British Wrestlers Reunion
Strengthening the Ring of Friendship

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Steve Jeal remembers his Grandfather Spencer Jeal and the great days of Fairfield halls, Croydon.

THE LATE SPENCER JEAL WAS AN ACCOUNTANT AND FRIEND TO MANY OF THE WRESTLING FRATERNITY DURING THE 60/70S. HE HAD A RESERVED FRONT ROW SEAT AT THE FAIRFIELD HALLS CROYDON FOR OVER 45 YEARS UNTIL HIS DEATH. HERE IS A TRIBUTE ANECDOTE FROM HIS GRAND SON AND WRESTLING FAN :STEVE JEAL  

 

I got into the wrestling because of my grandfather, a gentleman by the name of Spencer Jeal. One or two of your contributors/readers will remember him. He was a bit of an entrepreneur, primarily an accountant and book keeper, he had his fingers in one or two pies, especially property and he looked after the books of one or two wrestlers and promoters. Now I’m not sure how this came to be. I remember Spencer telling a story once that just after the war his slightly built brother Sydney, a rugby player, used to play scrum half at a decent level and he was minded by two enormous ex pat Hungarian wing forwards. Now these two guys fell into wrestling as a career and with Spencer living in Eltham, there were plenty of local venues – The Yorkshire Grey and the swimming baths were on his doorstep – and Spencer was able get them on the various cards. And so his relationship with wrestlers and wrestling began. Amongst his clients in my time were Steve Grey, John Harris and Lee Bronson, but I know there were others who had retired. Tony Salvo comes to mind – I noticed his name on the ‘Dressing Room in the Sky’ page. Now Tony I remember well as he had a very close relationship with Spencer  – if I’m not mistaken Tony went into the car trade. Whilst I have no specific memories – I am 38 and we are talking late 70s/early 80s here - I do remember him being a very nice man indeed who I believe was of great help to Spencer over the years.

Spencer was also an acquaintance of Jackie Pallo and I met him a few times on a Sunday morning at my grandparents’ house in Eltham, as I did Steve Grey. My sister even remembers with great fondness going back stage at a panto and meeting Jackie and all the stars of that particular production. Now of course we are talking the halcyon days of the wrestling here – pre FA Cup final shows at Wembley arena, huge viewing figures weekly on World of Sport – these guys were household names as you well know, so for a star struck seven or eight year old, seeing them in my grandparents back room on a Sunday morning drinking tea was just fantastic.

Spencer successfully managed to infect all three of his younger grandsons with the magic of the ring as it reached perhaps its height of popularity in the late 70s. One of my earliest memories was going to the Albert Hall in about 1979. It seems incredible now that in my lifetime The Wrestling would sell out the Albert Hall but it did and it really was a truly exciting occasion. Spencer put us in a private box and it was my first live show having watched it on the television for years. Names I remember that night include Tally Ho Kaye, Alan Dennison, Dave Boy Smith, Chris Adams and I think this was the height of the Wayne Bridges/John Quinn feud – Bridges was definitely on the card and of course it was headlined by Big Daddy. Sammy Lee the Japanese star was over and I think he got turned over by Mark Rocco with Daddy coming to his rescue which converted the headline bout from an individual to a tag match, with of course Daddy and Lee winning. For a seven year old this was pure magic.

As the 80s progressed Spencer would take us to Lewisham and Croydon shows which meant we were going every three weeks or so. There were some truly memorable nights. Rollerball Rocco became my favourite and for a while circa ‘85 he had some great matches with a then babyface Mal Saunders. The brutish Quinn was an ever present and had some real barneys with Bridges and Pete Roberts. There was Finlay in the Princess Paula era, occasionally Daddy and Haystacks would appear, supplemented by Clive Myers, Steve Grey, Danny Collins, Jonny Saint and Skull Murphy to name but a few. This guaranteed very few flat bouts, they were truly explosive cards.

The next era I guess, as the 80s ran into the 90s, was the beginning of the end. Lewisham hosted less and less shows, Dale Martin seemed to disappear and All Star was now the only promoter. There were still some great headline bouts courtesy of Nagasaki, Rocco (they had a brutal feud over the course of a year or so in the early 90s) with a younger generation of Steve Regal, Dave Taylor, Robbie Brookside and Doc Dean hitting their peak. Funnily enough we always felt that of that particular vintage, Regal was the most limited performer – but look at him now – he is the one that truly does our country credit.

But alas the 90s continued and saw a marked collapse in attendances as once packed stalls at Croydon were replaced by rows and rows of empty seats. I remember when television was pulled and a Croydon evening was chosen to make a last appeal to the TV execs with Mick McManus getting in the ring to make an impassioned plea. I sense the business looked to blame Greg Dyke as public enemy number one, but as a reasonably media savvy fan and regular at many live shows over the years, if the truth be told the great days had ended well before that emotional night in Croydon – the TV execs cannot be blamed. Interestingly my nephew, Spencer’s great grandson started coming, and whilst he loved it and Dave Rocky Taylor became a hero to him, you could just tell that for him, part of the Sky TV WWE generation, it just wasn’t the same as it was for us at his age.

And how could it be – a quarter full Croydon on a Tuesday night just doesn’t grab the child’s imagination like a packed Albert Hall on a Saturday night. And it wasn’t  for the want of trying – more American formats were tried with guys like Steve Adonis being imported in from across the pond. And the Power Ranger craze was aped in the ring with the Wrestling Power rangers but alas it was a losing battle. And I really don’t think the British Wrestling community should do too much navel gazing here. Many campaigners relentlessly put their bodies on the line every night for peanuts, promoters did their best but at the end of the day entertainment trends move on and there is very little anyone can do.

Just as music hall gave way to terrestrial television, then terrestrial television with its relatively limited four channel choice gave way to the satellite age with its competing live sports. People had more choice than ever in how they spent their money on a night out and unfortunately British Wresting with its industrious, hard, committed but alas aging stars and its more strategic two falls or a submission format simply became a relic of a bygone era in the same way as TV variety shows did. Remember, now, a terrestrial show that pulls in 8 million viewers has TV execs popping the Champagne corks. In the 70s and early 80s, 8 million viewers on a Saturday night would be considered a complete failure. What I am saying is I don’t think there is anything wrestling could have done against these far greater forces of sporting and entertainment trends.

Spencer died in 1996 having just got past his 90th birthday, but he kept attending at Croydon right to the end despite increasingly failing health. The highlight of these latter years was when John Harris invited him to join his other friends and acquaintances in the ring on his final night as an MC before retirement. John was also a lovely man and even after Spencer’s death made sure my father was on his Christmas message round robin from Spain. And alas while my brother, cousins and nephew returned a couple of times, it just wasn’t the same and our interest has petered away too. I am glad to see a UK wrestling industry clearly exists, plays to decent crowds and produces good athletes, and long may that continue. But for me you cannot replicate those great days and I prefer now to get my fix through the classic bouts on You Tube.

We will always have nothing but fond and fun memories of the wrestling in my family. It is funny, Spencer was a very cultured man who loved Shakespeare, classical music, dined with Lord Mayors and arranged lettings for visiting Hollywood film stars. But outside of his family, wrestling was his greatest passion and it gave him many happy memories and good friends. To all who may read this who contributed to that enjoyment over the years, on Spencer’s behalf and mine, a huge thanks.

 

 

Steve Jeal

 

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