William Ritson was born in 1808 at Rowfoot, a small farmhouse at Wasdale Head, and would come to be renowned for his colourful and full life, at the head of that remote Cumbrian valley. He was the son of John and Anne Ritson and little is known of his early life with the exception of one account told in The Penrith Observer newspaper in October 1923, which gives an insight into his mischievous or 'embellishing' character. The young William had been with a friend in the valley when they were looking in a hollow tree for wamp (Cumbrian dialect for wasp) nests. They were accompanied by a gentleman who was staying in the hamlet and the two boys blocked off the bottom of the hollow with dry grass and sticks for a fire. The other lad scaled the tree and filled the top with sods. Will's companion said, "Mind thoo doesn't set fire till't afooar Ah come doon." This gentleman then winked at Will, who took this as a sign and immediately set the grass and twigs alight. The wasps spewed out of the top, repeatedly stinging his companion, who raced to a nearby stream, immersing himself within its waters for relief against the pain inflicted by the many stings he received! The gentleman was so pleased to have been witness to such sport that he gave the boys half a sovereign; to one (our Will) it was easily earned, to the other, hard earned. In the same newspaper it was said that he could remember being christened and after running away and being dragged back, had threatened the parson saying, "If thoo does that agean ah'll punch tha", when he had 'sprinkled' him. Many of the tales of his life were from various people who knew him well. John Ritson Whiting, a relative and later landlord of the Hotel, George Seatree, and J. W. Robinson (Robinson's cairn) of Lorton, Reverend John Hodgson of Netherwasdale, and Edwin Waugh, a noted Lancashire poet, were all valuable sources.
Little is known of his education, but he would come to be a farm boy, husbandman, shepherd, wrestler, and a huntsman for Mr. Rawson of Wasdale Hall and also a Mr. Huddleston. He also was a boatman, guide, innkeeper, and last but by no means least, a humourist. His tales were affectionately known to be 'lies', but told transparently and without malice, to cause astonishment without disgust. Occasionally, when the opportunity presented itself, he would subdue any leg-puller with his even greater tales of happenings in the valley.
He appeared in a wrestling match at Eskdale Sports and Fair in September 1829, so would have been 21 years old. He won, or 'stood', in the first 5 rounds, the 6th was the final and he found himself pitted against a George Addison; he stood in that round also and won the wrestling bout. Wrestling was part of his early life and he was a formidable foe. At the Keswick Sports of August 1831, he was not as fortunate, however; he progressed to the creditable third rounds in two events on the first and second days.
William married Dinah Fletcher, of Netherwasdale, and they had two sons, John (born 1836), and William (born in the first quarter of 1844).
In October 1849 a tour had been done by antiquity historians of West Cumberland and they required a guide with a great knowledge of the area. That guide was William and he led them through the Netherwasdale area, informing them that the confluence of the Bleng and the Irt was known to him as King's Camp from his early hunting days. Checks of historical maps by the antiquarians confirmed this. It showed William to have that local knowledge, invaluable for a such a group of researchers and an ideal place for some form of camp for protection of the valleys in more ancient and violent times.
The first reference that can be discovered to 'The Wastwater Hotel' was a fine dinner provided in April 1862 at the end of a fox hunt in the area, Mrs. Ritson's cooking being heartily recommended. In Whitehaven Archives there is reference to a visitors book at Row Foot (the original farm name) dating from 1857 to 1863. One would expect this to be the origins of the inn, then hotel, and it seems perfectly feasible that the business started firstly as what is now called a 'Bed and Breakfast', but expanded to be the renowned inn. Notable visitors listed for long periods are those academics of Oxbridge Colleges. William's father John died there on Wednesday 16th October 1867 at the age of 82. There are some references that the inn was initially called The Huntsman Inn, although the names seem to move equally between those two names and The Wasdale Head Hotel. It seems that Will, being a shrewd businessman, saw a developing opportunity with the tourists that would visit the area and Wasdale contained the highest mountain, the deepest lake, albeit the remotest of valleys. The establishment became a mecca for the new breed of climbers who would come to flock to the area, with easy access to the climbs of Great Gable, Pillar Rock, and the Scafells. These men were either noted within society, or of influence within the universities and connections in the press of the time. Through this, it is not difficult to surmise that The Wasdale Hotel and its strong characterised landlord, came to be renowned throughout the nation. Of Will himself, he saw no purpose in this new sport of climbing and would advise customers that it was a sure enough way to obtain a broken neck for their troubles; however, he still made a profit from their ill-judged passion.
William was a farmer and a huntsman and one would expect that combination would bring about a wish to exterminate any fox he would come upon, but that was not the case and he displayed a human aspect to his character. In February 1863 it was known that running about his yard was a tame full grown fox, previously thought to be an impossible feat for such a wild animal. It moved freely among his foxhounds, which he kept a small pack of. One can only assume he had raised it from a cub, perhaps following the death of its mother in a hunt. This scratch pack of hounds was said to have been the beginnings of the famous Eskdale and Ennerdale pack.
January 1864 found both him and his son William junior doing jury service, sadly at the home of his father and following the inquest into the death of the Wasdale Head schoolmaster and parish clerk of 18 years, 63 year old Mr. Isaac Benson. He was known to travel to Whitehaven every Christmas but due to fever in the town his visit that year had to be cancelled. He stayed at various houses in the Wasdale Head area and one of his pupils had recently contracted the fever. On Monday 18th January he was to vacate that house and believed that because of the fever, none of the other residents would take him into their abodes.. The number of pupils at the school had dropped and all these factors placed him in a low state of mind. He had left Mr. Ritson's public house at about 6pm on Saturday 16th January. The next day he was found in the schoolroom with his throat cut. The verdict was suicide.
That William was the great orator of many a yarn is undisputed, holding his audience spellbound with the increasingly broadening tale, yet the listener was held until the end, duped until the final sentence revealed a story so preposterous it surely could not be true? However, such an artist of deception was himself capable of being duped by an expert. William could be forgiven for being drawn in to a lie as his stories were always without malice, unlike that told of 'Thomas Ruddick', on 8th November 1866. He gave the air of a gentleman and had stayed at the hotel, arriving in October in a fine suit, although it showed signs of age. He left in the first week of November without paying his bill but the weather was inclement, so turned around, returned, and told old Mrs Ritson that her son had granted him permission to use his coat, before taking the road once again. This was also false and when this was discovered, along with his permanent departure, a search was made for him by Whitehaven Police. He was eventually found by Carlisle City Police and taken to Whitehaven, appearing before the Magistrates in May 1867. He was remanded for a week, awaiting his appearance at Bootle Magistrates, the offence occurring in their area.
Two ships were known to have been built in Whitehaven, each with the name of Wasdale. It was said that William was a shareholder in at least one of them, and both carried figureheads of Mr. Ritson. Sadly, The one was lost; it had sailed from Whitehaven on 9th December 1868 and had been caught in gales. It never arrived at its destination of Newport with its cargo of iron ore. By 9th January 1869 reports were received that a large ship went into Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran, and reported having struck a two masted ship in a storm. They could not help the crew and the last heard was of them shouting to launch the boats. A boat with Wasdale on the side was picked up at Islay and a nameboard with Thos. Pickthall was also found. There had been seven crew on the Wasdale, the Captain was Thomas Pickthall, and he was regarded as a fine sailor. All left widows and families.
In 1873 cricket was sweeping the nation as a community sporting event, and Wasdale Head was no exception. Holmrook was challenged to a game, and one took place on 14th August, sheltered below the mighty mountains of Yewbarrow, Kirk Fell, and Great Gath. One would struggle to imagine how such a tiny hamlet could put together a credible team, but staying at William Ritson's was a Cambridge University party, including Richard Pendlebury who was the senior wrangler at the university. They had been staying there a number of weeks and it was they who challenged the Holmrook club, who duly accepted and the day turned out to be ideal cricketing weather. William and the Wasdale reverend ably provided the entertainment as the runs mounted, no doubt the beers flowed at William's bar too, so he would turn a healthy profit as a result. Holmrook won by 101 runs, over two innings but the day was so enjoyable that a second game was agreed and played the very next day at Holmrook. Although Holmrook again won, this time it was by a mere 14 runs. A William Ritson was a player for Wasdale Head, although this would likely be his son, who would be a far more likely contestant by way of age.
Perhaps the great measure of Auld ill Ritson's standing in the community was the reference the local people of the area gave to a small waterfall, just 500 yards up Mosedale from the hotel, which they named Ritson's Fosse, and this is displayed on modern Ordnance Survey Maps as Ritson's Force.
In the year of 1876, two tragic events occurred in Lakeland, both having William Ritson and his Wasdale Hotel involved in the events. The first occurred in August 1876 and involved the disappearance of a London silversmith called Edward Barnard, who was eventually found dead in the Ennerdale valley, having been last seen on his walking expedition at William Ritson's hotel. The second occurred just two years later when on 1st May the 82 year old Reverend James Jackson set out from the hotel to climb Pillar Rock. When he didn't return a party of local shepherds was sent to search for him and he was eventually found dead on the mountain. For further reading the incident accounts I have recounted in greater detail in the below links:
William had retired around 1879 and moved to Nicholground, Netherwasdale, with Dinah, who unfortunately died on 26th July 1888 aged 83 years, the funeral taking place on Sunday 29th at Netherwasdale. Dinah had been equally well known throughout the area, and a lake district tour had come to be regarded as incomplete without a visit to the Wasdale Hotel. William died on 4th March 1890 and was also buried at Netherwasdale Church on Friday. He had been in failing health following the death of his wife. By this time both of their sons had passed away, William junior in 1878 and John in 1888, but they had borne William and Dinah four grandchildren. Auld Will was regarded as being of a kindly disposition, ready to do a good deed for any neighbour and known affectionately by the children of Wasdale Head as 'Uncle Willie'.
It was now following his death that the eulogies and later recollections of his life would reference the tall tales he would had come to be famous for. One cannot begin to list all the 'lees' that uttered from his lips but perhaps some are worthy to give an outline of his complicated character, a shrewd businessman one day, a jester who could spellbind an audience in an inn the next. There was the tale of he and his friend and fellow crony, Edward Nelson of Gatesgarth Farm, Buttermere, agreeing to swap the two parsons of those valleys. William agreed to 'liver' the Wasdale parson to Buttermere, 'sound of wind and limb'. The tale went that just as he escorted his haltered parson over Black Sail Pass he slipped his restraint and bolted back to his native valley.
He would hold an audience when telling them of there being two inns in the valley with the landlords at loggerheads and in competition for the business of visitors. One inn was 'The Cock inn', short for The Black Cock'; the other was 'The Bull inn'. One day a new parson arrived in the valley and the landlord of the Cock decided to ingratiate himself in his favour and seek his custom by taking down the sign and replacing it with a picture of the parson, painted by 'Jerry' of Gosforth. The next day the locals were disgusted at this so gave their business to The Bull. The landlord of the Bull then 'bowt the Cock sign frae laal Jerry' and had it erected over his inn. The changing of The Cock sign to one of the Parson caused such a bother in the valley that the landlord did not know whether to take down the picture of the parson or not for fear of insulting him. The solution was had when Will Ritson 'whispered summat in the clot heed's ear' and Jerry the painter was again sent for. The next morning the locals woke to see the picture of the parson still above the inn, now with these words 'in girt red prent (print)': "THIS IS THE OLD COCK."
There was the tale of two clergymen coming from St. Bees and wanting to be taken to the top of Scafell. They set off with Will but plagued him with questions until they got to the top. Once there, one told Will to "Just mount the beacon and offer thanks to Providence that you have brought us to the summit at last." Will did so mount the beacon and said, "Oh Lord, I thank Thee that oot o'thy mercy Thoo has letten this day these two wise asses come sa near to heavan - for Thoo know'st its the nighest they'll iver git tul it." A variation of the same basic tale involved him escorting seventeen parsons to the summit; there may have been a large difference in the numbers, but not in the punchline! There was at least a third version but now with a bishop and a Dean. The bishop couldn't make the summit and was to send Will on, until the guide said, "Come on my Lord, come up, you'll mappen nivver be nearer heaven." The Bishop finally made it, spurred by his guide's encouragement. Clearly Will knew a good tale when he struck on one, he just embellished it, perhaps for his own variety.
Will was a church warden and when the bell cracked and it could not be used to call the community to the service, but Will had a solution. He climbed inside the tower and at the top of his voice, cried out, "Bell-ell, Bell-ell, Bell-ell", for 5 minutes. It had the desired effect and the community came to worship; as the tale goes.
A further yarn involved a 'lie' being told to Will himself. He let a gentleman look through his strong looking glass and that individual stated that he could see a midge on Scafell Old Man. This of course was a lie, to which the looker regarded he had played Auld Will well at his own game of tall tales. Will took the glass off him and looked himself before returning it, saying, "By gock, Ye's reet; I saa it wink." This closed the contest; Will was victorious, as usual.
A further 'story' was one of a tourist, impressed by the healthy air and beautiful location, asked Will if anyone actually died in the valley? Will replied, "I nivver remember but yaa cease (case), it wus auld Ann Wasdale of Bowderdal" He then went on to explain how her coffin was strapped to the back of an animal. On reaching the church and hearing the bells toll, it bolted and ran off over the fells. The local people searched without success, until three weeks had passed before it was finally found, with the coffin still strapped to its back. He finished the tale with, "I think folk gat rayder flayt o' deein eftar that. We nivver hear o' nin now."
Other tales of his were of turnips that were mined and were so big that they were scoured out and used as sheep pens. Foxhounds were crossed with eagles, and could fly over the higher Lakeland walls; the extend of his long life on the body of work regarding his white lies, was unending.
The famed memory of Will's tales, or 'lees', would pass down the ages within the Cumbrian and wider northern communities. It really ended there though, until something extrordinary happened in November 1973. The BBC and Copeland Borough Council worked in conjunction with each other to revive the title which Will had, with all the necessary humility the occasion called for, awarded to himself, namely the world's biggest liar. There had been a competition back in his day to decide who could tell the best lie. Will had told the judges that he could never tell a lie, so was awarded the title! Now in 1973 the challenge went out and the competition was to be held on 27th November at The Santon Bridge Inn. Even the BBC producer Dennis Coath entered. Each contestant had two minutes to spin the biggest lie possible. The first winner was a farmer by the name of Tom Purdham who seemed to repeat the claim of Ritson by saying he had hollowed out a giant turnip and lived in it. He actually told two lies; he told the BBC Nationwide (programme) that he was not a competitor, so they didn't interview him! The competition caught the imagination of the national press, both newsprint, radio and TV, and it went from strength to strength. Of course, it was a competition of 'amateurs' and to protect its' integrity politicians and lawyers were barred, it was deemed that they were too expert at telling lies! In 2003 the competition took on an international status with a South African winning it. Sue Perkins, the comedian, won in 2006, the first woman to do so, thereby adding to the status of the now world renowned event.
Will Ritson's name lives forever more by the noteriety of The Wold's Greatest Liar competition, and that's the truth of the white lies he thrived upon!