Manchester Histories Festival

Purring – Sport of The People

Friday 11 March 2016

Purring – Sport of The People is an exhibition currently showing at Gallery Oldham which explores the lost histories of clog fighting in Oldham and surrounding areas. The following blog was written by artist and contributor to the exhibition, Anna FC Smith. 

Fighting on the Fields The idea for the exhibition took seed in 2013 as I was just beginning a project on clog dancing. I was chatting to a friend about my project 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 sport I was compelled to find out more. I started by looking in the library at the Museum of Wigan life and found a small book by AJ Hawkes which stated 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 just in the 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 to exhibit my results.

I didn’t just want to find out what the men had done, but to understand why they did it and to get a contextual understanding of their lives, building up a picture of working class culture that was nearly completely lost to time. So, I put a call out to the local newspapers and website forums for remembrances, and I started looking in Bolton, and 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, all across Lancashire, Cornwall and Yorkshire. It was also exported to America with Welsh and English emigrant miners.

In 2015 I approached Galley 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 towns annual Wakes and Rushcart had been host to many matches. The famous Oldham chronicler Edwin Butterworth had worked for Thomas Baines and collected a lot of the information contained in Baine’s Lancashire, which is one of the earliest accounts of Lancashire purring.Leg Fracture

My research brought to light the fact that purring continued until the mid to late 1950s, long after indications from official records and I have discovered many different methods, locations and even names of champions.  Over the course of my 2 years research I have interviewed or had communication from more than 30 members of the public with tales of clog fighting, and to my delight a handful of people who actually witnessed matches as children. Unfortunately the one thing that I have yet to find is a pair of original fighting clogs as it seems champions were buried in them, almost Viking warrior style. I am still looking to hear 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.

Images: (Top) Anna FC Smith, Fighting in the Fields, 2015. (Bottom) Anna FC Smith, Leg Fracture, 2015


Purring – Sport of The People continues to Sunday 9 April at Gallery Oldham.

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