He was one of the greatest heavyweight wrestlers of the post war years and yet seems almost a forgotten man amongst modern day wrestling enthusiasts. Whilst lesser men such as Crabtree, Pye, Haystacks and others are still discussed at length the name Billy Joyce rarely gets a mention.
Wrestling Heritage travelled to the land of real wrestling, pies and Uncle Joe’s Mintballs, the south Lancashire town of Wigan. It is here that live the friends and family of Bob Robinson, known throughout the wrestling world as British and European Heavyweight Champion, Billy Joyce.
We talked at length with Billy’s daughter, Dorothy Hart, her husband Jimmy, and family friend, Susan. We came away with one lasting impression. Here is a man who still commands enormous love and respect seven years after his death. That sense of love came through every word that was uttered, from Susan’s “He was a lovely man,” Dorothy’s “ ’e wur a bugger,” to Jimmy’s, “He was a family man, and always wanted to get back home.”
Billy Joyce may well have been a family man, but he was also a complex man. As a youngster a hard days graft down the coal mine would be followed by a “pull around,” Catch-as-Catch-Can style, as he learnt the business of wrestling. Or rather, he learnt how to learn. That was the point of training at Riley’s Snakepit. Wrestlers didn’t just learn how to wrestle, they learned how to continue learning throughout their life.
The coalmine, the Snakepit, the pull around after work were the experiences of Billy Joyce, considered to be the finest technical heavyweight of the post war years. A real wrestler, or shooter as the wrestling enthusiasts would call him. There’s no need to take our word for it, or that of Dorothy and Jimmy. The great and the good have given testament to Joyce’s place in wrestling folklore. Billy Robinson said he was: “The most complete wrestler of his generation…. without a doubt the best technique wrestler I ever met or wrestled.”
Roy Wood named Billy as the best wrestler to come out of Wigan. Geoff Condliffe (Count Bartelli) told us in 1971 that Joyce was the only wrestler that he would pay to watch wrestle. Condliffe likened his bouts with Joyce to a game of chess, with the Wigan wrestler always thinking two or three moves ahead. That’s what Catch-as-Catch-Can style was all about, “giving summat t’ get summat.” If Joyce offered an opponent his arm he wanted it to be taken because he was planning the counter, his next offensive, and the follow through. He was the master of the style.
Joyce was said by Karel Istaz (Karl Gotch) to be the last great “ripper” of British wrestling, that is a shoot wrestler who could genuinely hurt an opponent if he wished. Billy took part in what many believe was the last genuine catch-as-catch-can shoot match for money, a behind closed doors bout against Arthur Belshaw, around 1950. Although just about everyone acknowledged Billy as the best catch wrestler he suffered one of his rare defeats when his knee was damaged.
Lancastrians are known as straight forward sort of people. They take others as they find them and don’t stand on ceremony. Billy Joyce was all of that. He was a straight forward, decent sort of man. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the complexities of the man become apparent.
Here was a wrestler who could really hurt an opponent, and yet he instinctively lacked the killer touch. Bill Robinson said, “His only weakness was he was too nice, he wanted to beat you but not hurt you.”
Joyce was a man with a strong temper, not easily roused, but evident to all around him when it was. Family and friends tell of a placid man, a family man. Dorothy remembered her father as a shy man who shunned the limelight. “If a photo was being taken Bob would make sure he was on the back row,” chipped in Dorothy’s husband, Jimmy. This reluctance to push himself forward was undoubtedly one of the reasons that Billy was overshadowed by more extrovert wrestlers of his generation. Not that it mattered to Billy. He was content that his life was full of his two loves, his family and his wrestling.
The family always came first. Billy was married to Edna, and they had the one child, Dorothy. After each match Billy would return to Wigan and rarely missed a night at home. Even when wrestling in places as far away as Middlesbrough or London Billy would get back in the car and drive home to arrive in the early hours of the morning. Mind you, that was easier than in the early days. When Billy first began wrestling, during the war, he would cycle to many matches. A small bag containing his gear, a hot or cold drink, and off he would go, wrestle his bout and then all the way home on his bike, raining or not. For matches further afield he would rely on a lift from one of the other local wrestlers, until he had saved enough to buy a small second hand car.
Family man Billy would sometimes reluctantly take Edna and Dorothy with him when wrestling locally. His reluctance was simply because he didn’t like to see Dorothy’s distress. “I wanted to go with my dad, but I used to get really upset,” said Dorothy, “This was my dad and I couldn’t understand why everyone was booing and shouting at him. I used to cry, and he would tell me that it was all alright, but I didn’t understand.”
Tragedy hit the close knit family on 8th October, 1952. Many family members, including Billy, brother Joe and sister Vera, were travelling with the third brother, Jimmy, on the Perth to Euston express, for Jimmy’s return sailing from Southampton to his home in America. Shortly after 8.00 am their train and another collided in Harrow and Wealdstone station, with a third crashing into the wreckage minutes later. It was the worst rail accident in history. Three hundred and forty people were injured and a hundred and twelve died. Amongst the dead was Billy’s sister, Vera.
Billy and Edna remained devoted to one another for over fifty years. Together they owned and ran a shop in Swann Street, Wigan. They were rarely apart until Edna’s death in January, 2000. Billy was never to recover from his loss, and he himself passed away in September of the same year, two weeks before his eighty-fourth birthday. Jimmy Hart told us that everyone said he died of a broken heart.
Whilst Edna was his first love, Billy had another love, which was his wrestling. Wrestling was in the blood. Brother Joe had introduced him to the catch style whilst Billy was working at the colliery. Joe took him along to Billy Riley who began to train the youngster. The professional career began in 1939, using the name Billy Joyce. Like most of the miners Billy was not particularly big. He was wiry rather than muscular, but very fit and strong.
For the next thirty years wrestling was to remain at the heart of Billy’s life. Each day would begin and end with three hundred press-ups, add to that five hundred sit ups each morning, and a daily visit to Riley’s Snakepit for more of a pull-around, perfecting his own techniques and bringing on the young ‘uns, which was always important to Billy.
Amongst those young ‘uns was a Belgian that came to Britain in 1950, and was to be a regular visitor for the next eight years. His name was Karl Istaz, but he later became famous in the USA as Karl Gotch. Istaz came to Britain for one reason only, and that was to learn how to really wrestle, at Riley’s Snakepit. The man that taught him all he knew, was Billy Joyce. Not only that, but Billy and Edna opened their home to the youngster, and he lived with the two of them whenever he came over to Wigan.
Jimmy and Dorothy Hart told us a moving story of the time they visited the USA in the late 1990s. Unknown to Bob (Billy) they sought out Karel Istaz, who was surprised but delighted when they turned up unexpectedly at his home after all those years. They videoed their visit, with Karl sending a special message to his old friend and mentor. No mention of this was made to Billy and back home in Wigan he watched his daughter’s holiday recording and was astonished to suddenly find himself greeted by his dear friend.
Billy’s professional career saw him universally recognised as the very best, a British and European champion. Although he disliked travelling too far from home he did venture into Europe on occasions. His good friends Billy Robinson and Karel Istaz tempted him to Japan, but he refused all offers to wrestle in America. He couldn’t have been an easy man to work with, for as Dorothy told us he knew he was the best and refused to let anyone better him. He always told her “If I can lick ‘em, I’ll lick em,” which of course he did. There were some that were genuinely afraid and refused to get in the ring with him. For the most part, however, Billy Joyce was well liked by his colleagues because he was such a lovely man, and respected because his skill and knowledge rightfully commanded their respect. He may go to the back of a wrestling fans mind, just like he went to the back of the photograph, but Billy Joyce will never be forgotten.
Billy Joyce: Born 26th September, 1916, son of Samuel and Mary
Died: September 2000