A Gold Medal Hero
George F.W. De Relwyskow
One of the most celebrated names of British wrestling is that of the de Relwyskow family. Barry Douglas is well remembered as a fine heavyweight, his father Douglas as a respected referee, and George de Relwyskow Junior as a pre war wrestler and one of the major post war wrestling promoters.
We must delve back one further generation, to George and Douglas's father, to trace the origins of the family's influence on British wrestling. We find with George de Relwyskow Senior one of the finest exponents of freestyle wrestling; a double medal winner at the 1908 Olympic Games.
George Frederick William De Relwyskow had just turned twenty-one years old when he represented Great Britain in the 1908 Olympics. Born on 18th June, 1887, in Kensington, he was the son of a Russian immigrant and his Kentish wife. Father Gustavo was a fishmonger, born in Russsia but a Swiss subject by the time of his arrival in Britain. Mother Mary Ann, two years younger than he husband, was born into a farming family in the Kent village of Chiddingstone. George was one of eight children, seven of whom survived childhood. Father Gustavo died in 1923, age 69, in Chelsea, and Mary Ann, age 76, in 1932, in Lambeth.
Whilst a student in London, learning his trade as an artist and designer, George took up wrestling as a hobby for the purpose of keeping himself fit.
By the time he was twenty years old George had won thirty five open competitions in Britain and was English amateur champion at two weights, winning the championships at lightweight and middleweight in 1907 and again in 1908.
With these impressive credentials he was selected as a representative for Great Britain in the 1908 Olympics. George's entry form for the Olympic Games is reproduced on the right.
George wrestled freestyle in the lightweight and middleweight divisions. The wrestling competition was held at the White City Stadium in London. 1908 was the first time both Gréco-Roman and freestyle competitions were held at the same Olympics.
The matches were the best of one fall, except for the finals and bronze-medal matches, which were the best two of three falls over a time limit of 15 minutes in catch-as-catch-can and 20 minutes in Gréco-Roman. Matches took place on mats on a raised platform inside the running track.
George de Relwyskow was the only wrestler to compete in two weight divisions. Eleven competitors took part in the lightweight class. George battled his way to the lightweight final, defeating fellow Britons William Henson, William Shapherd and Arthur Gingell. In the final he faced William Wood. Londoner Wood was something of a novice in comparison with George, but having defeated the experienced George MacKenzie in his previous match he was certainly a worthy opponent. Despite George giving away three pounds in weight George defeated Wood by two falls to nil.
On the same afternoon George faced Stanley Bacon in the final of the middleweight division. Not only was Bacon six pounds heavier than George he was also one of the finest wrestlers of his time, winning no less than 15 British championships and going on to compete in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics.
Bacon took the gold medal and George had to settle for silver. George's progression to the final was not without controversy. In the semi finals he had faced the Swedish wrestler Carl Gustav Andersson, who outweighed George by over a stone. The referee awarded George the decision after the judges had failed to agree a decision. There followed a vigorous protest from the Swedish officials who claimed Andersson had been the more aggressive of the two wrestlers. When the objection failed, the referee's decision being upheld by the British Olympic Council, Andersson refused to compete for the bronze medal, handing it to Frederick Beck.
George was the youngest winner of an Olympic gold medal for wrestling, a record that was to stand for almost seventy years, until the twenty year old Russian, Suren Nalbandyan, won the Greco-Roman lightweight title in 1976.
Following Olympic success George continued with his work as a designer. In 1909 he defeated the German wrestler Peter Gotz in Pontefract, during a match lasting around an hour, to claim the lightweight championship of the world.
Real heroics, not just of the wrestling kind were demonstrated in 1911. The Chairman of Chesterfield County Magistrates, (Mr O.P. Markham) said in court of George:
"I would like to thank you for the assistance you rendered the police. There are not many in Shirebrook who have the courage to assist the police." It transpired that George had intervened to assist a police constable who was subject to an assault by a drunken man. The local newspaper, The Derbyshire Times, concluded their report, "Prisoner, a powerfully built man, had to be roped and put into a cart before he could be taken to the lock-up."
When the Great War broke out in 1914 George was wrestling in South America, but returned to Britain at once to enlist in the army. He was appointed a gymnastic and bayonet fighting trainer, and was for a time attached to the Australian infantry, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major..
George followed illustrious predecessors such as Hackenschmidt and Jack Carkeek into the variety theatres accepting all comers. The advertisement for the City Varieties Theatre, Leeds, for March 8th, 1915, featured the top of the bill "Relwyskow, '...the Great Royal Wrestler - [the] world's undefeated Light Weight Champion'. There is a 'special challenge to local wrestlers' on this Playbill, £50 to any light weight defeating Relwyskow and gold medals to all those he fails to defeat in 15 minutes."
Posted to France George trained instructors in the use of unarmed combat when carrying out patrols and raids.
On his return to England in October, 1918, George was posted to Aldershot as an instructor in the Army system of wrestling, which he invented himself. It was this style of wrestling featured in George's manual "The Art of Wrestling," published in 1925. In 1924 George was appointed trainer to the British Olympic Games team in Paris in 1924.
When he finished wrestling George began promoting professional shows in the north of England. During the Second World War George raised more than £7000 for various charities, sometimes through the promotion of wrestling tournaments.
As we near the end of the George de Relwyskow Snr story historian Ron Historyo has unearthed dramatic facts that dispel a widely held myth of George's demise. It has been often reported that George was killed in wartime action in Burma in 1943. Ron's research has discovered this was not the case. George de Relwyskow Sr died on November 9th, 1942, at the family home in Oakwood Lane, Leeds, aged 55. He left his wife, Clara, and sons George and Douglas. Clara died in 1963, she was 83.