I was hoping to share a long blog post this week introducing you to the enigmatic wrestler, writer and referee Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong, but he is quite the character with quite the life, and it is taking longer than anticipated to do him justice.
So instead I spent my lunch-break today writing up a quick bit of background information on a key 1880s wrestling venue, followed by a story about an unexceptional but still rather nice event that doesn’t have much to do with wrestling at all.
It did, however, take place at Jack Wannop’s first wrestling and boxing gymnasium above the New Cross House on New Cross Road and offers colourful insight into what men in the area were doing for fun when they weren’t watching a fight.
It will also make a great scene in the six-part BBC drama that will definitely result from this research one day. Oh, come on, a girl can dream. I wonder how quickly Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole can put on three stone and learn six different styles of athletic wrestling… ahem, sorry…
Wannop’s dog show – not a dog fight, the reporter hastens to add – was covered by The Sporting Life. It appeared in the Wednesday 23 March 1887 issue sandwiched between articles on shooting pigeons, flying pigeons, and an advert for a miracle pain relieving oil supposedly used by every king, MP, archbishop and general in the world to cure all their woes.
Much of our local wrestling action in the 1880s took place above the New Cross House, although at the time it was more commonly known as The Glass House. This blog will be returning there regularly (I don’t plan to write stories in chronological order, by the way, I’m not organised enough for that. Expect to be dashing all over the place in the coming months). Wannop trained, fought, coached and organised fight nights here, while living ten seconds away on Batavia Road, where I’m currently typing this article.
Just one last thing before I get to the fancy dogs. It took me AGES to figure out that the New Cross House and The Glass House were the same place, after searching high and low through databases of old and lost pubs and their name changes over centuries, finding no sign of a Glass House on New Cross Road.
Then the custodian of the rarely-open archives under New Cross Learning tipped me off. He remembered his mother frequenting a pub that was nicknamed The Glass House because it was the first place in the area to serve beer in glass rather than pewter tankards. That’s when I realised it perhaps wasn’t a pub’s official recorded name after all. Eventually I found a newspaper article which clarified that the New Cross House and Glass House were one and the same.
Sorry to disappoint those of you who are familiar with the New Cross House as it looks now, complete with fancy pizza and 2-4-1 cocktails. We can’t sit there after work or lectures with a cold Negroni imagining the fights or amateur Crufts upstairs, because the current building didn’t go up until 1895. In the 1880s, then on its last legs before demolition, it probably looked more like this, with Wannop’s gym occupying the first floor:
Now, bring on the dogs.
I’ll let The Sporting Life introduce proceedings, with characteristic praise for Mr Wannop:
THE GLASS HOUSE, NEW CROSS (Proprietor Mr John Lees)
On Monday evening last the fancy mustered in strong force at this noted hostelry, the chair being occupied by the versatile and accomplished Jack Wannop, who on this occasion developed an entirely new order of talent, both as regards eloquence and as an exhibitor of a beautiful specimen of the bulldog species – Busybody, by the celebrated Caliban, a splendid bitch weighing 53lb, and as quiet as the proverbial lamb.
It makes me incredibly happy to know that my kind, honourable, burly hero also had a top quality burly pup.
To an admiring company of experts, a Mr S. Nicholls exhibited Busybody’s mum, the aforementioned Caliban, alongside the magnificent Tempest, Titania, “and a handsome red puppy of gigantic proportions”.
A number of delicate little toy terriers also graced proceedings, plus a few fox terriers. None of these dogs were taking part in the competition, they were literally just there to make everyone smile. I suspect a few may also have been sold by the end of the night.
Mr Phillips’s dog Spot was “particularly noticeable” but we aren’t told why. Then lots of other good boys were led around and shown off, occasionally struggling on their leads to attack, mate with, or just say hello to each other.
As if the appearance of dozens of pedigree hounds wasn’t enough, the night was enlivened by a performance from Lewis and Oliver’s band who, despite being described as “harmonious” by The Sporting Life‘s man on the ground, did not find new fans among the canines. Their music was played “much to the disgust of the tykes, who vigorously protested in the orthodox manner peculiar to their species”. A fine turn of phrase.
I am pleased to announce that of the dogs who were being judged, Mr Johnson’s Telemachus (named after the son of Odysseus and Penelope. My Classics A-Level comes good at last) was declared overall winner by appointed judge Mr Best and went home with a nice new collar as a prize.
The Sporting Life notes that the evening’s activities were an excellent “send off” to the pub’s proprietor, Mr Lees, and while at first I thought Lees had permanently expired, it seems he was probably just retiring or moving on.
Thanks for reading. I’m so chuffed that my blog has had some 350 views in three days – far more than I was expecting given the subject matter. There will be a short break for a week or two now. I’ll be back with a thoroughly researched piece on The Cross-Buttocker and then plan to post a couple of times a month from then on.