#justiceforstevethedonkey

[This is not Steve. This is a generic Victorian fruit-selling donkey and a lady with killer contour that I found on the internet. The image appears in an 1877 book by photographer John Thompson and journalist Adolphe Smith, titled Street Life in London]

On Wednesday 3rd February 1892 a most irregular thing occurred in New Cross (when does it not?). That morning’s copy of The Sporting Life reports:

WANNOP’S GYMNASIUM, NEW CROSS GATE

No-night [sic], a grand assault at arms, consisting of two six round boxing contests and exhibition wrestling and boxing. Also comic wrestling match. Mr Dais Patte backs Tom Thompson to throw Nobler’s celebrated donkey, Steve. To down the donkey and turn it over inside fifteen minutes. Donkeys feet padded. Admission, 1s and 2s.

Right.

So, this is… unusual. It is the only report I have come across so far during my chosen research period (approximately 1880-1910) and location (south east London) which details a novelty or comic wrestling match, although I’m rather hoping for more.

Given the other weird and wonderful sporting challenges that young men in the area were up to at the time (e.g. walking three miles from the New Cross House to the Bricklayers’ Arms in Walworth, heel to toe, with a 56lb weight on your head, in under 40 minutes) it is perhaps not so strange.

[Thompson being absolutely owned by Wannop for the camera, three years before taking down a donkey for a laugh. Photographs from Walter Armstrong’s book, Wrestling]

Tom Thompson is the younger-looking man on the left in the photograph on my last blog post. A pupil of Jack Wannop’s, he was well known as a boxer and wrestler, generally fighting around the 10 stone mark. In 1892 he would have been about 23 years of age, and is often referred to as Curly or Curley Thompson, which, rather confusingly, was also occasionally the nickname of his boxing brother Jem Thompson.

Tom rather tragically died at 37, and I’m currently in the process of searching for his grave in Old Camberwell Cemetery. Given his fairly normal name, Thompson is a little harder to research than Wannop, but there will be more on him and his career in future blog posts.

I digress. You’re here for Steve the celebrated donkey. Why was Steve celebrated? And who won the match? Friday 5th February’s Sporting Life gives us everything we need to know.

Steve was well known in the New Cross area as the donkey who pulled a fruit cart and he was celebrated for two reasons: firstly, he drank out of a pewter tankard (not normal behaviour for a donkey). Secondly, he knew how to catch and kill rats. What a talented lad.

While this short Sporting Life write-up is without a byline, the tone of the piece suggests The Cross-Buttocker (aka Walter Armstrong – see future blog post on him for details) is reporting:

BOXING CONTESTS AND WRESTLING AT NEW CROSS

A NOVEL CONTEST

Never since Wannop’s School of Arms at New Cross Gate was opened has it been so crowded as it was on Wednesday night. Every part from floor to ceiling was occupied. A couple of six round contests were in the programme but the most important event of the evening was a wrestling match between Curley Thompson of New Cross, the well known wrestler, and Alf (Nobler) Fry’s donkey, Steve.

Armstrong adds that many people in the audience felt that, seeing as Nobler had already taught Steve how to hold his booze and how to catch rats, it could be supposed that he’d trained him in how to wrestle as well.

Alas, despite Nobler taking the time to whisper advice into Steve’s ear before the match commenced, his donkey signally failed on this occasion:

CURLEY THOMPSON v ALF FRY’S Donkey (STEVE)

There were roars of laughter as Fry and his moke entered the ring and took their place in one corner, the quadruped getting between the ropes as if he was used to the business, whilst Nobler, as his owner is called, was supposed to be busy whispering instruction in the animal’s ear. Thompson quickly appeared in the other corner… at first the moke seemed likely to keep away from him, but Thompson getting his hand under the animal’s belly, caught hold of his hind leg and by bodily strength pushed him over, the pair rolling over on the stage together.

Thompson was awarded the fall and won the match within one minute. Both were instantly back on their feet, none the worse for wear for their tumble. Steve was awarded a half pint of malt for his performance. There is no information on what Tom had to drink.

Dais Patte or Pattie was an ‘efficient’ MC for the match, which had headlined the night after two boxing contests between Dick Perrin (also nicknamed Curley!? What’s up with this, I must find out!) of Hackney and Alf Winters of New Cross, followed by Fulham’s H. Chambers and J. Parker from New Cross. Perrin and Chambers joined Tom Thompson in victory.

I have no further detail on Steve’s fighting height or size, but the internet tells me that a standard-sized modern-day donkey is around 400lb or 28 stone. This seems… a lot? If indeed Steve was a mammal of such heft, I’m rather impressed with Tom’s strength and skill.

Okay, I’m also being flippant: animal cruelty is never cool, even if Steve was probably too drunk to care at the time. Luckily, wrestling donkeys in the late-Victorian period does not seem to be a regular occurrence. Donkey cruelty generally IS though – the South London Press is a veritable goldmine of donkey-based court cases. This 13-year-old boy, arrested for beating his donkey, claimed that he only hit the animal because the donkey was really obsessed with a coffee shop in Peckham:

[Report on a caffeine addicted hipster donkey]

Steve’s owner, Nobler, was formally known as Alfred Fry. We find him, or what is most likely him given the documented facts, on the 1881 census: a 19-year-old greengrocer living on Hamilton Street, Deptford, with his parents and three siblings. In 1891 – one year before the donkey wrestling – he’s a ‘general dealer’ married to the slightly older Martha, with two young kids, and living at 5 Crossfield Lane in Deptford. By 1901, and almost 40, he’s a father of five and a well-established fruiterer. Alf died just seven years later.

[An old wooden house on Crossfield Lane. Probably the sort of place Steve the Donkey used to call home. Image found via Lewisham Council’s archives]

Unfortunately, I have no further information at the present time on Steve’s life or death, but I hope he was allowed to live out his life in peace, ambling along New Cross Road delivering Vitamin C to the people of SE14.

Yes, this incident seems rather unfortunate with our 2019 hats on. Flipping over a donkey is really bad form. But it also tells us quite a lot about the social scene shaped by Jack Wannop and his gym at this time. You can see, smell, and feel the drunk smoky sweaty silliness in the gym at the end of the night. The escapism, testosterone and recklessness. References to Thompson, ‘the curley one’ in other articles portray a slightly daft, likeable, jack-the-lad, who died far too young. I can’t wait to find out more about him.

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