Finding Wannop’s Gymnasium

If there is any mystery that has taken me as many hours of research and head-scratching as the disappearance of Hezekiah Moscow, it is the search for Wannop’s Gymnasium. It’s not quite as exciting a story, but I have at least come closer to a resolution.

[A sketch depicting Ted Pritchard and Jem Smith inside Wannops’ Gymnasium during their 1891 fight. The crowd has been greatly exaggerated by the artist – only 35 or 40 people watched the match after it was moved to Wannop’s at the last minute.]

In the early to mid 1880s, Jack Wannop managed boxing and wrestling training and arranged events in a saloon (occasionally referred to as Wannop’s Gymnasium) attached to the New Cross House – then known as The Glass House – on New Cross Road. The pub was later demolished, rebuilt and re-opened in the building still standing today at number 316.

Later on in the 1880s the New Cross Boxing Club was based at a pub called the Lord Derby at 74 Woodpecker Road, New Cross. Wannop managed training there and hosted competitions. The Lord Derby was at various times also known as the Phoenix and the Earl of Derby. It was later demolished and in the 1970s the area was redeveloped and road layout changed. A new pub, the Spanish Steps, was built but now stands empty.

[The Sporting Life, Friday 17 February 1888. George Brown took over management of the New Cross Boxing Club when Wannop embarked on a tumultuous year-long tour of America. The tour will be the subject of my next blog post/s – as promised a while ago]

Across the 1880s and 1890s Wannop also held larger events at two public halls in the area – Amersham Hall on Amersham Vale and the sizeable New Cross Public Hall off what is now Lewisham Way – or he wrestled at events organised by others at these halls. All these buildings are long gone but it has not been too much of a challenge to locate their exact locations.

[Kentish Mercury, Friday 23 April 1886, 12-stone Wannop fights 16-stone George Brown at the New Cross Hall, also known as the New Cross Public Hall, which stood roughly where Ladbrokes and Big Yellow Storage are today]

In 1891 Jack Wannop opened his own gymnasium, imaginatively called Wannop’s Gymnasium. It appeared in dozens of articles over the next couple of years. Wannop placed regular advertisements in The Sporting Life about his facilities and teaching. And it is Wannop’s Gymnasium that hosted the high-profile championship match between Jem Smith and Ted Pritchard, a great glove fight for £1,000 which appeared across UK newspapers and was discussed for years to come. I will be featuring that in another post.

And yet not a single one of these articles mentions an exact address. I suspected at first that this may have had something to do with the illegality of prize-fighting during the period and a need to keep addresses off the radar of the authorities but I’m not entirely sure. Other new gymnasiums and boxing venues featured in The Sporting Life do sometimes have their exact addresses published, even if it is a bit vague, like “four doors down from Shoreditch station”. At a guess, it was just a case of… if you moved in boxing and wrestling circles, you’d know where it was, and if you didn’t someone would tell you. The papers just didn’t feel the need to go into detail.

And while that may be cool and enigmatic in the way underground clubs and bars do their thing now, thank’s Jack – it’s really annoying to me as a researcher. Here’s what I have managed to deduce from a small number of clues. This has taken me literally half a year.

The most common address given is simply “New Cross Gate” or sometimes just “New Cross”. The current New Cross Gate station was not renamed as such until 1923 so this likely refers to the general area and might imply the venue was further down the road, closer to the original New Cross Gate toll booth on the crossroads.

[An advert placed in The Sporting Life on Saturday 10 January 1891. The same advert appears in other later issues of the newspaper] 

Occasionally the gym is referred to as being located on Old Kent Road. New Cross Road becomes Old Kent Road (crossing the boundary from the borough of Lewisham and into Southwark) much further up than the old toll booth. References to Old Kent Road could be a mistake by sports writers unfamiliar with the area.

One article refers to the gym as being “close to the Five Bells”. The Five Bells still stands today, on the corner of New Cross Road and Hatcham Park Road. The building on the corner opposite it (now an estate agent) is interesting looking, but postal records suggest it was a greengrocer at the time Wannop opened the gym.

There are further references to the gym being “commodious” (spacious) and it is on one occasion called “the mansion”. One advert notes that “trains from all parts pass the door”.

[The Sporting Life, Monday 04 May 1891]

If this is to be taken literally, it would place the building where the New Cross Retail Park is today, perhaps on the site of the Sainsbury’s petrol station, carpark, or to the right of TK Maxx in this map.

I have searched Ordinance Survey Maps, Post Office London Directories, censuses and trade directories and I am yet to find an exact address for Wannop’s Gymnasium, although I admit to not being an expert in where to find and how to use historical maps. I continue to welcome input from those who are – please get in touch, local history / old map fans.

[1895 map showing the New Cross Gate / Hatcham Park Road part of New Cross]

This week I discovered one final clue and it is perhaps the most useful.

In 1892 a dance instructor by the name of Alexander U. Cole began advertising his Monday night waltz classes in the local newspaper, the Kentish Mercury. With no reason to name Wannop specifically as he is not trying to reach a boxing and wrestling audience, he refers to his venue as simply the ‘Gymnasium’ on Hatcham Park Road – the road leading from the Five Bells in the direction of the train lines.

It is extremely unlikely, of course, that there were two gymnasiums within a few seconds of each other in New Cross at this time. The population’s much bigger now and I believe there are still only two – Club Pulse at Goldsmiths (boxercise, 6pm, Tuesday nights!) and DoubleJab boxing club at the Moonshot Centre. It must be the same place. Wannop taught classes on Tuesdays and private lessons during the week until 8pm. At 8pm on Mondays, the dancers arrived:

[Kentish Mercury, Friday 28 October 1892]

By 1894 Cole was teaching on multiple days, and the building had been renamed Alexandra Hall. Perhaps it was some sort of franchise, with the Alexandra Hall in Blackheath and the Alexandra Hall in Penge? In November 1894 a William J. Cole, ‘late of Alexandra Hall’ (Kentish Mercury, 2 November 1894) hosted a grand ball at Amersham Hall, in Amersham Vale, New Cross.

So we still do not have an exact location for Wannop’s, and the area has been considerably altered by the retail park buildings and accompanying road layout, which makes it even more difficult to pinpoint a spot. Drawing together all the clues above, the TK Maxx area seems our best bet. At least I can stop spending my lunch breaks wandering up and down New Cross Road toward Old Kent Road, staring at biggish buildings in the hope that if I look up long enough some clue might suddenly appear in front of my eyes.

Wherever the gym was, I believe Wannop may only have been based there for a couple of years. A brief obituary for him published in 1923 notes that the gym did not “move with the times” which suggested at first that he may have held the keys for quite a while, perhaps up until WWI and the decline of wrestling’s popularity. However, the gym does not appear in the newspapers regularly, except in retrospective articles (for example, people writing into The Sporting Life years after Smith V Pritchard, asking questions about the fight), after 1893 – just two years after opening.

[The Sporting Life, Tuesday 21 March 1893]

I theorise that the short life of this New Cross gym might have had something to do with Goldsmiths. Six months after Jack opened the place, the Goldsmiths Institute launched to great fanfare, and with it a big, well-equipped, and respectable gymnasium behind what is now the Great Hall of Goldsmiths, University of London. With young men flocking to use it, could Wannop’s manor – which I imagine to have been a bit more spit ‘n sawdust, have survived?

[A poor quality scan of the Monday 27 February 1893 issue of The Sporting Life, showing an advert for Jack’s new gym in Forest Hill]

On Tuesday 28 November 1893, Wannop opened a new gym at 41 Stanstead Road, Forest Hill – this time with the exact address printed in the newspaper. The building still stands today. Previously the Forest Hill Hotel (see pubhistory.com for great images and information) it has been converted into flats.

A one-bed was sold last year for £280,000, which, frankly, seems very reasonable for London.

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