Devon Wrestling  - the Stone Brothers of Colebrooke

Abraham Cann (1794 –1864) was the most famous 19th Century English wrestler. Self-styled as Champion of England, he was born and died in Colebrooke. His life is well documented elsewhere.

Devon Wrestling was unusual in that contestants were allowed to kick each other below the knees. They wore shoes and shin pads (gaiters) (unlike their Cornish counterparts who were generally fought barefoot, without any kicking). Contestants wore canvas shirts; the aim was to throw the opponent onto his back. Contests would generally progress through heats, sometimes lasting over several days. Devon Wrestling died out around the end of the nineteenth century.

James Stone and his younger brother Robert Francis were two other notable wrestlers of Colebrooke. The last of the eight children of James and Elizabeth Stone, they were baptised in Crediton in 1798 and 1805 respectively. Their parents were prosperous farmers, living in Colebrooke (at Furzedown Farm, near Copplestone) in 1822 when their father James Stone senior died. By his will, Furzedown was left to his widow, Elizabeth, during her life time; then to James.

James Stone, only 5’ 4” tall, was known as “Little Elephant”. He had a short but active wrestling career between 1824 and 1828.

Abraham Cann and James Stone were said to be cousins. They fought each other several times though Cann invariably won.

In 1827 and 1828 Cann and Stone met at contests in London. In the final competition, Stone was thrown by Cann who was the eventual winner.

At Easter in 1828 a three day match had taken place in Leeds, attracting a large number of wrestlers from Devon, London and Ireland. Abraham and his brother James, James and Robert Stone and William Wreford were among those who attended from Devon. All their travelling expenses were paid. In front of more than 3000 spectators, Abraham Cann again won and came home with £30, James Stone was second (£20), again, and Robert Stone fifth (£7).

He seems to have stopped wrestling after marrying Ann Gibbings of Coldridge in November 1828. Around 1835 they moved from Furzedown to Wilson Farm (now Wolfgar), Cheriton Bishop. In July 1840 they already had five children and his wife was pregnant again, when he went to Australia. He left his young family behind at Wilson. In New South Wales he was employed in Beardy Plains, in the New England area, to supervise the convicts on the station belonging to Thomas Furneaux Mann of Sydney.

Thomas Homer, a gunsmith, when aged 20 had been convicted in London in 1833 for pickpocketing. He was sentenced to be transported to Australia for 14 years and arrived at Sydney on the “Aurora”. He was assigned to TF Mann as a servant. On 28 July 1841 James Stone was in his house when Homer approached with a musket and shot him in the thigh. Stone died of his wounds shortly afterwards. Homer claimed it was an accident.

At Maitland Circuit Court on 10 March 1842, he was tried for wilful murder. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death. Thomas Horner was executed on 5 November 1842 in Newcastle Gaol. Before he was hanged he confessed to the murder and asked that the prison chaplain should warn the assembled onlookers that “Sabbath breaking and bad company were the sins that had brought him to an untimely end”.


After James Stone died Ann sold up at Wilson and moved to the neighbouring farm named Hook (just half a mile away in Crediton Parish). In 1861 her neighbours included Abraham Cann, aged 66 at Coombehead. She died in 1874. Hook Farm stayed in the hands of the Stone family until the death of her son in  1891.

Robert Francis Stone.

His wrestling career was even shorter, being confined to a few contests in 1828, although that included the bouts in London and Leeds, and a few local contests.


He married Ann Cornish of Crediton in 1834; they had two sons and two daughters. They lived in Crediton High Street where they had a grocer’s shop. In about 1847 he was appointed as one of the parish constables of Crediton and later was promoted to Captain. In addition he was an assistant overseer of the Poor Law Union, and a local tax collector for many years until his death in 1871.

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