The English sporting authorities of the 19th Century were in many respects dogmatic, and resisted few things more pertinaciously than the practice of par-terre wrestling. Though not entirely rational, cultural and technical prejudices are an important part of folk wrestling and combative sport. Understanding the historic and modern roots of these beliefs is crucial to developing a full understanding of human competition and its role in society.
The two most common forms of English folk-wrestling in the 19th Century were Cumberland-Westmoreland and Cornwall-Devonshire wrestling, the former being more widely practiced than the latter. In both styles the fall was counted on a “first down to lose” basis. The first competitor to be touch the ground with anything but his (most if not all recorded matches occurred between men) feet would either have a fall counted against him or the wrestlers would be reset. If both men fell in an ambiguous fashion, or if a throw was performed without meeting certain criteria, no fall would be counted. The rules of these folk styles were engineered to very conspicuously leave no room for par-terre wrestling.
Ground wrestling, however, which means, if it means anything, simply a kind of dog-fight on the ground, is utterly opposed to our notions of sport and can never find favor in this country; indeed Lancashire is the only county in England where it is practiced. -Walter Armstrong, Wrestling
There was a third English folkstyle, however, that stood out among its peers. The Lancashire or “Catch-as-Catch-Can” style of wrestling was the least practiced style during this period, but would have arguably the greatest significance to the future of wrestling internationally. The Lancashire style is an ancestor to what is today known as the American folkstyle of wrestling, and posessed many unique traits that would define the latter tradition. Among these traits was an idiosyncratic emphasis on par-terre wrestling.
Ground wrestling, in the opinion of most people qualified to discuss the subject, ought never have been introduced into this country, as it is decidedly un-English and calculated to bring an ancient pastime into disrepute. -Walter Armstrong, Wrestling
This aversion to par-terre grappling is, to the modern eye, disproportionately violent and even, perhaps, paranoid. Some authors go so far as to imply that the introduction, such as it was, of par-terre techniques into English sport was not only pernicious, but intentionally so; done with knowing malice. This is not however the origin of the distaste for par-terre work, it seems that, in the minds of writers such as Walter Armstrong, ground wrestling was always disreputable, but its introduction into English wrestling would serve to lower the repute of the latter by association.
Though par-terre wrestling was often dismissed with expressions of vague disapproval, there were concrete , technical indictments of ground wrestling in period texts.
This is the usual rule, but we are inclined to recommend that any man touching the ground with any part of the body except his feet, knees, or hands, should be considered thrown. This restriction would do away with much unseemly pulling about after a man is once on the ground, and in reality at the mercy of his antagonist. -Dick’s Art of Wrestling
One such indictment of par-terre wrestling was that it was not only “unseemly” but unnecessary. Dick’s Art of Wrestling advocates for the removal of ground wrestling from the common practice of the Lancashire style because the victor is already determined. The belief here appears to be that the under man could not escape and there was thus no point to the exercise.
To a worldly, modern reader this would seem absurd. There are multiple popular par-terre styles around the world that involve competitive and often unpredictable work upon the ground. A fall is by no means assured to the top man in international Freestyle or American Folkstyle and this is a well recorded and demonstrable truth.
Even among the prominent writers of the time, all of whom disapproved of ground wrestling, the idea that ground wrestling was entirely pointless was not universally accepted. Many writers, Walter Armstrong again being an example, professed a grudging if somewhat condescending respect for the ability of Lancashire style wrestlers to fight from the bottom. There was even a tepid acknowledgement of the Lancashire style’s par-terre and joint locking techniques’ utility in self defence in some sources.
Thus neither ineffectiveness or poor repute can be truly credited as the root of England’s technical prejudices during this time. Instead most authorities concurred that ground wrestling was, if nothing else, unnecessary.
In a rough-and-tumble encounter when “all is in,” a knowledge of Lancashire wrestling might be of service; but even in a streetfight it is not the fashion for an Englishman to battle on the ground, but allow his opponent to get back up again. -Walter Armstrong, Wrestling
There was a thought among combat sport authorities of the time that England was innately safer and more civilized than other parts of the world. Not necessarily because violence was less common, but rather because it was conducted in an “English” manner.
What a contrast exists between all these barbarous modes of fighting, and the order which prevails whenever a fight occurs in this country! Here a ring is immediately formed,- seconds to each of the combatants step forward,- the surrounding throng maintain “fair play,”- and the business is settled with as much order and propriety as the circumstances will admit of. -Donald Walker, Defensive Exercises
Put simply, the idea was the Englishmen didn’t need to learn how to fight on the ground because Englishmen didn’t fight on the ground because they didn’t need to learn. In this way the conception of par-terre techniques as an invasive, foreign force is understandable. These authors believed that they only needed to know how to fight in an English fashion because Englishmen only fought in that fashion, but if some Englishmen ceased to fight in the fashion all would have to adapt. It would be a somewhat rational anxiety that if some Englishmen fought in a foreign manner, there would soon be no English style of fighting at all.
This applies just as well to the modern day. Fighting practices that don’t include ground-fighting naturally feel threatened by the proliferation of such techniques for much the same reason as these English wrestling authorities did so long ago. Exponents of these styles are forced to either acknowledge that they stand at a disadvantage when “all-is-in” or change their methods, which may be viewed as the destruction of a tradition. If, however, an environment is maintained wherein most do not know how to fight on the ground, then the shortcomings of those systems and individuals become irrelevant.
Of course there is a flaw in this perspective, equally present in the past and present. Fighting on the ground is not an esoteric, alien, or unnatural practice, it arises naturally in the course of combative human competition. Just as 19th Century England has Lancashire style wrestling, all human populations have some expression of the natural ability and inclination to grapple upon something other than just the feet.
Marginalizing the knowledge and practice of par-terre fighting in the public arena only creates an illusion of its irrelevance. Practically speaking, ground wrestling will always be a significant part of human sport and combat; irregardless of common dogma.