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Cornish Wrestling

Volume 661: debated on Wednesday 12 June 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)

Good evening, Mr Deputy Speaker. Meur ras—thank you—for allowing me to speak in the debate. The people of Cornwall will be saluting you.

I come from a part of the country that has a very proud history and culture. Our population dates back to the stone age and is steeped in history and lore, particularly in mining and fishing. Some of our ancient traditions still exist today. Every year in Cornwall, people participate in the ancient tradition of hurling through the streets, and in the merry mornings of May, the ’Obby ’Osses descend through the streets of Padstow. In recent times, we have seen a huge resurgence in the sport of gig rowing. We are proud in Cornwall to be home to those historical cultural events, which are unique to our county.

Today, I wish to shine a spotlight on Cornish wrestling. I will, if I may, refer to Cornish wrestling in the Cornish tongue for the rest of the debate—I will be referring to wrestling as “wrasslin”. That is how we describe it in Cornwall. I have had a large number of media requests about this debate, which I was not expecting.

Cornish wrasslin bears no relation to the wrestling that people may have seen on television. It is not WWE. There are no ropes, nothing to jump off and no cage fights or tag teams. The sport of wrasslin in Cornwall sums up the Cornish very well. It is a game of power, skill and strength. Cornish wrasslin is a form of wrestling that has been established in Cornwall for several centuries. It is a unique sport that has witnessed a steady revival since the establishment of the Cornish Wrestling Association in 1920.

The history of wrasslin was recorded first in “The History of the Kings of Britain” in 1139, in which Geoffrey of Monmouth suggested that Corineus, the medieval legend, wrestled a Cornish giant named Gogmagog at Plymouth Hoe. Two Cornishmen were recorded in a poem of 1590 entitled “Poly-Olbion” at the battle of Agincourt, carrying a banner of two Cornish wrasslers in a hitch or a hold. In the 17th century, historian Richard Carew wrote of Cornish wrestling:

“Wrasslin is as full of manliness, more delightful and less dangerous”

than hurling. I can just imagine two burly Cornishmen, with hands the size of shovels, striding out into battle at Agincourt, proud of their sport and proud of their county.

In more recent times, we have seen a mini-revival. Both Devon and Brittany have a history of wrasslin, and they have competed with Cornwall in inter-Celtic matches. Cornish wrasslin is the oldest sport in the British Isles, and alongside hurling it is the oldest sport indigenous to Cornwall.

The objective of Cornish wrasslin is to throw the challenger from a standing position, with no grappling or holding on the ground. A bout begins when the competitors grab each other’s jackets by the collar, lapel or sleeve, in what is known as a hitch. To win the bout, the competitor must score a back. A back is scored by throwing the opponent on his or her hips or shoulders. There are four pins on the back of the jacket, and three have to touch the ground to score a back and win the contest. A single pin touching the ground only counts as one point but can be accumulated and scored at the end.

There are many different techniques and throws to defeat an opponent and score a back. Crooks and heaves are the most popular. Crooks are a variation of a trip, to catch an opponent off guard, while heaves are used by heavier, more powerful wrasslers to lift their opponent in the air and fling them on their back.

The wearing of canvas jackets is essential and makes gripping easier, and competitors also wear shorts and socks. One crucial thing to keep in mind is that strength is not the main contributing factor to wrasslin. Many techniques and moves can be deployed to get a back. In fact, competitors from Devon are said to have used more kicking, which has not always gone down particularly well with the Cornish.

One of the most famous encounters between wrasslers from Devon and Cornwall must surely be the great wrasslin bout of 1826. Any match between Devon and Cornwall was almost always hotly disputed and always bore a pridely grudge, and this was no exception. James Polkinghorne was due to meet Abraham Cann. James Polkinghorne was born in the St Keverne and was usually associated with St Columb, for it was here that he was the landlord of the Red Lion inn. He set forth to uphold the honour of Cornish wrasslin when he took on Cann the challenger.

The match was to find the champion of the west of England and it took place at Tamar Green in Devonport on 23 October 1826. The ultimate result has never been agreed and it remains a matter of controversy to this day. It was from St Stephens that James Polkinghorne set off, in his gig rowing boat, on a long trip with his brother to Tamar Green. Information about the controversy surrounding the event from the outset can be found in an article on the heyday and decline of wrasslin. In 1960, the late Leslie Jolly, a recognised authority on wrasslin, wrote in a Cornish gazette that he wondered whether Polkinghorne was the right person to take on the challenger Cann. Jolly’s grandfather, of Penscowen, St Enoder, was a renowned wrassler during the early part of the 19th century, and he made the case that Parkyn of St Columb Minor would have been a better representative. Parkyn had been champion for 20 years, but he was 52 and Polkinghorne a mere 38. Parkyn’s claims were supported by some involved in the sport, including in St Columb, but nevertheless it was Polkinghorne who eventually went across the Tamar.

Cornish wrasslin has not always had a good name. Before the sport’s governing body was founded, there were all sorts of things going on in Cornwall. The attraction of wrasslin brought about a bout in Bodmin. One of the competitors entered the ring and threw two roach men. That success was immediately followed by an attack by the Bodmin men, which led to a general riot. The contenders congested in a pugilistic style, the combatants armed themselves with bludgeons from the wooden rickshaw in the church town, and a fight ensued. Heads were laid open, teeth knocked out and the battlefield was quickly strewn with the maimed.

During the 1930s and 1940s, several members of the Chapman family achieved great wrasslin success. Grandfathers, fathers and sons all fought. Many Cornish towns and villages held tournaments, and hundreds would turn up to watch the contests. The Hawkeys and the Warnes were also well-known wrassling families, but the most famous competitor of the day was the heavyweight champion, Francis Gregory of St Wenn.

Gregory had his first match when he was 13 and he was the youngest Cornishman to show his skills at the London Palladium in 1927. He represented Cornwall seven times from 1928 at the official Cornu-Breton championships. He won seven times, on four occasions in Brittany. Later, he moved north and changed his sport to play rugby league for Wigan and Warrington and was capped for England. Taking up professional wrestling, he became known as Francis St Clair Gregory, and in November 1955 he made his first appearance in a wrestling match shown on British television.

More recently, in the face of fierce competition and promotion, Cornish wrestling waned to a small group of stalwarts. To put a stop to the decline and help raise awareness, in 2004, the Cornish Wrestling Association became affiliated with the British Wrestling Association. Publicity increased and training sessions took place in Helston, Truro and Wadebridge. Those measures have helped wrasslin make a strong comeback. Based at St Columb Major, today Ashley Cawley is the current Cornish heavyweight champion. He is also the Cornish Wrestling Association’s public relations officer, while his uncle, Mike Cawley, is the association chairman. Ashley’s father, Gerry, came out of wrestling retirement and won two championships recently.

Over the summer months, the Cornish Wrestling Association runs tournaments in villages and towns across the duchy. They also feature at the Royal Cornwall Show. All ages are welcome to participate and there are several children’s categories. There is now a plaque in St Columb Major to commemorate the fight between Polkinghorne and Cann. The contests are overseen by three referees called sticklers, who award the points.

It is thought that Cornish wrasslin evolved the way it did because it is safer for wrestlers to land on their backs. The wrestlers are taught to grip tight and to avoid putting their arms down to soften the blow.

Wrestlers swear an oath in Cornish before wrasslin. The translation is:

“On my honour and the honour of my country”—

I think they probably mean Cornwall there—

“I swear to wrestle without treachery or brutality and in token of my sincerity, I offer my hand to my opponent.”

I will give the Cornish a go:

“Gwary whec yu gwary tek”,

which means, “Good play is fair play”.

While it has been good to give the Minister a tour d’horizon of Cornish wrasslin this evening, I have some specific asks for her. Perhaps next time she passes through Cornwall, she would like to take me on in a bout of Cornish wrasslin. Given the current environment, perhaps the quickest way to sort out the leadership contest is to put everybody in a Cornish wrasslin ring and let them duke it out and find out who is the strongest contender.

My first objective is to raise the profile of this wonderful traditional sport. I hope that we have managed to do that through the debate. Secondly, I seek the Minister’s support in getting help from Sport England to recognise Cornish wrasslin as a defined sport. That would allow Celtic tournaments between Brittany and Cornwall to continue. Sport England generously gave Cornwall £9,000 in 2012, and I hope that we can restore some of that funding.

Thirdly, the Commonwealth games are taking place in Birmingham, and there has been Greco-Roman wrestling in previous Commonwealth games. We have a chance to showcase all that is great about the British Isles. Will the Minister therefore help me to lobby the Commonwealth games committee either to put Cornish wrasslin in future Commonwealth games or to allow our fantastic sportsmen and women who do Cornish wrasslin to have a spot at the opening ceremony to demonstrate how good the sport is?

I hope that I have provided some entertainment in talking about a sport that I care passionately about. I hope that the debate has showcased Cornish wrasslin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on securing this debate on Cornish wrasslin. I was just wondering—my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) mentioned it, too—whether my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) sat next to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall to see whether there would be a bout afterwards. We shall see very shortly. I very much enjoyed hearing about the heritage of this interesting sport. Most of the historical stories I have heard previously have been in the Tea Room. I am glad to hear all about wrasslin tonight. I thought my hon. Friend gave his speech without a hitch—if I have that right.

It is clear that this sport means a great deal to those present and to the communities from which it originated, which is great to see. The media interest that my hon. Friend has had might give him an insight into the media interest in life as a Sports Minister. It has certainly given me an insight over the past few weeks and months into quite how much interest there is, rightly, in sport. I thank the hon. Members in the Chamber who have listened to the debate and are wondering where they can use this in their own constituencies.

I cannot say that I have yet had the opportunity to personally take part in this ancient and noble art. However, I have noted the invitation. As my hon. Friends and other hon. Members will know, I am a passionate advocate for new and different sports. Yes, this is on my list to at least look at. I am not sure I am going to try it, but I will take a close look at it.

Cornwall is a part of the country steeped in tradition and history, which manifests itself in so many ways: in the culture, in the language, and of course in its sporting history. It has been fascinating to hear about the many interesting facets of Cornish wrasslin and how it has developed as a sport. From Agincourt to riots to rickshaws to teeth being knocked out, it is clear that this sport has been popular and truly fascinating over a number of years. I am sure that this debate will in some way boost the sport. I hope that more youngsters will be able to understand that experience in all its vitality and history. It is fantastic to see how the sport has been handed down over many generations. That is typical of our sports and it is one of the joys of sport. It is a warming tradition that continues.

Let me, as my hon. Friend did, talk about the value and power of sport to our communities. Since I took on the job of Sports Minister, one of my key priorities has been to make sure that absolutely everyone is able to enjoy sport and physical activity. I think we are all extremely well versed in the benefits of sport and physical activity. That is reflected in the five outcomes of the Government’s sporting future strategy: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development, social and community development, and economic development. I am totally committed to delivering those five outcomes for absolutely everyone. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives will remind me when it comes to a stadium for Cornwall, access to that is vital.

Everybody should be able to enjoy the benefits that sport and physical activity can bring. It should also, as we have heard tonight, be fun. It should be inclusive and there should be no barriers to taking part or feeling welcome. We want at least half a million more people to be regularly active across England by 2020, with at least half of them women. We are making good progress, but we must do more. Since we launched the strategy in 2015, we have recognised that this is about long-term change. This is about habits that exist over the long term. Physical activity has a massively positive impact on our nation’s health and wellbeing. It can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and tackle health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. There are ever-increasing pressures on our health and social care systems, particularly in Cornwall. The evidence shows that referrals to exercise classes, sports groups, ballroom dancing or indeed wrasslin can help people’s physical and mental wellbeing—as long as you keep your teeth.

It is extremely important to me that everyone, regardless of their background, age or where they live, can find a sport that is right for them and stick with it, getting active and staying active, whether through wrestling, wrasslin, dancing or football. We need to get young people involved in physical activity. There are still stubborn inequalities when it comes to taking part in sport; girls, certain black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, those with a disability and those with hidden disabilities are under-represented. It is clear that we need to continue to encourage more adults and children to take part in sport and physical activity and, as we heard tonight, it must be fair, safe and welcoming. The point about the Cornish wrasslin motto was absolutely right:

“Good play is fair play”.

What a fantastic message for all those in sport or who are considering taking it up. The basis of good sport is fairness. It is simple but absolutely true, and experience shows that if we get fair and welcoming sport or physical activity, we absolutely benefit.

On Sport England and grassroots funding, the investment of £9,000 helped with the school taster days, which saw several hundred children taking part. Sport England also funded some new equipment, including mats and jackets, to encourage a new generation of Cornish boys and girls to experience the sport. I am sure that, like me, it will have heard the plea.

In the last five years, Sport England has invested £7.3 million in projects in Cornwall, with the aim of getting more people physically active. We have heard about other sports. The Bude Surf Life Saving Club in North Cornwall is helping to get more women involved and it received £9,000, which seems like a lucky figure in Cornwall. Sport England has also invested over £75,000 of its community asset fund in Newquay Town Council to help with the skate park and to help to provide broad opportunities to get active. We need to shift the dial—sorry, I am falling over a pen here; that is nearly a sporting injury—when it comes to all our communities getting active and staying active.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall for securing this debate and for allowing us to reflect fully on the benefits of sport and physical activity and on what sport and a connection to a community means. He mentioned the Commonwealth games. I am not in a position to commit to including wrasslin in a future games, but I am sure that those devising the start or the end of the showcase will have heard that point and I will of course mention it to them. We will certainly explore the opportunities to showcase those slightly different sports as part of our sporting and cultural programme. What is not to like about that?

I thank everyone who has been present to talk about the enjoyment of sport in the two debates tonight and the importance of different opportunities. I hope that wrasslin continues to grow, adds more participants far and wide and includes some of the under-represented groups that I spoke about this evening. I wish the sport and all those involved the very best—and I may, bravely, try it out for myself.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.