WRESTLING HERITAGE

British wrestling history 

S: Ex Seaman Stacey & Tom McCarty


Wrestling Heritage A-Z


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A Wrestling Comedian


Ex Seaman Stacey


(Thomas McCarthy Jr)  by Larry McCarthy


And his Dad, Tom McCarty Senior

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It would be difficult to fully describe a curriculum as varied as that of Thomas McCarthy Junior in just one article, nevertheless, an attempt will be made to do justice to the life of a colourful man, who at various stages of his life was a champion wrestler, comedian, singer and blacksmith.

Thomas McCarthy Junior was born in Belle Green Lane, Ince in 1906, the son of Thomas McCarty Senior, the well-known Wigan wrestler, World War One Distinguished Conduct Medal recipient, puppeteer, circus performer and trainer of Wigan Rugby League from 1919 to 1939. Over the course of several generations, the family surname had morphed from Carty, to McCarty and eventually Thomas adopted the more familiar McCarthy, hence the oft seen spelling variation from his father in local newspapers of the time. It was often speculated that some families of Irish extract were adding a prefix in an effort to return a surname to the original form.

As a child Thomas grew up in Lower Ince.  When his father was offered the job with Wigan Rugby League, shortly after the First World War, the family moved to a house in Orchard Street, a stone’s throw from Central Park.
Like his father, Thomas would have a varied career as a performer and would also become a top wrestler, well known in Lancashire and beyond. Thomas was initially trained in Lancashire wrestling by his father, who had been 9st 7lb Catch as Catch can wrestling Champion of England prior to the outbreak of the First World War and had also been dubbed the Wrestling ‘Champion of Gallipoli’, winning a match under Turkish sniper fire!

At age twenty, in October 1926 at Chorlton Town Hall near Manchester, he would enter his first competition of note, nothing less than the British Amateur Wrestling Association Bantamweight Championships. This was the first time the championship had taken place outside of London and in the north of England. As such, the tournament was very well represented by Lancashire with over two thirds of the 24 entrants hailing from Wigan and Leigh. 

After having won his first two bouts, Thomas was matched with the talented Harry Pennington, the 1925 Bantamweight Champion of Lancashire and eventual winner of this tournament. According to a report from the now defunct Sporting Chronicle newspaper, which covered the event, Thomas, was exceedingly unlucky in this match, as he appeared to get the winning pin-fall on Pennington and thus immediately stood upright expecting to be awarded the victory. However, although a number of spectators and the Sporting Chronicle’s reporter stated that the referee, the well-known martial arts pioneer, Percy Longhurst appeared to signal the win, he in fact had signalled for the bout to continue and an upright Thomas was easily flattened out. This eliminated Thomas and enabled Pennington to advance to the final.

Despite the setback of losing in controversial fashion, Thomas was soon back in competition. In May 1927, he was again involved in a high profile Lancashire amateur wrestling tournament, again in the 9st division. The tournament was hosted by Leigh Harriers Athletic club on their grounds and Thomas was matched up against the excellent local wrestler, Joe Reid. This bout would also result in a loss to Reid, who was the tournament’s eventual winner. However, the losses to Pennington and Reid were by no means a disgrace, as both Leigh wrestlers were considered some of the best amateurs the country had produced to date. Pennington had been picked in 1927 to represent England against France, whilst Reid would win the British Bantamweight Championship five years in a row, from 1931 to 1935 and represent Great Britain in the 1930 Empire (Commonwealth) Games winning Silver and the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, placing a very respectable 4th.

Thomas would continue to wrestle and in 1930, became a Wigan Boxing and Wrestling Association committee member, the association being chaired by none other than his father. Also on the committee, was his great friend and future brother in law, the talented wrestling prospect, William Francis Disley. In July 1930, in an attempt to revive traditional Lancashire Catch as Catch Can outdoor matches, his father promoted and organised a well-attended wrestling tournament at Hill Top Grounds in Hindley. Thomas was referred to in a report by the Wigan Examiner at the time as ‘Wigan’s outstanding Bantamweight’. He was matched against Jim Miller dubbed ‘Wigan’s Young Hercules’ in the 9st 4lb category. Thomas was victorious by two falls to one in nine minutes and was awarded a medal for his efforts. Also competing on the bill, as a middleweight, was the great Billy Riley, Wigan’s famous world champion wrestler and also good friend of his father Thomas Senior. 

Not long after, whilst moving up the weight divisions, having won a number of matches and medals, Thomas eventually became the Lightweight Wrestling Champion of the North. Despite his prowess, his family often remarked in jest on how he was never able to perform a headstand, which was seen at the time as a prerequisite for becoming a successful wrestler.

By the mid 1930’s wrestling would morph from real and often brutal Lancashire Catch as Catch Can matches to ‘All in Wrestling’, which unlike its predecessors, were in effect staged matches, with pre-determined victors. Thomas and his best friend William also transitioned to this new form of sports entertainment and regularly wrestled at a number of venues including Preston, Bolton, Rotherham and Chorley throughout 1935 and 1936. Despite the staged nature of the bouts, the wrestlers were often injured; however, Thomas’s family always noted how he was able to return home relatively unmarked. Whilst William would wrestle under a different pseudonym on every show, Thomas chose the stage name Ex-Seaman Stacey and referred to himself as the Wrestling Champion of the Navy, fighting out of Portsmouth. According to his family, he had never been on a barge let alone a boat! 

Stage names were proving to be a very popular gimmick with professional wrestlers at the time, a habit which continues to this day. His choice of stage name was most likely due to the fact that his father had toured the north of England in 1913 with promoter Bob Sommervile’s troupe of wrestlers, one of whom was the real Champion wrestler of the Navy and the original Seaman Stacey. Seaman Stacey was killed in action in France in the First World War and the choice of his name by Thomas, would have been a means of continuing the legacy of his father’s friend.

Outside of wrestling, Thomas would work as a Blacksmith’s striker and subsequently a Blacksmith at Ince Waggon Works. He worked there for a number of years with his brother in law William and then went to work again as a Blacksmith’s striker for Walker Brothers at Pagefield Iron Works in Wigan. Throughout the Second World War, Thomas was exempt from joining the armed forces as his job was considered a reserved occupation crucial to the industrial war effort. 

During this time, he put one of his other talents to good use, his skills as comedian. In fact he was considered such a skilled comedian, that he often performed on the BBC Workers Playtime radio broadcast, which served to boost the morale of factory workers during the war. The programme was broadcast three times a week from a factory canteen. Nephew Bill remembers how his uncle Thomas was capable of making people laugh, despite always having a deadpan expression on his face. In addition to his considerable skills as a comedian, Thomas was also well known as a singer and had performed for a while at the Wigan Hippodrome in 1926.

Soon after the war, in 1946, at age forty, his health began to deteriorate and he was unable to either work or perform to earn a living. As a result of this, his family had to move away from Orchard Street in the late 1940’s and settled in Norley Hall Avenue in Pemberton. As fate would have it, he sadly died only two months after the death of his father, in November 1954, at the relatively young age of 48 and is buried at Gidlow cemetery in Standish. He was survived by a wife, four sons and three daughters. Nevertheless, like his father, he was born to perform and his curriculum vitae was varied and interesting to say the least.

Larry McCarthy


Thomas McCarty Sr
With so many references to his dad, what can we tell you about him?  Quite a bit actually.

Whilst the wrestlers we cheered and booed half a century ago may have accessorised their ancient skills with masks and coloured gowns the roots of their trade lay many decades earlier in styles less colourful but more brutal than anything we witnessed half a century ago; we are talking of the regional styles of Britain, especially Lancashire catch as catch can. It is to the era of early twentieth century catch wrestling that we turn to pay tribute to a champion of the day, Thomas McCarty.

Family members Larry, Bill and Eileen have  shared  their knowledge and memories of Thomas, aided by historian Allan Best and former catch wrestler Tommy Heyes, better known to us fans as Gene Riscoe and himself a student of Billy Riley at his Wigan gymnasium. Tommy visited the Museum of Wigan Life to research the story of Thomas McCarty.

Thomas McCarty was born in Ryehope, County Durham, 1883 to Irish parents who had emigrated to Scotland. The family name was Carty, with the Mc added following settlement in Scotland. When he was thirteen years old Thomas began to train as a priest, leaving after two years.

​Thomas's parents had been show people in Ireland and with fairground and circus culture in his blood Thomas became a strong man in the circus.

​At 16 Thomas joined the navy for a short time.  On his return to Wigan Thomas put his carpentry skills to good use, and combined with an artistic ability designed and carved bespoke shop frontages.Not yet twenty years old Thomas's life was already more varied than most experience in a lifetime? trainee priest, circus performer, carpenter and sailor!
​And we haven't mentioned his work as a ghost yet!

Ghost?

Nineteenth and early twentieth century fairgrounds were the home of actors, jesters, minstrels, puppeteers, jugglers, fire eaters and acrobats. The fairground was also the birthplace of the cinema. Thomas experienced many facets of fairground life, which included the ghost dramas created by an illusion of lights, mirrors  and early cinematograph techniques.

By 1910 the Ghost shows had all but disappeared and proprietors moved into full time moving picture projection. Gradually most of these travelling cinemas taken up permanent residence and following the First World War joined the growing number of cinemas around Britain. This leads to another claim to fame  for this remarkable man that led such a varied life and  became  the operator of the first cinema reel in Wigan, hand-reeled and propped up on an apple barrel in a tent.

​Recreation for many young Wigan men was wrestling and with a fairground background it was a natural step for Thomas to take up the sport.. The comforts of dressing rooms and warm public halls were not for Tom McCarty and his ilk. His matches mostly took place in the fields and on the rough ground around the towns of southern Lancashire, wrestling for side-stakes and wagers.

Prior to the first world war Thomas was the 9st 7lb Catch as Catch Can Wrestling Champion of England.  During the Great War Sergeant Major Thomas  McCarty was enrolled in the 5th Batallion Manchester Regiment. Sir Charles Assheton-Smith arranged a match between Thomas and Pritchard, champion of Wales, with a silver cup worth £15 for the winner. The match took place on 13th June, 1914, and Thomas beat Pritchard, who was dubbed the Welsh Hackenschmidt. Pritchard was more than two stones heavier than Thomas, but that didn't prevent the Wiganite comfortably overcoming the Welsh man by two falls to nil in little more than seven minutes, and thereby winning the Lord Carnarvon Cup. The trophy, re-named the McCarty Rose Bowl, was placed on display in the Officers Mess of the 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment in Wigan.

Tom was stationed in Egypt, and whilst there he issued a wrestling challenge to any man of his weight, but such was the reputation of Wigan wrestlers there was a reluctance  of takers. Eventually one man took up Thomas's challenge, an Australian by the name of Hitchcox. Once disposed of the Australian Thomas was referred to as "Champion of Egypt."

Another event for anyone with an interest in the history of wrestling in Britain occurred in 1913. Tom was invited to join a group of American wrestlers who were touring Lancashire and Yorkshire as "Bob Somerville's American Troupe of All-In Wrestlers." This is the earliest reference we have found to the term All-In wrestling in Britain. A sovereign was offered to any challenger who could beat a member of the troupe within ten minutes. Tom told his children and grand children that nobody ever won the money. Somerville was an American catch wrestler who had made his first British visit in 1906, challenging all comers as "Featherweight Champion of America."

Thomas was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery saving a number of his comrades at Gallipoli the inscription of his medal reading 'For consistent gallantry and good work under heavy fire.' (21.06.1916). The DCM was an extremely high level award for bravery instituted in 1854, during the Crimean War and discontinued in 1933. Thomas's batallion, The Manchesters,  saw action on the Gallipoli peninsula fighting the Turks in the 3rd and 4th battles of Krithia Vineyard in June and August 1915 respectively. The 1/5 Manchesters made more progress than any other allied unit.

​For four or five days during the conflict Thomas was presumed dead, all the time submerged in mud in no mans land with barrage fire continuously going on around him. Understandably Thomas was traumatised by this experience and suffered "shell shock."

Following the war Thomas returned to Wigan where he continued to wrestle at a high level in Lancashire Catch wrestling
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Thomas's brother-in-law, Tom O'Donald, taught him the finer aspects of rugby and in 1919 he was appointed trainer of the Wigan Rugby League team. When interviewed for the post  Thomas was fortunate in being asked to describe the circulation of blood around the body and as yet another of his jobs had been as a physiotherapist he was able to satisfy the interview pane.

​Thomas was in charge the first time Wigan won the Rugby League Challenge Cup in 1929. This was the first Rugby League Final held at Wembley Stadium, with Wigan beating Dewsbury 13-2. Thomas was the trainer at Wigan until 1939. At Wigan he trained Jimmy Sullivan who was to succeed him as Wigan coach.

In 1930 Thomas was elected Chairman of the Wigan Wrestling Committee and organised a number of Wrestling events in Lancashire with matches involving Billy Riley and his son, Thomas Junior. The wrestlers followed rules set by the now defunct Manchester Sporting Chronicle.

​Tom Sr and his first wife had two children, a boy and a girl. Thomas McCarty Jr was born in 1906. Thomas McCarty Snr died on 28th September, 1954. A couple of months later his son, also Thomas, died.

19/09/2021 Tom McCarty Senior added.