Tuesday, 12 May 2009
The Mat Game's Lost Years.
Researching the early history of professional wrestling is not always a straightforward task. One problem is the lack of very much reliable written history. An American writer pretty much hit the nail on the head in remarking that wrestling history was something more at home on the front porch rather than in the library. We are dealing with an almost entirely anecdotal history more suited to a Studs Terkel rather than an Eric Hobsbawn or an E P Thompson.
Another problem is that until very recently we had two distinct histories on offer, one for public consumption and another, oral "true" history that was the preserve of those inside the business. Some writers, such as Charles Mascall, had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the mat game but their position in the industry ensured that excellent although much of the work was, it had as a corner-stone the assumption that the punters must be constantly reassured about the genuine competitive nature of wrestling and must never be allowed to have their suspicions about the game confirmed.
After many years of reading everything available and spending a fair bit of time talking to "old timers" I think that I have a reasonable grasp of British pro wrestling history but there are certainly many questions that remain to be answered. One of the mysteries that has been bugging me for a long time concerns what I refer to as the "lost years" of British wrestling; 1914 to 1930?
We know that the golden age of wrestling started to go into decline after Hackenschmidt's defeat at the hands of Frank Gotch and that by the start of the First World War in 1914 the business was in a poor state. The outbreak of hostilities was the final nail in the coffin of big time wrestling in the UK. We also know that in 1930 Athol Oakley and Henry Irslinger introduced to the UK the "new" style of wrestling that had been popular in the USA for the previous ten years. Rebranding the product as "All-In Wrestling" Oakley, Irslinger, Garnon et all launched a major revival of the mat game that was to rival anything that had been seen during the heyday of music hall wrestling. The question that puzzles me is what happened during the intervening years ?
When wrestling started to go into decline on this side of the Atlantic many of the top stars decamped to America to reappear on the new circuits that were being set up by the likes of Toots Mondt. What happened to the bulk of British journeymen wrestlers that survived the war? Did they simply go back to work in the pits and mills and keep the skills alive by having a pull around with their mates? One thing is for sure the rigid and class bound segregation of professional and amateur sport would have meant that a return to the amateur ranks was out of the question. None the less all those skilled wrestlers who made All-In the huge success that it was must have come from somewhere. Certainly the Lancashire catch wrestlers and Cumberland and Westmoreland stylists would have been wrestling for side bets and no doubt troupes of grapplers were working the travelling fairs taking on local lads in the time honoured way, but British professional wrestling in the sense of a form of entertainment for paying customers seems to have disappeared in the years leading up to the First World War only to reappear in a completely new form at the height of the inter-war depression. 1914 to 1930 really are the lost years.