Article kindly donated by Peter Sheldon CWA secretary
Cornish Wrestling, in common with other ancient celtic styles of wrestling such as
Cumberland -and -Westmorland and Breton, is a stand-up style with no mauling or holding
on the ground, the object being to throw your opponent on to his back from the standing
position. This stand-up style places the emphasis on skill rather than superior
weight or strength.
The wrestlers wear a traditional jacket made of strong canvas material with short
loose sleeves and tied across at the front by cords. This is strong enough to be
pulled and twisted without tearing. The role of the jacket is of paramount importance
as contestants are only permitted to grip on the jacket. You must not grip on your
opponents flesh, though it is permitted to use the flat of the hand to manouvre
and lift him. Use of hands is limited to above your opponents waist.
The jacket, when worn, will hang cape-like from the shoulders and it is usual to
gather the slack to the front, twist the two sides together and tuck the surplus
up under the left arm. This is to prevent your opponent making a quick grab and throw
before the grips have been applied properly.
There are a number of ways of taking up a grip and wrestlers will adopt a method
to suit their own style and stature and change the grip as circumstances demand.
The aim of wrestling in the Cornish style is to either “back” your opponent or to
effect a win over him on points.
A “back” is scored when a man has been thrown on his back so that at least three
of his four “Pins” hit the ground simultaneously. “Pins” are defined as the shoulders
and the hips. A “back” will win a contest for a contestant whenever it takes place
and the bout is then over. If no “Back” is achieved during a contest the bout will
be decided on points.
Points are scored when a shoulder or hip hits the ground - one point for one pin
down and two points for two pins down. If no points are scored during a contest a
point will be awarded to the wrestler showing most ‘play’, i.e. has made a genuine
attempt to throw his opponent.
All throws must be made from the standing position and there must be no grappling
on the ground whatsoever. When any part of the body - other than the feet - touches
the ground the ‘hitch’ is broken and the wrestlers must shake hands and restart the
The handshake is a formality which is traditional and must take place before a contest
begins, before each hitch and after the bout is over.
In order to achieve a Back a number of throws can be used - the Fore Hip, the Fore
Crook, the Back Crook, the Fore Heave,the Back Heave, the Under Heave, the Knock
Back, the Flying Mare, the Heel, the Back Step ( or Back Strap ) etc. In past times
these wrestling skills would have been passed on from father to son or friend to
friend. However in the 1970s Brian Kendall, himself an experienced wrestler, published
his book The Art of Cornish Wrestling in which he describes in words and pictures
all the classical throws, holds and counter moves. This book has become the standard
teaching manual and copies have been sold to many parts of the world, mostly where
Cornish descendents are settled such as Australia, the USA and South Africa.
An experienced wrestler will develop his own style of wrestling and will adapt and
improvise the standard throws. Theoretically as long as a wrestler plays within the
rules he can use any means possible in order to throw his opponent. Moves not permitted
Holding an opponent below the waist.
Striking with the foot above an opponents knee.
The Cross Collar ( A choking action applied to the throat by crossing over the collars
of the jacket and pulling tight ).
The pressure of thumbs or knuckles on the throat.
The Crowbar ( Where the arm is passed inside an opponents jacket and is used as a
lever across the throat ).
Deliberately touching the ground with hand or knee to avoid being thrown.
Gripping your opponent on wrists or fingers.
Also, any play considered by the Sticklers to be unfair.
Foul or unfair moves will have marks charged against the transgressor and in extreme
cases he will be disqualified.
Traditionally Cornish Wrestling is practiced outdoors and the ring formed in any
grassy field, meadow or lawn which is reasonably level, free from bumps, pits and
any objects which could injure a wrestler. These days the contestants are required
to wrestle within a circle of 6 metres radius marked out on the ground with sand
or saw dust. Outer rings of 8 and 9 metres radii delineate the area on which non-
participants should not enter. Beyond the outer ring seating is provided for the
Before tournaments, the wrestlers line up and take the Wrestlers’ Oath:
“ War ow enor ha war enor ow bro, my a de mewled hep tratury na garowder, hag avel
ol ow lelder my a ystyn ow luf dhe’m contrary. Gans geryowow hendasow. Gwary whek
yu gwary tek”.
Translated, “ On my honour and the honour of my country, I swear to wrestle without
treachery or brutality and in token of my sincerity I offer my hand to my opponent.
In the words of my forefathers, Good play is fair play.
Wrestling contests are controlled by three “Sticklers”, usually retired campaigners,
who do indeed carry walking sticks. The job of the Sticklers is to see fair play
between the two contestants, decide which throw merits points or is a fair “Back”
or if a foul has been committed. Their decision is final and a two to one majority
as to points or a “Back” is sufficient to carry the day. If a contest goes to a points
decision each card is individually totalled and the winner needs the highest score
on at at least two cards.
In days gone by bouts could be very prolonged but now senior events are usually set
for two ten minute rounds and, unless the bout has been ended by a “Back”, at the
end of which the winner is the contestant who has been awarded the most points over
the two rounds.
The origins of wrestling are obscure but can be traced in both Biblical and classical
history. Jacob wrestled with an angel and the Greeks wrestled at the Isthmian and
Olympic games.The Cornish style of wrestling is believed to date back over two thousand
years, probably before the coming of the Romans.
From early times the men of Cornwall established a formidable reputation as wrestlers.
At the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, where the banners symbolised the different county
contingents, the Cornish banner depicted two wrestlers in a “hitch”. The banner needed
no words, the picture was enough to let anyone know that the men of Cornwall were
A banner based on that carried at Agincourt is still displayed at Cornish wrestling
tournaments and other events. Also on the banner are the Cornish words “Gwary whek
yu gwary tek”, the wrestlers motto.
At the meeting between King Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the
Cloth of Gold in France a team of Cornish wrestlers faced the champions of France.
Godolphin, the chief wrestler, had received the royal command direct to bring his
men to uphold the “English” honour at Calais. This they did in grand style, humbling
the French team and causing the king to gloat so much that he was challenged by Francis
to a personal wrestling match. The two monarchs actually clashed for a few moments
before being separated by their courtiers.
Cornish mens’ love of the sport and their prowess at it were proverbial for centuries.
Richard Carew, in his Survey of Cornwall, printed in 1602, wrote of Cornish and Devonshire
wrestling “Wrastling is as full of manliness, more delightful and less dangerous
(than Hurling)…..for you shall hardly find an assembly of boyes in Devon and Cornwall,
where the most untowardly amongst them will not as readily give you a muster of this
exercise as you are prone to require it”.
Interestingly, in his book, Carew does not mention the jacket but refers to a girdle
that is used for grips. A girdle that perhaps gives rise to to a connection between
the Cornish style and another indigenous British style known as side-hold in which
a harness was worn for grips.
Wrestling acquired a great patron in the 18th century in Sir Thomas Parkyns of Bunny
Park near Nottingham. Wrestling was the great love of his life and every year he
would hold matches on his estate for a prize of a gold-laced hat. In 1713 he wrote
the first book in the English language entirely devoted to wrestling, “The Inn-Play
or Cornish-Hugg Wrestler”. Parkyns description of the close-hugg style differs greatly
from the modern sport of Cornish wrestling. It is much more combative in nature yet
does contain many of the same throws. It deals not only with the sportive aspects
of the style but also with self defence. Defences against lapel chokes and several
other attacks are included as well as a section about which of the close-hugg moves
to use while boxing. Parkyn also warns “Whoever would be a complete wrestler must
avoid being overtaken in drink”.
Little mention is made by Parkyn to the jacket, however by the 19th century the use
of the jacket was standard. At this time there was great rivalry between the wrestlers
of Cornwall and Devon. The style of wrestling of the two groups was basically the
same but differed in certain aspects. The Cornish concentrated on the “in-play or
close-hug“, relying mostly on the upper body, while the Devonshire wrestlers concentrated
on tripping and kicking, known as “out-play”.Of course the Cornish and Devonshire
styles each contained the elements of in-play and out-play but a preference for one
or a prejudice against the other was held. The Devonshire style was thought of as
brutal by the Cornish due to the fact that Devonshire matches often turned into punishing
shin kicking contests. Often shoes were worn in the Devonshire style to add more
damage to the kicking techniques while the Cornish wrestlers stayed barefooted or
The last great intercounty match was in 1826 between the Cornish Champion, James
Polkinghorn and the Devonshire Champion, Abraham Cann. Polkinghorn was 5ft 11inch
and weighed 19stone 10lbs of great power and fame. Cann was 6ft 1inch and weighed
13stone 10lbs endowed with surprising strength of limb, especially in the legs. The
match took place at Morris Town, Devonport in front of a crowd of seventeen thousand.
The two had fought each other many times but the result of this match has always
been disputed though the best authorities pronounce it to have been a draw, perhaps
a fair enough way to end a prolonged series. Twenty years later, Polkinghorn and
Cann were to be Sticklers at the Inter-county Championships, held in Camden Town,
London, between another legendary Cornish wrestler, Thomas Gundry, and Chapple of
Devon , which Gundry won.
Until comparatively recently each town and village had its own rules. At a meeting
in Bodmin in 1923 The Cornish Wrestling Association (C.W.A.)was set up, with its
first President Captain T.E.Bisdee, to formulate rules that would be acceptable to
all local committees. The basic aims of the association were, to promote and foster
Cornish wrestling, co-ordinate fixtures, the registration of wrestlers and to promote
and hold annual championships. Since its formation the association has had its ups
and downs but it is still there with its current enthusiastic committee still fostering
There have been many fine Cornish Wrestlers since the setting up of the C.W.A., probably
the most notable of these being Francis Gregory. Considered by many to be the last
of the “Great” Cornish wrestlers, he was the youngest member of the squad that took
part in a two week long exhibition to promote Cornish wrestling at The London Paladium
in the 1920s. He represented Cornwall as heavyweight champion against Brittany at
the first seven Cornu-Breton tournaments, winning on every occasion - including victories
over the famous Breton champions Scordia and Cadic. He later made his living as an
No history of Cornish wrestling would be complete without mention of the famous wrestling
families, the Chapmans, who dominated the scene during the 1930s and 1940s, the Hawkeys
and the Warnes. Today the tradition of families of wrestlers continues with the Cawleys
and the Frenches.
Competition had taken place between Cornish and Breton wrestlers over hundreds of
years but in 1928 the first official Cornu-Breton Championships took place in Quimperle
before a crowd of 10,000 spectators. This followed a meeting between William Tregonning
Hooper Snr. and Dr. C. Cotenec at the Celtic Consortium in Brittany in 1927. This
led to a discussion comparing the styles of the two Countries and a decision that
an Inter-Keltic tournament should take place. Tournaments continued regularly up
to the Second World War and intermittently afterwards until 1985. Contact has always
been maintained between the C.W.A. and the Breton wrestling associations of “La
Federation de Gouren” and “ARMEL“, with exchange visits taking place on both sides
of the Channel. A mini Interceltic tournament was held in Wadebridge in 2004 with
a return tournament in Plougras, Brittany in 2005 and it is hoped to build on these
With the decline of mining in Cornwall in the latter part of the 19th century, Cornish
miners emigrated in large numbers to help open up many of the world’s major mining
fields. It was said that - anywhere in the world where there was a hole in the ground,
you would find Cornishmen at the bottom, working away with pick and shovel. These
men took with them the tradition of Cornish wrestling and tournaments soon became
a feature of life in the mining areas of the U.S.A., Australia and South Africa.
Even today there is great interest in the sport amongst the descendants of these
emigrants and reports are received of wrestling events in these areas.
It is probably true to say that in recent years Cornish wrestling has reached its
lowest point with just a very small number of regular wrestlers. The sport has undoubtedly
suffered from competition with better promoted games and from the more glamorous
martial art forms and also from a lack of finance.
In a speech at the C.W.A.’s annual dinner in 2003, the then Chairman of the association,
Edwin Thomas, warned that the sport faced extinction unless greater interest could
be generated. In a letter to the press in January 2004, former heavyweight champion
Glyn Jones criticised what he saw as an insular attitude and a lack of ambition among
the CWA. The crisis was clear for all to see and the the CWA and their supporters
have responded in a number of ways. In 2004 the CWA became affiliated to The British
Wrestling Association ( BWA) in order to raise its profile and to benefit from the
BWA’s established strengths. Four members of the CWA have been trained as official
Cornish wrestling coaches and their task is to establish training centres and attract
and train the wrestlers of the future. Training sessions take place at Wadebridge
Community School every Thursday evening, with the backing of North Cornwall District
Council, and training is due to start in Helston and Truro in the near future.
Interest in Cornish wrestling has been spread beyond the boundaries of the county
and exponents of other forms of wrestling have discovered what a good sport Cornish
wrestling is. Some competitors are prepared to travel hundreds of miles to take part
in our tournaments.
As well as running championship events throughout the summer, the CWA will arrange
demonstrations at events such as the Royal Cornwall Show to raise public awareness
of the sport.
In addition to the booklet “The Art of Cornish Wrestling”, would-be wrestlers can
now buy a recently made DVD or videotape to teach themselves the throws.
The CWA is currently preparing a project to present to potential funding bodies in
order that the sport can be promoted on a sound financial basis. The determination
is there and with hard work and good fortune the sport will regain its former popularity.