1939 and the outbreak of war in Europe was a life changing event for millions of citizens and many nations of the world. In the most part wartime events brought sadness and tragedy, but ironically the war created opportunities and experiences that individuals had never considered possible; opportunities to travel, learn new skills and make lasting friendships.
The Lend-Lease Act of 1941, followed by the American escort of British convoys in the Atlantic slowly sucked the United States towards conflict, with the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December, 1941 being the final straw that brought America into open warfare.
What has this to do with wrestling?
Quite a bit, actually. Readers of A Year of Wrestling will be aware that professional wrestling in Britain during the Second World War was instrumental in creating a sense of normality for those at home whilst thousands of the nation's population perished in the conflict.
The problem was a shortage of wrestlers to fill those wrestling bills, with most of our young men far away serving their country. The sport did get by, and very well under the circumstances, with regular shows continuing around the country featuring wrestlers who were supporting the war locally, servicemen on leave and overseas forces personnel based in Britain.
Which brings us to Harold William Francis, an American forces man born in Dayton, Ohio, on October 15th, 1918. Harold wrestled in Britain during the war using the name Mike Jones, Dirty Mike, and Farmer Jones amongst others.
It's probably a name that is unfamiliar to most wrestling fans (unless they have stumbled upon Mike Jones in our A-Z section) and we doubt if anyone alive remembers his short visit to our shores. But that's missing the point. American Mike Jones takes his place in our wrestling heritage because he did his bit for British wrestling. He was one of those individual Americans for whom the Second World War brought, amongst sadness and danger, opportunities to travel, experience unfamiliar surroundings, make long lasting friendships and form memories that would remain until the day he died. He is representative of all those travellers from overseas who brought a ray of light to Britons during those days of darkness.
We all know that British wrestling wasn't short of characters, or an international flavour come to that, but American servicemen like Mike certainly brought an additional splash of colour; whether or not he brought the fabled nylons and chocolates we couldn't possibly say.
American wrestlers in wartime Britain, with their apparent wealth, theatrical swagger and carrying the burden of their nation's reputation for being latecomers to the war, were easy targets for the animosity of British fans. Mike was no exception, and took to the role of the American villain here to teach a lesson to the British hero.
On his return home, and for many years that followed, Mike told his family and friends stories of the British fans loving to boo the Americans, and showed them the scars from the burning cigars pressed into his back to prove it.
Scars or not, nothing could diminish a love for Britain that was to endure for the rest of his life. Whilst writing this tribute family members asked us to stress Harold's love of Britain, the people and good friends he made whilst in the country.
Daughter Sally told us, "He always talked of his time in England with positive, fond memories (notwithstanding the War that was being waged) including and beyond the wrestling scene such as Lake Windemere ("the most beautiful spot on earth" he said-and he was right), Dirty Dick's pub in London, and so on. I hope these sentiments come through to users of the site despite his villainous role in the wrestling ring."
Harold's son, Sam added, "He loved the people and places he encountered in England. He spent many an evening rowing across Windermere to a pub he and his friends favoured."
His children loved to hear these stories time and time again. Mike recalled one match in particular, an explosive affair against Jack Beaumont when the two men were fighting outside the ring and fans took the opportunity to turn on him. On another occasion a woman spectator upturned Mike's water bucket on his head and beat it with her shoe, creating a deafening racket.
Away from the ring Jack Beaumont and Mike were the greatest of friends, a friendship that was formed not long after Mike arrived in Britain and endured for twenty years until Jack's untimely death. One of Mike's memories was of travelling with Jack Beaumont in Jack's father's hearse to Bath for a wrestling match. Cars and fuel were in short supply during the War years, thus, the hearse was put into service. Mike found great humour in recalling the image of the two wrestling pals traversing the English countryside in a hearse.
When American serviceman Harold Francis arrived in Britain he was stationed in Warrington with the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the US Air Force. Harold made his way to a local gym to pursue his interest in wrestling.
At the gym Harold began working out with a few of the locals, amongst them was Jack, starting out on his own long and illustrious wrestling career at the time.
Harold was familiar with the excitement of the crowd prior to his arrival on British shores. His brother-in-law recalled going to a former amusement park in Dayton called Lakeside to watch Harold wrestle Buzz Jones. At the time Harold wasn't just interested in wrestling; he loved sport and was a great athlete who also played football on a semi professional basis for the Dakotas in his home town of Dayton.
Harold needed little encouragement from the Beaumont brothers to pursue his wrestling career on this side of the Atlantic. Jack introduced Harold to Arthur Wright, who was just setting out building his promotional empire and Harold was signed up to work as Mike Jones, Dirty Mike or Farmer Mike.
Daughter Sally told us, “To me, it's always been a puzzle that Dad wrestled as a villain; anyone who knew him would readily agree that such a persona was the furthest thing from his true personality. I would love to have seen one of those performances with my own eyes because I can't imagine it.”
Farmer Mike, as he now was, wrestled whenever his service commitments allowed, often travelling to wrestling shows with the Beaumont brothers.
Not that this was without problems.
American forces personnel were not permitted to work outside of the military, and this made it difficult for Harold to manage his wrestling winnings. He began to mail money to his mother, Alice, back home in Ohio. All went well until the military intercepted a piece of this mail and called Harold in for interrogation. He told them he had he won it gambling, which apparently was an acceptable answer.
Harold's solution was certainly creative. As a skilled woodworker he created wooden objects using wood from the propellers that he re-ground following missions. The photo is of Harold holding one of the boxes he made in which he hid his wrestling winnings and mailed them back to Ohio.
Wrestling alongside Mike in Britain was another Army friend, Alex Alexinis (above, right) from Long Island, New York, oddly billed as The Unknown Star on occasions, and at other times as The Phantom. Alex was often a team partner of Mike's.
One wrestler who made a big impact on Mike and Alex was Jack Pye and his brothers. Jack served in the fire service during the war, which meant that he was able to maintain a higher profile than most.
Mike would often include comments to his mother and sweet heart, Ruth, about the antics of the Pye brothers, in his regular letters home. He recalled that out of the ring Jack Pye was a very humorous man who could keep all his colleagues entertained.
Ruth is shown (on the left) being hoisted on to Mike's shoulders, shortly after he returned home from fighting in the Second World War.
In a card he sent to Ruth shortly before returning home Mike wrote, “Alex has about enough points to come home, so he and I are booked with Jack Pye and his brother in a big team match Saturday October 20th. We would like to beat them before leaving this country. They are the big guns in wrestling around dear old England.”
Not long afterwards Mike returned home, bringing with him a souvenir in the form of two "cauliflower ears," which were not only painful but also caused problems when he needed hearing aids fitted in later life.
On his return to the United States Mike married his young love, Ruth Baker, and set up home in Dayton. Mike continued to wrestle. For a time he worked in Florida but the family chose not to uproot themselves and he returned to Ohio where their family grew to include three children. The children would eagerly listen to his stories of the Pyes, Man Mountain Benny, Jack Atherton and the many other British stars he had met.
The friendship with the Belshaw family, that now included Jack's son, Mike, continued until the day that Harold died, at which time there was still a tea service in his china cabinet which Jack's wife had sent to Ohio around 1960 as a Christmas gift and as thanks to Ruth Francis for having sent her a pair of green high heeled shoes that weren't easy to come by during the war.
Harold Francis died on April 18, 2014, he was 95 years old. He was survived by his children Sam, Sally and Cathy, to whom we are grateful for keeping his memories alive through the pages of Wrestling Heritage.
Harold Francis, or Farmer Mike Jones came to our attention in 2012 when his family got in touch to say how much he enjoyed reading about the old days and telling tales of his exploits in England. All photographs on this page remain copyright of the Francis family.