“Without doubt Jack is the most popular man in New Cross”

A lot happened during Jack Wannop’s 14-month absence from England. It was the year of the Ripper, of course. The Football League was established. The match girls went on strike, atheists became legally allowed to sit as MPs, and thousands of sheep mysteriously rampaged across Oxfordshire.  

Closer to home, theatre, dance, art and pugilism continued at the New Cross Hall, when the Liberal Unionists weren’t there debating the Irish question. A great fire blazed at 33 New Cross Road, baby twins were found murdered in a basket at New Cross Station, and a Peckham priest appeared dead in a nearby field, a revolver by his side.


[The best image of Jack Wannop to be found yet – 1889’s smooth face and cropped hair grown out. This sketch appeared in a 1901 Famous Fights magazine where it was used to illustrate a write-up of Wannop’s boxing match with former heavyweight champion Jem Smith]

On a slower news day, local fellow Joe Priestly placed a 55lb lead weight on his head and tried to walk, heel to toe, for over three miles, from the New Cross House to the Bricklayers Arms in Walworth in under 40 minutes. A little over half way through, a dog ran between Priestly’s legs, causing the weight to fall. Fear not, he recovered, and successfully completed the challenge. A great crowd gathered at Colonel Baker’s establishment to toast this great feat of skill and endurance.

The district’s youths – which as you can see from the above anecdote, were possibly in need of something useful to keep them occupied – were promised a new polytechnic on the site of the former naval school: the future Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Burly wrestler George Brown had held down the fort at Wannop’s New Cross boxing and wrestling club on Woodpecker Road while Miriam Wannop coped with the four small Wannops – Mary, Joseph, John Jnr and Rose – at home.

Brown had done his best to represent New Cross against the mighty George Steadman in his trainer’s absence, and Harry Hoare, upon his return to England after Wannop’s wrestling match with Evan ‘The Strangler’ Lewis, had challenged Brown to a match. Brown responded via The Sporting Life that Hoare “must mean lawn tennis, as G. Brown knows that HH has never boxed or wrestled in his life.” Good banter, lads.

In the second week of April 1889, a 34-year-old Jack Wannop boarded a Cunnard steamer, the Catalonia, from Boston, waved off by a dozen of the city’s eminent sportsmen – George Godfrey among them.

He arrived home – the family at this point were most likely based at 9 Batavia Road, New Cross, the site of my current office – on the 18th or 19th of April 1889. News of Wannop’s return “flew throughout that populous neighbourhood like wildfire” (The Sporting Life, Saturday 20 April 1889) and a hoard of pals, Tom ‘Curly’ Thompson, Baker of the Bricklayers Arms, and a Sporting Life writer among them, soon arrived to shake his hand.

Jack was still said to be suffering from the effects of rheumatic fever, while also recovering from his beating at the fists of Godfrey. But with a “glow of good health on his good humoured phiz” he told the gathered men that he had generally been treated well in America. He was much impressed with both the way Americans conducted business and with the quality of wrestling – their catch-hold wrestlers being “of a much better standard than any man produced in Britain.” Carkeek he classed as the best man in the world in the Lancashire, Cornwall and Devon styles. 

Wannop told The Sporting Life that he had some “humorous anecdotes relating to John L. Sullivan” but before the reporter could find out more, Jack was all but mobbed by admirers:

“Without doubt Jack is the most popular man in New Cross, as was plainly evidenced by the friendly grips he was affectionately favoured with by young and old.

“…a four-wheeled [horse-drawn cart] drove up, Jack Watson holding the ribbons, and took possession of the genial boxer and several friends for an airing. The appointment stands for to-day, when some racy particulars will be forthcoming.”

Wannop did the rounds – filling the Wellington Arms to capacity, before hosting a gathering at the Bricklayers Arms the following week. The newly formed Cumberland and Westmorland Amateur Wrestling Society were graced with his presence at their competition in Knightsbridge, and Wannop soon took a job as wrestling coach at the legendary Jem Mace’s central London school of arms. It is now a hairdresser on Brewer’s Street, I believe.

“Surely there must be something uncommon about a man who can command such a big following as that possessed by Jack Wannop,” concluded The Sporting Life on April 24th.  

Wannop also promptly posted notice in the newspaper that he was open to wrestling any man in the world, catch-hold style, two shoulders on the ground. Much annoyed by claims from George Steadman that Wannop was a “third-class performer”, he wanted the Cumberland giant above anyone and was even prepared to cover Steadman’s deposit if a match was agreed.

Jack was back, and wasting no time in re-establishing himself as a person of note.

Next up on Grappling With History: Jack Wannop hosts a grand assault-at-arms; the death of veteran New Cross wrestler Jim Brown; and Wannop challenges Jem Smith to a fight…

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