J: Johanfesson

Top Wrestlers of the 1930s


Pioneer of Hard Knocks
Ron Historyo uncovers the background story of another great wrestling pioneer.

Glad I am not researching coal mining because Chesterfield had so many coal shafts you would not believe it, but spare a thought for the hard world that Joseph Sheppard was born into in 1893.

Father Leonard Sheppard had married Mary Ann Chappell in 1872 and in all that time he had worked down the mines and still managed to live through the dangers of being a coal hewer to die in 1925 age 71. Len Sheppard was originally from Bilsthorpe in Nottingham but Chesterfield had experienced a huge expansion of it's coal and ore industry when a large seam was discovered by Stephenson's people whist laying the railway. Mary Ann Chappell was a Chesterfield native.

Leonard lived to see his son Joe become the alias Johanfesson. Even Mum who died in 1918 knew of Joe's exploits. Sadly neither saw the birth of All-In Wrestling and the influence Johanfesson had on it's growth.

Out of twelve children only seven were still surviving by 1911 and of those Joe was the youngest.

Very hard Victorian times indeed and what a tough sounding family, brothers had been Bricklayers Labourers, Blacksmiths Labourers, Miners and Joe when he was 18 was a Blacksmiths Striker. If ever a trade gave you strength a striker would be high on the list.

By 1915 the Hackenschmidt boom was long over in Britain and history records very little wrestling from 1910-1930 apart from the various regional, Westmorland, Cornish and Highland type codes that carried on away from the music halls. Not strictly true though as we had a great Olympic champion who had met the Queen. Back in 1908 long before the days of American wrestling's Curt Angle, our own man George deRelwyskow had won an Olympic Gold Medal at Lightweight catch as catch can Wrestling and one must question his amateur status when we find him performing wrestling exhibitions in this period before the birth of All In Wrestling. I suppose though that wrestling was wrestling and exhibition was exhibition.
One such exhibition in 1915 saw Relwyskow demonstrating wrestling in the Icelandic Style of Glima and he was assisted by Johanfesson who provided the Icelandic costume and competition. The exhibition was at the Palace, Tamworth.

The previous year, 1914, at only 21 Joe Sheppard had married Deborah Quesick and the financial pressure would have been on. A family was coming with the birth of John (Jack) in 1916 and Joseph L Sheppard in 1918 , finally quite late (1930) another boy William.

So there we have the evidence that Johanfesson was connected to the wrestling world and was a ready made shoe fifteen years later.

In July 1922 at Chesterfield Hippodrome, Joe Sheppard was described as the welterweight champion of Great Britain at 11 stone and took part in an bout where Sid Weston the Heavyweight Champion at 15 stone was to throw his man three times in an hour under catch as catch can rules. Joe, showing great skill to slip out of situations, was the winner as he was only thrown once.
On 8th December, 1923, Joe Sheppard fought J. Colston at Bourne for £10 a side and won; he was billed as Middleweight champion of the world. That same week he had signed to play professional football for Bourne FC but had been prevented from doing so because of money he owed after a warrant had gone out in September 1922. In court Joe said because of this he had lost his job and hit really hard times.

He had travelled with a wrestling and boxing show in Bourne district until it went pot and then had to resort to being a bricklayer's labourer. He had paid what he could and was asked “Did he not make a lot of money from Wrestling?” He replied that you get more reputation than money.

He said he had hardly eaten a decent meal in weeks.

The result was he had to pay five shillings a week.

The following month, on 19th January 1924, Joe Sheppard beat Sid Weston the British heavyweight champion at the Bourne Corn Exchange even though he conceded four stone.

So there really was some wrestling in the 1920's.

Right at the beginning of the All-In boom, Johanfesson was pushing wrestling and doing some of his own promoting, but in the early months his ideas were more exhibition style like throwing several men in 20 minutes or one man three times etc. But soon it was apparent where the money was and that was the pure theatre of it all. You needed  titles, gimmicks, reputation and persona. Johanfesson had these by default and skirted with Middleweight champion and Light heavyweight champion of the world, a little dependent on if Henry Irslinger was in the country or not.

On June 6th 1931, before film cameras and a crowd of 5000 at Huddersfield's Fartown ground,  Johanfesson lost in about a minute to Doug Clark, a much bigger man and our very first heavyweight champion. 

Indeed it is hard to find Clark losing for many years after this.

On 26th October 1931 Johanfesson lost at Nottingham to Irslinger before a large crowd in another title match at light heavyweight. And in June 1932 at Nottingham Johanfesson had a return match with the champion Doug Clark, a few rounds this time but overpowered again by a big man 2-0.

Also another match with Clark at Workington Stadium 29th July 1932 he was outclassed again.

Never knew when he was beaten.

May 1st 1933 in a different type of bout Johanfesson tried to prevent Doug Clark throwing him three times in half an hour, but failed and lasted 15minutes at the Leeds Brunswick Stadium.

26th August 1933 at Field Mills in Mansfield Joe was carried out on a stretcher after taking a beating and losing to Atholl Oakeley 2-0.

By December 1933 Johanfesson was in court again, in Nottingham, over money problems to do with a printing account. The judge noted that he had recent bouts against Jack Pye , Van Dutz, Norman the Butcher and was to fight Oakeley the next week. Joe said in some bouts he only made shillings and had even made a loss on some shows. A few pounds was intimated at best whilst the judge could not believe that to fight Oakeley would not gain him several hundred pounds. “Why bother then?” asked the judge.

The reply was “I have a wife and three kids”.

“Hard to believe” thought the judge “Oakeley is British Champion”

A cavalier Johanfesson said “I am a world champion at my weight”

The debt was to be paid in four instalments.

As for supporting the kids, by 1932 a sixteen year old Young Johanfesson was already doing the same as dad, toying with various names such as Kid Quesick, Boy Quesick , Jack Quesick and eventually Babe Quesick.

Nice trick using mothers maiden name. Who would have made the link?

1933 was a troublesome year because it was Johanfesson that arranged the match at Sheffield where George Strangler Johnson died after a bout with Karl Romskie (George Bowden). These two had worked a dozen matches explained Johanfesson , but the barbaric nature of All In Wrestling was discussed in parliament.

In October 1934 Johanfesson lost his world light heavy weight belt to Lightning Pat Howard at Nottingham Baths in a year that often featured father and son on the same bill. Johanfesson was doing a lot of promoting particularly at home town Chesterfield and Mansfield where he alleged that he did not make much money but in July 1937 he was to taste a very bitter experience at Grantham where he tried to launch wrestling.

Three shows were put on at the London Road Ground and although poorly attended, those who did attend cheered loudly. Johanfesson made an appeal that in Chesterfield he had managed to provide poor children with 700 pairs of boots and with good support he could do the same in Grantham.

Some of the council were against him and wrestling but he assured them he was not bringing a bad product to the town , and in fact was one of the few promoters with a license to promote in London.

Most of all though the Parish Association of Church Ministers were terribly against him

The council had a vote and the majority decided wrestling was O.K. And technically there could not be another opening of this case for six months.

However the town Clerk took it upon himself to represent the minority view and that of the Parsons and wrote and told him that he was not welcome at the Westgate Hall which he was trying to rent.

I think in disgust Johanfesson threw in the towel. This was not democracy.

Looking back, I have to say I may have given an impression Johanfesson was often losing his matches, but I want to stress he actually had a great record and the losses were valiant, giving away a lot of weight. If you imagine in Billy Robinson's day a light heavyweight taking him on, what else would you expect.

Given that Oakeley and Clark were in the five feet nine to ten range, I would speculate that with a fine physique Joe Sheppard was perhaps no more than Five seven.

Jack Quesick wrestled into the 1950's and we have a small mystery who Joe Queseck was in the 1960's as he does not seem to be either a Sheppard or a Quesick by birth , so any connection is unknown.

As for Grantham , well certainly 20 years later there was regular wrestling at the Barracks, so somehow someone got wrestling going there eventually.

Johanfesson often promoted and refereed as our journey approaches the war , and what became of him I do not know. Possibly died in 1967 but proof needed.

He had tasted near poverty, avoided the mines but took some hard knocks.

He was another pioneer like Billy Riley and George Relwyskow who did much for early wrestling.

Wrestling Heritage is now trying to recover these histories.

Ron Historyo