R: Frank Robb
A Man in the Shadows
British wrestling boasted an abundance of larger than life personalities. The names most readily remembered today are those who brought a splash of colour; names like Pallo, McManus, Kellett and Big Daddy. Flamboyant and entertaining most definitely, but not necessarily the best wrestlers. Every star of wrestling needed dozens more who could work with them to help them maintain their position as seemingly invincible. These were the largely unsung heroes of wrestling, the men in the shadows who had the skills and knowledge to work with the more famous names and the modesty to allow those stars to shine. As professionals they were skilled, gracious and generous. We would place Frank Robb in this group. Frank Robb is one of those names that most wrestling fans of the 1960s will remember, but have little knowledge of a man who rarely had his name in large letters at the top of the poster yet was good enough to work for a quarter of a century wrestling the most well known names in the business.
Frank Robinson was born on 31st March, 1931. At the time Ramsay McDonald was Britain's first Labour prime Minister, George V was King and an imminent economic depression meant that austerity was about to bite. Young Frank, of course, was oblivious to all this, enjoying an upbringing on his parents farm at Blackhouse, a farming and mining district in County Durham. It was an exciting life for a young boy in the 1930s, driving tractors and working with the cows and horses. It was a life that came to an abrupt end when Frank was about twelve years old and his parents sold the farm. There was a short reprieve for a few months when the family took over management of another farm, in Pontelands, but then Frank's father retired, and the family moved to Newcastle shortly before the end of the Second world war.
Working on the farm made Frank a very active youngster. Without the farm life he had to find other ways to expend his energy. Young Frank turned his attention to sport, particularly swimming, gymnastics and boxing. Wrestling didn’t figure in his plans. No members of the Robinson family had been involved in the sport. There was no one to encourage or discourage him. That is until a fateful Saturday night when the Robinson family went along to the New St James Hall, a place that had been built for boxing but survived thanks to it's weekly wrestling matches that stretched back to a Henri Irslinger show in 1931. Irslinger was long gone but the stars of the day, Dave Armstrong, Ernest Baldwin, Jack Pye and The Ghoul appeared regularly at the hall, now promoted by Norman Morrell.
Young Frank was smitten, mesmerised as he watched the wrestlers throw themselves around the ring to the delight of fans. With the self-confidence of youth Frank announced to his mother, “I could do that. I want to be a wrestler.” Understandably mother didn't quite share Frank's enthusiasm. “Maybe you could,” she told him before adding, “But you're not going to, it's too dangerous.”
Undaunted Frank sought out someone who could teach him to wrestle. That was when he met Walter McCready. Walter owned a gymnasium in Dean Street in Newcastle city centre. The gym was a primitive place underneath the railway arches. A ring would have been a luxury. All training took place on mats with the concrete floor beneath. Learning to fall correctly was a necessity that was quickly mastered.
Frank was determined to become a professional wrestler. He worked at the Hoppings on the Town Moor in Newcastle in Ron Taylor's fairground booth. Young Geordies with more swagger than sense fancied their chances and challenged booth fighters like Frank who would wrestle up to half a dozen times in a day. It was a great place to learn how to work a crowd and the skills necessary for the professional ring. National Service did nothing to deter Frank, and by then his parents had relented and given their blessing. Frank started attending the Saturday afternoon training sessions at the New St James Hall.
Walter McCready wrote to wrestling promoter Norman Morrell and recommended Frank for a professional trial. Morrell visited the New St James Hall training session. He was impressed by what he saw and invited Frank to his office in Bradford. Morrell had already made up his mind about the youngster and had his first date sheet ready. Frank just needed to agree; which he did without hesitation.
On 31st October, 1957, Frank made his professional debut at Blackburn against another youngster, Al Nicol. What could have gone through his mind that night as he shared the dressing room with Mike Marino, Geoff Portz and Dara Singh? These were the men who had inspired him to become a wrestler. However, fans didn't see the name Frank Robinson or Frank Robb on the posters. In the early days Frank was known as George Robb. Just two weeks later, and only ten miles down the road Frank was in action against Al Nicol once again at the Queens Hall, Preston, where wrestling had resumed from it's wartime closure only a fortnight earlier. The Lancashire Evening Post reported that the match between George Robb and Al Nicol was “The fastest and most scientific bout of the evening.” Nicol, the more experienced and heavier of the two, won both those bouts, but things soon began to look up with more bookings to follow.
We find Frank working for Norman Morrell later in 1957 against Dicky Swales, who ten years later Frank told Russell Plummer was still his most rugged opponent (The Wrestler, March 1968). Bernard Murray, Ted Hannon, Al Miquet and Jim Breaks were also opponents around that time. Jack Dempsey was the hardest of opponents, and it was Dempsey that Frank faced on television in a match broadcast from the SS Empire in York. The man most admired by Frank? Like so many he opted for World lightweight champion George Kidd.
Wrestling the skilful Bernard Murray Frank scored one of the fastest falls in wrestling. Not the fastest, admittedly, but certainly one worthy of mention. It was Saturday 27th September, 1958, at the Drill Hall, Grantham and it took Frank just twelve seconds of the first round to pin Murray. Regrettably for Frank the experienced Murray came back to win by two falls to one.
As Frank acquired experience he also gained greater respect from promoters Norman Morrell and George deRelwyskow. This didn't just mean more bookings throughout northern England and Scotland but also being entrusted with taking care of some of the youngsters as they took their tentative first steps in wrestling. So it was that when Norman Morrell was looking for a suitable debut opponent for two young hopefuls, Ian Gilmoure and Peter Preston, it was Frank Robb chosen as the man in the opposite corner.
Unsurprisingly Frank was a favourite at his local wrestling venue, the St James Hall, Newcastle, where Heritage member Dave Sutherland remembers him: “He was an almost permanent fixture at St James Hall during the sixties, either as a wrestler or as a member of the audience in a very low key profile observing the action from the walkway beside the confectionery shop downstairs in the hall. On one occasion when I nipped up to the hall mid-week during my lunchtime Frank was dressed in his wrestling gear (white trunks, boots and jacket) so presumably he did his training at St James' too.”
Outside of the ring Frank always kept a full time job, mindful of the fact that he had the responsibility of bringing up a family with his wife, Ann. Ann enjoyed the wrestling too and she and their two boys would often watch Frank in action; the two children often needing to be restrained from getting into the ring themselves.
Frank worked as a lorry driver for the Co-Op. Many is the time the lorry would be parked up in a Co-Op store for the night, the shop managers unaware that Frank was fulfilling another of his wrestling commitments.
Frank's wrestling career spanned the best part of thirty years ending in the early 1980s. He worked mostly for Joint Promotions but also for independent promoters that included Brian Dixon, Don Robinson and Allan-Taylor. The highlights? There are many he could chose but for down to earth Frank he settled for, “Just wrestling the lads. I enjoyed it all.” He would do it all over again, but does admit to having worked in the business for a few years too long. There are worse faults Frank.
Not the name in the tallest of letters on the posters, but a name fans were always pleased to see on the bill. We say it in the most respectful of ways that Frank Robb was a man in the shadows, and that's a role that Heritage readers appreciate as one of the most important in professional wrestling.
Page added 10/08/2019