Fans of British Wrestling in modern times have a number of stars to watch on the big screen. Drew McIntyre, the former WWE Champion from Scotland, is one of the biggest British stars in America at the moment. Will Ospreay has taken over Japan, whilst PAC is one of AEW’s top stars. However, no other wrestler can claim the love of the British public quite as much Big Daddy, Britain’s favourite wrestler, did.
When World of Sport would broadcast the wrestling on Saturday afternoons on ITV, fans would tune in in their millions. Stars like Mick McManus. Johnny Saint, Kendo Nagasaki and Les Kellet became some of the countries biggest wrestlers. However, one man stood tall above the rest.
That man was Shirley Crabtree, or as his public knew him, Big Daddy.
Big Daddy: Britain’s Favourite Wrestler
From the 1960s, wrestling became a phenomenon in Great Britain. Every Saturday afternoon at 4pm, World of Sport on ITV would broadcast that weeks coverage of professional wrestling.
Known as “The Wrestling”, as pro-wrestling is to this day in Britain, Dale Martin’s Joint Promotions was the wrestling federation of choice. Since World of Sport began broadcasting the wrestling in 1955, it was Dale Martin who put on the shows for the British public.
The show featured a wide cast of characters, split into good guys and bad guys. Fans felt strongly about these characters, making it known whether or not they liked or disliked the wrestlers. Especially the stereotypical “Wrestling Granny” shaking her handbag at ringside at the bad guys like Mick McManus and Kendo Nagasaki.
The wrestling on ITV became one of the biggest programs in the country. From the 1960s, the program regularly pulled in over 16 million viewers on a Saturday afternoon. Workers would rush home from the mines to tune in to see their favourites take on the baddies of the day.
However, there were no bigger favourites than the former Rugby League player and wrestling superstar, Shirley “Big Daddy” Crabtree.
While the name Shirley Crabtree may not be familiar to you, if you ask anyone over a certain age who Big Daddy is, you will have no shortage of answers.
He is by far the biggest wrestling star Britain has ever produced. However, he did not start out his career as the famous Big Daddy.
Bullied as a child, Shirley Crabtree had to toughen up from a young age. Shirley was a popular boys name at the time, but with the rising stardom of child star Shirley Temple, the name soon transitioned to being a girls name instead.
Coupled with his father, also named Shirley, abandoning his family whilst the younger Crabtree was only seven years old, gave bullied ample ammunition to torture him, and they took full advantage.
Big Daddy likened his torture had the hands of these bullies to the famous Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue”.
Well, that song described me down to a tee now I look to the past and think about it, and after a while I started to get very angry. The desire to defend myself became overwhelming and the bullies’ days were numbered because I hit back twice as hard.Big Daddy
Starting out as a wrestler
After leaving school, he tried a number of professions. Being from Yorkshire, he worked in the coal mines, as well as a lifeguard. He also played Rugby League professionally, although he suffered from ill temper on the pitch that hampered his career.
He finally decided to follow in his fathers footsteps, and in 1952 became a professional wrestler. Crabtree did not take on the Big Daddy moniker immediately, however.
“Blonde Adonis” Shirley Crabtree he became known as. His sparkling blonde hair helped him stand out from the crowd, as did he world-record beating 64 inch chest. He was a popular good guy, or “Blue Eye” as they were called backstage by the wrestlers. Nowadays, the term “face” and “heel are used to discern the good guys from the bad guys.
He was successful under this name, winning the European Heavyweight Championship in the 1960s. He was a beloved good guy, but nowhere near as much as years later.
However, Shirley Crabtree quit the wrestling business in 1966, in a shocking turn of events. Crabtree won the British Heavyweight Championship (or some form of the belt) in 1966 from Bert Assirati. Crabtree featued regular harrasment outside the ring from Assirati, and was “plagued by the constant threat of an embittered Assirati exposing his limited legitimate ability.” (source)
Crabtree would retire from wrestling, However, like all wrestling retirements, it would not last forever. All the greats have retired then come back for one more match. If it’s good enough for Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair and Bryan Danielson, then it’s good enough for Shirley Crabtree.
Return to Wrestling
Six years later in 1972, Shirley’s brother Max Crabtree convinced him to come out of retirement. With six years outside the ring, Shirley had put on weight, limiting his mobility in the ring. He was never the greatest worker, but now he could barely perform more than three moves in the ring.
This didn’t stop Joint Promotions from bringing him in, although this time as a villain. He became “The Battling Guardsman”, taking inspiration of his time in the Coldstream Guards.
He made appearances for Joint Promotions during this time, even appearance on World of Sport. However, his luck would soon change as his brother Max Crabtree would be appointed as the new promoter for Joint Promotions. Whilst nepotism could be argued, it was this time where Shirley Crabtree would become the biggest star in British wrestling.
After Max Crabtree took over booking duties of the promotion, he had new ideas for his brother. He proffered the name Big Daddy as Shirley’s new persona, based off the character of the same name from Cat on a hot tin roof.
Like in the book, Big Daddy was initially positioned as a villain. Originally, Shirley Crabtree had reservations about returning to the ring.
He was 42 when he came back as the Battling Guardsman, so his change to Big Daddy would be when he was 44. For a man his size, he would usually be at the end of his career, but his brother saw life in the character, so Shirley agreed.
Tag Team with Giant Haystacks
Big Daddy made his debut on World of Sport in 1974, although he was initially a heel. A year later after little success, he was put together with another larger-than-life character, Giant Haystacks.
The pair were put into a villainous tag team, with the huge Big Daddy and the 6 foot 11, 40 Stone Giant Haystacks making a formidable, menacing team.
Together, the pair became one of the most feared teams in all of Britain. Due to their superheavyweight size, few wrestlers could combat them and they beat down their opponents handily.
But it would not take long for Big Daddy to move away from the team and become a good guy wrestler, or “Blue Eye”. He first started getting cheered whilst in a feud with long-time bad guy, Kendo Nagasaki.
Feud with Kendo Nagasaki
The first time Big Daddy started getting cheers was during a feud with long-hated bad guy Kendo Nagasaki.
Kendo Nagasaki was a mysterious masked wrestler, claimed to be an ancient Shogun Warrior spirit from Japan inhabiting a man. This man was thought to be Japanese, but was in fact played by English wrestler Peter Thornley.
Nagasaki had been one of the biggest heels in British wrestling. Fans were enamoured by the mysterious masked Japanese wrestler, who was stoic and mute but spoke volumes with his incredible in-ring talent.
Nagasaki feuded with Big Daddy in 1975, with the latter being cheered over the mysterious Japanese wrestler. It was the start of Big Daddy’s face turn, and the crowd erupted as the former rugby player unmasked Nagasaki in the ring.
Unmasking the bad guy was a huge face move in the UK, as opposed to places like Mexico where unmasking was a great shame and reserved for the worst heels.
Nagasaki would win the match moments after the unmasking, but it was Big Daddy who won over the crowds.
It wasn’t a complete face turn. however. Big Daddy would continue to tag with partner Giant Haystacks, but start to add more “blue-eye” tendencies to his game. It would not be until mid 1977 where his popularity would truly explode and become a household name in Great Britain.
Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks
When Big Daddy turned face and began to feud with Giant Haystacks, he became a household name in Great Britain.
Big Daddy became the nations favourite wrestler. He would walk to the ring clad in the Union Jack as a cape, waistcoat or trailing behind him. Pairing it with a sparkling top hat and a slew of screaming children following him to the ring, he became an instant fan favourite.
Despite rumours of Big Daddy having a less than stellar reputation backstage, to the people of Britain he was a real life superhero. He was a larger than life character, and the hero of the working class man in the country. If he could be compared to an American alternative, it would be “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes.
Big Daddy and Haystacks would feud over the next decade, with the pair battling usually in tag team matches. An up-and-coming young face would team with Daddy, while a young heel would team with Haystacks. The face would get beaten up by Haystacks, then tag in Daddy to his three moves and win the match. One of these young stars was future WWE King of the Ring William Regal.
The battles between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were the talk of the country. The two larger than life characters filled out Wembley Arena in 1981, and had 20 million people tuning in every week to watch their battles.
Over time, fans grew tired of the same old Big Daddy schtick. Some say that he turned wrestling from a sporting competition to more of a pantomime.
However, his popularity was undeniable. He was reportedly the favourite wrestler of Prime Minister Margarete Thatcher, and appeared on a number of television shows across the country. He was a regular on the children’s TV Show Tiswas, and even had a comic strip in Buster comics.
Big Daddy was even slated to have his own TV Show. Reasons for the show being changed from the focus of Big Daddy vary, with some saying he struggled with nerves or simply did not perform well in front of the audience. The show was changed to the Saturday Show.
Shirley Crabtree retired in 1993 from wrestling, and died four years later. He became an icon of British entertainment, and if you ask anyone in this country to name a wrestler, they will almost certainly say “Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, from the wrestling!”
Big Daddy may not have been the best wrestler in the world, but Big Daddy was THE wrestler for a generation of fans in Great Britain.