Last week I read Andrew Horrall’s excellent Popular Culture in London c. 1890-1910 (Manchester University Press, 2001), and in Chapter 10, Boxing, he explores the introduction of sport to the music hall stage.
In the two decades prior to WWI, boxing was transformed from “brutal, semi-legal origins to middle-class respectability” writes Horrall and during the heyday of the music hall it made perfect sense to bring sport and theatre together, given the public appetite for watching fights. Pugilists not only toured the scene to show off, but numerous plays were written with fight scenes intended to star proper fighters, because they were guaranteed to pack in the audiences.
United States Champion John L. Sullivan, for example, “shifted from sports arenas to music halls” in the 1880s and ’90s, becoming a frequent act on the vaudeville circuit, who then spent his wages on chorus girls. The Fighting Parson was later an extremely popular Edwardian melodrama, climaxing when a “boxing clergyman trounced the local evil-doer” (Horrall).
So I’ve had a quick look tonight to see if Jack Wannop ventured into theatre, and, low-and-behold, he did. My newspaper source material to date has largely consisted of The Sporting Life with occasional dips into the Sportsman and the South London Press, but if we look further afield to The Era or The Stage, for example, we can find a little about Jack’s dramatic debut.
I might have mentioned several times that the wrestling I am studying is “the athletic kind” not the “sports entertainment” type which developed in the UK from the 1930s onward, growing incredibly popular in the 1960s and ’70s here before the American WWF (muscles and mullets, not pandas) dominated in the 1980s and ’90s.
But even in the 1890s it’s undeniable that there’s crossover. Our athletes are also now personalities, characters, actors, brands, and they’re embracing and exploiting their fleeting fame in any way they can. For those who still sported large fanbases but were reaching their twilight years as active competitors, you can see how the theatre was an attractive platform for their talent (and egos…).
On Saturday 3 June 1893, The Era – a British newspaper published weekly between 1838 and 1939, noted variously for its sports and theatrical content – reviewed a 29 May production by playwright Forbes Dawson, performed at the Elephant and Castle.
The Days to Come had a cast of 16, including Jack Wannop playing Jack Wannop, and Jem Mace as Jem Mace. The review begins:
“Mr Forbes Dawson’s drama The Days to Come has obviously been ‘written around’ a sparring match in three rounds between those experienced pugilists Jem Mace and Jack Wannop, and will not bear being considered too seriously a work of art.
“Many of the incidents are exciting, though familiar, and the part of the travelling tinker, Tim Flannigan, is humorously written. The ‘smacks’ at the aristocracy and the bits of flattery at the working class being very effective.”
The plot centred around a Dick Talbot, played by a Mr T. F. Nye. Although a gentleman by birth, we find him with a “fourth-rate travelling company” and married to a drunk. His father-in-law is also his manager and company owner, and a heartless brute. Talbot learns through a newspaper that with the death of his cousin he has now inherited the title of Sir Richard Bolton of Bolton Court, so he escapes the travelling company and takes up the position.
His drunk wife dies and Sir Richard marries a posh girl called Alice, but another Bolton (Captain Bolton) also loves Alice so he sends a man called Beale to kill Sir Richard. Beale whacks Sir Richard round the head, and Richard falls in a river, but is rescued by an amiable Irish stereotype, the philosophical gypsy Flannigan.
Sir Richard hides out in Beale’s house and is found by Captain Bolton BUT Flannigan knows the boxer Jem Mace (played by Jem Mace) who easily disposes of Captain Bolton’s henchmen, in a scene I imagine to be exactly like one of the ones with wrestler Terry Funk in my all-time favourite movie, Roadhouse (1989).
Then Beale locks Sir Richard in a cupboard and sets fire to the house but the unlucky Richard is again rescued by Flannigan. Conveniently, Sir Richard’s pal is Jack Wannop so he gets Jack to come over and have a fight with Mace (under proper Queensbury rules, by the way, this is evidently not Roadhouse).
An actress called Dolly jumps in to break up the lads, and Bolton then tries to carry her off to be his mistress. Wow, this really is exactly like Roadhouse.
“The piece was credibly played” remarked our Era theatre critic, although poor Maggie Byron, who played Bolton’s second wife Alice, was only described as “artless and acceptable”. There were a few “little halts and hitches” in the production, but “on the whole the piece went well, the boxing being very much enjoyed”. No further information is given on Wannop or Mace’s performances, unfortunately.
A quick scout of the internet for Forbes Dawson throws up only a modern-day tax consultancy in Altrincham. But the British Newspaper Archive, as always, provides. This brief biography is from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News in July 1886:
Typically, throughout the 1880s we find wrestlers and boxers in south east London on a bill of wrestlers and boxers, perhaps with a little sword fighting, gymnastic display or odd novelty thrown in, but by the 1890s the boundary between sport and ‘entertainment’ is very much blurred.
At the South London Palace in 1895, for example, we find both Wannop (“ex Champion Wrestler of the World”) and Tom Thompson (“Champion of Kent”) performing an exhibition of wrestling in the Lancashire style. They’re not joined by other wrestlers or boxers, but by Fannie Leslie (“Queen of Burlesque”), the Northern Troop of International Dancers, a comedy “boxing absurdity” and a number of musical sketches.
“Boxing had a hold on the stage” concludes Horrall, with boxers turning to art and artists turning to boxing. He makes a valuable point about fighters (here he’s referencing Edwardian England rather than Victorian but it remains applicable) who reached a degree of celebrity and wealth which took them away from their “tenements and terraces”: they used to “accidentally tread on your toe” as they passed in daily life, but then became estranged from their communities. Appearing at the music halls meant the public could get close to their talent and personality again.