this being followed by a public dinner, and the election of the mayor. Sometimes this functionary belonged to Wreay, and sometimes came from Carlisle; in the latter case, those who wished to keep up the due dignity of the office chartered a coach-and-four for the accommodation of their friends. Racing and jumping were features in the sports, the prizes for which were hats. The old silver bell used to ornament the mayor's wand of office. In 1872, unfortunately, the bell was stolen, and Wreay lost this relic, which had been connected for 217 years with its Shrovetide festivities. In 1880 the hunt and the election of mayor both came to an end.

Befitting its importance in the calendar, Christmas seems to have always held the first place in popularity among the holidays and festivals of the year. In the summer season Whitsuntide - which marks the end of one term of farm service - was the most popular. At Christmas "the treat circulated from house to house, and every table was decorated in succession with a profusion of dishes, including all the pies and puddings then in use. Ale possets also constituted a favourite part of the festive suppers, and were given to strangers for breakfast before the introduction of tea. They were served in bowls, called doublers, into which the company dipped their spoons promiscuously; for the simplicity of the times had not yet seen the necessity of accommodating each guest with a basin or soup plate. The posset cup shone as an article of finery in the better sort of houses; it consisted of pewter, and was furnished with two, three, or more lateral pipes, through which the liquid part of the compound might be sucked by those who did not choose the bread. This plentiful repast was moistened with a copious supply of malt liquor, which the guests drank out of horns and the wooden cans already mentioned. The aged sat down to cards and conversation for the better part of the night, while the young men amused the company with exhibitions of maskers, amongst whom the clown was the conspicuous character; or parties of rapier-dancers displayed their dexterity in the sportive use of the small sword. In the meantime the youth of both sexes romped and gambolled promiscuously, or sat down not unfrequently to hunt the rolling-pin.

The Gowrie Plot is brought to mind by a record in the Greystoke books that is unusually quaint in its style: "1603, August, ffrydaye the vth day was comnded for to be keapt holy daye yearely from cessation of laybour wth gyvinge of thanks for the kyngs most excelent matye for his matyes p'servation and deliverance from the Crewell Conspiracie practized against his maties pson in Scotland that vth daye of August, 1600." Three years sufficed for this celebration; then Gunpowder Plot came in for notice, as is seen from an item dated November 5th, 1606: "The sayde daye was Kenges holy day, and one sermon by Mr pson the xi Isaie 2 verse." The chronicler followed this registration of his text by a list of the names of the chief people in the parish who attended the service.

The shearing days used to be high festivals on the fells and in the dales of both counties. Now the gatherings have been deprived of some of their most characteristic features; and even the chairing is almost forgotten. Richardson's chapter on "Auld Fashint Clippins and Sec Like," in "Stwories at Ganny uset to Tell," relates how the chairing used to be done. The song, once an indispensable item in the programme, may now and again he heard, lustily shouted by the dalesmen. After declaring that "the shepherd's health - it shall go round," the chorus continues:

Heigh O! Heigh O! Heigh O!
And he that doth this health deny,
Before his face I him defy.
He's fit for no good company,
So let this health go round."

The coronation of a monarch was invariably made the occasion for merry-making by the consumption of much ale by the common folk, especially by bell-ringers and others who could have the score discharged by the churchwardens. There is such an entry in the Crosthwaite books relating to the coronation of George the First. In 1821, November 5th, there was "spent in ale at Nicholas Graves 5s." This worthy who was parish clerk at Crosthwaite for fifty-six years, was also the owner of a public-house in the town, and among his other qualifications was that of being will-maker for many of the inhabitants. At Penrith, Kendal, Carlisle, and many other places the church bells were set ringing, bonfires lighted, and ale barrels tapped - usually at the expense of the churchwardens - on very small provocation.

Among other festivals now no longer observed, and probably forgotten, was that known as Brough Holly Night. In a little pamphlet published between thirty and forty years ago the following note on the subject was printed, but the writer has been unable to ascertain when the custom was last seen in the old Westmorland town: "On Twelfth Night, at Brough, the very ancient custom of carrying the holly-tree through the town is observed. There are two or three inns in the town which provide for the ceremony alternately, though the townspeople lend a hand to prepare the tree, to every branch of which a torch composed of greased rushes is affixed. About eight o'clock in the evening the tree is taken to a convenient part of the town, where the torches are lighted, the town band accompanying and playing till all is completed, when it is carried up and down the town, preceded by the band and the crowd who have now formed in procession. Many of the inhabitants carry lighted branches and flambeaus, and rockets, squibs, etc., are discharged on the occasion. After the tree has been thus paraded, and the torches are nearly burnt out, it is taken to the middle of the town, where, amidst the cheers and shouts of the multitude, it is thrown among them. Then begins a scene of noise and confusion, for the crowd, watching the opportunity, rush in and cling to the branches, the contention being to bear it to the rival inns, 'sides' having been formed for that purpose; the reward being an ample allowance of ale, etc., to the successful competitors. The landlord derives his benefit from the numbers the victory attracts, and a fiddler being all ready, a merry night, as it is called here, is got up, the lads and lasses dancing away till morning."

There were once many wells and springs in the two counties which were held in more than common regard by the inhabitants, and corresponded to the Holy Wells of other districts. Between sixty and seventy years ago this was written of a custom once common at Skirsgill, about a mile from Penrith: "Upon the sloping lawn is a remarkably fine spring; its water is pure and sparkling, and was formerly held in such veneration that the peasantry resorted to it, and held an annual fair round its margin. In descending a flight of stone steps, you perceive inside a drinking cup, and over the door-top, neatly cut in stone, the form of a water jug." Cumberland is said to have had nearly thirty Holy Wells, and of one of these Mr. Hope tells us† that "The Holy Well near Dalston, Cumberland, was the scene of religious rites on stipulated occasions, usually Sundays. The villagers assembled and sought out the good spirit of the well, who was 'supposed to teach its votaries the virtues of temperance, health, cleanliness, simplicity, and love.'"

The various well festivals in the Penrith district have all passed away, as has a once popular gathering of another kind, known as Giant's Cave Sunday. The assemblies were at "the hoary caves of Eamont," about three miles from Penrith, and the late Rev. B. Porteus, then Vicar of Edenhall, wrote of them nearly forty years ago: "The picnics are of frequent occurrence at this picturesque and romantic spot; and have been occasionally patronised by special culinary demonstrations by the hospitable proprietor of the estate. Giant's Cave Sunday is still observed, but the custom has dwindled into insignificance, the 'shaking bottles' carried by the children at that season being the only remains of what it has been. But it affords a pleasant walk to the people of Penrith, as it has probably done since the time when the caves were the residence of a holy man."

Among the festivities now to be numbered among bygone things must be mentioned the Levens Radish Feast, which had much more than a local fame. In the time of Colonel Grahme there was great rivalry between the houses of Dallam Tower and Levens. The former once invited every person who attended Milnthorpe Fair to partake of the good cheer provided in the park, a piece of hospitality which irritated the Colonel very much. As a consequence, the following year when the Mayor and Corporation of Kendal went to proclaim the fair, he took them to Levens, and provided such a royal entertainment that the civic fathers gladly accepted the invitation for succeeding years. The fair sex were rigidly excluded. Long tables were placed on the bowling green, and spread with oat bread, butter, radishes, and "morocco," a kind of strong beer, for which the Hall was famed. After the feast came the "colting" of new visitors, and various amusements that are better to read about than witness.

 * Carlisle Journal, May, 1895.

† "Church Treasury of History, Custom, and Folk Lore," 1897




Daniel Scott, Bygone Cumberland And Westmorland, 1899




1. Cumberland Wrestling is still practised today; it features in the annual Grasmere Sports for instance.
2. Carlisle Bells - the inscription (in modern English) reads "The swiftest horse this bell to take, for my Lady Dacre's sake".
3. Famous archers - the original text runs "Robin 0'th'Moor's Gruff Elleck", which doesn't look right.
4. The battle of Homildon, or Humbledon, Hill, was fought between the English and Scots in 1402.
5. The battle of Flodden, another between the English and Scots, took place in 1513. The Scots were heavily defeated, losing their king (James IV), and most of Scotland's nobility.
6. The battles of Poitiers, Cressy, and Agincourt all took place on French soil, during the Hundred Years War. In each case the English were victorious, with the archers being vital to the victories.
7. The Workington "Uppies and Doonies" still occurs once a year, with large numbers participating or watching. The reference to Workingham Hall must be a mistake for Workington Hall. Similar games occur elsewhere in England, for example at Ashbourne, in Derbyshire.
8. Wreay "mock mayors" - Scott is dismissive of the "Twelve Men of Wreay", but his opinion may be misguided. Their powers were limited to the parish, but were important in that context. Bulmer (1901) has this to say - "The origin of this institution is uncertain. It consists of twelve men, as the name implies, to perform certain offices in the parish. They formed the village parliament over two hundred years ago, and are in existence still. A man, once appointed, filled the office for life, unless he resigned, and his services dispensed with by vote of his colleagues. They received the rental of certain lands, appointed the schoolmaster, and distributed certain endowed charities through the overseers, and formerly acted as guardians of the poor. The vicar is chairman, ex officio."

19 June 2015

Steve Bulman