Look Back With Little: Wrestling at Banbury’s Winter Gardens

Pic for Look Back with Little column for Banbury Guardian July 30, 2015 edition. Wrestling. NNL-150727-105427001
Pic for Look Back with Little column for Banbury Guardian July 30, 2015 edition. Wrestling. NNL-150727-105427001

In December 2009 I wrote about Banbury’s Winter Gardens under the caption ‘Winter wonders at popular dance hall’.

This popularity owed much to Ethel Usher who began her working life as a ‘clippie’ on her father’s green buses.

It was Ethel’s determination to promote a diverse programme of events coupled with developing success as a businesswoman that ensured the Winter Gardens was Banbury’s outstanding entertainment centre for over 20 years.

Wrestling ranked high in the popularity stakes. Dale Martin Promotions Ltd of London in association with Ethel Usher offered evenings of irresistible bouts.

Famous wrestlers such as Big Daddy and Giant Haystack were sometimes on the card but, curiously, it was often Banbury’s very own Jack Pallow who got the crowd going.

Individual wrestlers apart, it was the grunts and groans which worked up the crowd even if sometimes these were carefully choreographed and needed to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The details of the roughly monthly shows appeared on hand bills published by Dale Martin Presentations and these were vital to the build-up to each evening.

In October 1956 there was the meeting between Anglo American heavyweight Buddy Cody (the Texan Tornado) and Black Butch Johnson.

Later in the evening Australian ‘Adonis’ Gene Murphy met Francis St Clair Gregory and rounding off the show were Drop Kick sensation Jonny Peters of Ruislip and Winnipeg’s Lee Edwards.

Six years later in March of 1962 the Mexican Thunderbolt met Essex’s Teenage Idol.

Fans were looking for entertainment as much as wrestling skills.

Covering a wide age range they came from near and far. Fortunately there was always a hard core of support including a farmer called Hemmings from the Wykham Lane area.

He and many others would dash to the Inn Within at the end of bouts in order to get the best seats for the next time.

On a good number of occasions there was something special about a particular contest.

Just such an evening occurred on March 10 1958.

It was styled International Wrestling and included the first appearance at the Winter Gardens of world famous veteran of the mat King Kong Taverne.

His meeting with ‘Handsome’ Ray Hunter was marked by 20 minutes of the usual grunts and groans but then Hunter ended the contest with a kick under the jaw.

Most of the crowd welcomed this as by that stage the end could not come too soon and Hunter was their idol. Additionally they were not impressed by a regular flow of unfortunate language from Taverne.

A report in Wrestling Review for June 1973 features a most interesting example of a wrestler who combined his sport with a parallel career in the music world.

British Middleweight Champion Brian ‘Goldbelt’ Maxine was also a singer of some repute.

Having made a successful Long Player on the Starline Label which brought him two awards, he had nearly completed his second LP on the more expensive Columbia Label.

On this second release Brian’s theme was ‘travelling’ songs in the Country Style. Interest was generated by the news that he was backed by local folk rock group Fairport Convention.

In the wrestling ring Brian had successfully defended his British Middleweight Title twice leading the Review to suggest that he was ‘the best wrestler in the country at his weight’.

Unsurprisingly he was planning a Wrestling-Musical Tour of Europe.

Evenings of boxing were also well supported. Ethel Usher became renowned as the only female boxing promotor in the country.

A crowd 1,400 strong thoroughly enjoyed the bout between Irishman Tony Mullholland from Birmingham and Peter Heath of Coventry who punched viciously.

The former lost on points but treated fans to a song which began ‘no-one but you’. Cheering drowned the last few bars as did shouts of ‘Nobbins’, his adopted name.

When the Winter Gardens closed in 1982 memories of wrestling and boxing were reflected in a Guardian headline which read ‘Ethel plays it tough in a man’s world’. Indeed she did.