Q&A: What were wooden clog fights?

My great-grandfather, a wheelwright originally from Bradford, Yorkshire, used to tell my mother about wooden clog fights. What exactly were they?

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine in 2010

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It might seem odd today but English clogs, or wooden soled shoes, were popular among coal miners, factory workers and mill hands in northern England in the 19th century. Wherever it was damp underfoot, clogs were the preferred footwear because they were cheap (to buy and repair), durable and comfortable. Clog dancing was a well-loved form of entertainment, but the metal-capped shoes were also employed in a more threatening manner.

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Clog fighting, known in Lancashire as ‘purring’, was a particularly brutal means of settling disputes. The rules were simple: two clog fighters would climb into a large open ended barrel, sit on the rim, and kick away at each others’ shins until one or the other had raised his legs out of the barrel in submission. Three submissions marked the end of the contest.

These curious contests, usually fuelled by drink, were illegal, as was betting on them, but that didn’t stop locals enjoying the gruesome spectacle. And it seems the barrel wasn’t always necessary.

One newspaper report from May 1843 tells of a clog fight near Manchester involving two men named Ashworth and Clegg, “both in a state of nudity with the exception of each having on a strong pair of boots”. Ashworth won, but both were severely injured. The winner, it was claimed, went on to kill an opponent in another of these shin-kicking matches before emigrating to Australia, though it’s not clear whether he went at her majesty’s pleasure. As your great-grandfather would have been aware, the offer of a ‘clog toe pie’ was not an invitation to sample a local delicacy but a threat, and a naked one at that.

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Answered by Dan Cossins, a freelance writer and journalist.