G: Bob Gregory
A Bobby Dazzler
and His Wife
Bob Gregory was a handsome, colourful champion wrestler; a Dazzler Joe Cornelius of the 1930s at a time the world was still in black and white. A larger than life personality who the nation at large knew never suffered from headaches, or at least would know if they believed the long running national advertising campaign for Vita Grape Juice and Alka-Seltzer in which Bob proclaimed, “I don't know what I'd do without Alka-Seltzer, I used to get the most terrible headaches and nothing would get rid of them until I tried Alka-Seltzer.”
Teaching jiu jitsu on the fledgling BBC channel, a contributor to BBC radio programmes, and a technical adviser to film makers on fight scenes, Bob was known well beyond wrestling circles. The Radio Times of 2nd April, 1937, said of him, "Bob Gregory is one of the most versatile men in the country: he is a boxer, wrestler, swimmer and authority on physical fitness generally."
Add to all this ownership of a number of physical culture clubs and the story we are about to relate and you will start to appreciate the versatility and creativity of this successful man. Bob owned a sandwich shop in London, unlicensed as you would expect. In August 1931 Bob and his sandwich bar made the national news when he not only served alcohol, but served it throughout the night, way beyond the permit of Britain's stringent alcohol laws. A loophole in the Act of 1921 permitted alcohol to be consumed (but not purchased) in any unlicensed establishment at any hour of the day or night. Bob's solution was to meet customers' requests for alcohol by telephoning a nearby wine merchant to make the purchase. It was reported that throughout the night, until nearly breakfast time, errand boys on bicycles were delivering wines and spirits to the sandwich bar.
An all round sportsman he saw the potential of professional wrestling from the outset of the 1930 revival, with the charisma and confidence of a nineteen year old to take advantage of the opportunities opening up. He always said that wrestling was a means to an end, the end being that he would one day qualify as a doctor. Whether or not that was true he certainly seemed to excel as a wrestler. Few living people could now tell us just how good a wrestler he was, but he certainly had enough skill to lay a credible claim to European titles at welterweight, middleweight and light heavyweight at various times. Opponents included Harold Angus, White Owl and Tony Mancelli, all of whom he beat, and full blown heavyweights Bert Assirati and Charlie Green.
Bob Gregory was a favourite with the media, a celebrity before the days of celebrity culture. His courtship and marriage to Valerie Brookes, Princess Baba of Sarawak, was avidly reported by the national press. It was a contender for the wedding of the year; professional wrestling's own William and Kate moment, though we can't imagine our ever so nice modern day Prince and Princess getting up to the kind of eccentric antics of wrestler Bob Gregory and his bride to be.
Valerie Brookes was, as colourful and even larger than life than Bob himself, and preferred to be known as Princess Baba. She was the youngest daughter of Sir Vyner Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, and Sylvia, the Ranee of Sarawk known as “The Queen of the Headhunters.” The Brookes were the only English family to occupy an Oriental throne, ruling Borneo for fifty years.
Princess Baba had been introduced to Bob by her mother at a social event at Grosvenor House, where he had given a physical culture display in the cabaret. It was an occasion mother had cause to regret. Both Rajah and Ranee disapproved of their daughter's choice of suitor. When Bob Gregory announced his engagement to Princess Baba on 1st November, 1937, it made the front pages of Britain's national press, alongside the views of the disapproving parents.
Not unlike today's media the front page of the Daily Mirror on the 2nd November reported an interview under the headline "She Wants To Forget Mr Gregory." The newspaper had tracked down Bob's first wife who had told them, "I want to forget my marriage to Bob Gregory."
Princess Baba was, in modern terminology, something of a wild child. She fell for the all-in wrestler, though whether it was love for one another or love for publicity remains open to debate. The courtship and marriage was the stuff of fairy tales that captured the imagination of the British public. The story of the whirlwind courtship and the disapproving parents was avidly reported at every turn by the national press like a modern day soap opera.
New developments were reported almost daily: the father's threat to stop Baba's allowance, the courting couple driving around London in a white open topped car with “Baba and Bob” painted on the back, the eventual stoppage of Baba's allowance, the defiant response of the wrestler, the couple fleeing to Paris, Baba's sobbing as she watched Gregory lose at Lanes Club and presumably more cheerful demeanour when she was at ringside to see him defeat Wolbach Rubbens in Antwerp in a European championship match.
Newspapers dutifully reported the (allegedly) dramatic spontaneous dash one night from Lane's Club where Gregory was wrestling, to Euston Railway Station, catching the train to Liverpool. On arrival in Liverpool they called on promoter William Bankier to help them obtain a special licence to marry. Alas, it was to no avail and with hopes dashed the couple postponed their plans, but not for long. A further announcement was made for the wedding on 20th November, again cancelled at the last minute. Two days later, on 22nd November, the pair finally married at Marylebone Register Office, London. The nation must have breathed a sigh of relief. Around a dozen friends attended the small ceremony, none of them members of either family. In the Marriage Register Bob Gregory listed his occupation as Physical Culturalist.
It was on the third day of the marriage that Baba's father, the Rajah of Sarawak issued a statement that his daughter had no right to the title of Princess and he was stopping her allowance. Bob Gregory, a wealthy man, offered to buy his bride her own island, which she would rule, they would be Heads of State on par with her parents. This turned out to be no idle promise. A number of suitable islands were found, and reports were that the barrier was not a lack of money but finding a country willing to sell land to a couple with an intention of proclaiming themselves royalty.
In January, 1938 Bob and Princess Baba moved to California and announced plans of a film telling the story of their romance. A film, an island and father restored his daughter's £600 allowance. It could all have ended happily had it no been for another cruel twist of fate.
In October the couple announced their intention to split, and later denied it, thus starting another round of publicity. In October, 1940, Bob was granted a divorce on the grounds of desertion.