The Norwood Society

The Russian Lion

The Russian Lion was the popular title of one of the greatest athletes who ever lived - George Hackenschmidt. Born in Dorpat, Estonia, in Russia in 1877 he died at Dulwich Hospital on February 19th 1968 in his 91st Year.

As a very young lad he was interested in gymnastics and cycling, winning many prizes in these sports, and later, while training as an engineer, was spotted by a Dr. von Krajewski. The doctor was physician  to the Czar in St Petersburg and founder of the athletic and cycling club in that city. He predicted that the young Hackenschmidt could be the world’s strongest man; a prediction fulfilled.

He beat Sandow’s world record of 255 ½ lbs. lifted with one hand by raising 269½ lbs. In 1896 Hackenschmidt met Lurich who interested him in wrestling. Later they met at the Crystal Palace but by then Lurich was no match for him. George became the greatest wrestler who ever lived and was never beaten in 10 years in the Greco/Roman style (see Guinness Book of Records). Later adopting the catch-as-catch-can style, which is free style wrestling, he became world champion. Mixing his skills with that of weight-lifting he broke many more world records and one lift has never been duplicated to this day. He toured the world taking on all contenders, some many stones heavier than himself and beat them all. He was taken to the hearts of the British public who treated their ‘Russion Lion’ with great affection.

He married a charming and beautiful French woman Rachel, became a naturalized Frenchman and in 1950 he realized a 40-year ambition by becoming a naturalized British subject. From this time until his death he lived at 24 Chestnut Road, Norwood. Outside the ring he was a man of amiable temperament, gentle manner and ascetic habits. Hackenschmidt’s world was physical culture at which he was a master. He wrote books on the subject and on wrestling and also a very deep book on a system of personal philosophy called ‘Man and Cosmic Antagonism to Mind and Spirit’.

Mrs Hackenschmidt was considerably younger than her husband and in recent years, on consulting the telephone directory, I found to my amazement she was still alive. I renewed my acquaintance with this lovely cultured bi-lingual lady who related wonderful stories about George to me. She passed away in December 1987 well into her 90’s and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery where her husband’s ashes were scattered in 1968.

This is just a snippet of a life full of interest, meetings with the famous and of a sporting controversy, which was never solved, when Geogre Hackenschmidt was finally beaten by the American wrestler Frank Gotch.

John A McCoubrey

The Norwood Review Edition #122.