“It was worth all the journey to New Cross…”

Even today it is remarkable how many people have never heard of our fine bit of the city, or at the very least they roll their eyes upon requests to visit, believing it might be hours from the metropolis.

Zone 2, guys. Zone 2.

And it seems things weren’t much different in the 1880s – we can find regular references to New Cross and Deptford which begin, and I paraphrase slightly, “where the hell is…?” or note that the journey was somewhat extensive. I know they didn’t have the Overground or DLR back then but, come on. It’s not Penge.

On Thursday 14 May 1885, The Sporting Life did its utmost to cement Jack (then still occasionally known as John) Wannop’s reputation in New Cross as the man, the myth, the legend. This appears to be the point in which Jack really installs himself at the pub which soon becomes his first boxing and wrestling gymnasium.

Their coverage begins:


The celebrated John Wannop – whose gauntlet of defiance still lies on the floor of The Sporting Life office in the shape of a challenge to wrestle any man in the world in any style or in any possible number of styles – despairing of meeting with a ‘foeman worthy of his steel’ and heartily sick of inviting creation to tread on the tail of his coat, very pluckily offered a silver medal to be wrestled Monday evening at the above hostelry…

Jack Wannop sketched by The Sporting Life four years later

It was the first of many evenings which Jack intended to hold at The Glass House, formally known as the New Cross House, that summer, in order to encourage the sport in which he’d so far found great success. Indeed, The Sporting Life describes him as one of its “greatest living exponents”.

Boxing was promised to spectators, and the first bout of wrestling was to be held in the “catch-hold” style, which was gaining popularity at the time. The first man down was the loser, wrestlers were not allowed to wear boots, and catching hold of legs or “anywhere else, bar one” (blimey!) was permitted.

The newspaper’s wrestling reporter was so taken with Jack’s natural aptitude in this style of wrestling, that he suggests he should be credited with introducing it, and that it might even be renamed “Wannop’s style”.

A number of wrestlers took part in short rounds early in the evening, including Tom Thompson, who was thrown by J. Armstrong, before Jack and a Mr Arthur Budd of Blackheath Football Club boxed three rounds. They made quite the impression on our less-than-eloquent and somewhat flustered-sounding reporter:

“Mr Budd is a splendid fellow, and it is a real treat to see how he went for Jack. It is almost impossible to make any impression on Wannop’s iron mug, but there was no question about Mr Budd’s visitations there.

“Indeed, without the wrestling, which was very good, it was worth all the journey to New Cross to witness these two really good sparrers doing their best, and pasting one another real good.”

“Visitations on his iron mug” is such a wonderful way to phrase “getting walloped in the face”!

[I have only briefly looked into Arthur Budd, but I believe him to be the same dashing Bristol-born rugby player and Tory detailed in this Clifton RFC history article. He entered St Bartholomew’s Hospital – a fairly quick journey away from New Cross – as a medical student in 1884, and later emigrated to South Africa. He soon returned to London and was found, in 1899, unconscious on the pavement of Fetter Lane. Budd was admitted to Barts and died just over a week later, aged 46.]

More wrestling followed Wannop V Budd’s sparring, with athletes from Cumberland, Devon, Lancashire, London and Germany all taking part, leaving the audience highly satisfied with the range of different wrestling styles on display.

“More power to Wannop’s elbow,” the article concludes. I’m not entirely sure what this means, but it is likely a positive comment on Jack’s skills as both a pugilist and event organiser.

A month later The Sporting Life returned to The Glass House. Contrary to my original assumption that fights always occurred on the first floor, this one happens open-air, in “the grounds attached to Mr Baker’s establishment” – i.e. out in the beer garden, where Goldsmiths students and, on average, at least half the Department of Psychology lurk today in the pub’s 1890s-onward incarnation.

There’s reference to a “wrestling fraternity” in New Cross, and a match between Ike Miller and Jack Parker which caused much excitement and a great deal of money to change hands. The weather was as good as it could be, and while the crowd was somewhat smaller than expected, they were doubly enthusiastic.

“The two men have about the same thickness of limb, though perhaps Parker’s legs and formidable looking ‘huggers’ are more powerfully developed than those of Miller. About half-past-six the arena was cleared and Mr Walter Armstrong, who acted as judge, having called ‘Time!’ the two athletes stepped forth in their tights, amid the cheers of their partisans, to wrestle the best of five falls, catching hold of legs barred.”

Parker and Miller took a quick break while a chap called Leary took over and flattened several opponents in quick succession with his devastating buttock.

Jack Wannop and Tom Thompson demonstrate a ‘buttock’ for the camera in 1889

Parker and Miller returned shortly after to complete their battle, but Parker seems to be somewhat of a cheat. The umpire allowed him to grab Miller by the thighs – an illegal tactic in this style of wrestling – but Miller soon floored him with a half-buttock. Parker prevailed with a “left outside stroke” – a move he swore to the ref that he’d invented himself, while spectators protested in astonishment that it is in fact a “chip as old as the hills”.

So concludes The Sporting Life:

“The match was fairly and honestly wrestled and stands out in striking contrast to several more pretentious affairs we have both seen and heard of.”

Postscript: the year before this event, Jack Wannop and Jack Parker, along with two women named Julia Cheeseman and Elizabeth Gilley, were arrested for felonious wounding of a man named William Slade, a soldier stationed at Woolwich. More on that soon.

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