The annual tossing the Cricket Stump contest in Cockermouth dates back to 1856 when cricket first came to the town. Three local vicars had visited the Scottish Border Games in Galashiels the previous year and seen the tossing of the caber contest there.

Inspired by the athleticism of the Scots – and some beer according to the gossip-mongers – two of the vicars attempted to lift the caber. One, Hugh Fotheringham, suffered a ricked back, which left him unable to preach for six months. The second vicar, Abel Soames, lifted the caber and tossed it into the air. Unfortunately his caber didn’t land properly and rebounded backwards, hitting him on the head and rendering him unconscious. His final words were reputedly “I thought this only happened to beavers.” He was laid to rest by the third vicar, the strict Methodist Ebenezer Wesley, who was tee-total.

In Soames’ honour it was decided to hold a commemorative contest every year that would provide a skilful and yet safe test for local people. It was deemed appropriate that this test should involve throwing something. Tossing the caber was ruled out and the only piece of straight wood in the town, other than trees, were the cricket stumps, so it was decided to hold a stump throwing contest.

As in caber tossing the objective is not how far you throw the stump but how straight it lands. The contestants hold the stump by the sharp end with both hands and throw it up into the air with enough momentum so that the blunt end hits the ground and then topples over so that the sharp end is pointing away from the thrower.

The judges measure the straightness against magnetic north on the compass and award points for accuracy and direction. Placing magnets in the cricket stump doesn’t help point the stump at magnetic north. This was proved in 1867 when Harold Streete, the town idiot, buried magnets in his stump and then tossed it skywards. The additional weight caused the stump not to rotate properly and it became buried in a molehill. Ebenezer Wesley’s wife, Henrietta, took one look at the sight, reputedly said “Wow,” blew out her cheeks, and then fainted. Wesley accused Streete of “Ye Devil’s Work” and ordered him to be banished from the town for “ye rest of recorded time.” Since 1867 the person coming last in the contest has received “Streete’s Award.”

Some people have tried throwing the stump with one arm but straightness can’t be guaranteed with this technique especially if the stump hits a seagull as happened in 1985. It took four people to get the angry bird to the vet where the stump was removed after a lot of blood had been spilled. Nowadays, the gulls watch the contest from the roof of the cricket pavilion.

This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker