British wrestling history 

has a name



British wrestling history in bite sized pieces.

With additional research and graphics by Ron Historyo. 

The first section of the National Grid became operational ... the Empire Games were held in Ontario... British airship 101 traveled to Canada, and later in the year crashed en route to France ... Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia.


The hopes and aspirations of professional wrestling were almost extinguished with the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Almost, but not entirely. In the 1920s wrestling continued at a local level, most notably in the regional styles of the Scottish Highlands, Cumberland and Westmorland, Cornwall and Lancashire. It was in Lancashire that a style of wrestling had evolved that was to influence wrestling across the world,  Catch-as-Catch-Can. Wrestlers such as Harry Pennington, Joe Reid and Tom McCarthy were well known in the North of England, and the poster (right)  of a tournament in 1927 rebuts the often held belief that there was no wrestling between 1910 and 1930.

The Lancashire style had its roots in the 19th century industrial conurbations found in the south of the county. In the late 19th century  Lancashire wrestlers travelled the world and the style proved one of the building blocks of professional wrestling in the United States. In Britain Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can continued throughout the inter-war years. Men in northern England would often gather together at weekends and after work, wrestling outside on the rough ground, with bets placed on the results of matches. Money would be collected from spectators, usually in a cap, and it was strictly a case of winner takes all.

In the mid 1920's American wrestling re-invented itself  with a revision of the Catch-as-Catch-Can rules, and the introduction of submission holds, forbidden in the old Catch-as-Catch-Can and Graeco Roman styles. Newsreels introduced British cinemagoers to this new style of American Catch-as-Catch-Can wrestling that was proving popular in the United States, South Africa and Australia. The new wrestling was violent and spectacular. It combined elements of Lancashire Catch-as-Catch-Can,  Graeco Roman and jiu jitsu  styles. It was a genuine sport presented as a commercial entertainment.

Henry Irslinger (left) was an Austrian born naturalised American. He was one of the British Golden Age professionals of the early part of the twentieth century before moving to America and wrestling around the world. In 1929 he was in South Africa, instrumental in developing wrestling in that country. Early in 1930 Irslinger and his friend, American middleweight Benny Sherman came to Britain, intent on establishing American style wrestling in Britain. They found eager disciples in two of Britain's top amateur wrestlers, Bill Garnon and Atholl Oakeley (right). This quartet were the earliest of the wrestling pioneers we are here to celebrate.

If one day was acknowledged as the start of the modern British wrestling era that day would almost certainly be 15th December, 1930. For it was on that cold Monday evening that the  "American Catch-as-Catch-Can" rules were introduced to Britain. The rules, which permitted previously unheard of holds and submission moves, were  nicknamed "All In"   as the popularity of wrestling increased in the decade that was to follow. "All In" referred to the incorporation of a variety of styles, not the frequent misconception that anything was allowed.

However, Decemeer 15th was not the first time the new style of wrestling had been staged in Britain, with exhibition matches having taken place some weeks earlier. Matches between Atholl Oakeley and Bill Garnon(left), and Georges Modrich and George Boganski  were staged at  the London Sports Club  on 15th November, 1930, in a show incorporating both boxing and wrestling.  Irslinger and  Boganski had recently arrived from South Africa where a wrestling revival was already underway. Modrich was a Croatian born New Zealander with a background of ten years professional boxer, having arrived in Britain in February 1929 to make his British boxing debut. 

The London Sports Club was owned by an acquaintance of Oakeley's going back many years, a Glaswegian named Tommy Gordon, and was being managed by an impresario named Harold Lane. 

Lane was enthusiastic about wrestling and keen to stage the first matches, offering wrestlers who took part the training facilities of the club.  The matches were reported by P.J.Moss in the Daily Mirror who described it as "A delightful exhibition of wrestling ... I enjoyed every second of the forty minutes wrestling." Whilst these two contests exhibited many of the holds of the new All-In wrestling there was an absence of the unsavoury elements that were to create such controversy in the years to follow.

The omission of the "unsavoury elements" referred to by the press was no doubt because present at the show were representatives from the home office, viewing the contests as part of the process for considering work permits for overseas wrestlers. Following the wrestling contests the one thousand fans cheered enthusiastically. They were asked to cheer again if they would like to see more wrestling. Having duly done so the fans were told that the National Sporting Club would promote a tournament at Olympia in December.

There were signs of things to come in an interview with the manager of the London Sports Club, Harold Lane, and wrestling promoters John Edleman of South Africa. Both agreed that if the new style wrestling was to be commercially successful in Britain it would not be of the type exhibited that evening, but would need to be much rougher and more colourful with no place for graceful acrobatic movements.

The Daily Express reported that more than twenty promoters around the country were eager to promote American Catch in Britain. Benny Sherman and Henry Irslinger persuaded  Garnon and Oakeley that professional wrestling could provide them with a lucrative income.  Sherman had the task of training British recruits in  the new style of wrestling in preparation for boxing promoter Jeff Dickson promoting  the  first tournament, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in the last week of October, 1930. Amongst those trained and ready were Garnon, Oakeley, a Doncaster miner by the name of Jack Pye, amateur champion Billy Riley, Anglo Italian Bert Assirati, and Londoner Norman Ansell.

The national press were all geared up for the event and gave some positive publicity, though cautioned against a lack of discipline and an over-reliance on overseas wrestlers. Alas, this show, and others planned, failed to materialise due to the failures of the promoters to acquire the necessary work permits for the overseas wrestlers, a reluctance of British Catch as Catch Can wrestlers to work the new rules, and the Royal Albert Hall management declaring they would not tolerate any gouging or biting. The cause could not have been helped by Daily Express reporter, Trevor Wignall, and one of the new styles fiercest critics, writing, "In the new style wrestling practically evrything is permitted except manslaughter." Wignall had witnessed American Catch in the United States and was clearly not impressed, though his reporting in the years to follow stressed that he had no problems with Catch-as-Catch-Can where rules were enforced.

Following this setback plans were modified for two shows to take place simultaneously, on 15th December, 1930, one at Belle Vue in Manchester, and the second, promoted by Lionel Bettinson, the Managing Director of the National Sporting Club, at Olympia in London. The matches were described as New Catch-as-Catch Can.

Both events were boxing shows with wrestling contests added at the end of the evening's boxing. Henry Irslinger defeated the Yugoslavian, George Modrich, at the National Sporting Club, Olympia, over three ten minute rounds.  Billy Riley beat  Bill Garnon at Belle Vue, Manchester and Atholl Oakeley overcame  Bert Assirati  in a contest advertised as a British heavyweight championship eliminator. Whilst some boxing fans left prior to the wrestling matches others were inquisitive enough to stay to witness the new spectacle, and newspapers reported new admirers who switched from laughing to cheering the contestants

But that's not all.  The new style of wrestling did not take place in a vacuum; British wrestling may have been sleeping for a quarter of a century but it was a deep sleep in which it was very much alive. Another wrestling show also took place on December 15th, 1930, though we do not know under which rules, presumably Catch. Wrestling returned to Doncaster following a break of twenty-five years. Events were moving fast. Former Olympian Harold Angus (left), who only two weeks earlier had won the Northern Area Amateur Lightweight championship, forfeited his amateur status and promoted a professional tournament. Angus defeated the Scottish champion Alec Munroe on points in the main event of a show that also featured his brother.

December 15th 1930  was to be the start of ten glorious years of British wrestling.  Within the months that followed wrestling swept across the country, with regular tournaments arranged in Manchester, Newcastle, London, Shrewsbury, Swansea and various other towns and cities.

Read more Years of Wrestling - 1931


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