O: Atholl Oakeley
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Shooter and Showman
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 commentary 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 champion 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 acknowledgment 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 Oakeley 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.
So it would be fair to say that by turning professional Atholl was taking a huge gamble. When he made the decision to turn professional he was embarking on a journey into the unknown. The sport of professional wrestling in Britain had been all but extinct, existing in amateur regional styles around the country, for the best part of two decades. He made a life changing decision to lurch into the unknown based on the persuasive powers of two men he had met only hours earlier.
It wasn't as though he had nothing to lose. Atholl Oakeley was already a distinguished amateur and England representative in international tournaments. He held titles of status that gained him respect.
For those entering wrestling as a means of escaping poverty it must have been relatively easy to explain their decision to family to members. The lure of professional wrestling must have been greater for those enduring a life down the pit, the drudgery of a factory or, even worse, life on the dole. All the more difficult for Edward Atholl Oakeley to explain why he was foregoing amateur status and dignity for a leap into the unknown, and a rather dark and seedy unknown at that.
Maybe his personality made the decision easier than it would have been for others. His personal notepaper was headed "Shooter and Showman."
"Blue Blood on the Mat" certainly gives the impression of an impetuous, cavalier character who was not afraid to challenge authority; or courage as some might term it. This impression is supported by a story told to us by wrestling historian, the late Allan Best, a reliable source who was for many years the historian of the British Amateur Wrestling Association
Allan had in his possession a letter he received from Stan Bissell. a multiple amateur champion during the 1930s and Olympic Games competitor. In the letter Stan says that he was wrestling Oakeley before Atholl turned professional. For some reason that Stan could not remember, but certainly did not like, the match was taking place inside a roped area rather than on the usual amateur mat. Bissell writes, "Oakley picked me up in a crotch hold, leaning against the ropes he threw me into the first row of seats. With my arm damaged I climbed back into the ring but Atholl was arguing with the referee saying that the chairs shouldn't have been there and the Club and Association were rubbish. This,of course under the strict amateur rules meant disqualification. This was Oakeley's last appearance as an amateur as he immediately afterward turned to pro. "all-in" wrestling."
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. Irrespective of the motivation for Oakeley turning professional he certainly seems to have thrown himself into the new venture with some gusto. It seems most likely that without his 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 with a unanimous decision 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.
Oakeley formed a professional relationship with Henry Irslinger, and through his friendship with Harold Lane became part of the London Syndicate with designs on controlling wrestling throughout the country. Any description of Atholl’s character must include words like industrious, energetic and determined. From the outset he knew he would not be satisfied with the role of a wrestler. He was determined to be the cornerstone for the development of wrestling in Britain
To this end he travelled to the United States in May, 1931, ostensibly to wrestle but resolved to meet people, form contacts and learn from the promoters who were years ahead of Britain. Despite having lost to Douglas Clark in a British heavyweight championship match Oakeley took his title credentials to the States, he and the Syndicate declaring that Clark won a Catch as Catch can style match and Oakeley was the All In champion. Personal and professional relationships formed across the Atlantic were to prove beneficial when Atholl returned home, shortly afterward bringing to our rings many of those men he had encountered, Jack Sherry, Karl Pojello, Billy Bartush amongst them.
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.
Atholl Oakeley’s wrestlers were always bigger and badder than other promoters. Maybe we should liken him to a forerunner of Paul Lincoln; maybe he was the inspiration for Paul Lincoln in the 1960s.
Atholl turned 1930s wrestling from monochrome to colour. A fairly ordinary Londoner by the name Norman Ansell was transformed into Norman the Butcher, a big, unskilled, laborious Jack Baltus was fashioned as Carver Doone and guaranteed success, Maurice Tillett was unleashed on an unsuspecting public as The Angel. Atholl certainly had the ability to capture the imagination of the public.
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 ascendancy, 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.
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, when pandemonium broke out in Nottingham. His opponent was the villainous Hard Boiled Herbie Rosenberg. Trouble started with Rosenberg's opposition to the referee, resulting in Cab Cashford being 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. It was declared that Cashford had disqualified Oakeley for delivering a low blow, resulting in the knocking out of 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 Twentieth Century 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.
Atholl Oakeley died in Devon on 7th January, 1987.
Page updated 11/07/2021