Long before cricket & football became nationally popular, English counties had their own favourite pastimes. In Dorset ‘cudgel playing’ was a favoured ‘sport’ and there is a theory that there is a connection between this sport and the cudgel carrying Cerne Abbas Giant. Cudgel playing used to be a most popular feature at race meetings, fairs and revels in Dorset during the 17th & 18th century. Betting, money prizes and rural rivalries to attain a sort of rural celebrity status, stimulated this most brutal of pastimes.
Play would take place on a stage of rough planks about four feet high which would attract a large crowd of men and women. A challenger would ascend the stage and throw down his cap to be picked up by an opponent. With a leather thong to go around the wrist, each player would be holding a cudgel made of ash of about three feet long. A master of ceremonies would announce when the playing was about to begin.
Object of cudgel playing was to ‘break the head’ of an opponent so that it caused blood to flow anywhere above the eyebrow. Fast and furious was the exchanging of blows until at last a red streak appeared on the temple of one of the competitors. For a head to be broken, blood would have to run for at least an inch. At this point the excited crowd would cry out ‘blood, blood, blood’ and a winner would be declared by the umpire who was known as the ‘stickler’. The man who could draw blood by the most skilful and lightest touch had the highest honour. Scars from such confrontations were shown off with great pride. However, if a player had a cudgel knocked out of his hand this would be treated as a loss. Large crowds were attracted and it is reckoned a cudgel playing contest held outside the Crown Hotel, Blandford had more than 200 spectators.
Among the cudgel playing venues most used were Blandford Race Course and the appropriately named Revel’s Inn. This could be found just north of Cerne Abbas and close to the impressive cudgel carrying Cerne Abbas Giant cut into the Dorset chalk. The sport produced many local celebrities and among them was a player named Shitler who gained many famous victories. He would challenge players from Somerset & Wiltshire to bouts on the stage at the Revel’s Inn. He had a secret weapon as he was left handed. Shitler would usually win the prize thanks to his skill and because the opponent would have difficulty dealing with left hand blows.
It was said that Somerset men would not cross the border into Dorset if there was the prospect of facing up to John Newman from Hamoon. Newman was a powerful, athletic man who was six feet tall which was unusual for the time. No man was ever reckoned to have broken as many heads in a day as John other than perhaps his mentor ‘Butcher Matcham’ from Child Okeford. Newman died in May 1820 at the age of 80 years. Much respected, he was never known to use foul play or improper language.
Another local champion, John Combes from Lower Buckshaw near Sherborne, was nicknamed ‘Tally-Ho Combes’. It was reputed he was able to jump over a five bar gate from a standing start with his hands in his pockets.
Fortunately, and after many quite horrendous injuries, by the 1870s the barbaric ‘sport’ of cudgel playing in the county of Dorset was no more.
(Source: Southern Times & Dorset County Herald – 8th July 1865 and other reports in the British Newspaper Archive.)
Image: the cudgel carrying Cerne Abbas Giant.