British wrestling history 

C: Douglas Clark

The Wrestling Heritage Number 1 Wrestler of the 1930s

Douglas Clark

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Following a year of deliberation Wrestling Heritage named Douglas Clark, the "John Bull in Trunks," as the Top Wrestler of the 1930s.

Not a name as readily recalled as other 1930s greats Jack Pye, Norman the Butcher, Bert  Assirati or Francis St Clair Gregory, the decision will be of no surprise to regular readers of Wrestling Heritage. Our Years of Wrestling series of the development of professional wrestling in the 1930s has repeatedly referred to the exploits of Douglas Clark, one of the real wrestlers of the decade.

Assirati was of the same mould, but he was a novice in the 1930s; Pye was a terrific showman who broke the mould and changed the face of wrestling before the war and beyond but he was not in the same class; Garnon was a good amateur who made a success as a pro but never quite made it to the first division; Oakeley created his own niche; Riley had tenacity and skill but lacked a national presence; Gill and George Clark were powerful men and real wrestlers but never seemed to quite match Douglas.

Douglas Clark was not our obvious choice at the start of our journey but our research into the decade has convinced us that he is a worthy title holder of the Heritage Top Wrestler of the 1930s.

The emergence of wrestling as a spectator sport demanded a ready supply of participants.  This demand was met by veterans from a previous age like Johanfesson and Henry Irslinger, good amateurs like Harold Angus and Bill Garnon, world class exponents like Benny Sherman and Karl Pojello, and novices from overseas like Whipper Watson and Billy Bartush.

Douglas Clark was different. Born in Ellenborough, a suburb of Maryport in Cumbria, in 1891 Douglas was forty years old at the start of Britain's wrestling revival. A veteran of the First World War he had fought on the front line in France. Wartime experience alone signifies the extraordinary powers of the man. In France he was wounded by shrapnel from a bomb and badly gassed at Passchendale. Douglas was discharged in a wheelchair, but returned to his unit less than a month later. In 1918 he was discharged with a 95% Disability Certificate and awarded the Military Medal for valour during combat. He was told to take things easy in civilian life, and responded by going on to become one of the greatest rugby players of all time.

He married Jennie Gate, also from Maryport,  in 1922, and won the Grasmere Cup in Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling the same year. By 1930 Douglas was a mature man who had experienced enormous success in the sporting world, though not as a professional wrestler.  He had played professional rugby league (for Huddersfield) from 1909 - 27 and had played in both the England and Great Britain teams between 1911 and 1925.

It was this maturity and experience, along with agility, strength, prowess as a Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestler,  and a natural ability that Douglas brought to All -In wrestling. As a three times holder of the Cumberland and Westmorland style championship he must have held one of the few undisputed titles in wrestling!

Douglas was a natural in the professional ring, the "John Bull in Trunks". In March 1931,    shortly after turning professional, he won a knock-out tournament for the British heavyweight championship at the London Sports Club defeating Joe Robinson of Newcastle in the semi final and Atholl Oakley in the championship final.  It was a victory that was to be overlooked by Oakeley in the years that followed. 

In June of the same year (1931) he faced Bert Assirati in a catch-as-catch-can style contest at Wakefield Opera House.  Despite being the aggressor for much of the contest Douglas was held to a draw by the younger Assirati. He immediately challenged Assirati to a return contest, which was arranged for the Belle Vue Football Ground, Wakefield, on 20th June. It was reported that 3,000 fans saw Douglas defeat Assirati, who was said to be Clark's toughest challenger to date. It was an unfortunate ending for Assirati who went over the ropes onto the hard ground below in the fifth of six ten minute rounds. Assirati was declared injured and unable to continue.

Douglas was incensed in August, 1933, on receipt of an invitation from the International Wrestling Syndicate of the London Sports Club (Lanes Club) to enter an open tournament to find a challenger for Atholl Oakeley who they referred to as the "indisputable All-In Champion." Clark questioned the legitimacy of the International Wrestling Syndicate and stated he would never wrestle at the London Sports Club again. He offered to wrestle Oakely according to All-In rules, not only putting his British and World championships up for grabs but also offering a sidestake of his £500 against Oakeley's £100. His challenge was not accepted.

By virtue of his defeat of just about all the main European contenders he was matched with the Belgian Laurent Gertsmanns at the Headingley Rugby League Ground in Leeds on July 3rd in a contest billed as the World Heavyweight Championship. On a hot summers evening a crowd of 10,000 witnessed an evenly matched contest drawn over six ten minute rounds. Clark was undeniably the more skilful of the two men, and it was only the three stones weight advantage of Gerstmann that enabled him to hold on for a draw following sixty minutes of wrestling without a fall. One week later agreement was reached for a return contest at Fartown, Huddersfield, on 24th July, with 7,000 fans passing through the turnstile. The return was a more ferocious and shorter contest, with Clark knocking out the Belgian to win the title after six minutes and fifteen seconds of the fourth round. Douglas Clark was proclaimed World Heavyweight Champion.

Although Oakeley did not publicly acknowledge Douglas's British championship claim his successor as champion, Bill Garnon, defended his title against Douglas on November 2nd, 1934.  Garnon was billed as champion whilst Clark had to settle for challenger status. The match began quietly enough but events heated up in the fifth round with both men out of the ring. Clark gained the first fall in the fifth round, after 49 gruelling minutes, and a second in the following round, winning by two falls to nil.

Readers of Ron Historyo's Ambassadors of Wrestling series will be aware of Douglas's presence on the world stage. In January, 1936,  he boarded the Orion and sailed to Australia. This was Clark's third visit to Australia, but the previous two had been as part of a rugby league tour.  Australia kept our man for most of the year, Clark's last Australian match being at Adelaide City Baths on 12th September with an arrival back in British rings in November.  He returned to Australian rings the following year, with full reports of these tours in Ambassadors of Wrestling.

On his return to Britain in 1938 the years were catching up on Douglas, going down twice to Jack Sherry in one of his last big pay days.  Even at that age the reporter of the Daily Express noted that in their first match Douglas was the cleverer of the two wrestlers and  that he entered the ring with the slight cut which opened up and led to the referee stopping the fight in the seventh round. In the return match Douglas was disqualified for using his knee in the seventh round.

He was a man who had done it all.

There was to be no post Second World War revival for Douglas Clarke; he left that to lesser men. As a wrestler he was a man of his decade. But what a decade. What a man. The number one wrestler of the 1930s.

Page reviewed: 06/10/2019