Who was The Cross-Buttocker? An Introduction to Walter Armstrong

[There are six photographs in Armstrong’s 1890 book showing two young shaven-headed men credited as Tom Thompson and Jack Wannop. A seventh image shows an older bearded man posing with Thompson. He is uncredited, and the most logical explanation is that he might be the author]

“Turn your left side to your opponent, get your hip partially underneath him, then, quick as lightning cross both his legs by your left and lift him from the ground. Both will come down, but your assailant will be undermost… The cross-buttock is a very fancy-looking move…” Walter Armstrong, Wrestling, 1890

Let me introduce you to the enigmatic Walter Armstrong, a wrestler, Sporting Life writer, and esteemed match referee who often went by the pseudonym Cross-Buttocker or The Cross-Buttocker. I say ‘esteemed’ now – but there’s a surprising plot twist in 1884 and, it seems, a rather sad ending.

Without Armstrong, I would have only half the project on my hands that I do now: it was he who discovered and promoted Jack Wannop long before my attempts to.

The Cross-Buttocker’s articles, letters, interviews and match reports, as well as his 1870 book Wrestliana and 1890’s Wrestling, have been invaluable for my research. At first it was much harder to find biographical details about the man himself, but this has now become a very long blog post as I kept finding new information every time I attempted to finish writing it.

Some of what follows I am certain of, other parts remain a little sketchy and confused. There is some discrepancy with Armstrong’s date of birth, for example, but I understand this to be common in records of this period. Additionally, there is some information I simply find too surprising and difficult at this time, with my limited resources, to fully explain. I’m hoping once I’m further down the road with my research to seek out descendants of some of my ‘characters’ and so I am hesitant to write on criminal histories, for example, without really solid evidence to support those stories. But as I’ve said previously, these blogs are for my work-in-progress.

So here goes, here’s a little of what I have so far on Mr Walter Armstrong:

Armstrong is not, much to my disappointment, the same Walter Armstrong who was also born in Scotland in 1850, educated at Oxford, had a career as an art critic, became Director of the National Gallery of Ireland and later received a knighthood. It would have been such a joy to discover arty moustachioed Sir Walter moonlighting in the sweaty pub gyms of New Cross. I’d definitely pay to watch that movie.

It might seem odd to us in the days of GDPR and online stalking, but not so long ago newspapers were inclined to publish a letter writer’s full house address, rather than just a street or town name, under their printed correspondence. So that was my starting point for finding Armstrong. His letters on wrestling are printed with his address: 60 Loughborough Road, Brixton, London.

[An extract from one of Walter’s letters to the Editor of The Sporting Life, about the Wannop V Kennedy match, published on the 16 August 1883]

Here is 60 Loughborough Road today, on the right side of the photo:

[The former address of Walter and Emma Armstrong. Picture via Google Maps]

Using that information I traced Armstrong, a commercial clerk in the tea trade, born in Scotland in 1838, to Lewisham Road in 1871, where he’s living with his Lambeth-born wife Emma and three children, daughters Ada and Minnie and a newborn son, Harley. It’s then on to 60 Loughborough Road in Brixton by the time of the 1881 census. He’s still with Emma, Ada, Minnie and Harley but now also a fourth child, Robina.

At the age of 43 he has not yet become The Cross-Buttocker. In fact, in 1881 he’s unemployed and a former ‘carman’ – a vague definition which most likely refers to a job, or in Walter’s case, a lack of one, on the railway.

But by 1891 Walter’s found his calling. Still living on Loughborough Road with Emma (a collar dresser) and with two of the kids moved out, he’s listed as a reporter.

The next bit is interesting, confusing, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it yet. On the 1901 census Emma’s still at Loughborough Road with Harley, and a friend called Margaret. Walter is not with them.

In 1901 there’s a Walter Armstrong, also married, also a newspaper reporter, living three miles from Loughborough Road, on Whittlesey Street, as a lodger. But he’s two years older than our guy, and born in Carlisle, not Scotland. Is it just a coincidence, perhaps, that there are two similarly-aged journalist Walter Armstrongs in South London? Is this our Armstrong and the date and place of birth a mistake? Or is the date and place of birth correct, and incorrect on the earlier censuses? Carlisle makes much more sense. There is no reference to Armstrong being Scottish in any wrestling reports I’ve found so far. There are lots of references to him being from Carlisle.

In 1900 a Walter Armstrong appears at the Old Bailey as the victim of a robbery. His address is “27 Nelson Square”, and he mentions that he is a journalist and “70 years of age”. He was robbed and knocked down by two men, who he thought were coming to shake his hand. He hastens to add that the pubs were closed and he was perfectly sober. The prisoner, John Dwyer, claimed to be a friend of Armstrong [the prosecutor].

“The prisoner, in his defence, stated, on oath, that as he had been drinking, that he sat down on a door step and afterwards on the kerb; that the prosecutor and he knew each other; that two men came up, one of whom had a big portmanteau, and knocked the other down with it…”

But Armstrong refutes this: “The prisoner’s statement is a tissue of lies… I had been writing a long article, and wanted to go to bed. I have been three times assaulted in my neighbourhood, but have never been robbed.”

Dwyer was found not guilty. Hopefully Armstrong managed to finish his article more quickly than I’ve managed with this one.

In 1902, 1904 and 1907 a Walter Armstrong is found on the records of a workhouse in Hackney but the details I’ve found so far, logged on Discharge Registers held by the London Metropolitan Archives, are not sufficient to determine if it is the same man. It’s unlikely:

Over this period our Walter Armstrong regularly pops up in The Sporting Life as a wrestling referee – including women wrestlers! – all over London. He’s getting letters delivered to him at The Sporting Life offices. In 1901 the newspaper even publishes this:

[A birthday greeting for Cross-Buttocker]

In 1911 we find our Walter Armstrong again, newspaper journalist, Scottish, born in 1838, married (not widowed) for 46 years and with four living children. But he’s registered at 31 Nelson Square – the same street name he gave at the Old Bailey in 1900, albeit a different house number. He’s passing his old age without Emma, and sharing the home of a middle-aged brother and sister and a couple of male tenants. Emma is still at Loughborough Road, with 40-year-old son Harley, and now-married daughter Minnie.

Let’s go back a bit to Armstrong’s glory days. Match results and reports across the 1860s and 70s show that in his 20s and 30s, Walter had a pretty good career as an amateur wrestler. Over several days in 1882 The Sporting Life advertised a benefit or testimonial in Armstrong’s honour, to be held at the South London Palace on 27 April, and these previews give us some extra detail about his earlier career including reference to a fight with John Graham in front of Emperor Napoleon III (date and details currently unknown, but Napoleon III was Emperor of the French from 1852 to 1870).

A David King, writing into The Sporting Life on Thursday 6 April 1882 continues:

“What has he done to deserve such a compliment? For my part, I think, apart from his wrestling, his greatest claim to notice is his successful term of honorary secretaryship to the Wrestling Society during that struggling period between 1868 and 1879. Almost immediately after he was appointed to the post he took the trouble to write a book containing the history of the club, and which, no doubt, was of material assistance as an advertisement in promoting the sport of which he has so long been associated.”

[Wrestliana: or, The History of the Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling Society – Walter Armstrong, 1870]

As a wrestler Armstrong trained – or as David King puts it, ‘picked up his chips’ – in Carlisle, under Jemmy Scott and Harry Ivison, before making his first public appearance in 1860 at the Carlisle Easter Wrestling where he gained first prize among lightweights.

Armstrong moved to London in 1861 where he was introduced as the ‘New Champion’ and fought first in Chalk Farm then in 1862 came third in an ‘all-comers prize’ in Hornsey. In 1863 he started a long-running tradition of winning a guinea for best costume. Armstrong, it seems, was a fan of fashion, and his white silk stockings and scarlet drawers attracted prizes right into the late 1880s. There is an entire chapter in his book, Wrestling, on traditional attire should you wish to know more.

At the Agricultural Hall in 1865 Walter came second for the ‘London Prize’, although in 1866 and ’67 King bluntly states: there was nothing worth noting. In ’68 Walter was elected to the honorary secretaryship of the Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling Society in London and puts competition on hold while working to encourage younger aspirants to fame.

Throughout the 1870s, annual Good Friday gatherings of the Cumberland and Westmorland club were held at London venues seating up to 10,000 spectators, including the Agricultural Hall and Lillie Bridge, and they became hugely popular events.

[The Sporting Life, 13 April 1870. Note that women are invited to sit in the audience – an ‘additional attraction’ – by invitation of the management committee]

So the early 1880s started well. At the April 1882 testimonial in his honour, Armstrong – who was by then around 44 years of age – repeated his legendary fight with Graham and “brings down the house” by felling his opponent with an “outside stroke”, although Graham ultimately proved successful by means of a “hench”. Trooper Ottaway demonstrated his sword skills by slicing up lemons (easily pleased, the Victorians), and Jack and Christopher Wannop faced off against each other in just one of many “highly interesting” wrestling displays. The whole night raised a handsome sum.

From the 1860s right into the 1900s Armstrong appeared in the newspapers often, predominantly as a referee in the later decades. He adopted the pseudonym The Cross-Buttocker in the late-1880s and also began to write to, and for, The Sporting Life. There’s just one very obvious period, in 1884, where Armstrong briefly disappeared from wrestling coverage entirely. Why?

On 28 July 1884 the 46-year-old Armstrong, a 23-year-old named Ebenezer Frederick Cobley, Francis Williams Adams, 24, and James Reigate, 27, appeared at the Old Bailey charged with the crime of “feloniously forging and uttering an order for the payment of 2l., with intent to defraud”.

The trial transcript is difficult to follow and contains no testimony from Armstrong himself, but to summarise: It was argued that Armstrong forged the signature of a Henry Statham on a number of cheques and gave one to Adams, who entered a boot-makers on 11 July and purchased a pair of 9s. 6d boots with a cheque for 2l. The boot-maker, James Parish, gave Adams 1l. 10s. 6d. change. Parish sent the boots to Reigate and the cheque to the bank, where it was declined for being a forgery. Armstrong had signed it under the name of his neighbour and fellow carman Statham, but the bank clerk determined that it was not Statham’s true signature. I’m not quite sure how Cobley was involved other than introducing Adams to Armstrong.

I could not believe at first that this was the same Walter Armstrong, author and former Honorary Secretary of a wrestling society and so on. But there his address was in the Old Bailey transcript: 60 Loughborough Road.

And this does not appear to be the only time Armstrong had attempted this scam. Fellow prisoner Adams said:

“Armstrong proposed that if we could get 20l. each he and I should go to Brisbane, and afterwards he said that he had some old cheques by him which he had when in business for himself; and a day or two afterwards he said that he knew several gentlemen who had an account at the same bank, and among them was Mr. Statham, and he used to practise making Mr. Statham’s signature in my presence—we were afterwards out together, and went into a public-house in Kennington Park, where he asked me if I would go to the bank with a cheque if he wrote one out—he then wrote a cheque…”

Adams and Reigate were found guilty and sentenced to six months hard labour. Cobley and Armstrong received “good characters” but both were found guilty, with Cobley sentenced to nine months hard labour and Armstrong to eight by Mr Justice Hawkins.

[Information from an 1884 England and Wales Criminal Register detailing Armstrong and friends’ sentences]

There is much more to come on this blog about Walter Armstrong from the late 1880s onward, including some of his wonderful interviews and Cross-Buttocker columns and his role in the establishment of a governing body for athletic wrestling – there’s far too much to include in this already rather lengthy post.

In 1912 a new weekly sports magazine launched, following the merger of The Mirror of Life and Boxing World. Cross-Buttocker was named among its contributors:

[Clipping from The Sportsman, 12 March, 1912. Cross Buttocker is described as ‘the Authority on Wrestling’]

In April 1917, a Walter Armstrong was admitted to the St George’s Workhouse on Mint Street, Southwark. His date of birth was entered as 1835 rather than 1838, and he was noted as being formerly of “36 Nelson Square” with a “wife, Emma, 60 Loughborough Road”.

Between the 20th and 24th December 1917 the Penrith Observer, Lancashire Evening Post, Yorkshire Post and others published variations on the following obituary:

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