Backsword fighting was once the glory of Wedmore

Cudgel fighting used to be a popular feature of fairs and revels in Somerset villages in the 17th and 18th centuries. A variation of the sport was

Cudgel fighting used to be a popular feature of fairs and revels in Somerset villages in the 17th and 18th centuries. A variation of the sport was particularly identified with the Wedmore locality. Attacking it in a sermon, the Rev William White, who became incumbent of Theale in the 1820s, declared that the annual revel was an occasion "when you meet together to encourage your poor fellow creatures to break the heads of each other in a dreadful amusement called backsword-playing, falsely called the glory of Wedmore, but rightly called the shame and disgrace of Wedmore".The men of Wedmore were noted for their backsword prowess, and there was scarcely any fair or revel in North Somerset at which they did not appear to 'knock the daylight' out of the local champions. The contests were not kid-glove affairs, and often resulted in serious injuries. Adding to the intensity and fury of the bouts was the fact that sometimes big purses were at stake, and those who watched had come from near and far, their interest whetted by betting.The young curate was a nephew of William White, who built Sand House, Wedmore, as his home. Once a year every village in this area had its annual revel at which there were various sports, entertainment by travelling showmen, booths of all kinds, trading stalls and beer and cider tents. There was much drunkenness and the revels often ended in near riots.Village Weston's Revel was held at what was then Rogers' Field, now the site of the Winter Gardens.The Rev William White, Theale's incumbent, appears to have been a very conscientious clergyman. The first sermon he addressed to his congregation was against the approaching annual revel."At what season of the year do we hear more cursing or swearing, or see more drunkenness and sin of various kinds than at the revel? How many a sad tale might be told of the consequences of persons attending a revel? 'It was there,' says one, 'I became drunken and foolishly spent that money which ought to have been spent in bread for my poor wife and family.' 'It was there,' says another, 'I had a quarrel with my neighbour; it was there this eye was lost, this arm, this leg, broken.'"A revel," Mr White commented, "consists principally of these ingredients: gambling, backsword playing, drinking, singing, jesting, and every kind of foolish merriment. Here, also, are to be seen thieves, pickpockets, women of bad character and loose persons of various descriptions."Mr White's address had a mixed reception. It was said that one young woman was heard to remark: "What do you think of what Mr White said in his sermon? He told us we should not go to the revel but I'll be -- d if I don't go."Peter Ditchfield, a Berkshire rector, gave the following description of backsword play: "A good, sound ash stick with a large basket handle was the weapon used, very similar to, but heavier and shorter than an ordinary single-stick. The object is to 'break the head' of the opponent - i.e. to cause blood to flow anywhere above the eyebrow."A slight blow will often accomplish this, so the game is not so savage as it appears to be. The play took place on a stage of rough planks about four feet high. Each player was armed with a stick, looping the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap, which he fastened round his left leg, measuring the length so that when he drew it tight with his left elbow he had a perfect guard for the left side of this head. Guarding his head with the stick in his right hand he advanced, and then the fight began; fast and furious became the blows, until at last a red streak on the temple of one of the combatants declared his defeat. "The Reading Mercury of May 24, 1819, advertised the rural sports at Peppard when the not very magnificent prize of eighteen-pence was offered for every man who broke a head at cudgel play, and a shilling to everyone who had his head broken."Betting, the purses and the element of rivalry stimulated the most brutal aspects of the sport, and village backsword champions had little inclination to show each other mercy.At Theale the Rev William White declared that the sport, far from being the glory of Wedmore "was rightly called the shame and disgrace of Wedmore, for certainly our parish is disgraced in the sight of God by this abominable practice"."I could not bear to see God's creatures beating each other till they were black and blue, with black eyes and blood noses," he wrote. "I therefore determined to stop it, so far as in me lay whether amongst children or grown-up persons."One evening a workman employed by White went to him and said: "There is going to be a fight tomorrow morning, sir."White replied: "I don't think there is. What time is it to take place and who are the parties?""Tis between Mr W-- of Mark, and Mr P-- of Mudgley, and they meet at nine or 10 - I forget which, in the morning," said the servant.White was up early next morning and on his way to Mudgley on his horse to meet one of the combatants. The following conversation ensued:"I hear you are going to fight this morning, is this true?""Yes, I am going to fight.""I don't think you are if I can prevent it. Can't you give it up?""No, there's money paid down and I'm bound to fight."White rode off and got someone in authority to go with him to the fight venue, the Panborough Inn, with the object of stopping it. When they arrived one of the fighters was there lounging in the chimney corner. The other arrived shortly afterwards and sat in an opposite corner."Here, as I thought, I had them both secure," said White, "but the room was crowded and the company was getting restive. One of the combatants, a strong, powerful man, asked White what business he had there."My business," he replied, "is to see that peace is kept in the place of which I am minister. I have business to attend to out of the pulpit as well as in it."As he spoke three or four men rushed from the fireplace, tore the man away from the curate, and bore him off to the field chosen for the fight."Well," thought White, "they have seized one man, but I will make sure they do not get the other." He added: "We kept him in the chimney corner until the time fixed for the fight was long past." The crowd in the field adjoining the Panborough Inn kept shouting. "Why don't he come?" "Where he?" "What's the matter?"The spectators were kept waiting until they tired of it. Some of them had come long distances to see the sport, but at last the fight was called off and the prize-money returned. As the disappointed crowd dispersed White went amongst them distributing tracts!On another occasion White saw many people walking through the village in haste, obviously making for the same destination. On enquiry he was told there was to be a fight. He followed the crowd and caught up with one of the combatants. "His poor wife was sitting down in the ditch by the roadside lamenting her husband in a most piteous manner," White recalled. He did his best to dissuade the husband from fighting, but he replied that the prize-money was paid down and he could not do so."Never mind that," said White, "If you will return home and not go to the field I will take care that you do not lose your money." After a while the man agreed, but White had the utmost difficulty in getting about half a dozen men to drag him out of the crowd and return him to his home.White then proceeded to the fight field where there were "several hundreds, if not thousands of people assembled together - what for? To hear the Gospel? No; but to see two of their fellow creatures disgrace themselves by fighting!"The young curate, who certainly did not lack courage, decided they should not go away profitless. He straightway began to address them, "and showed them, as well as my agitated mind would allow me, the folly of such proceedings. I then took my leave of them.""But what did I hear afterwards?" he wrote. "That some of the people took the other combatant out of the parish and provided another in the place of the one I had rescued. The remaining combatant, I afterwards heard, was beaten."Another evil White tried to suppress was that of the cider and beer houses. There were 20 of them in the parish of Wedmore, and he described them as "haunts of the most dissolute character and the very sinks of iniquity and vice".It has been suggested that the once popular village revel had a religious origin. It was an occasion on which people came from far and near to hear the Revelation. The meeting was called a Reveal, and for some time was conducted in an atmosphere of reverence. Those who came from a distance of course, needed drink and food, and gradually the character of the event changed to one of festivity, and ultimately to such disorderly affairs that the authorities suppressed them.This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on July 6, 1979.


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