Hamish Woodward

There is a rich history of professional wrestling in the United Kingdom, going back nearly 150 years.

Originally a carnival attraction that built on the historic strongman competitions of the old days, the wrestlers would challenge people in the crowd to face them in a wrestling match in a bid to win money.

However, it soon became clear that these fights were fixed, and thus professional wrestling in the UK was born. These fixed fights were imported over from the United States, although the showmanship aspect of the sport can claim to be born in Europe and the UK.

Greco-Roman wrestlers began to take on ‘gimmicks’ or personas in the mid 1800s, which is something that was taken by pro-wrestlers after Cornish-American grappler Jack Carkeek brought the idea of the sport to England in the late-1800s.

Table of Contents

1800s: Jack Carkeek Brings Professional Wrestling To Great Britain

One of the earliest stars of British wrestling was an American named Jack Carkeek. He was a Cornish wrestling champion, and travelled to the UK to showcase his skills in the local fairground and strongman shows.

He brought showmanship and excitement to wrestling, creating the genre of Professional Wrestling in the UK almost by himself. Carkeek became famous for his wrestling skills, beating the punters to win their money in real bouts, mixed in with “worked” fights to make them think they had a chance.

However, he was later challenged by a young Russian lion, who would become Europe’s first big wrestling star.

Learn more about Jack Carkeek’s role in British wrestling history.

1900s: The Rise Of Georg Hackenschmidt

After forcing Carkeek to back out of their match, Georg Hackenschmidt became the first big wrestling star in Europe.

Managed by C. B. Cochran, he travelled across the UK and made wrestling a music hall act for the first time. Fans came out in droves to watch the Russian Lion beat all comers in the catch-as-catch-can wrestling style, as he became a massive draw across Great Britain.

Hackenschmidt became a massive star in the UK for a number of years. Heavyweights came from across the globe to face him, until he travelled to the US to set up a “match of the century” against Frank Gotch.

1910s-20s: Dip In Popularity And World War One

Along with Hackenschmidt, a lot of the main draws in the business left the UK for American in the early 1900s. The crowds soon dried up, and the music halls stopped putting on as many wrestling shows as they once did.

The business all-but died in the years following, due to the outbreak of the second world war. 5.1 million men were sent to fight in France, with nearly one million of those dying in combat.

This, combined with the country’s focus moving towards the war in Europe, saw sports pushed to the wayside. Even football was stopped between 1915 and 1918, showing how small of a chance professional wrestling in Britain had during the war.

1930s: All-In Wrestling

It would take until 1930 for wrestling to regain its popularity after the end of the First World War. The business had grown in popularity in the US, thanks to the success of the “Gold Dust Trio”, and it had started an uptick in interest in Great Britain too.

After the war, wrestling became incredibly boring. The growing size of wrestlers, mainly imported from the United States, saw matches going longer and longer. Due to their size, it became impossible to pin their shoulders to the mat, with no submissions allowed during that time.

This led to the creation of a new rule-set that would change wrestling in the UK forever. Atholl Oakley created “All-in Wrestling“. This introduced new holds and the idea of a submission-based wrestling match, something not seen before in Britain.

While it grew popularity immensely, All-in wrestling devolved into ultra-violent, bloody, hardcore-type matches, necessitating the creation of another, more universal ruleset.

Learn more about “All-In Wrestling” and how it all went wrong

1940s: Moutevans Rules And Joint Promotions Forms

Before the outbreak of World War II, wrestling was banned in London. Due to the violent nature of “All-In” rules, venues had their licences revoked if they were seen showcasing any professional wrestling events.

This continued until the sport was cleaned up by Lord Moutevens, who established a unified ruleset for the country to follow. The Admiral-Lord Mountevans rules were introduced in 1947, and bear more of a resemblance to the rules of wrestling today.

A year later, the biggest cartel of promotions in British History was formed. Dale Martin joining with a number of other regional promoters to form Joint Promotions.

Joint Promotions create a monopoly of professional wrestling in the UK. They agreed to rotate talent around the various promotions, while refusing to hire anybody who worked for a company outside the group. This gave the wrestlers very little bargaining power, handing even more power to the promoters.

1950: Wrestling Is Finally On TV

1960s: World Of Sport On ITV

1970s: The Rise Of Big Daddy

1980s: Decline And Cancellation

1990s-2000s: The Dark Ages Of British Wrestling

2010s: BritWres And A British Wrestling Revival

2017-2020: NXT UK, Speaking Out And The Pandemic

The British wrestling revival came to a swift end, starting with the birth of NXT UK in 2017.

The company, a child promotion of the WWE, was set up to counter the World of Sport show on ITV. Wanting to remain a monopoly in Britain, WWE snapped up all the top talent they could from across the UK and Europe.

Notable stars like Tyler Bate, Pete Dunne and WALTER were all signed to WWE deals. This took the main events away of many different companies, and attendances quickly dropped.

WWE killed the UK indie scene during this time, although COVID and the Speaking Out Movement put the final nails in the coffin. Speaking Out in particular, which saw countless stars being accused of sexual assault, ended a lot of interested in the British wrestling.

Learn more about the death of British Wrestling in 2020.


Contact Brit Wrestling here, or email us at Contact@britwrestling.co.uk.

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