Whilst the wrestlers we cheered and booed half a century ago may have accessorised their ancient skills with masks and coloured gowns the roots of their trade lay many decades earlier in styles less colourful but more brutal than anything we witnessed half a century ago; we are talking of the regional styles of Britain, especially Lancashire catch as catch can. It is to the era of early twentieth century catch wrestling that we turn to pay tribute to a champion of the day, Thomas McCarty.
Family members Larry, Bill and Eileen have shared their knowledge and memories of Thomas, aided by historian Allan Best and former catch wrestler Tommy Heyes, better known to us fans as Gene Riscoe and himself a student of Billy Riley at his Wigan gymnasium. Tommy visited the Museum of Wigan Life to research the story of Thomas McCarty.
Thomas McCarty was born in Ryehope, County Durham, 1883 to Irish parents who had emigrated to Scotland. The family name was Carty, with the Mc added following settlement in Scotland. When he was thirteen years old Thomas began to train as a priest, leaving after two years.
Thomas's parents had been show people in Ireland and with fairground and circus culture in his blood Thomas became a strong man in the circus.
At 16 Thomas joined the navy for a short time. On his return to Wigan Thomas put his carpentry skills to good use, and combined with an artistic ability designed and carved bespoke shop frontages.
Not yet twenty years old Thomas's life was already more varied than most experience in a lifetime ? trainee priest, circus performer, carpenter and sailor!
And we haven't mentioned his work as a ghost yet!
Nineteenth and early twentieth century fairgrounds were the home of actors, jesters, minstrels, puppeteers, jugglers, fire eaters and acrobats. The fairground was also the birthplace of the cinema. Thomas experienced many facets of fairground life, which included the ghost dramas created by an illusion of lights, mirrors and early cinematograph techniques.
By 1910 the Ghost shows had all but disappeared and proprietors moved into full time moving picture projection. Gradually most of these travelling cinemas taken up permanent residence and following the First World War joined the growing number of cinemas around Britain. This leads to another claim to fame for this remarkable man that led such a varied life and became the operator of the first cinema reel in Wigan, hand-reeled and propped up on an apple barrel in a tent.
Recreation for many young Wigan men was wrestling and with a fairground background it was a natural step for Thomas to take up the sport.. The comforts of dressing rooms and warm public halls were not for Tom McCarty and his ilk. His matches mostly took place in the fields and on the rough ground around the towns of southern Lancashire, wrestling for side-stakes and wagers.
Prior to the first world war Thomas was the 9st 7lb Catch as Catch Can Wrestling Champion of England.
During the Great War Sergeant Major Thomas McCarty was enrolled in the 5th Batallion Manchester Regiment. Sir Charles Assheton-Smith arranged a match between Thomas and Pritchard, champion of Wales, with a silver cup worth £15 for the winner. The match took place on 13th June, 1914, and Thomas beat Pritchard, who was dubbed the Welsh Hackenschmidt. Pritchard was more than two stones heavier than Thomas, but that didn't prevent the Wiganite comfortably overcoming the Welsh man by two falls to nil in little more than seven minutes, and thereby winning the Lord Carnarvon Cup. The trophy, re-named the McCarty Rose Bowl, was placed on display in the Officers Mess of the 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment in Wigan.
Tom was stationed in Egypt, and whilst there he issued a wrestling challenge to any man of his weight, but such was the reputation of Wigan wrestlers there was a reluctance of takers. Eventually one man took up Thomas's challenge, an Australian by the name of Hitchcox. Once disposed of the Australian Thomas was referred to as "Champion of Egypt."
Another event for anyone with an interest in the history of wrestling in Britain occurred in 1913. Tom was invited to join a group of American wrestlers who were touring Lancashire and Yorkshire as "Bob Somerville's American Troupe of All-In Wrestlers." This is the earliest reference we have found to the term All-In wrestling in Britain. A sovereign was offered to any challenger who could beat a member of the troupe within ten minutes. Tom told his children and grand children that nobody ever won the money. Somerville was an American catch wrestler who had made his first British visit in 1906, challenging all comers as "Featherweight Champion of America."
For four or five days during the conflict Thomas was presumed dead, all the time submerged in mud in no mans land with barrage fire continuously going on around him. Understandably Thomas was traumatised by this experience and suffered ?shell shock.?
Following the war Thomas returned to Wigan where he continued to wrestle at a high level in Lancashire Catch wrestling.
Thomas's brother-in-law, Tom O'Donald, taught him the finer aspects of rugby and in 1919 he was appointed trainer of the Wigan Rugby League team. When interviewed for the post Thomas was fortunate in being asked to describe the circulation of blood around the body and as yet another of his jobs had been as a physiotherapist he was able to satisfy the interview pane.
Thomas was in charge the first time Wigan won the Rugby League Challenge Cup in 1929. This was the first Rugby League Final held at Wembley Stadium, with Wigan beating Dewsbury 13-2. Thomas was the trainer at Wigan until 1939. At Wigan he trained Jimmy Sullivan who was to succeed him as Wigan coach.
The photo below shows Tom on the right with the victorious winning team.
Tom Sr and his first wife had two children, a boy and a girl. Thomas McCarty Jr was born in 1906.
Thomas McCarty Snr died on 28th September, 1954. A couple of months later his son, also Thomas, died.