Wrestling with the past

Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestlers

Photographers looking for an offbeat shot often turn their attention to one of the UK's many traditional festivals.

From conkers to cheese rolling, each offers photographers a chance to capture a memorable moment. Yet for those seeking to document the custom there are other ways to approach such events.


One of the customs to survive the decades is Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, a sport that has been around for more than two centuries. According to Roger Robson, author of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, the sport remains true to its roots.

He states that today's wrestlers would be at home in the ring with competitors from times gone by, as the rules, technical terms, and scoring have remained remarkably constant.

Photographer David Ellison was well aware of the sport as parts of his family originate from the region and it was while working on a project inspired by Jeremy Deller's book Folk Archive that he hit on the idea of using photography to document the wrestling.

"I was making portraits of butchers, coal merchants, bakers, priests and farmers in Cumbria," said David. "When I spoke to them about sport, many mentioned wrestling as something they did at the weekends. The idea just ballooned from there."

David is also collaborating with Pete James, the Head of Photographs at Birmingham Central Library, who introduced him to the work of Sir Benjamin Stone. At the tail end of the 19th Century, Stone was instrumental in fighting to preserve folk traditions under threat from modernisation. David is using Stone's work and his approach as a launch pad for his own pictures.


"I see lots of tourist-board photographs that feature dramatic moments, wrestlers mid-'buttock' or mid-'hype' (wrestling moves), but I don't see any contemporary pictures of the wrestlers themselves," David told me.

His wide shots of the wrestlers in action are set within the landscape and begin to reveal the communities that are the lifeblood of the sport. A glance at the Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling Association website reveals a packed calendar of bouts each year, though these are spread far and wide.

"Besides the popular events like Grasmere and Ambleside, some of the events are stuck out in some of the remotest places of northern England," said David.

"The last location I had on my list was Wasdale Head which was a complete wash-out. No wrestlers turned up, preferring a championship event in the north east instead. Only terrier racing, and several hundred Herdwick sheep were in the field; however I got a good shot of the fog and rain. It seems the weather and conditions make the image, not necessarily the action of the wrestling."

The other aspect of the project focuses on the costumes worn by the competitors. David said: "The wrestlers are attired in a unique costume of white vest; coloured, velvet trunks; white long johns and socks matching the colour of the trunks. This costume is a requirement of all wrestlers at competitive events. The embroidered embellishments adorning the vest and trunks are intended to represent the backgrounds of individual wrestlers. Significantly this embroidery is hand-sewn by the wrestlers' mothers, wives and girlfriends.


"A modern development is that younger girls are wrestling. It is interesting in the way they feature urban interests and emblems like football, tennis and cars on their costumes. I think these are equally as fascinating as the remote locations.

"I'm applying for funding and trying to find ways in which to present the work as I'd like to showcase it alongside some archive photographs of summer fetes, or community gatherings.

"I'd be keen on producing my own book and working with a designer, plus finding someone to help edit my work. It is the mix between found archive pictures, my own photographs, an editor, designer and publisher that will make this something completely different. I look forward to the next few years, working with the best people to make it possible."

David also plans to add multimedia interviews with the wrestlers and organisers. It's a project worth keeping an eye on.

You can see more of the project on David Ellison's website.

Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestlers
Site of a wrestling match
Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestlers
Phil Coomes, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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