[Tom ‘Curly’ Thompson (1869-1906) and Jack Wannop (1855-1923), published in Walter Armstrong’s 1890 book, ‘Wrestling’]
In late 2018 I had the pleasure of reading two articles by Goldsmiths, University of London’s Professor Les Back and Professor Tim Crook, which detailed the history of the Laurie Grove Baths in New Cross. Initially built as a public swimming and washing facility, the building, with pools drained, now serves as art studios and a beautiful gallery.
Both professors’ essays briefly referenced the venue as a location for wrestling during the sport’s 1970s heyday, when televised bouts (by this time firmly in the category of sports-entertainment rather than legitimate athletic competition) regularly attracted weekly audiences of up to 10 million.
After logging on to the British Newspaper Archive I began to search for references to the Baths, New Cross, and wrestling, in the hope of finding a bit more information from the 1970s. Quite by accident (ok, it had been a while since I’d done any research and I’d forgotten to set the date search boundaries), I came across lots of references to wrestling in the area across the 1880s and 1890s instead.
The same location names, chiefly a pub known at the time as The Glass House, regularly appeared as a venue for popular wrestling matches and training. And the same man came up over and over again, in dozens… hundreds… of copies of The Sporting Life and several local newspapers: Jack Wannop.
Beyond a few one-sentence references on wrestling websites to Wannop in the context of him fighting high-profile and better-remembered opponents, and one mention of his role in popularising the Cumberland and Westmorland styles of wrestling outside of that region, there is little to be found about Wannop through Google and nothing I’ve found so far in wrestling (or general Victorian sporting) texts.
For my MA History dissertation – I’m currently studying part-time for an MA History at Goldsmiths – I propose to write Wannop’s biography, positioning him as a working-class ‘celebrity’ in a time of enormous change and development in New Cross.
His story will be interwoven with what could be described as a micro-history of the people, places, and events on New Cross Road in the last two decades of the Victorian period. Joining Jack are a number of secondary characters: boxer and wrestler Tom ‘Curly’ Thompson, brilliant wrestling journalist and sometime referee Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong (because if you’re going to choose a pseudonym…), MC and match organiser Dais Patte, boxer Jem Smith and Steve the Donkey (an actual donkey) among them.
It is a story where the pub is at the heart of the community, during the years when sporting culture is expanding across all societal classes and pugilism rapidly begins to move from dirty and illegal brawling toward wrestling’s acceptance as an Olympic sport in 1896. This happens at a time and in a place that had fallen from grace since the 1860s, but where working-class men appear to be beating each other into submission for the sort of astronomical sums of money their ‘professional wrestling’ successors almost a century later could hardly have dreamed of.
My research so far, using archived copies of sporting and local newspapers such as The Sporting Life, Sportsman, and Kentish Mercury, has led me to believe that Wannop was an extremely popular and important figure in wrestling history and in the sporting and cultural life of New Cross and wider South East London during the 1880s and ‘90s. But he’s forgotten. The men he fought on his 1888 attempt to break America have Wikipedia pages. They have photographs you can Google. Jack has simply vanished.
The Sporting Life is a fascinating read: the wrestlers’ and boxers’ Facebook of its day, I argue. A place for gossip and banter, match adverts and results, opinions, campaigns… they looked after your mail, answered your queries on who won what many years after the fact, held meetings, facilitated challenges. You want to meet a man for a fight later that day or tomorrow? You posted a message in The Sporting Life. And it’s here we see early signs of the drama and over-the-top showmanship of wrestling from the 1950s onward: the grudges, nicknames, personalities and novelties appear long before your Big Daddies and Kendo Nagasakis.
I have sourced 100s of articles to construct Jack’s story, detailing his successes as a wrestler and boxer, the latter being a sport that he does not appear to have taken up competition in until he reached his 30s. He boxed and wrestled some of the biggest American names of their day. Dramatic reports of this tour appear in both the UK and US, showing Wannop’s sudden attack of rheumatism, and his ill-treatment at the hands of scoundrels who rip him off for large sums of money.
Oh, and a drunk who sets fire to the wrestling ring.
Despite taking somewhat of a thrashing (‘Wannop Walloped’!) overseas by the best-known American white and black champions, Wannop is so famous at the time that on his return home to New Cross, The Sporting Life reports the names of every man who lined up to shake his hand.
Having moved to New Cross from Carlisle in around 1881, census and electoral roll data suggests that Wannop was a carpenter by trade, born John Wannop in 1855. He was muscular, with a fighting weight around 12-13 stone, and by all-accounts, a humble and generous man. An Old Bailey transcript indicates that he had just one brush with the law, but was proven to be an innocent bystander to a fight between one of his brothers and another man. Jack is vindicated and praised for his character, as he is throughout later newspaper reports on his activities as a fighter, trainer and businessman.
His family life is tragic: I understand that his wife Miriam gave birth to 10 children, with two dying in infancy. By the time of Jack’s death in 1923 at the age of 67 all but three of their children are gone, including Sidney, whose body was never recovered after his death on the Somme. Sidney’s name is listed on two WWI memorials in Lewisham, among them St James Hatcham Church on Goldsmiths’ campus.
By the time of his death, Jack too was forgotten. After his retirement from active competition he appears to have had great success as a businessman and trainer, opening one gym above a pub in New Cross, on the Old Kent Road, and another in Forest Hill. In the early 1890s he founds what I believe to be a social club for amateur sportsmen and publicans ‘done good’. Known as the High Hat Brigade, they organised picnics and good-natured cricket games with east London rivals, and had bizarrely strict rules about what sort of ties to be worn at meetings.
But by 1914, the young men of South East London had a bigger fight to win, and it seems that Jack’s gyms failed as wrestling and boxing temporarily fell out of favour.
After 1907 his name stops appearing regularly in local and sporting newspapers. Sad, yes, but also it turns out that later editions of The Sporting Life just haven’t been digitised yet. At the time of writing this post, no mention of Jack has been found until 1923 when a national sports columnist notes very briefly that he had heard of Jack’s death. His last memory was seeing Jack hobbling along the road using a stick. Hospital records indicate that our protagonist died of ‘senility’ at Greenwich Infirmary on 11 February 1923.
Through research using Find My Past, Deceased Online, and with the help of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, I have located a Wannop grave to the south of the Brockley site. The plot – where Miriam (who died in 1948) and two of the Wannop children, Mary (1918) and Thomas (1928) are also buried alongside Jack – is virtually unmarked. There is no headstone, just the remains of grey stone edging and a broken stone vase in the centre of the plot.
Three years before Jack’s death, William George Matthews – later known as the wrestler Mick McManus – was born on the Old Kent Road, close to Jack’s New Cross gym. He began training as a wrestler in the 1940s, and went on to become a major name in the 1960s and ’70s.
Quoted in Simon Garfield’s ‘The Wrestling’ (1996) McManus notes that wrestling was popular in the US in the mid 1860s and after the Civil War, but the sport’s golden age in the UK was 1899-1914, when it “dwarfed” boxing. He does not acknowledge, because he possibly just did not know about, the sport’s popularity in his own back yard two decades earlier.
Garfield mentions that even around 1904 “myth was everything” and my research to date backs this up: certainly wrestling during the late 1800s and early 1900s was a sport (to which many no doubt lost huge sums of money betting), rather than the sports-entertainment we know today, but the theatrics of modern wrestling is clearly visible in the sporting newspapers’ coverage of events and their depictions of the sport’s characters. I want to bring those characters back to life.
Throughout my MA dissertation I intend to discuss my research methods and difficulties in finding information and constructing this story. As an amateur genealogist and the offspring of two local news reporters, I am passionate about public access to family and local history. I am extremely aware of the difficulties that current and future local historians have and will continue to have in exploring local history given funding cuts, lack of investment, and other destructive practices against local archives and record keeping.
Thank you so much for reading. Future posts will be much shorter, focusing on individual people, places, events, new discoveries, and no doubt the odd rant about my research frustrations.
And PLEASE bear in mind that I am not a historian. I’m a mature postgraduate student who works a full-time office job and hasn’t even had the chance to take a Research Skills class yet. My day job is publicising other people’s research and I love it, but thought it might be about time to do some of my own.
As an aside, it was pretty cool to discover recently that my new-build office sits precisely where Jack and Miriam’s first house in New Cross was located.
This website is a process, a practice for my writing, and I may occasionally (i.e. definitely) mess up. There will be errors, guesses, conjectures, definitely typos – this is very much a work in progress. I just want to tell some fun stories.
– Sarah Elizabeth Cox