The Catch Wrestling Collier, John Willie Price

John William Price had a difficult start in life. He was born on 3 April 1870 in Barrowford, Lancashire, to Jane Price, just months before the death of her husband Edward.

The family were soon forced to enter the Burnley Workhouse on Briercliffe Road, where Jane struggled on until 1874 with baby John, four-year-old Esther and six-year-old Mary Jane. Jane died at 33, possibly while still a workhouse inmate. On the 1881 census we find 12-year-old John, still on the list of inmates, while the teenage Esther was lodging with a family in Accrington, earning her keep as a cotton winder. A couple of years later Esther gave birth to a daughter and six days after that she died, aged just 17.

John begun work as a coal miner in his late teens and soon after married a cotton-weaver named Sarah Elizabeth Crossley, with the couple settling at 9 Pleasant Court in Burnley. Many, many, children arrived. The 1911 census shows 11 living and one early death, and three more appeared by 1915. At some point between mining coal all day and helping produce 15 children by night (fifteen!), John Price found the time to become a champion wrestler.

It is through a descendent of this enormous family that I first came across John’s story and set about finding out more. Paul Price, one of John and Sarah’s grandsons, married the daughter (Elaine) of one of my grandmother’s sisters (Chick). Paul and Elaine’s sons Matty and Paul are my mother’s godsons and.. nephews? Cousins? Second cousins, I think. That’s a tough one to work out.

John Willie Price – image provided by Matty Price

Price’s name, as John Willy / Willie / William Price, but more often J.W.Price, started to appear in regional papers up north from around 1898. We find him that year at Heywood Athletic Grounds, wrestling in the Lancashire style against a Cor Maher of Blackburn, and winning the match for £30. In 1902 Price answered the formidable Jack Carkeek’s challenge at the Empire Music Hall, Burnley, to go 15 minutes with him – this being the only ‘crossover’ I can find with Wannop and his peers (Wannop had wrestled with Carkeek at Plymouth in June 1889). Carkeek gave a short exhibition of catch as catch can wrestling with a friend before offering £10 to any person in the packed house who could throw him. He had the 40lb-lighter Price down in five minutes.

Jack Carkeek

Price was a semi-finalist at Bannan’s wrestling tournament in the town of Nelson in 1904 and 1906, winning £2 as runner up. Upwards of 800 people assembled at the Round Hill grounds in Haslingden in the summer of 1908 to witness Price against J. Bentley of Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, contest the best of three falls for £30 – with Price taking home the cash after one of the “grandest matches seen for many years” (Burnley Express, 22 August 1906).

A thousand people gathered to watch Price Vs P. Mangham at Burnley Athletic Grounds in June 1907 – the two Burnley men meeting under the stipulation that Price had to throw Mangham four times in one hour to secure a victory. Price accomplished the task in just half the allotted time.

A Sporting Life report from the National Sporting Championships at the Alhambra, London, January 1908

It was not until 1908 that he took part in the fight that made his name – a fight that was remembered in the region for decades to come. Price was 38 by then, almost a decade and a half older than his opponent Tommy Rose, another coal miner.

Tommy Rose

“Not for some time past has there been so much interest displayed in a wrestling match at Burnley as on Monday afternoon,” observed the Burnley Gazette on day one of the bout for £50 and the ‘lightweight championship of the world’ (wrestling championship titles in those days being entirely unofficial in name and rights to candidature). The two wrestlers had met the year before at the National Sporting Championships at the Alhambra in London and at that contest Rose had beaten the veteran.

On the last Monday of November 1908, in front of 3,000 spectators at the Burnley Athletic Ground, the combatants wrestled for almost an hour without either man gaining a fall, so evenly matched were they. Price had the most chances, according to the Burnley Gazette, but was unable to capitalise. Fog ultimately forced hostilities to be postponed.

The next day, still in very foggy weather, Price and Rose returned, and after quarter of an hour’s wrestling the spectators, who had been rowdily voicing their displeasure at not being able to see anything that was going on, broke through barriers pitched around the wrestling ring and encroached on the action. Yet again, the fight was called off.

Determined to finish the match, the men met again on December 2nd, this time planning to start one hour earlier than previously. But the bad weather delayed the referee, who was travelling from Manchester, and he eventually turned up over an hour late. The fog was still so thick it seemed unlikely that play could proceed, but 300 paying customers started braying for their money back, along with a further 1,200 disgruntled wannabe viewers who hadn’t paid in the first place, but simply slipped through barriers disguised by the foggy night. Fearing a riot, a Mr Jack Smith saved the day by installing four large oil lamps and ordering Price and Rose to get on with it. On frozen solid grass they grappled, each man suffering scrapes and bruises every time they hit the floor.

“The sight of two determined men wrestling as if life depended on it, under the glare of the flickering lamps, with 1,500 fog-enshrouded enthusiasts yelling like demons, was a sight to behold. First in the light, and then in the shadow, the men pulled and tugged. Twice Price got up, only to be dashed to the ground. In his next effort he got away. Another few minutes of violent headwork, and Price got the back position, but he could not hold his man. Both men were very wild…”Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Thursday 3 December 1908

After several desperate rallies, Rose secured a ‘crutch hold’ and swung Price through the air, dropping him hard and claiming a throw, although it was not allowed by the judge. Both men were dripping blood from cuts and scrapes across faces and bodies. By this point the fog had become so dense that even the lamps were useless. The Sheffield Telegraph described the wrestlers as being in a pitiful state, but neither was willing to concede a draw and feel the stigma of quitting weigh down on their shoulders.

Eventually, with the imminent possibility of another break-in from the crowd, Price reluctantly offered Rose a small sum of money to call the match off.

The Sporting Chronicle had this to say:

“The match between Tom Rose and Price … provides an object lesson which cannot be overlooked just now when all is at a deadlock with the “great” men of Hackenschmidt, Gotch, and the rest. Here we had wrestling in its pure state, two men so splendidly matched in cleverness, and in perfect knowledge of the art of Lancashire wrestling that every offensive move was met and checked by a counter move, which in a way was as clever as the attack; two men so keen for victory that for three successive days they met, not on a well-padded mat in a nicely warmed music hall, but on the hard, cold turf, out in the open air, defying the wintry breezes and the fearsome fog in their rivalry.”

In short: These ten stone northern lads were hard as nails and put to shame the flashy foreign showmen who had previously taken London by storm.

Here was the “do or die British spirit”, enthused the Chronicle, “the spirit that sent our soldiers to Waterloo”. Thick fog mattered not to Price and Rose – they had signed articles to fight for fifty quid and the lightweight championship and fight for fifty quid and the lightweight championship they did.

Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 4 December 1908

In an era where £6,000 purses for boxers were not unknown, £50 and an unofficial title might not have seemed a lot to fight with such determination for, but as the Chronicle’s reporter concluded: Price and Rose “wrestled as if life depended on it.”

Stripped to the buff, frozen cold, battered and bruised, an honourable draw was called, and the men shook hands in the darkness.

In August 1908 Price gained a win in front of 3,000 spectators gathered in slightly more favourable conditions. In his third match that summer with Tod Burns of Lees, “both went nearly blind with their exertions”. According to the Burnley Express, “it was doubtful if ever a harder contested bout had been witnessed”. After close to two hours of action, Price was declared victor. Much elated, he got to his feet “but the terrible strain he had undergone was too much, and the next instant he fell to the ground in a dead faint” (Burnley Express, 26 August 1908).

A few months later, alongside “undefeated army champion” Jack Broadbent, Rose and Price were installed in the Burnley Hippodrome on successive nights in “The Finest Array of Champions ever put before the public”. They toured the Hartlepool Palace, the Grand in Bolton, and more, in an exhibition wrestling show capitalising on the media attention the “three day match” had attracted.

The achievements of Price, Rose and Broadbent are celebrated in an Era advert, 17 April 1909

Price’s next fight was also a loss, but a loss that earned him almost as much respect as hours fighting in the fog had. Noted Japanese wrestler and Jiu-jitsu artist Taro Miyake – the man credited with introducing judo to Britain in the early 20th century – had begun his European tour in 1908. In June 1909 at the Nelson Theatre or Grand Theatre in Nelson, Lancashire, Price took up the challenge Miyake had issued to anyone in England: Last 15 minutes in the ring with him and win £20.

Taro Miyake pictured in 1914

15 minutes later, Price was still alive and standing. He asked Miyake to go another 30 minutes for £50, the conditions being that Miyake could only beat him with an arm lock and neck locks were banned.

Depositing the £20 he’d just won, and with spectators cumulatively donating an extra £30 to the purse, Price and Miyake went back to the floor. A terrific struggle followed, with a further 15 minutes passing. But at 16 minutes Miyake got the armlock on and Price was defeated. Miyake received an ovation but Price was also proclaimed a winner: he’d lasted longer than any other Englishman in the ring. Miyake settled in the US after 1914 and into the early 1930s was still competing at Madison Square Gardens. He died in 1935.

At 40, and newly a grandfather, Price was looking “wonderfully well preserved” according to The Sporting Life, as he appeared back at the Alhambra for the 1910 National Sporting Championships, competing against men half his age. The paper saved its mockery for Price’s first opponent – the “almost pointless” Sumner of Chorley. “The famous John Willie Price” beat Winter of Germany in the lightweight finals, taking the title win in just 2 minutes 30 seconds.

“The bouts in the heavyweights were wretchedly tame, and it was a grievance among the smaller wrestlers that a large proportion of prize money goes to the big men,” gossiped the Sheffield Daily Telegraph. Plus ça change.

A report from the first day of the National Sporting Championships, The Sporting Life, Monday 31 January 1910

In 1910, Price became Tommy Rose’s manager and put him into strict training at the Ainsworth Arms, Halliwell, ahead of the outdoor wrestling bouts at Central Park, Wigan, in August 1910. In front of 4,000 spectators, Rose took on Young Whistler aka Jack Caroll of Hindley, in a best of three falls for £25 a side. The men were competing at ‘7 score and 6lb’ or just under 10 and a half stone. Rose was the favourite but both men looked impressive and launched into a fast and clever match. Two and a quarter hours later (this is not untypical of late Victorian and Edwardian wrestling) they called it a day, meeting for a further 99 minutes a couple of days later. Again, as was so often the case, an unsatisfactory draw was called.

In December of 1910 Price’s pupil beat his next high profile opponent, Peter Gotz of London, in just three minutes.

J.W.Price Junior

Around this time Price’s name fades out of the newspapers before reappearing in the early 1930s. Surely he wasn’t still going, I thought, at first! In fact, Price had retired from the ring in 1910 but set about training two of his sons, John William Jnr and Joe to take his place.

In the early 1920s the elder John retired from Towneley Pit, where he had mined coal for 34 years, and became steward of the Trafalgar Working Men’s Club on Halstead Street, Burnley. He was still challenging the clientele to a grapple well into his older age.

In 1954 the Lancashire Evening Post published a short feature on him, then 83 and still going strong. “Fog ended his greatest bout” their headline read, followed by an overview of the career achievements of the great “survivor of old-time catch-as-catch-can wrestling.”

“From challenge matches staged on wind-swept moorland venues around Burnley, he graduated to circus ring tournaments and displayed skill and ability under amazing conditions in the early nineties. This old time sportsman – he is still nimble for his years – kept in top rank wrestling at an age when most professionals were thinking of retiring from the ring.”

John William Price died in 1957 at the age of 87, survived by five of his sons and three daughters. Joe Price, who had followed him down the pit as well as into the wrestling ring, said:

“He was always a gentleman wherever he went, but he wouldn’t stand for any nonsense from his kids. He never threw his weight about though; at the Trafalgar Club they used to put the billiard cloth down on the floor as a mat, and he’d go a few rounds with some of the members. But if he’d never let them get him on his back, he’d never lose control of the fight.

“His favourite motto to the lads was, ‘Never abuse your abilities.'”

The local paper called him a folk hero, and “a name that lived on in the minds not only of local people but of anyone who loves wrestling – wrestling, that is, as it used to be.”

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