Guy Woolnough – Blood Sports in Victorian Cumbria

Guy Woolnough – Keele University 

This post accompanies Guy Woolnough’s JVC article ‘Blood Sports in Victorian Cumbria: Policing Cultural Change’, which can be downloaded here.

Cumbria is different and special. This is an opinion that most present-day visitors today will share with the great and good of the 19th century: the Wordsworths, John Ruskin, Harriet Martineau, Matthew Arnold, Beatrix Potter and many more expressed their appreciation of Cumbria’s uniqueness.

George Steadman, circa 1900

Sport is just one area of culture where Cumbria has long differed from the rest of England. Hound trailing, sheep dog trials, fell racing and Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling were all Cumbrian inventions which enjoyed growing popularity in the 19th century. When I was researching the work of the police in Victorian Cumbria, it was inevitable that I should have to consider sport. George Steadman cropped up early on. George was a great Cumbrian wrestler and hero, a ‘World Champion’ of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling who dominated the sport for many years and only retired (according to the legend) in order to give the youngsters a chance. The contemporary newspapers wrote of him in tones that implied he could do no wrong. So I was delighted to discover that George was in trouble with the police on at least three occasions: once, as a young man, for poaching, and twice in later years for licensing offences when he was a pub landlord. George was no longer just a hero in the respectable world of Lakeland Sports, he also had a foot in the disreputable camp of poaching and dodgy pubs.

However, wrestling enjoyed a privileged status in Cumbria. Although the meetings, held in or outside pubs, were very frequent, and gambling, bookmakers and match fixing were the norm, I was unable to find any prosecutions arising from a wrestling event in Cumbria in the nineteenth century.  The police attended big matches, but they do not appear to have done anything other than enjoy spectating.

Jem Mace vs Joe Goss, 1866

Twice Jem brought prize-fights to Cumbria. Both of these contests were attended by the police, not to spectate, but to close them down as disorderly gatherings. Prize fights were few and far between in Cumbria but they were stopped with ruthless efficiency by the police, and the participants prosecuted. It is difficult to understand why wrestling was regarded as a manly, rational recreation but pugilism was condemned as disgraceful. Both events attracted large crowds of men who were drinking and betting. The only obvious difference is that there was usually no blood in a wrestling match.


I took my research to another, similar sporting event, cock-fighting. The secondary sources I consulted implied that cock-fighting died out within a few years of its being made illegal. Amazingly, in the Westmorland Gazette (5 July 2012, p31) an RSPCA officer was quoted as saying that there have been ‘about 12 prosecutions for cock-fighting in the UK since 1835’. I realised that this was absurd: there were many times more prosecutions in Victorian Cumbria alone.

A cock-fight, London, 1808

Cock-fighting has striking similarities with bare-knuckle fighting. Both are ‘masculine’ events where two male protagonists fight until one of them cannot continue. Blood is spilt, men place large bets and plenty of alcohol is consumed. Cock-fighting had a strong following in Victorian Cumbria. Its Cumbrian supporters resented the law and the police interfering with their sport, but there were also many Cumbrians who condemned the sport as depraved and immoral. What led me to research this topic and to write my article is the paradox that these three sports, which have striking similarities, were each regarded so differently. Prize fighting was reviled, wrestling was revered and cock-fighting divided opinion. My article focuses upon prize-fighting and cock-fighting to explore the roots of the contradictions in working class cultures. The criminal justice system is where these contradictions were negotiated, and the police were the working class men who acted (or failed to act) and thereby managed the tensions created. This study proves that cultural change in working class Victorian Cumbria was not effected by the policies of the elite. It challenges the idea of ‘progress’ imposed upon local plebeian cultures, and demonstrates how the police were not simply following orders but were key agents in any civilising process.  The regulation of blood sports in Cumbria was determined by the actions and opinions of ordinary policemen.

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