A Gentleman of the Land;
A Man of the People
We have to admit that we are sometimes surprised with the way certain wrestlers emerge from the mists of time to claim a place in wrestling history. In the case of this unlikely looking hero our research has shown that he doesn't just deserve such a place his achievements allow him to shout out and demand inclusion in the annals of wrestling.
Until not long ago we shared the memories of many readers of Cyril Knowles as an accomplished veteran nearing the end of a long career. Add the words distinguished and remarkable to that sentence and you will begin to have a greater understanding of Cyril's contribution to post war British wrestling.
How many wrestled practically full time for forty years? How many were involved in the business for well over fifty years? Held the British middleweight Mountevans title? And the World Mid heavyweight title? Introduced many youngsters into the professional ranks as a trainer and promoter? Defeated George Kidd, Mick McManus, Tommy Mann, Alan Colbeck, Eric Taylor and Les Kellett when they were in their prime? No, we are not talking about the occasional win we are talking about a wrestler who regularly beat the names that are still remembered and held in the highest regard by fans. We hope you're starting to get the picture.
Former wrestler Eddie Rose told Wrestling Heritage:
“He was one of the great wrestlers of the post war years, top of the tree. He was great to wrestle too. He knew every move in the book plus a few extras. He worked at his speed and was so relaxed it lulled you into a false sense of security. Then slam, bang, wallop – he had you!”
Cyril was born in the picturesque north Yorkshire village of Arkendale, between Knaresborough and Boroughbridge. This was, and still is, farming country, and the young Cyril loved his rural life and took an interest in his surroundings. Whilst still a youngster Cyril and the family moved to a farm not far from Leeds, and it was here that he set up a small gym to pursue his interests in body building and later wrestling.
The depression of the 1930s made times hard for most people and none less so than the Knowles family. Aware of Yorkshire men like Bert Mansfield and Jack Pye making their way in the world by wrestling Cyril decided to give the professional sport a try. In 1937 he entered the professional ranks, often billed in those days as Penio Knowles, with opponents that included John Katsulos, Young Bull (Vic Coleman) and Stan England.
Mention of the name Penio brings us to one of the intriguing mysteries surrounding Cyril, and that is his collection of names. To Cyril Knowles and Penio Knowles we can add Peter Knowles and Knowles Peters. Whilst some may well have been the result of careless promoters and printers the name Knowles Peters does seem to have been widespread in the earlier part of his career.
The outbreak of war naturally put the teenager's wrestling career on hold, but did nothing to dampen Cyril's enthusiasm. When hostilities ceased he had no desire to join the millions of other ex-servicemen queing up for work but was determined to devote all his time and energy into making a success of his fledgling wrestling career.
Jack Pye, the Doncaster ex miner who was probably the most famous name in wrestling at the time always had words of encouragement for Cyril and told him he had the talent to be a success in the world of wrestling.
The five or six years after the war were the time when wrestling was beginning to re-organise itself and discard the negative image of pre war decline. Joint Promotions were still to form although each of its (soon to be) members were promoting regularly alongside some less reputable remnants of the all-in days. Fortunately for Cyril the reputable promoters recognised that he had sufficient talent for them to give him regular bookings against other youngsters making their way in the post war world, such as Lew Roseby, Les Stent, Joe Hill and Frank O'Donnell.
Soon Cyril was showing that he could hold his own with whoever he was matched against, and in the early 1950s he was regularly defeating some of the top names in the business, including Harry Fields, Mick McManus, Tommy Mann, Les Kellett, Eddie Capelli, Alan Colbeck and George Kidd. These were no one-off wins, all of them ended up on the wrong end of the verdict against the tenacious Yorkshireman on a fairly regular basis.
Although many think tag wrestling only came to Britain in the 1960s when they saw it on television this is not the case and Cyril was also one of the early exponents of tag team wrestling in Britain. Our earliest record shows him partnering Chic Purvey to beat the team of Mick McManus and Bob Archer O'Brien at Chelmsford on 21st March, 1950. Although he wrestled fairly often in tag contests in the 1950s he did not have a regular partner until a decade later when he partnered Jack Taylor.
Following the formation of Joint Promotions the new organisation set about clearing up the championship issues and establishing, for the first time, nationally recognised champions at each weight. Tommy Mann was the first middleweight champion, followed by Harry Fields and later Cyril Knowles.
Shortly afterwards Cyril made his début at the famed Royal Albert Hall, narrowly losing to the Cypriot welterweight Chris Londos.
It seemed that the future was bright and with the advent of television wrestling Cyril was well placed, as one of the country's top professionals and full time commitment to Joint Promotions, to benefit from television exposure. For some unfathomable reason it was not to be and we have no records of any televised contests.
Cyril was not alone, of course, and as the 1950s came to a close the hushed discussion in dressing rooms around the country was of opportunities that could be created outside the Joint Promotions organisation. We document elsewhere on the Wrestling Heritage site the tidal flow of first class wrestlers that deserted Joint Promotions around this time and in January, 1960, Cyril took that leap into the unknown and began to work for the independent promoters.
Although the move to the opposition meant new opponents such as El Medico, Doctor Death, Jack Martin, Bobby Barnes, Linde Caulder and Peter Rann it wasn't an entirely new landscape as old foes that included Eddie Capelli, Eric Sands, George Kidd, the Joyce brothers, and Max Crabtree were also now working on the independent circuit.
Just as he had made a success of his career on the Joint Promotions circuit Cyril was not content with the possibility of stagnation and was resolute to continue to grow on the independent circuit. Being of the opinion, like many others, that it was the promoters that made the money in wrestling Cyril got himself a ring and began to promote wrestling shows around the north, using the name Northern International Promotions.
Not just a promoter, but an energetic promoter who soon became a driving force in the organisation of the Wrestling Federation of Great Britain, a group of ten men who set about building up an effective opposition to the power of the Joint Promotions empire. Inevitably the overwhelming impact of an exclusive television contract meant that Joint Promotions were able to resist the challenge of the Wrestling Federation but there is little doubt that the opposition promoters were a positive influence on the professional wrestling business.
Cyril was responsible for introducing numerous young men into the business and giving encouragement to all those who deserved it. Dennis Lord, who often worked for Cyril said:
“A lot of wrestlers owe him a great deal as he brought a lot of us on. I worked for him when he was a Promoter, and I gave him a hard time as I thought I thought I knew it all. He was very good to me and never lost his temper even when I was being a pain, which was most of the time. At the time I never appreciated the help he gave me. I really liked him a lot.”
Manchester middleweight Eddie Rose continued:
“He was a lovely promoter to work for. He looked after the lads and paid an honest wage for an honest bout.”
As wrestling went into decline in the 1980s Cyril began to despair as did so many others, but he just got on with things and rarely complained. In fact from all those we have spoken to that just about sums Cyril up...a lovely man who just got on with things in a quiet way determined to succeed in everything he tried to do.
Cyril continued promoting, albeit on a greatly reduced scale, up to his sudden death in 1990. He is still remembered whenever wrestlers get together.
We offer thanks to his sole daughter, Wendy, and grand daughter, Sophie, in the preparation of this tribute.