K: KLONDYKE BILL
A Purveyor of Villainy
In the days before giants became two a penny in the wrestling rings of Britain there was one big man. A big man with a snarly attitude to those of us at ringside but a man with a heart of gold to those who worked and travelled with him. The posters proclaiming the 30 or 40 stone monster from the wilds of distant Alaska were, of course, utter tosh, but there was nothing baloney about this purveyor of villainy to the towns and cities of Britain, inciting respectable, peaceful people to demand justice in the most violent of ways.
In the early 1960s independent promoter Don Robinson introduced British fans to the incomparable Klondyke Bill. Not the original Canadian version, but an apparently very nice man from Yorkshire for whom the name Klondyke Bill would provide a greater audience appeal than his family name of Gordon Lythe.
There was no doubt about it, Klondyke Bill was big. The fans of the 1960s had seen nothing like him before. To his credit his size wasn’t just a gimmick. Gordon Lythe was dedicated to wrestling, a love of the sport that may well have contributed to his untimely death.
Dwight J Ingleburgh knew Klondyke very well. “I worked with him in the early days and was in Sweden and India with him. In my opinion he was the best of the big lads. He moved well and would go over his head and he would do six rounders, unlike some of the six minute wonders immortalised by TV.” That’s an important point made. We saw Klondyke many times, in both singles and tag matches, and not once did we feel short changed.
David Franklin: “I was lucky enough to see Klondyke Bill a few times. I was really impressed that he lived up to his billing, a real monster (the like of which I had not seen until then) and a really hard worker. A ‘giant’ ‘in the same league as Haystacks & Daddy when it came to size compared to the opposition, but genuinely able to be in a main event singles match and give fans great value for their money. OK these matches were not ‘wrestling classics’ (who would expect that from a monster like Bill) but they truly were memorable main events of around thirty minutes duration; something the giants that came later never dared to even dream about replicating.”
Gordon Lythe was born in Old Malton, Yorkshire in 1942. He lived there for most of his life, and it is here that his body lies. He attended Malton Grammar School, where his mother, Ivy, was a cook. Gordon later worked for a local butcher. We have even been told he made deliveries by bicycle, which must have been quite a sight.
Not once, but twice, Gordon was a local hero. On one occasion he saved the four year old daughter of school teacher Molly McKie from drowning in the open air baths at Norton. On another occasion seventeen year old Gordon rescued a five year old boy, Gordon Stead, from drowning in the River Derwent. Gordon Lythe received a Royal Humane Society award for bravery.
He was brought into wrestling by Scarborough promoter Don Robinson while working for Don in one of his theme parks. It was Don that turned Gordon into the persona of Klondyke Bill. He enlisted Stockton wrestler Jimmy Devlin to train Gordon. The two worked many hours in the gym and Jimmy has nothing but respect for the dedication of the man. We have been told that on the night of Bill’s debut he wasn’t quite ready, and so Robinson arranged for the steps to the ring to conveniently collapse, injuring his goliath and preventing the match from taking place. This is a story that Don Robinson strenuously denied when we confronted him.
The posters proclaimed anything up to forty stones, which was almost certainly an exaggeration of at least ten stones, but that does nothing to take away from the enormity of the man. Okay, he wasn't technically brilliant, nor fast as you would not expect, but Klondyke Bill knew how to entertain a crowd. The slow entrance, the long pause on the ring apron to glare and growl at the hysterical masses. Once in the ring, with introductions completed, came the inevitable argument with the referee as Bill protested at the referee’s demands to remove the large horseshoe from around his neck.
The psychology was put to even better use when partnering wrestling brother Jake, as the fans would be taunted by Bill as he tantalisingly promised to tag his partner and then changed his mind at the last minute. The fans went wild as all they wanted was to see the big man get battered.
Klondyke Bill, often accompanied by his wrestling brother, Klondyke Jake, travelled up and down the country from the mid 1960s and through the 1970s working for the main independent promoters: Don Robinson, Cape Promotions, Orig Williams, Brian Dixon, Cyril Knowles, Allan & Taylor and Jack Taylor.
When we saw Klondyke Bill wrestle for the first time we do know that he made a point of arriving in town midday, taking a window seat and eating in a local restaurant and walking around the town during the afternoon, drumming up custom for that night’s appearance. The Lancashire Evening Post reported the enormous lunch they witnessed him eating in a local eatery. That wasn’t a one-off. Ron Historyo told us of bumping into the giant on the streets of Douglas, Isle of Man, “Going up and down the prom to promote the wrestling paid off for Klondyke. I believe Mum , Dad , Gran and four kids went to the show. “
Wrestler Eddie Rose told us: “A great performer and a real gent. I did a bout on an Orig Williams show: Ian Wilson & Eddie Rose versus ‘Klon’ at Rhyl town hall. I could not believe what a great pro he was and how he made the bout work so well. Then he shared a big bag of Jelly Babies with us both in the changing room afterwards. Good times and good memories.”
Wrestler Les Prest first saw Klondyke Bill wrestle in 1964 at Castle Howard steam fair on the boxing and wrestling booth. “I was blown right out of the water with all the action and that was what planted the seed for my wrestling career. I wrestled on the same bills as Klondyke on dozens of occasions in my wrestling career. He had the most friendly disposition of all the wrestlers, and it was not unusual for him to hand a large bag of jelly babies around the dressing room to the wrestlers. Also Klondyke gave 110% when in the ring doing seven or eight rounds or more, not like the super heavyweights who wrestled on the television doing only one or two rounds, not mentioning any names! Klondyke you were a true star.”
Another man with memories of Klondyke Bill is Heritage member David Lovatt, "My late mother and myself met Gordon on several occasions. We were going over to the Isle of Man. Grandma was unable to climb the steps onto the plane. Gordon lifted her up and carried her up the steps. He also carried her down on arrival.”
Klondyke Bill wrestled throughout Continental Europe but never made it to the big time in Joint Promotion rings, which is rather ironic when we saw what was coming a decade later. He was so much better than what we were about to receive.
That is not to say that he was unknown to the general British public. On 22nd May, 1971, BBC television devoted an entire fifty minute documentary to the lives and careers of Klondyke Bill and Klondyke Jake. In the second of a three part series, “The Entertainers” they were described as the most massive and monstrous pair of entertainers. It was remarkable that the BBC dedicated the best part of an hours peak time viewing to a sport they did not televise. The programme included action footage from an Orig Williams show and extensive interviews with Williams, the Klondykes and Klondyke Bill’s mother. Whilst raising the profile of the Klondyke brothers the programme did nothing to enhance the Klondykes’ monstrous image with Bill’s mother describing him as “..a really lovable, cuddly toy,” and the wrestler berated by his girlfriend for his reluctance in sorting out their wedding plans.
The excessive weight and the nightly pounding inevitably took it’s toll. Warnings that his lifestyle endangered his life went unheeded. Gordon Lythe died on 14th July, 1979, about to enter the ring in Ayr. Dale Storm: “Orig Williams was the promoter. I’m told he [Gordon] complained of not feeling all that great, and Adrian Street, who was also on the bill had called for an Ambulance. The medical people rushed Gordon off to the local Hospital, Ayr County, only half a mile away!“ His wedding to Ann Martin was planned for September 29th. Don Robinson said, “He was the kindest man I ever knew.”