The man in the chip shop was the worse for an afternoon’s drinking and did not take kindly to being asked to wait for his supper. His language was choice and his manner, to the female staff, aggressive.

A larger customer, upon hearing the foam-flecked outburst, stepped in asked the drunk to desist. When the tirade continued, he grabbed him by his collar, hoisted him into the air and promptly hung him on the coat hook near the door.

Eventually, after a humiliating period of kicking and squirming, the man was lowered. Apologies were issued to the chip shop ladies and the inebriated fellow went shamefacedly on his way.

Had he realised he had been about to face the phenomenal strength of Douglas Clark, he might well have kept it zipped in the first place.

This was a story from the later stages of Clark’s life, by which time his legend was fully built and, otherwise, well known. He had attained iconic status for his feats in rugby and wrestling, as well as admired recognition for his heroism at war.

Clark, from Maryport, was said to be so conscious of his immense physical attributes that they sometimes frightened him. On a pitch or in a ring they certainly intimidated opponents, and enabled Clark to live the sort of extraordinary life that demanded to be chronicled in print, even committed to film.

Steven Bell, an author from Yorkshire, has done the former and the riveting account of one of Cumbria’s great figures is captured in his book, ‘The Man Of All Talents’. Clark was a powerful champion at Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling, one of the first, great forwards for Cumberland, Huddersfield and Great Britain in the emerging code of rugby league, and later became a conquering champion in all-in wrestling.

Just one of those feats would have been enough to secure Clark’s rare standing; to do them all, either side of serving his country on the Western Front to the extent that he was awarded a Military Medal for bravery, sets him apart.

“When I first started researching him, I thought there must be two Douglas Clarks,” says Bell. “Surely it couldn’t be the same man who had done all this? I had to really track everything down to make myself certain that it was. He was truly an amazing person.”

Clark, born in Ellenborough in 1891, was a miner’s son who, from the age of 12, helped his father haul huge bags of coal onto his delivery wagon. After leaving school at 14, further work at Flimby’s Robin Hood pit developed strength which then became apparent when Clark stepped into competitive sport.

In Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling, with its hods, chips and cross-buttocks, Clark excelled. At one early tournament he won a copper candlestick from Lord Lonsdale, who asked to be kept informed about the potent teenager. At rugby, he also starred for Cumberland Colts, and after a game against West Yorkshire, Huddersfield paid Brookland Rovers £30 for his services.

Clark moved to Yorkshire, his power and speed standing out in the extra space afforded by the northern game’s break into the 13-man code that became rugby league. He helped Huddersfield’s ‘team of all talents’ win the Challenge Cup and, in 1914, his prowess earned him a call-up by Great Britain for their tour of Australia.

Here, Clark was mischievous enough to hire a snake from a local pet shop to frighten his team-mates - and convince them there was less to be intimidated by in their Aussie opponents. He was duly involved in one of rugby league’s most iconic games, the ‘Rorke’s Drift’ test match in which Great Britain lost three men to injury for 30 minutes but, led by the great Harold Wagstaff, battled to a 14-6 victory at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

“Because northern union, as it was, and rugby league as it became, was developing so quickly, Douglas was a pioneer,” Bell says. “It almost allowed him to create that forward position – that powerful roll of gaining as many yards as you can, helping players around you, making yourself available all the time. His influence is still being seen now in that respect.

News and Star: Clark joined Huddersfield from Maryport amateur side Brookland Rovers for £30 - and became a rugby league legend in Yorkshire and for Great BritainClark joined Huddersfield from Maryport amateur side Brookland Rovers for £30 - and became a rugby league legend in Yorkshire and for Great Britain

“It wasn’t just because he was physically strong – he was mentally sharp as well. A lot of people think those who reach the top of sport can’t use their brain, but I think people who get to the pinnacle are intelligent. Douglas was a man who liked to read Shakespeare and poetry. He was a thoughtful guy. And in sport, being able to see things that the average man can’t…that comes with intelligence.”

Clark was not, though, by nature an aggressor. A pacifist, he did not immediately sign up for conflict when World War One broke out in 1914. When conscription became compulsory, he joined the Army Service Corps’ motor transport unit. Clark’s sporting theatres were replaced by the savage settings of the Great War and his job, to deliver supplies and ammunition to the front line, was frequently subjected to German bombardment.

Clark’s deeds are commemorated at Manchester’s Imperial War Museum, and Bell had access to his diaries. They helped him recount, for instance, the day at Messines Ridge when, whilst unloading a vehicle, a shell exploded above the unit and Clark disregarded his own safety to haul umpteen wounded soldiers onto lorries which he guided through smoke and fire to the Ypres hospital base.

After placing the last man down at the hospital entrance, Clark collapsed from gas inhalation and needed 10 days’ treatment before returning to the front line. Later, at Passchendaele, he made a brave sprint of more than 200 yards to move a lorry clear of German fire which, at any moment, might have ignited all the ammunition on board and killed everyone around it.

A blast threw him from the cabin and 18 pieces of shrapnel lodged in his body. Doctors said that, without his strong build and fitness, he would have been killed.

News and Star: The wreckage of a British tank beside the infamous Menin Road near Ypres, Belgium, where Douglas Clark carried out heroic deeds in World War One (photo: PA)The wreckage of a British tank beside the infamous Menin Road near Ypres, Belgium, where Douglas Clark carried out heroic deeds in World War One (photo: PA)

There are other accounts of war in the book, which Clark’s diary make vivid. “Return through town of Ypres,” he writes one day. “It is enough to turn anyone grey, the destruction of this town.”

From the exchange of bombardments on Menin Road: “This is real war, a wonderful, splendid, inspiring, awful sight I shall not forget.”

At Passchendaele, he wrote of his expectation that “every minute is my last”. “Words fail to express this scene,” he adds. “Blood everywhere you look, dead men and wounded.”

Clark dodged death in these appalling places and, along with his colleagues, was recognised by Sir Douglas Haig for the “greatest gallantry and devotion to duty”.

After a further period of recuperation, back in Huddersfield, Clark was told that, should he wish to live a “long and comfortable life”, it would be unwise to resume his sporting career. Clark disregarded the advice. “I think,” Bell says, “he felt that, when he came back from war and got told to give these things up, he was asking himself, ‘Then what have I got to live for?’”

He soon went back to rugby league for Huddersfield, also participating in one last Great Britain tour of Australia where, in his final test, he “barged opponents over like a bowling ball striking through skittles” for a try in an 11-10 win. His career amounted to 534 top-level games and 110 tries, and a record 485 professional matches for Huddersfield: the town where rugby league was born in 1895, and whose team Clark helped to their first title in 1924.

He retired, and became a full-time coal merchant, a “pillar of the community” – but was far from becalmed. Although now married, to Jennie, wrestling retained its hold over the great Clark. He won further prestigious titles at Grasmere and, although initially invited to make up the numbers, surged to the first British heavyweight title in the new, developing discipline of all-in wrestling. He went on to beat the Belgian, Laurent Gerstmans, to become the sport’s first world champion at 42 and, as he amassed what Bell calculates as 400 professional bouts unbeaten, even in middle age there was no more formidable figure in a ring than Clark: “John Bull in trunks”.

News and Star: As well as being a Cumberland & Westmorland champion, Clark went onto become the first British and World champion at all-in wrestlingAs well as being a Cumberland & Westmorland champion, Clark went onto become the first British and World champion at all-in wrestling

A legend in different worlds, but always of his roots. “He was a humble man, and I think his upbringing in Cumbria gave him that,” Bell says. “Growing up in that period, as one of nine children in gritty, hard times, made him mentally strong. When he came across things in his future life, I don’t think anything fazed him. The nature of those times, of helping out, developed that mindset.”

Bell visited Clark’s niece, Elizabeth, whilst researching the book. He was greeted by a collection of cuttings and a trove of anecdotes. Douglas’s intervention in the chip shop was, Bell says, the measure of the man. “All these stories had this air of incredible grace about him; almost like he was born with this moral compass. He was grounded, and I think that’s what top level sport’s missing now as it’s so removed from the man in the street. Back then, it seemed the bigger the star, the more grateful and humble they were. Douglas knew he had these gifts, but also couldn’t wait to get back to being a coal man, giving back to the community.”

Douglas did not have a family of his own. “Elizabeth did mention that,” Bell adds. “He absolutely loved kids and it was assumed it would be a natural progression. There’s an assumption war injuries might have played a part, but it’s hard to be sure. I never saw it in anything he wrote, but I do suspect it was a regret.

“There were two ways to deal with that, though – one was to dwell and not get past it, the other was to do what he did: travel the world, pioneer a brand new sport and live the great life he did.”

It was a life that ended in 1951 when Douglas, aged 59, died from coronary thrombosis. He rests in Maryport cemetery, his headstone bearing an inscription from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the line that ends, simply: ‘This was a man’.

Seldom, in our county’s sporting sphere and beyond, could those four words better apply.


*The Man Of All Talents: The Extraordinary Life Of Douglas Clark by Steven Bell is published by Pitch Publishing priced £12.99