It must be in the Genes

A common theme in programmes like “Who do You Think You Are” is the discovery that some distant ancestor shared a talent or skill with the “celebrity” subject. “It must be in the genes” is the usual rationalization, though, of course, it’s really down to plain old coincidence. Nonetheless such coincidences can be intriguing, and I was certainly delighted when I found a similar case in my family – though it wasn’t really a skill or talent that I shared with an ancestor, it was just the opposite in fact.

I always hated PE and games lessons at school. I was absolutely hopeless at football and really didn’t enjoy any aspect of PE lessons. It wasn’t that I was inactive – I loved playing out with my friends and neighbours at home. We were a bunch of post-war baby-boomers – Tommy, Judith, Caroline, Peter, Edith, Sadie, Kathleen and myself – living in adjacent houses with a large field on one side and some woods on the other, and when weather allowed we would all be outside playing games or just running around having fun. But it was very different at school – there, games and PE were more like torture than fun.

At least that was how it had been at the junior school where we’d had Mr Harwood for games, and in the first three years at Hookergate Grammar School under Mr Bramley, but in the fourth year at Hookergate we had a new teacher, Mr Forster, and he made big changes. He introduced rugby which was certainly a lot better than football, though I still couldn’t say I liked it, but he also introduced Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling which I absolutely loved. I found myself actually looking forward to PE lessons for the first time in my life. Not that I was very good at wrestling, in fact I was hopeless, but I really enjoyed every second of it. Sadly it wasn’t to last. After a year at Hookergate Mr Forster moved on to teach at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle (and ultimately to be the National Gymnastics Coach for Scotland) and we reverted to the traditional hell of football and PE under a new teacher, Mr Errington.

Francis Pears
Francis Pears

My brief foray into wrestling ended in 1961, and if we could jump back exactly 100 years from there to 1861 we would find another “wrestler,” my great-great-grandfather Francis Pears, a lead miner at Shildon Mine, Blanchland. He’d had a sad childhood. He lost his father in 1846 when he was 5, and his mother in 1856 when he was 16. This left his elder brother William to assume guardianship of Francis and their two younger brothers, John and Joseph. William did the best he could and he brought in a housekeeper (who was soon to be his mistress) to cook and clean for them, but Francis, ever the rebel, soon fought against William’s brotherly authority and he moved out of the family home at the earliest opportunity. He took up lodgings at nearby Baybridge with blacksmith Thomas Parker and family, and that’s where Francis was living in 1861.

Now let’s focus on Easter Monday 1861, which fell on April 1st that year, and on the Wrestling Ground at the foot of Pottery Lane, Newcastle – where the Newcastle Arena stands today. This was the scene of the annual Newcastle Easter Wrestling and Great Northern Games. Among the listed entrants to the wrestling competition that year was one “Francis Pears of Blanchland.” Francis had travelled the 25 miles from his home with friend and neighbour Thomas Fawcett, who was also entered in the competition.

Wrestling Ground, Newcastle
Wrestling Ground, Pottery Lane, Newcastle

The first wrestling contest began just before one o’clock and was for Northumberland men for the Decies Prize of £20 given by Lord Decies (pronounced Deeshees) plus a silver medal. Twenty pounds was a significant sum of money in 1861, roughly the same as £1600 today, so it isn’t surprising that the contest attracted 65 entrants. In the first round Francis was paired against a Thomas Snowden of Kelloe and they were the second pair on the field. Sadly the scorecard soon read “Stood: T. Snowden, Fell: F. Pears” – and that was the end of Francis in that contest. In his defense I should add that the man who threw Francis in Round One lasted until Round Six when he was defeated by the eventual contest winner.

Francis also entered the next contest which was for 11 stone men for a prize of £28 (~£2300 today) and a silver medal. There were an incredible 114 entrants and this time Francis was facing Thomas Thompson of Leadgate in Round One. They were last on the field, but for Francis it was a long wait for nothing as he was again defeated – Stood: T.Thompson, Fell: F.Pears. The wrestling and other games – Hurdles, Bell Race, Sack Race, Pole Leap – continued into the next day, but for Francis, and indeed for his friend Thomas Fawcett who had also suffered a Round One defeat, the games were over.

Clearly, like me, Francis was not the most talented of wrestlers – but one can assume that, like me, he loved the sport.

The Newcastle Daily Journal, Tuesday, April 2nd, and Wednesday, April 3rd, 1861
The Newcastle Courant, Friday, April 5th, 1861
The Newcastle Guardian, Saturday, April 6th, 1861
Photograph of Wrestling Ground, Newcastle – Unknown
Photograph of Francis Pears – Tintype of 1868 – Family Collection

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