H: Les Herbert

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Les Herbert

Bradford's Best Kept Secret

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In the Spring of 1950 a powerful overseas heavyweight made an appearance in British rings. He had just arrived from his home in South Africa and was ready to take on the country's top heavyweights, like Ernest Baldwin, Jack Pye, Ali Bey and The Farmer.

Yet to some ringside regulars the South African may have looked vaguely familar. Well that should have been no surprise because Les Herbert was not South African at all, but a Yorkshireman who had left Britain just three years earlier.

Les Herbert was born in Bradford on  9th December, 1918, the son of a railway worker, Alfred, and his wife Edith. In the early 1930s as wrestling gained popularity in Britain Les joined a gymnasium in Bradford, initially to improve his physique, but he soon became interested in wrestling. It was the type of club we've heard of many times, a primitive place with few facilities other than a bit of basic equipment and a thin mat on a concrete floor,  all housed in an old stable. With those conditions only the most enthusiastic returned time and again to pursue their ambitions, and Les was one of the most enthusiastic. Within a short time he was Yorkshire champion. 

In 1938 Les won the British welterweight championship and was selected to represent England in a match against Sweden. These achievements brought him to the attention of Stan Bissell. Stan was a seven times British champion and Empire Games silver medallist who worked for the Metropolitan police as a wrestling and self defence instructor. Bissell persuaded Les to join the police force and in 1939 we find him living in Vauxhall with an occupation of Metropolitan Police Constable.  Training facilities  for the police were certainly a few steps up from the old stable.  Under Bissell's guidance Les went on to win his second British welterweight title in 1939 and repeat the success at middleweight in 1940. 

1939 was a big year, and not just for winning the British welterweight championship. The Police Championships were held in July, 1939. Four matches from preliminary round to the final were held on the same day. Les entered the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. Twelve matches in one day; and he won the lot! A few months later he won the All-British Police Championship, defeating Jock Ward, who also went on to wrestle professionally, in the final. Had the Second World War not intervened he would certainly have been a contender for the 1940s Olympic team.

Following the end of the war, and further success in the British championship in October, 1945, Les took the decision to turn professional. He said that his first professional match was in Edinburgh, and we have found his only appearance there in December, 1945 wrestling Rex Maxine, so that looks like his professional debut. 1946 saw Les wrestling mostly in northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Weighing around thirteen stones he was often matched against heavier opponents. 

But here was a man seeking adventure, and in 1947 there was another big change in his life. Les set sail for South Africa with the intention of settling in Johannesburg where he joined the fire service. In South Africa Les reverted to wrestling in the amateur code. In October, 1947 he took part in the South African championship in Pretoria, losing in the final of the middleweight tournament to defending champion Calie Reitz. In the same year Les won the South Transvaal middleweight championship in Johannesburg. 

The following year Les turned professional wrestler, and within a short time had been crowned the South African light heavyweight champion. 1948 was also the year he married  Emma. Hence when the powerful wrestler set foot in British rings in March, 1950 it was a homecoming for Les, accompanied by his young bride. In the fifteen months that followed Les was matched against the top mid heavies and heavyweights of the day. By now he had added muscle and extra poundage, weighing around 14 stones. Although he did sustain losses he had some notable results. For instance, a draw with the unbeaten masked man The Ghoul, and wins over Mike Marino, Alf Rawlings, Mike Demitre, Dave Armstrong and Ken Davies. Reports describe his wrestling style as fast, skilful and polished,

In May, 1952, Les set sail again, this time heading for Germany. He took part in the international tournament in Hanover. Even though he had wins over  Erich Koltschak, Paul Berger, Leif Rasmussen, Yvar Martinson and numerous others Les was placed sixth in the tournament. 

On 11th July Les was back in Southampton where he boarded the Bloemfontein Castle, bound for South Africa.  Les and Emma's desire to travel was not subdued. Within a few years the couple were on the move again, this time making home in Zimbabwe, which was in those days Rhodesia. By then it was a family of four, with Les and Emma parenting two children. The eldest child, Jeff, has happy memories of his father as a famous wrestler.   Ski Hi Lee  made an impression, not surprisingly, as he  walked around with a six shooter in a holster on his hip. He gave Jeff a bullet which he kept for years. Les always said that he would not encourage Jeff to wrestle, but neither would he deter him if that was the path he chose.

The family settled in Rhodesia's capital, Salisbury (Harare), where Les began to teach wrestling and judo. He opened his own gymnasium, the Salisbury Health Centre, with 150 students enrolled within a few months.

Les continued to wrestle professionally in Rhodesia, winning the Rhodesian heavyweight championship.  A rivalry  with South African Manie Maritz, honours generally even,  culminated in a contest for Martiz's Empire Junior Heavyweight Championship. Victory and the title for Les with a win when the referee stopped the contest at the Raylton Sports Club, Salisbury on May 1st, 1955

Other opponents of note included  South African heavyweight champion, Willem Hall, barefooted South African Willie Liebenberg, Australian Bob McMasters, Newcastle's Tiger Joe Robinson, Greek Andreas Lambrakis, Welshman Sandy Orford and Canadian Georges Gordienko. Les's wins over Orford and Gordienko, or "Herbert Murders Tarzan" as the newspapers reported it, will be of particular interest to British readers. Les was said to have "scientifically murdered" Gordienko, leaving him groaning on the mat as the referee raised Les's arm in victory. The match with Orford went a full sixty minutes without reaching a conclusion, going to extra time and Les taking the winning fall.

Les was known for his amiable character and playful sense of humour. On one occasion Les and three fellow wrestlers were in the capital, Salisbury, promoting that night's show. To the horror of her ten year old son a lady driver wound down her window and berated the wrestlers because she had "Urgent business in the Tearoom." The boy's horror turned to delight as the four wrestlers lifted the car, wheels still spinning and carried it into a  large department store, OK Bazaars, dropping it into the centre aisle. Les grabbed a handful of sweets and handed them to the boy, bidding farewell to the bemused mother by blowing a kiss.

1959 was a fateful year for Les. The contest against giant American Don Le Jonathan should have been just another day at the office. Things did not go as Les hoped with a nasty accident resulting in a serious back injury. Treatment made insufficient improvement and in October Les announced that he would not be returning to the ring. The Rhodesia Herald declared he "had put the game on the map."

A busy man, Les began promoting his own wrestling tournaments and then turned his talents to used car sales. That charming character made him a good salesman. A Salisbury policeman told of buying a car for £150 and finding it wasn't worth the money. Les took it off his hands for £250, which pleased him, and sold it on within two days for £375. 

Wilfred Leslie Herbert was born in Bradford on 9th December, 1918, and died in Harare, Zimbabwe on 23rd June, 1976.

We would like to thank Les's son, Jeffrey, and his wife Wendy, for their help with this tribute.

Page added 30/05/2021