Match-fixing in Cornish wrestling

Mike Tripp, ‘Match-fixing in Cornish wrestling during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, International Journal of the History of Sport 35 (2018), 157-172.

How rife was match-fixing in Cornish wrestling before the 1930s? Hitherto confined to the outer reaches of historical accounts of wrestling, match-fixing, known as faggoting in Cornish wrestling, tends to be viewed as a late aberration of a declining sport. Indeed, a romantic revivalist perspective might go so far as to see It corrupting a noble and manly pursuit based on honest competition between healthy young Celts. Mike Tripp’s article begins to cast doubts on such perceived wisdoms.

For those with little knowledge of the sport the article usefully sets out the rules and the context of wrestling matches. These were of two kinds. First, there were tournaments got up by local committees. Second, individual wrestlers would offer and accept challenge matches. The main form was tournaments, with challenges declining by the end of the 1800s. Tournaments involved rounds of matches which whittled down contestants until the last men standing won the prizes.

Wrestling was very popular in the early 1800s. Its peak occurred in the period from the 1820s to the 1850s when it was ‘a major sporting and commercial enterprise’. Earlier, in the eighteenth century, prizes had usually been items of clothing such as waistcoats, breeches, hats, belts, or ornaments such as silver lions. By the 1820s the prizes were more commonly cash. Ten pounds was commonplace while £25 was on offer at a tournament in Truro in 1850. At more than 10 to 25 times the average weekly wage for labouring men these were tempting winnings.

The growth in prize money therefore also made faggoting more attractive. Contestants might agree to pull out or ‘give their backs’ without putting up much of a struggle in an earlier round for a share of the cash prizes. More proficient wrestlers matched together might agree to go easy in order not to tire themselves out for the later rounds.

Traditionally, faggoting has been regarded as both a symptom of the decline of wrestling and a cause of that decline. Here, Mike Tripp veers rather uncertainly between ascribing the decline of Cornish wrestling to faggoting and playing it down in favour of other factors. Not the least of the latter was the de-industrialisation of Cornwall after the 1860s. Mass emigration removed both contestants and spectators and hollowed out those mining communities which were home to most wrestlers in the early 1800s. Of course, by the 1880s and 1890s alternatives were also emerging. Rugby, unlike wrestling tournaments, didn’t last all day and was a more attractive spectator sport. Cricket allowed for more active participation – at least for men.

In the end however, Mike Tripp plumps for the traditional explanation. Faggoting was a key element in the decline of Cornish wrestling. ‘Cornish wrestling not surprisingly developed a bad reputation and consequently became very unpopular with local wrestling committees, sticklers and especially spectators …’. But does this overstate the case?

In fact, the evidence in this article shows convincingly that faggoting was present from a very early date. The earliest accusation cited is from a tournament at Tregony in 1814. Local committees warned against the practice in the 1840s, newspapers speculated on it from the 1870s, while it was commonplace among wrestlers in Cornish-American communities in the 1880s. Even Cornwall’s most successful wrestlers, men like Thomas Gundry of Sithney who was active in the late 1830s and 1840s, were accused of faggoting and banned from tournaments. The practice also persisted right through to the inter-war period of the twentieth century. It appears that faggoting was hardly an aberration; it was an integral part of Cornish wrestling.

Wrestling accompanied the Cornish overseas as this advert for a challenge match in California shows

That said, it was always difficult to come up with definitive proof. Leading wrestlers denied it point-blank, claiming newspaper bias. Disgruntled losers might accuse a winner of faggoting to cast doubt on their prowess. Moreover, it was difficult to discriminate between faggoting and self-preservation as weaker wrestlers might offer little opposition to an obviously superior opponent.

An apparent increase in reports of faggoting in the 1870s and 1880s may be due to the rise of newspaper sports reporting as much as to an actual rise in the practice. Critical accounts in the West Briton, the mouthpiece of middle-class Cornish Methodism, were hardly surprising. These may well have been exaggerated and need themselves to be approached critically. Methodists and teetotallers had never been happy at the role of publicans in arranging wrestling tournaments in order to boost their sales and some were no doubt aware of John Wesley’s condemnation of the sport.

Given the early presence of faggoting from the 1810s at least, faggoting alone cannot explain the later decline of wrestling. For wrestling’s heyday was in the 1850s and 1860s when crowds of 5,000 or more would attend tournaments, clearly not put off by widespread accusations of faggoting. The shrinkage of its social base and the rise of alternatives remain far more credible explanations for the decline of Cornish wrestling. Another consideration is that wrestling was part of a traditional culture, involving a more leisured and boisterous lifestyle that allowed days off to watch wrestling tournaments. Like hurling in the early 1800s and feast days more generally, such traditional attitudes came under moral attack from evangelicals and suffered from the growing labour discipline demanded by employers.

Finally, Cornish wrestling did not have its Marquess of Queensberry, who in the 1860s forced through a new code for prize fighting. Organisational reform did not occur until the 1920s and 1930s, by which time Cornish wrestling was marginal. More broadly, the sport also did not fit the late Victorian ideal of amateur fair play although, as W.G.Grace shows, that ideal was far from reality. The rise of the gentlemanly amateur was at odds with a proletarian sport competed for by working men. For those men this was a heaven-sent opportunity to enjoy a lucrative financial windfall. In a couple of days they could earn the equivalent of several months toiling in the depths of a mine. If faggoting made that easier then so be it. It’s no surprise therefore that faggoting was part and parcel of Cornish wrestling from the early 1800s.