I am currently working on two posts about Jack Wannop’s 1888-1889 boxing and wrestling tour of America and how it was reported before, during and afterward by the US and UK press. There are so many dramatic and absurd stories from his trip to share.
While I’m finishing those articles off, here is a brief tale from the previous year, when Jack was invited onto a superstar line-up to demonstrate the noble art of wrestling for Queen Victoria’s son Albert, the Prince of Wales.
This event has not gone undocumented. I’m sure it appears in Christopher Klein’s book on the boxer John L. Sullivan, for example, which should be arriving with me tomorrow. It will likely be known to many boxing historians already.
But this week was the first time I have come across Jack Wannop’s name in connection with it, in a copy of Reynolds’s Newspaper, a UK weekly which had a peak circulation of 350,000. Details on Jack’s involvement are sparse, but just the very fact he was there alongside a select few premier fighters, Sullivan included, is exciting for me. It helps prove my point that Jack was really famous, recognised and accomplished at this point in his career.
And it is such a shame that while so many of the men he fought against or alongside all have such detailed biographies and photographs online or in published books, Jack has long been forgotten.
I’m still exploring the legal situation for boxing and wrestling over my research period, but as it stood in 1887, parliament had “emphatically and legislatively condemned” prize fighting. The 1882 case, R v. Coney had determined that fighting with bare knuckles amounted to “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” even if both fighters were willing participants. Audience members could be committing the offence of aiding and abetting that assault by virtue of watching.
It might have been illegal, but the future Edward VII decided to stick it to the man – well, to his mum, technically – and sneakily go and watch some.
Arrangements were made by Captain Drummond of the Scots Guards and Sir William Gordon-Cumming (Scottish landowner, socialite and soldier who liked the attention of women who weren’t his wife as much as his buddy Bertie did) to organise a bespoke line-up of boxing talent for the Prince’s pleasure, with the help of Mr Flemming of the Pelican Club.
Reynolds’s Newspaper reports that the Prince had expressed a specific desire to meet and watch ‘Sullivan’, who we can of course deduce to be John L. Sullivan, American heavyweight boxer and an absolute(ly terrifying) legend then and now.
Sullivan’s official records do not list this exhibition match specifically, but they do show that he took part in more than 50 exhibitions in the UK across 1887-1888. On 5th January 1888 he then knocked out William Samuells at Cardiff’s Philharmonic Hall and fought Jack Ashton on the same day, before two more bouts in Portsmouth and Nottingham and home to the US via a Bareknuckle Heavyweight Championship win in France.
A few years later, Sullivan and Jake Kilrain became the last men to fight for the world title under London Prize Ring Rules, i.e the last official bare-knuckle heavyweight title bout.
I digress. Back to 1887. On the 9th December a private exhibition for the Prince of Wales was staged at the London Fencing School, based on the top floor of No.7 Cleveland Row, St James’s, with Sullivan headlining against Jack Ashton.
Other “talent” engaged to perform for the Prince included Jack Wannop and George Brown in the night’s only wrestling match, and the boxers Fred Johnson, T. Euston, C. Williams, ‘Nune’ Wallis, Sam Blacklock, Ruben Baxter, Pat Mullens, middle-weight amateur champion W. J King, and Alf Greenfield.
A ‘Smith’ is also mentioned in Reynolds’s without a first name, and he was introduced to the Prince alongside Sullivan so all three could have a chat. Imagine how popular you needed to be to not warrant a first name in the newspaper when your surname is as common as Smith!
It is obvious that this was Jem Smith, Heavyweight Champion of England. Three years later, Smith fought what I believe was his last bare-knuckle fight against Ted Pritchard in none other than Jack Wannop’s gym in New Cross. I will definitely have at least one blog post on that 1891 fight coming soon – the public were gripped by every tiny detail and there are some fabulous illustrations in The Sporting Life. Rarely has New Cross been as high profile before or since.
“The men whom the Prince met and openly shook hands with openly declare that breaking this law [against prize-fighting] is the object of their being in England,” reported Reynolds’s.
One small incident threatened to spoil the night. The guest-list was tightly controlled and the Sheffield Daily Telegraph notes that the Prince was adamant it be a very private event. Had he known it would be publicised in advance or his presence leaked, he would never have attended. Yet an invitee, a Mr Phillips, brought with him an uninvited guest, who just so happened to be a reporter with a New York daily newspaper. In an example of extreme trust or foolishness, the journalist was allowed to remain in the building.
And leaked the Prince’s presence was, with details soon appearing in the Chicago Tribune and then in the UK press. The Edinburgh Evening News sets the scene with extra detail I did not have when I commenced this blog post, but will present to you now:
“The Guards’ gymnasium is a gem in a way. The fighting ring is a model and the fencing spaces admirable. The walls are adorned with pictures of good guardsmen who have gone before. Standing in front of an open wood fireplace, toasting himself, was the Prince.
He was dressed in a cut-away black coat, grey trousers, drab gaiters, and thick, solid walking boots. He was smoking a cigarette. Not an American one, by the way, for, as he subsequently remarked to me: The only thing American I don’t like is American cigarettes.”
Sullivan was clad demurely in black, “as innocent to all appearance as a Sunday school superintendent and as self-contained as a young lady who had seen several seasons”. Much of what follows in the Evening News is, unfortunately, too hard to read due to faded print but I’m hoping to find a better-quality scan of the article. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any more reported on Wannop V Brown. I do not know who won, or whether Jack actually met the Prince.
In Sandringham’s official confirmation of events weeks after the fact, they denied that the Prince spent a long amount of time conversing with our athletes. He did compliment Smith on how remarkably unmarked his face was following a “rather severe” bout with Greenfield, and praised Sullivan for his “tremendous hitting power” and then dashed away into the night, accompanied by his then Groom-in-Waiting Sir Francis Knollys.
Rumour abounded via the media that the Prince would be overseeing “a committee organised for the purpose of presenting Smith and [Jake] Kilrain with testimonials”, meaning a banquet at the Pelican Club to mark their recent fighting achievements. Knollys swiftly telegrammed the papers to tell them that this was utter nonsense and the Prince had never even heard of the committee let alone been a member of it.
Knollys was also forced to deny reports that Sullivan had been overly “free and easy” in his speech with the Prince and had even taken the liberty of offering him a private tour of Boston next time he was in the States.
Speaking of Boston…
NEXT WEEK ON GRAPPLING WITH HISTORY
Resolute as a lion, cool as the regulation cucumber, Jack Wannop prepares to crack America. It’s the pride of New Cross V The Strangler for the heavyweight wrestling championship of the world!