Purring – Sport of The People explores the lost histories of clog fighting. The artist Anna FC Smith writes for Northern Soul about the genesis of the show (currently at The Whitaker in Rossendale) and what visitors can expect.
The idea for this exhibition took seed in 2013 as I was beginning a project on clog dancing. I was chatting to a friend about it when he asked if I had heard of clog fighting, a local sport his dad had told him about. As he described this mysterious and illegal pastime I was compelled to find out more.
I began by looking in the library at the Museum of Wigan Life and found a small book by AJ Hawkes which reported that the sport had died out in Wigan around 1910. I then spoke to my friend’s father who recalled his dad going to matches and speaking about it in the 1930s. This tantalising glimpse had me hooked as I realised that not only was very little known about the custom, it was also in reach of living memory. I seized this as my new project and approached the Museum of Wigan Life to support me in my research and exhibit my results.
But finding out simply what the men had done would not be enough. I wanted to understand why they did it and get a contextual understanding of their lives, building up a picture of working class culture that was on the brink of being completely lost to time. So I put a call out to local newspapers and website forums for remembrances, and I started looking in Bolton, Wigan and Leigh archives, trawling history books and newspaper archives. I discovered that alongside grudge-settling matches, clog fighting was a semi-professional (yet underground) sport. Pubs and areas had their own champions who would travel around districts for matches organised by promoters and landlords. The sport was played mainly by miners and spread from Wales to Lancashire, Cornwall and Yorkshire. It was also exported to America with Welsh and English emigrant miners.
In 2015 I approached Gallery Oldham as the town had featured prominently in my research. We put out another call for remembrances and I continued my search in newspapers and in Oldham Local Studies & Archives. I found that the town’s annual Wakes and Rushcart had played host to many matches. The famous Oldham chronicler Edwin Butterworth had worked for Thomas Baines and collected much of the information contained in Baines’s Lancashire and Cheshire, one of the earliest accounts of Lancashire purring (it is thought that ‘purring’ comes from Gaelic, meaning to scrape or stab).
My research brought to light the fact that purring continued until the mid to late-1950s, long after official records made mention of it. I have discovered many different methods, locations and even the names of champions (including Jimmy ‘Tickle’ Aspull who was a winner in 1870 as was George ‘Ready Money’ Riley). Over the course of two years I have interviewed or had messages from more than 30 members of the public with tales of clog fighting, and to my delight I have also heard from a handful of people who actually witnessed matches as children. Unfortunately the one thing I have yet to find is a pair of original fighting clogs as it seems the champions were buried in them, almost Viking warrior style. I am still seeking more tales of the sport and am desperate to lay my hands on a pair of fighting clogs.
As a personal satisfaction, while researching for the Oldham exhibition I was contacted by the Saddleworth Morris Men. They had commemorated a clog fight in their Delph Dance and so my project has come full circle, back to the clog dancing where the whole journey began.
Purring: Sport of The People is at The Whitaker in Rossendale until July 31, 2016. For more information, click here
Anna FC Smith’s blog on Clog Fighting, or Purring, was originally published on the Manchester Histories’ page here and The Whitaker Museum & Art Gallery’s page here
For more information about Anna, click here
If you would like to read Northern Soul’s interview with Anna, click here