British wrestling history in bite sized pieces.
With additional research and graphics by Ron Historyo.
The Highway Code was launched .... Oswald Mosley resigned from Labour to form a new political party ... A grand coalition National Government was formed ... Run on the pound and huge spending cuts ... Explosion of a chemical factory in Bayswater.
With the emergence of the American Catch-as-catch-can style launched on an often bemused public in December 1930, the earnest work of establishing the sport began at once. American catch had it's roots in the late 19th century mix of Greco Roman and Lancashire catch-as-catch-can styles. The new style was quickly dubbed All-In by the press, and it was a name that caught the imagination of the public. All-In (All-Included) referred to the inclusion of holds and moves from the disciplines of Graeco-Roman wrestling, catch-as-catch-can and jiu jitsu.
Movers and shakers behind the rapid development of the sport included wrestlers Atholl Oakeley and Henry Irslinger, ex wrestler and strongman William Bankier (left), impresario Harold Lane, and boxing promoters that included Lionel Bettinson and Frank Woodhouse.
Boxing fans at Olympia, London, and Belle Vue, Manchester, had been the first to witness the new style of wrestling, but the search was now on for new halls up and down the country. Harold Lane, the Manager of The London Sports Club, which had staged exhibition matches in November, 1930, was quick to sign up to the new sport. Wrestling was beginning to stand on it's own feet. The poster from Belle Vue (right) shows a stand alone wrestling tournament in a large venue that only three months earlier featured wrestling as an add-on to an evening's boxing. The New St James Hall was another hall that was in from the beginning, with wrestling's arrival in the city in January, 1931.
Henry Irslinger promoted and wrestled on the first show, defeating a young and powerful Anglo Italian by the name of Bert Assirati, and the Scottish champion Alec Munroe beat Owen Duffy. Opened in May, 1930, as a boxing venue, the St James Hall was staging wrestling shows within nine months, and over the years there was far more wrestling than boxing. From 1936 until the stadium closed in 1968, wrestling was to be held regularly on Saturday nights.
Belle Vue, Manchester, was set to become another host for decades to come and more new venues included the New Victoria Hall in Nottingham, and halls in Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Leeds, Hull and around the country. Opportunities were taken to introduce wrestling to the British public not only by adjoining matches to boxing tournaments but other social events, like agricultural fayres, fetes and other sporting events.
The people of Preston were introduced to the new sport in July, 1931, when the first All-In wrestling match was staged as part of the evening's speedway programme (left).
Newspapers provided publicity for the new sport, the national press even reporting the most important matches and those from the London Sports Club. Reporting was mostly fair to the sport, wherever there was a display of wrestling ability and omission of the most extreme forms of aggression. As time went on initial enthusiasm was lessened by the violence of some wrestling matches and questions were invariably raised how such brutality could fail to result in serious injury or even death unless the bouts were less genuine than they appeared. As wrestling appeared in towns for the first time some newspapers would usefully list some of the holds likely to be seen.
When Billy Riley defeated Bulldog Bill Garnon, some two stones heavier, at Belle Vue in February, 1931, the Yorkshire Post reported, "The spectacle of the wrestlers being pushed back through the ropes by anxious faced ringside seat holders in evening dress was unforgettable."
Henry Irslinger (left) was one of the pioneers of 1930s wrestling. In 1929 Henry wrestled in Australia and introduced the American style of wrestling to South Africa. The following year he returned to Britain with the American wrestler Benny Sherman. Sherman and Irslinger were introduced to amateur wrestler Atholl Oakeley by the Welshman Bill Garnon. They persuaded Atholl Oakeley and Bill Garnon to turn professional and Irslinger went on to promote many of the early 1930s tournaments. By then Henry was a veteran of some two decades with a pedigree going back to wrestling at The Alhambra in London in the early days of the twentieth century, forming the British Wrestling Association alongside Oakeley. Throughout the 1930s Henry seemed to be just about anywhere and everywhere in the world that wrestling was developing , but it was never too long before he was back in Britain, continuing a career that had started a quarter of a century earlier.
Huddersfield's Douglas Clark was a very powerful man, a one time rugby league player, and as a three times holder of the Cumberland and Westmorland style championship must have held one of the few undisputed titles in wrestling. In 1931 Clark was one of the first, but certainly not undisputed, claimants of the British heavyweight championship. His claim to the belt came following the winning of a knock-out tournament for the championship at the London Sports Club (Lane's Club) in March, defeating Joe Robinson of Newcastle in the semi final and Atholl Oakley in the championship final. Despite this defeat Atholl Oakeley continued to dispute the British heavyweight championship for some years, using his elevated status to gain access to the rings of the United States and Canada later in the year.
Clark's destruction of Johanfesson, a capable but much lighter opponent, in a title match on 6th June was the stuff of legends. Clark, living up to his reputation as the "John Bull in trunks" charged from his corner, lifted his opponent with apparent ease and forced him on to the mat, scoring the first fall in just twenty-five seconds. Despite obvious pain Johanfesson elected to continue, but succumbed to a second fall forty seconds later.
Not all matches were in the new All-In style. Lancashire catch as catch can had not gone away during the 1920s, and continued to be practised in many halls. The debate of the merit of the two styles continued and the higher profile of wrestling gave an impetus to catch-as-catch-can wrestling as an organised professional sport. a revival that was encouraged by the Daily Mirror and Daily Express, both of which frowned upon the more brutal aspects of All In. In November the Daily Mirror claimed to have won the All-In wrestling debate and optimistically reported that the extent of "rough stuff" had been cut with the formation of the British Wrestling Board of Control. It was to be the first of many ineffectual claims that wrestling was about to be regulated. The London Club's wrestling programme notes stated, "Promoters advertising all-in wrestling with nothing barred are liable to prosecution. All-In wrestling means a combination of three styles and has definite rules which can be obtained from the British Board of Control." The effectiveness of such words remained to be seen, but without doubt some of the worst excesses of professional wrestling were still to come.
In June, 1931, at Wakefield Opera House Douglas Clark faced Bert Assirati in a catch-as-catch-can style contest. Despite being the aggressor for much of the contest Clark was held to a draw by the younger Assirati. Clark immediately challenged Assirati to a return contest, which was arranged for the Belle Vue Football Ground, Wakefield, on 20th June. In a joint wrestling and boxing programme it was reported that 3,000 fans saw Clark defeat Assirati, who was said to be Clark's toughest challenger to date. It was an unfortunate ending for Assirati who went over the ropes onto the hard ground below in the fifth of six ten minute rounds. Assirati was declared injured and unable to continue.
Still a young man of twenty-three, and not yet the legend he was to become, Bert Assirati was rapidly establishing himself as one of Britain's top heavyweights in 1931. It wasn't just the evidence of his forceful challenge to British champion Clark but also wins over main contenders of the day, George Boganski in March, Atholl Oakeley in April, Masked Top Hat in May, Henry Irslinger in June, Bulldog Bill Garnon in July, Carl Reginsky in August ..... no one was immune from force of the Islington Hercules.
In May, 1931, Atholl Oakeley set sail for the United States, followed shortly afterwards by his friend Bill Garnon. Oakeley made his American debut on 18th May with a win over Casey Berger in New York. The Daily Mirror reported wins for Oakeley over Berger, Vanka Zeleznyak, Benny Ginsberg and George Tragas, giving away two or three stones in each match. Having interviewed Oakeley on his return the newspaper reported the Englishman won fifteen of his seventeen matches. In November, 1931 the national press reported Oakeley's contest against Jim Wango "The Black Devil," stating that Oakeleys fifty-first minute victory was the first time Wango had been beaten by a white wrestler!
The notion of champion was a hazy concept to say the least. Those acknowledged as champions were unquestionably real wrestlers who deserved recognition, but with all-in and catch styles existing side-by-side and the lack of a unified authority uncertainties and disputes were inevitable. Harold Angus and veteran Peter Gotz both laid claim to the World Lightweight title, Billy Riley world middlewight champion and Henry Irslinger champion of the light heavyweight division, both had their claims disputed by Johanfesson. Irslinger and Johanfesson did meet at Nottingham on 26th October with Irslinger described as World Champion and Johanfesson as Catch-as-Catch-Can champion. Irslinger took the decision by two falls to one. The highest profile dispute of all was that between British heavyweight champion claimants Atholl Oakeley and Douglas Clark, still destined to reach it's angry climax.
From a shaky start just twelve months earlier professional wrestling was well on it's way to re-invention and rejuvenation by December, 1931. Many of the early wrestling shows were tagged on to boxing shows, as had been the case at Olympia and Belle Vue. The public profile of the sport was reaching heights unkonwn for twenty years, with London, Manchester and Newcastle firmly established as epicentres reaching out to all parts of the country.
It had all began with an afternoon tussle on Atholl Oakeley's lawn in the summer of 1930 during the visit of two Americans. The question remained whether or not the British alone had the vision and the tenacity to take the sport forward.
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