Back in New Cross – George Steadman v George Brown for England’s heavyweight wrestling championship

The month of May ended as badly as it had begun for a despondent Jack Wannop. In a step down from the 3,000 seats sold for his match with Lewis, his next appearance was at Milwaukee’s much smaller opera house.

In front of a tiny crowd Wannop was once again beaten, at catch-as-catch-can for $200 a side, in three straight falls. 

Wannop “had brawn, but lacked agility” and was no match for Duncan McMillan from the start, reported The New York Sun on 30th May 1888. “He was thrown by locks that a tyro [novice] might have escaped” and McMillan closed the last round in less than four minutes. 

ENGLAND’S CHAMPION DEFEATED ran the front page headline of the Maysville, Kentucky, Evening Bulletin.

Yet back in New Cross, south east London, two giants were fighting to claim that same title. At 42 years old and 5ft 10, George Steadman weighed somewhere between 18 and 20 stone and had a 48 inch chest. 

[George Steadman in traditional Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling gear, possibly in 1900. He retired in 1902 to give the young ‘uns a chance, and died in 1904, aged 59.]

Steadman (1846-1904) is the best known Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler of all time. Born in Ashby, East Westmorland, he had at his peak a following “reserved for the likes of Pele and ‘Magic’ Johnson in more recent years” and a wrestling career that lasted more than three decades. Acknowledged as the champion Cumberland wrestler for almost 20 years, Steadman had also been a formidable hurdle racer in his youth. Only one legitimate wrestling challenger ever really appeared – another George, the 19 stone Lowden. By 1888, Steadman “had won a greater number of prizes than any wrestler who ever lived” (The Sporting Life).

George Brown of New Cross was a decade or so younger than his opponent and stood 5ft 8 and a little over 16 stone. He was a friend and pupil of Wannop’s – I have seen at least one reference to an unnamed man in the 1880s referred to as “Wannop’s Big ‘un” which may have been George. Newspaper coverage suggests that Brown was only really known through his association with Wannop, and that he was “genial”, “herculean” and “sturdy”, possessing “that description of confidence which is often the forerunner of victory.”

He had been left in charge of the boxing gym at the Lord Derby, New Cross, while Jack was away. Brown had no experience “in the arena proper” (The Sporting Life, 5th June), having largely performed exhibition style, which was “merely show business”. He was, however, “very popular, and deservedly so, down Deptford way, and he is sure to have a host of followers”. Having a name as generic as George Brown makes you difficult to find. There are several born in the mid to late 1850s who are living in Deptford or New Cross in the 1880s. I hope to confirm some more biographical detail at some point.

[George Steadman and Hexham Clarke around 1900. I’ve been unable to find any photographs or sketches of George Brown.]

Brown’s challenge to Steadman had been announced in early April, and on the 24th of April a supportive benefit was held for Brown in the Lecture Hall on Deptford High Street. The night featured boxing by Deptford and Bethnal Green lads; weight-lifting with 90lb cannon balls “and other trinkets”; a dancing display by a one-legged man who performed “with the assistance of a crutch, but without the aid of music”; several pairs of sparring dwarves; and Tom ‘Curly’ Thompson with one of his classic “amusing displays of fearful antics”. We can only imagine. Graham Ross, the “lightning caricaturist” was on hand to sketch well known people. The Sporting Life noted that he failed to produce a drawing of the absent Wannop.

By late April, Steadman had accepted Brown’s challenge and placed a £5 deposit at the offices of The Sporting Life, agreeing to wrestle three falls in three styles – Cumberland and Westmorland, French and catch-hold. Brown had paid his deposit too by early May and the match was set for June 12th for a stake of £50 – the winner of two styles to take it all. The Sporting Life appointed the referee and set the stage – a carpeted one – as Brown’s local, the New Cross Hall. Tickets at the 1,000 seat venue were sold for one or two shillings a pop.

But the much anticipated fight was somewhat of a flop. 

While the men were expected to face the crowd at 7.30pm, it was close to 9 by the time they appeared. A Mr John Watson umpired for Steadman while a “great, strapping lad” – Steadman’s 15-year-old son Matthew – seconded. Harry Orr (not to be confused with Wannop’s manager in America, Harry Hoare) acted for Brown, who was seconded by Jack Smith. 

[Who cares about wrestling when there’s biscuit eating going on in Bethnal Green?! Article in The Sporting Life, 16th May 1888.]

The men received loud cheers, but in front of a “limited company”, and after some delay they got into a first grip. Steadman gave his man a quick left out-side chip and floored him immediately. On coming together a second time, both men were out of breath from their previous exertions. Steadman took a good look at Brown’s legs and, liking their position, gave him a clean outside stroke and had him down on his back easily. 

Brown “looked as grim as a brickbat while Steadman was smiling all over his immense anatomy” (the English Lakes Visitor, 16th June).

In his eagerness to down Steadman, Brown caught the champion by the thighs. Steadman simply stepped back, and Brown was on the carpet “in a twinkling.”

Steadman gained “such a hollow victory” in the first two rounds that a third wasn’t deemed necessary. The Kentish Mercury reports:

“Brown had not the ghost of a chance with his burly opponent, who won the toss, and chose the Cumberland and Westmorland style to start with, gaining two falls in a few minutes with ridiculous ease. Brown then selected the catch-hold style in which he expected to shine, but Steadman repeated the performance he had gone through earlier, and thus won the match in consummately easy fashion. Some exhibition wrestling and boxing also took place. Mr Walter Armstrong was referee.”

Within two days of beating Brown, Steadman issued a challenge to wrestle any man in the world.

His eyes were on America and Evan ‘The Strangler’ Lewis or “any other Yankee who fancied himself.”

[Saturday 24 August 1889 – an interview with George Steadman in the Pall Mall Gazette]

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