Wrestling was a most popular sport in the 18th and 19th centuries, practised both in town and country. It was a common feature of country fairs, and in many towns and cities there were one or two pubs that regularly held competitions. There were several regional variations of the sport - the Westmoreland, Cumberland and Cornish traditions surviving to the present. But in the eighteenth century there were also Lancastrian, Norfolk and Devonshire versions. London pubs would advertise matches of Devonshire and Cornish Wrestling often lasting 3 to 5 days. The famous Eagle Tavern in London's City Road was one popular venue. The enthusiasm for the sport owed much to the large sums of money that were gambled on the outcome, but followers took great interest in the prowess and technique of individual wrestlers. Abraham Cann of Colebrooke was revered as a champion of the Devonshire tradition, and won bouts not only in Devon but in London, Leeds and the Westcountry, and was given the title Champion of England..
Greenwich Fair. Wrestling matches were a regular feature at such fairs in the 18th and early 19th centuries
|Abraham Cann 1794 - 1864|
Abraham Cann was born in Colebrooke, near Crediton, in 1794, the son of farmer and maltster Robert, and Mary Cann both of Colebrooke, youngest of seven children. Robert, who was reputed to be a rum-runner, smuggled barrels of spirits being transported to him disguised in hay loads, whilst wife Mary took care of the distribution with the contraband hidden in her voluminous skirts. His grandparents Robert, miller or maltster of Upton Hellions and Sandford, and wife Jane Cann nee Coombe were 4 x great grandparents of Florence Cann, who married great uncle Charley Heard, and her sister Elizabeth Cann, who married third cousin William Drew. See the tree below.
'Portrait of Abraham Cann - Last Champion in Devon-Style Wrestling' by Henry Caunter (attrib.), c. 1846
© Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter
It is not clear when he began wrestling, but reports of his and brother James' bouts start to appear in the press from 1812 onwards. In 1820 Abe married Mary Gorwyn, in Crediton, "connected with a most respectable family" and lived at Kiddicott Farm, Clannaborough. By the time of his marriage he was nationally renowned as a wrestler. The marriage was not blessed with good luck - the first two children Mary Ann and William dying in infancy. Their third child Abraham Gorwyn Lambert Cann, named for his mother's family survived to adulthood.
One of the images of Abe that appeared
regularly in magazines and broadsheets of the period.
Abe was usually accompanied on his trips by fellow wrestler and good friend from Crediton, James Stone, nicknamed "The Little Elephant", and often by his brother James Cann. In his history of Crediton, Venn (Venn, T.W., History of Crediton. Typescript. 1972) tells us that the activities of the Devonshire wrestlers in London were reported enthusiastically in the Society gossip columns. Dressed in the latest fashions they would promenade in the famous Vauxhall pleasure gardens, where much curiousity was shown to catch a sight of "these extraordinary Devonshire wrestlers". Along with the bare-knuckle fighters, the wrestlers must have had the popular appeal of football stars of old, if not quite the overblown celebrity status accorded them in today's tabloids. Certainly local papers reported their comings and goings, and we read of a triumphant return to Devon on the express coach Celerity in 1827, when the wrestlers were greeted by cheering crowds in Exeter. Unbeaten and admired for his sportsmanship and his technique, Abe gave his name to a particular grip which according to an account of a wrestling match in R.D.Blackmore's Clara Vaughan, was known as "Abraham Cann's staylace".
In 1828-9 Abe took over the Woolpack Inn in Bartholomew Yard, Exeter and renamed it the Champion's Arms. But this marked the beginning of his decline, both personal and professional. His 2 year-old son George died in 1829, and was buried in Colebrooke. Another son, William was born the same year, but the child died aged 3 months and was also buried in Colebrooke. Then in September of 1830, at 30 years of age, his wife Mary died.
A Mr Ellicombe of Kingston took up the challenge and the fight was scheduled for 8 June. The prize money rose to 50 sovereigns. Then in May, Abe suffered an injury whilst wrestling a Sam Haydon at Hittisleigh Revel, and the challenge was postponed. It was finally scheduled to be held in a specially constructed ring near St Thomas Church, Exeter on 27th July, the prize having risen to 100 sovereigns. Cann was 47. His opponent, a young man of 24. More or less matched in height, the challenger was more than 30lbs heavier than Cann. The younger man demonstrated both strength and technical skill; he would have thrown any man but Cann, and proved to be more than a match for the champion. After 48 minutes of struggle, without a fall, Cann, who had been showing signs of strain, put his hand to his shoulder, evidently in pain. Two surgeons immediately attended and announced that Abraham's collar bone had "gone" - an old injury exacerbated at Hittisleigh two months earlier. And so at 2.30 pm on 27th July 1841 Abraham Cann, Champion of England, retired from the ring, assuring his opponent that he had been "as good or as fair a man as he had ever played with. "
In 1860 the local press announced that Abe had been compelled to accept parochial relief. He was described as being in distressed circumstances and ill health. Mr Langdon, of the Bull Inn, Exeter, began a subscription for him, and was soon able to report that Abe's admirers throughout the country had not forgotten the old champion. Amongst the many London subscribers was Lord Palmerston, who directed that £10 be given out of the Royal Bounty Fund, and the NCOs of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards. By October 1860 £200 had been collected, enough to give Abe with an annuity of £21.10s -to be paid quarterly - enough to support him in his declining years.
Abraham Cann's life
1794 Abraham born at Colebrooke
1812-1815 Abraham and James making their marks in local wrestling matches
1820 Abe marries Mary Gorwyn
1821 Son William and daughter Mary Ann die
1824 Abraham is gaining a reputation nationally as a leading wrestler
1824 Proprietor of the Moreton Inn, St Thomas, Exeter
1825 Rivalry between Cann and Polkinghorn is trumpeted in the press
1826 Fights Warren of Redruth at the Eagle Tavern
1826 Renowned fight against Polkinghorn
1827 Abeís father dies
1827 Abeís busiest year, fighting in Devon and London.
1828 Abe triumphs at a Grand Wrestling Match in Leeds
1829 Abe is proprietor of the Championís Arms, Bartholomew Yard, Exeter
1829 Abeís son George dies
1830 Abeís son William and wife Mary die.
1831 Abe suffers a period of poverty brought on by illness and affliction
1834 Abe is toll collector on the Stonehouse bridge
1841 Abe is back at Colebrooke with his brother
1841 fight with Sam Haydon at Hittisleigh Revel and
July 29th 1841 Last fight against Ellicombe, Exeter
1846 Abe and J Polkinghorn acting as Umpires in London
1840s Abe gets requests to appear as a celebrity at fairs throughout Devon
1850- 55 Abe continues to be engaged as Trier in London and Devon competitions
1860 receiving parish relief
May 1860 Mr Langdon of the Bull Inn, Exeter, starts a subscription for Cann, and presents him with an annuity
April 7th 1864 Abe dies
Devonshire and Cornish wrestling are similar in most respects. The Devonshire tradition allowed kicking of the opponent below the knee, with toe or heel, and to reinforce this aspect the Devonshire men would wear a shoe that was often soaked in bullocks' blood and then baked to make it rock hard. (The kicking was a two-sided coin. Skilled wrestlers would use the fleeting instability of the kick to overturn the kicker and gain a fall.) Devonshire men were allowed padding on the shins, but often they wore no more than silk stockings. Both Devon and Cornish dress styles otherwise comprised breeches and a short loose wrestling jacket, which was the only part of the dress by which a hold or 'hitch' could be taken. The hitch was central to the Devonshire style, whilst the Cornish wrestlers used a 'hug', which does not seem to have been a Devon technique.
The contests would begin with "single plays". Challengers would throw their hats in the ring and take on opponents one by one - the objective being to make a 'standard'. Opponents would take up the challenge, and be eliminated after one fall. The challenger would remain in the ring for another opponent and when the second had been similarly beaten a standard was made. If the challenger was beaten, then his victorious opponent would hold the ring until he had made a standard, and so on. When the standards had been made the match would progress to double play - a knockout round when those successful in achieving standards the single play would fight, and then to triple play when the victors in the double play rounds would contest for places in the quadruple play, and so on until the champion had been decided by elimination bouts. The contest seems at times to have gone to quintuple play. Variations on the rules could be agreed in advance at matches, and the duration would of course be determined by how many standards were to be made. But it was common for the contest to last two days, sometimes three, starting in the mornings and continuing well into the evening. Individual bouts might be characterised by lengthy manoeuvrings to gain a hold and then tip the opponent, or by a flurry of activity resulting in a throw.
There was considerable rivalry between the Cornish and Devonshire wrestlers, over their different styles, and the prowess of their native champions. This came to the fore in the public rivalry between Abe Cann and James Polkinhorn, publican of the Red Lion, St Columb Major, Cornwall, where to this day a plaque commemorates his fight with Abraham in 1826. In 1825 the pair engaged in a war of words in the press over the championship of the two counties, with challenge, counter-challenge, conditions and counter-conditions. There was no love lost between the two men apparently. The Devonshire supporters believed that Polkinhorn had no stomach for the fight, whilst the Cornish took the view that Cann was imposing unfair conditions. The two men finally fought on Tamar Green, Morice Town, Plymouth, on 23rd October 1826, in front of 17000 spectators. Cann wore one shoe only. Unfortunately the outcome of the contest was inconclusive. Polkinhorn supposedly believed he had won two falls, and thus the match, so he left the field. The second fall had been disallowed, and it may be that Polkinhorn had been urged to leave by his supporters. Cann remained to continue the fight but Polkinhorn could not be persuaded to return to the ring - thus he forfeited the fight, and the prize money was awarded to Cann.
Cann the man
There can be no doubt that Abe's popularity had a lot to do with his pre-eminence in the sport, but also owed much to his personality and demeanour. It was clear that throughout his career Abe had consistently rejected the many bribes offered him to throw a match. These contemporary newspaper descriptions show us the kind of man he was.
" He modestly looked around the ring, his hair dropping carelessly on his manly forehead, and at that moment never could there be a finer subject for the painter."
Decline of Devonshire wrestling
The decline of Devonshire wrestling seems to have been brought about by several factors, including the very nature of the sport itself. At its height in 1820-1827 or '28, its popularity had begun to fall off by 1830.
Matches had all the potential for finding ways to gain unfair advantages. Partisan Triers or Sticklers arranged the matches such that the making of standards was unfair. Some wrestlers threw the match for a share of the prize money. Match promoters stressed the fairness of their arrangements, implying other circumstances elsewhere. It must be said that Abe Cann was regarded as honest and was never accused of corrupt practice. Indeed the comment was made that others grew rich on his skill, whilst he remained poor.
|I am grateful to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum of Exeter for their permission to use the Caunter portrait of Abe on this page. I am also indebted to Colebrooke OPC Neville Enderson who is himself descended from "The Little Elephant" wrestler James Stone. Neville clarified my family connection with Abe, as well as providing me with some of the facts that appear on this page.|
This site was last updated 03/06/09