If one name from the 1930s stood out for wrestling fans of the 1970s that name was Atholl Oakeley. Much of the wrestling history of Britain in the 1930s was dictated by Edward Atholl Oakeley and the publication of his 1971 story of All-In Wrestling, Blue Blood on the Mat. It's a good read, which we highly recommend, but it's an interpretation that we have consistently challenged in our own series documenting that time, A Year of Wrestling.
Whilst not questioning Oakeley's influence on the 1930's revival, or denying his recognition as the British heavyweight championship we do question the invincibility portrayed in Blue Blood On The Mat. Great names of the 1930s, like Douglas Clark, George Clark and Bert Assirati, received little recognition in Oakeley’s recorded history. We have never taken anything away from Oakeley and his achievements, just acknowledged that there was more to the story of British wrestling than the one portrayed in Blue Blood On The Mat.
Whilst many professional wrestlers of the 1930s came from humble origins this was not the case of Atholl Oakeley. His grandfather was Charles William Oakley 4th baronet of Shrewsbury. Born on 31st May, 1900 Atholl Oakeley succeeded his cousin, whose son was pre-deceased, as the 7th baronet of Shrewsbury.
Atholl's father, Major Edward Francis Oakeley, served in the army. Atholl was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He reached the rank of Lieutenant whilst serving in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. In 1959 Edward Atholl Oakeley inherited the title 7th Baronet of Shrewsbury, from his cousin, Charles Richard, who had died without an heir. A far cry from the humble origins of most of the others with whom he shared a ring.
In Blue Blood On The Mat Atholl wrote that his interest in wrestling was ignited after he had been set upon by three men in broad delight on a London street. He enrolled at the Ashdown Club, and certainly went on to become one of Britain's top amateur wrestlers. Without Oakeley's energy and determination the revival of professional wrestling in the 1930s would almost certainly have been delayed. Atholl turned professional in December 1930, and on 19th February, 1931, a meeting was convened and a unanimous decision was taken to suspend the amateur status of Atholl Oakeley (and a number of others) for infraction of the laws of amateurism.
Atholl quickly established himself as one of the country's top professionals, though admittedly in those formative years the participants consisted of newcomers, ageing stars from the early years of the century, and a collection of veterans and novices from overseas. Despite losing to Douglas Clark in a British heavyweight championship contest in March, 1931 he went on to claim the title, often on the shows that he promoted himself.
In May, 1931, Atholl visited the United States where he undoubtedly learned a great deal about the new style of wrestling, and how to promote it, which he put to good use on his return to Britain. P.J. Moss reported in the Daily Mirror that he admired Oakeley's pluck for going to America and that the Briton "has the heart of a lion and won't be beaten."
On his return from America Atholl stepped up his promotional interests, with newspaper reports that the British Wrestling Association syndicate, of which he was a part, were (by 1934) promoting forty shows regularly in London alone. Newspaper reports of Atholl's contests testify that he could fight as roughly as any man but had a good grasp of the scientific aspects of the sport. In December, 1932, the Daily Mirror reported Atholl's defence of his title against Jack Pye at The Ring, Blackfriars, “Those who want to see some 'rough stuff' must have been disappointed; it was an exhibition of clever locks and holds, and was fought in a good sporting spirit by both men …. Oakeley was the stronger man and lasted better.”
By the end of 1933 with Douglas Clark and Bert Assirati in the ascendency, Atholl Oakeley's career seemed to be in a steep decline. Losses against newcomer George Clark, Carver Doone, King Curtis and Canadian Billy Bartush (in 45 seconds) led to demands in the newspapers that Oakeley should retire.
On September 12th, 1934, Atholl Oakeley defended the British title he had claimed since 1931 against his long time friend Bill Garnon. It took Garnon fifty minutes to defeat Oakeley, a clear sign of succession planning by the powers that be. The following month Atholl Oakeley's match on the Kathleen Look Promotion at White City, Hull, on 23rd October was advertised as his last appearance. His opponent was the sixteen stone Karloff Manoognan. It was a sensational ending to a great career. Manoognan took a quick early lead with Oakeley disqualified for hitting low after 2 minutes 45 seconds. It is the briefness of Atholl Oakeley's career that has prevented him climbing higher in our countdown.
Atholl concentrated on wrestling promotion, a member of a syndicate developing the sport throughout the 1930s. In A Year of Wrestling we do report an Oakeley appearance as late as 1939, "Pandemonium broke out in Nottingham when Atholl Oakeley returned to the ring following his retirement some years earlier. Oakeley's opponent was the villainous Hard Boiled Herbie Rosenberg. Trouble started with Rosenberg's opposition to the referee of the contest, resulting in Cab Cashford brought in as substitute third man. The crowd booed and called for a new referee as Oakeley took a beating, only for fortunes to change as Oakeley recovered to deliver two quick punches, knocking our both Rosenberg and the referee. The MC announced that Cashford had disqualified Oakeley for delivering a low blow, resulting in Oakeley knocking out both Cashford and Rosenberg. To say the crowd were miffed would have been something of an understatement, with loud jeering, chanting and a refusal to leave the stadium for some time"
We have no evidence of later contests, and in Blue Blood On The Mat Atholl disapproved of those wrestlers who continued in the sport during the war. Following the war Atholl resumed promoting wrestling, continuing to use his …… rules and presenting big name tournaments in large venues like Harringay Stadium and the Royal Albert Hall. Against the tide of post war promoters and the Joint Promotion organisation, formed in 1952, Oakeley quit wrestling once and for all in 1954.
At the time of his death newspapers reported that Atholl built up his strength by drinking 11 pints of milk a day, as instructed by Georges Hackenschmidt. Hackenschmidt later admitted the quantity had been a misprint.
Our “Years of Wrestling” series details the pivotal part played by Oakeley in the history of British wrestling.
Atholl Oakeley died in Devon in January, 1987.