No British wrestler continues to arouse such emotional responses more than twenty years after his death as Shirley Crabtree. The mere mention of his name invariably results in disparate opinions that range from the man who rejuvenated British wrestling to the man who single handedly destroyed the business. Reality, of course, was nothing so dramatic, though no one could argue that Crabtree was one of the most influential wrestlers of the Twentieth Century. In the 1970s Shirley Crabtree attracted thousands of new fans to the wrestling halls whilst driving away the more purist fans who expected their wrestlers to at least look like sportsmen.
Shirley Crabtree was born on 14th November, 1929, the son of a rugby player and occasional wrestler also with the unfortunate name of Shirley. Shirley Junior also played rugby, for Bradford Northern, and worked in a textile factory. A strong swimmer he also worked as a lifeguard in Blackpool. In August, 1956 Shirley swam 200 yards out to sea to rescue semi-conscious 16 year old Barbara Smith who had got into difficulties whilst swimming.
During the 1970s and 1980s Shirley was the biggest name in wrestling, and some would say the biggest of all time. For the younger fans of the seventies and eighties he eclipsed the likes of McManus, Pallo and Kellett. It pains us to acknowledge the sad reality that when talking today to those who remember traditional British wrestling the name that most often crops up is Big Daddy, the Mum's and Dad's Favourite persona of Shirley Crabtree.
There was no one quite like Big Daddy. He was everyone’s favourite. Well, everyone apart from the diehard fans of an earlier age who took exception to his omnipresence in the rings of Britain where he defeated all those placed before him.
Not that Big Daddy had always been everyone’s favourite. Known in the 1950s and early 1960s under a variety of names that included Shirley Crabtree, The Blond Adonis, Mr Universe and The Battling Guardsman he was a villain of British wrestling.
Heritage member WilliamR told us of a visit to his friend Gerry Hoggarth: "Gerry Hoggarth is fairly sure that Shirley Crabtree made his debut in a bout against him at Fleetwood in 1952. He recalls being told to 'go easy on the lad'. He tells me Crabtree had a magnificent physique in those days and was very disappointed to see his reappearance as Big Daddy and hardly employing any wrestling moves in his new guise. Gerry's wife, Vera, told me it was the only time ever she accompanied Gerry to a bout and on seeing the billboard outside the venue on arrival that afternoon insisted Gerry went inside to confirm for her that Shirley wasn't a woman wrestler!" We did find Shirley working two weeks earlier, against Sandy Orford at Newcastle, on 14th June, 1952.
Bernard Hughes, who watched Shirley in Newcastle agreed with Gerry, "Crabtree at that time (1952) did have a very good physique and obviously had done work in the gym, but his wrestling skills were only average. At least at that time he looked as if he was able and agile enough to pick up those skills. How sad to see how he finished up."
Apart from Gerry Hoggarth other opponents in his first few months of wrestling, at that time for the newly formed Joint Promotions, included top heavyweights Ernest Baldwin, Alf Rawlings and Sandy Orford. In the 1950s and first half of the 1960s Shirley was a well known figure but never considered one of the best heavyweights. Many of his early matches were for Bradford promoter Norman Morrell, a man known not to suffer fools. He also worked for brother Max Crabtree, for both Joint Promotions when Max was working in conjunction with the syndicate and for the independents when Max started promoting independently in 1957.
He was also recognized as British heavyweight champion by a group of independents calling themselves the British Wrestling Federation. He was gifted the title when champion Bert Assirati fell out of favour with the promoters. The oft quoted story that Assirati followed and harassed Crabtree out of wrestling is the 1960s is now considered apocryphal.
This state of affairs continued until the mid sixties when Shirley's profile declined as he reduced his appearances and worked occasionally for the independent promoters. He didn't retire completely as has been said but did work only occasionally for independent promoters Cyril Knowles, Jack Taylor, Dominic Pye and brother Max.
All this changed in 1972 when Shirley was brought back into higher profile wrestling by Norman Morrell and Ted Beresford. Ron Historyo: "By 1972 we were well in decline and with Kendo in Canada , there was a small window when this huge Guardsman actually looked bigger than anything I had seen. They spoilt this somewhat by having him squash mid heavies like Leon Arras and it was to my huge disappointment that Albert Wall had to sell to him at Belle Vue, delivering the flying headbutt but then hurt his back trying to pick up and slam Shirley for the finish. "
In September, 1972, Shirley surprised television fans when he destroyed the popular Pat Curry in less than a round. Within weeks he was back on television with his destructive force quickly eliminating Pete Roberts and Steve Haggetty. The spectacle was repeated night after night in halls around the country, until the immovable object met the irresistible force, Kendo Nagasaki. In those days Crabtree, was a villain, and remained so for two more years after adopting the name Big Daddy in 1974. When Shirley transformed into Big Daddy on television in July 1975 it was as an out and out baddie partnering Giant Haystacks. David Mantell remembers Shirley as Big Daddy Crabtree; "He already had his bodycheck, posting and splash, but he also liked to stomp opponents on the mat, viciously boot them in the head while they were slumped in the corner or crush them in the corner with his shoulder. He also had some submssions - a necklift (holding an opponent up in the chokeslam position) and an over the shoulder backbreaker."
When brother Max took over the running of most Joint Promotions shows the character of Big Daddy underwent a dramatic transformation. In the autumn of 1976 the transformation to the people’s favourite began. The dressing gown was swapped in favour of the a glittery cape, later to be followed by the trademark top hat and union jack jacket. David Mantell remembers: "At some point in '76, Daddy traded in his purple dressing gown for a spangly cape. Throughout late '76 and into '77, Daddy was a tweener, sometimes going to war against Kendo (with Haystacks or with other partners) other times still the old heel, and on one occasion in February '77 actually teaming with Kendo to beat Mike Marino & Count Bartelli! Some time in mid '77 he became the people's champion."
Big Daddy would stand centre ring clapping to the fans’ chants of “Easy, easy,” which it invariably was as his signature “Big Splash” move brought about another ko win over his unfortunate opponent.
As brother Max reinvigorated the British wrestling scene in the late 1970s Big Daddy became an instrumental part of that revival. Fans around the country would pack the halls to witness the destruction of his next victim. His popularity spread far beyond the wrestling world with children’s tv appearances and even the opening of the famous red book in his honour in “This Is Your Life.”
Fans soon became divided between those who loved the Yorkshireman and those who abhored his winning, yet increasingly unconvincing style. Similarly wrestlers divided between those who saw Big Daddy removing the credibility for the business and those who realised his drawing power meant extra work for all.
High profile matches at Wembley Arena against John Quinn in 1979 and Haystacks in 1981 ended with speedy, unbelievable wins for Shirley and hastened the decline in British wrestling's credibilty and popularity. In the 1980s as Shirley's mobility deteriorated an increasing number of his bouts were tag contests, following a pattern of Daddy’s lightweight opponent receiving a beating only for Daddy to enter the ring, quickly take control and end the contest with one of those famous belly splashes. It all seemed so easy. Easy easy. It was to make him simultaneously the most loved and loathed wrestler in the country.
A divisive character his career was to amble on into 1993. He died on 2nd December, 1997. A philosophical Ron Historyo brings our tribute to a close: "Like it or not Shirley has made British wrestling History. It is what it is."