A: Jack Alker
Jack Alker epitomises the essence of Wrestling Heritage. He is one of those rarely recalled pioneers of wrestling who made his mark but could so easily be forgotten were it not for the enthusiasm of all those who contribute to our website. The nature of the professional sport, which was never as competitive as it tried to appear, meant that the most skilful of men, or those who could have beaten most others in a genuine fight, were neither the highest paid or the most famous. Other factors came into play when identifying the most successful wrestlers. Enthusiasm amongst paying customers for heavier men was much greater than for lighter men; a colourful persona and the ability to arouse the emotions of fans through exaggerated and extravagant behaviour was another factor, as was a reliable reputation to turn up when booked and play their role in a balanced wrestling tournament.
Jack Alker was not a big man, and he was not a flamboyant or outrageous character. Research of archived newspapers tells us that he was a skilled wrestler, and a hard man who was a reliable and trusted worker for wrestling promoters from the early 1930s until the late 1940s. Without Jack Alker and those like him professional wrestling in Britain would not have been a huge commercial success and the famous names could not have existed. He is an often overlooked and yet significant part of British professional wrestling history of the 1930s and 1940s.
He is a man who deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
Born John Henry Alker on 20th September, 1906 in Hindley Green, near Wigan. Jack was well placed for life as a wrestler. There was a saying in Lancashire that if you put your hand down a coal shaft and pulled out a man he would be either a rugby player or a wrestler.
Life was hard when Jack was young; these were the 1920s and the reduction in miners' wages and consequent mining strike of 1926 took it's toll on mining communities around the country. Jack followed the well trodden route for young boys in south Lancashire of leaving school and entering adulthood working down the coal mine at Rose Bridge pit.
Many of the miners would spend their recreation time wrestling in fields. One such field near Jack's home in Higher Ince was known as the “Bowey,” and it was here that his early wrestling knowledge was gained as he wrestled with (usually) bigger and older men. Bets would be placed on the outcome of the matches, with a trusted person posted to keep watch and ensure the illegal betting activities went unnoticed.
In 1927 Jack married Polly Lancaster, a widow with a young son, and the following year there was another mouth to feed with the birth of their daughter, Doris. The photo on the left shows Jack (centre) at the wedding of his daughter Doris to Stanley; Jack's wife, Molly, stands on the left.
Wrestling had been popular as a music hall performance in the early years of the twentieth century but had almost disappeared following the First World War. The professional sport was re-introduced to Britain in December, 1930, with the creation of a new set of rules that became commonly known as "All In." Men of south Lancashire and Yorkshire were quick to recognise the potential of the new sport as a source of income.
Jack saw an opportunity to use the wrestling skills learned in the “Bowey” to supplement the money earned in the pit. Most of his early professional matches would be near to his home in Wigan, but as his reputation as a reliable worker grew Jack would be booked to wrestle further away, throughout, Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Isle of Man and even Ireland.
The lack of official records makes the charting of a wrestler's career problematic. Press coverage was sporadic but we have found our first reference in November, 1933. Harold Angus announced that he would accept Jack's challenge. The item named Jack as welterweight champion of Lancashire.
Three months later, in February, 1934, we find Jack as part of a Lancashire v Yorkshire team in which he was named as British lightweight champion. Jack was said to be the cleverer wrestler yet was held to a draw by Yorkshire's Joe Cudworth.
Jack wrestled a variety of opponents during the decade and a half he worked. It was common for a wrestler to have regular matches with one or two opponents. The two wrestlers would know each other's styles sufficiently well to guarantee for the promoter a pleasing match which would ensure the enjoyment of the audience. For Jack his most regular opponent was Scotty Ambrose. The two men wrestled each other throughout the north of England.
Through the years Jack was often billed as British Lightweight Champion, welterweight champion and even British light heavyweight champion. There was no Governing Body in professional wrestling to universally recognise champions.
Jack was clearly a proficient amateur Lancashire Catch as Catch Can wrestler years before entering the professional ring. He owned a silver cup, inscribed as
"Winner of 9st 10lbs wrestling competition, June 1932."
This may well have been a genuine competition win in the amateur Lancashire catch style prior to him wrestling professionally.
Jack also owned a belt, which the family referred to as a Lonsdale Belt. Lord Lonsdale was a patron of many sports including Cumberland style wrestling. The Lonsdale Belt was usually associated with boxing, though a small number of wrestling belts were awarded in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Unfortunately the belt was lost after being loaned to a family friend. Wrestling in the 1930s it seems unlikely that Jack would have been awarded an original Lonsdale belt first hand. Historian Ruslan Pashayev tells us that only six Lonsdale belts for wrestling were issued.
Mike Hallinan shared a photograph from his collection of Jack wearing a belt. The photograph is dated 1932 and was included in an article printed in the Sporting Arena in May, 1936 and reprinted below.
Although the most successful of professional wrestlers would wrestle five or six nights a week the champions would defend their championships only sporadically, once a month at the most, and often less frequently. In August, 1935, we find reference to a lightweight championship contest at Liverpool. We don't have a result for the match, but it does at least confirm some promoters recognised Jack as a British professional champion. The significance of this is that promoters would only permit champions they felt worthy of the title and were able to protect the integrity of holder and belt in the event of an opportunistic challenger attempting to take liberties.
Wrestlers were hard men and some of the matches were very violent, resulting in many councils banning wrestling in their halls. Accidents did happen, and injuries did occur. One such occasion was in August, 1935, when Jack dislocated his shoulder whilst wrestling Syd Ingleson. Jack's seven year old daughter, Doris, was at ringside and witnessed her father thrown from the ring and injured.
Whilst many opponents were run-of-the mill he could, and did compete with some of those acknowledged as the very best, men like former Olympic wrestlers Harold Angus, Joe Reid and Norman Morrell.
Against Morrell, a competitor in the 1936 Olympic Games, the Morecambe Guardian reported:
"The best bout of the evening was between the two lightweights, Norman Morrell, who has represented England in the Olympic Games, and Jack Alker, the Lancashire Champion. For sheer clever wrestling this bout would be hard to beat. The two wrestlers gave a fine exhibition of scientific wrestling."
Similar comments could be found elsewhere:
"The contest between Jack Alker and Vince St Ajax was the most exciting bout."
(Derbyshire Times 17th April, 1936).
"Where serious wrestling was concerned the contest lost heavily by comparison with Babe Saxon and Jack Alker, ex British lightweight title holder."
(Nottingham Evening Post 19th October, 1937)
"After one of the best and most sporting contests seen at the Majestic Jack Alker beat Billy Dean by two falls to one. All the falls were cleverly obtained."
(Lancashire Evening Post 21st October, 1938)
In 1939 Jack was living in Tolker Street in Ince, still working as a coal hewer and still wrestling. A skilled, hard working man who used his not inconsiderable talents to provide for his family. Family consisted of his wife, Molly, a son of Molly's from her previous marriage, and their daughter, Doris.
With the outbreak of the Second World War wrestling tournaments in southern England were greatly reduced, but less so in the north. Wrestling proved useful as the Government sought to portray life as normal at home. Twice a week wrestling shows continued at Belle Vue, Manchester, and weekly in Newcastle, both halls at which Jack was well known. The Majestic Ice Rink at Preston and Madeley Street Baths, Hull were other regular venues for Jack where wrestling continued for much of the War.
We come across Jack wrestling for the last time in February 1947 at Blackpool Tower. By then he was forty years old and maybe it was just a case of time catching up with him.
Jack Alker died on 25th September, 1961, a few hours after one of his best friends, Scotty Ambrose.
Page added 26/11/2018