“Wannop walked on his head in a most extraordinary manner”

By mid-May 1889, Jack Wannop had settled back into New Cross life and answered a challenge from the visiting Jack Carkeek, an experienced American wrestler of Cornish background. With George Steadman – the recognised ‘British heavyweight champion’ – failing to fix up with Carkeek, Wannop was prepared to meet him instead for the ‘wrestling championship of the world’, in the Cornish, Cumberland and Catch styles.

But first Wannop was welcomed home to New Cross in the traditional fashion – with a grand assault-at-arms in his name, held at the New Cross Public Hall on what is now Lewisham Way. On Monday 20 May, “most of the best men” in the wrestling, boxing and fencing profession were set to appear at the benefit for “the popular Jack Wannop, whose reputation as a boxer and wrestler is now world-wide.”

The Sporting Life continued – 

“Financially, perhaps, Jack’s invasion of America was not a success, but the way his friends have rallied round him since his return is of the most pronounced character, and a bumping benefit is sure to be the outcome of their efforts. We wish him success.”

Now settled back into his role as “the most popular man in New Cross”, Wannop wound up the night boxing Alf Mitchell. Two days later he was at Waite’s School of Arms on Brewer Street in Soho, “amusing the company” with three rounds of Catch-wrestling against a Kit Elwood, winning the match with a cross-buttocker. Ever the hard worker, he wound up the night with a boxing match against Jem Mace Jnr.

[Upon returning from America, Wannop took on the role of wrestling coach at the legendary boxer Jem Mace’s gymnasium in Soho, central London. This advert is from The Sporting Life, June 1889]

With Jack billed as The English Champion, the match with Carkeek was set for Saturday 15 June, to be held at the Olympia on Martin Street, Plymouth, a grand circus pavilion said to hold up to 7,000 people. Wannop was the firm favourite in Plymouth, according to The Sporting Life’s advert for the event, while Carkeek was naturally backed by Americans based in London. Both men deposited £50 for a £100 prize purse. 

Wannop left London for Plymouth via Waterloo Station on Thursday 13th and The Sporting Life reported on the Friday that while Carkeek was in tip-top condition, Wannop’s post-America form was “too corpulent” for the struggle. The Salt Lake Herald also printed observations on Jack’s “superfluous flesh” – although both men are said to have weighed in at 12 stone. Confusingly, reports just a few weeks earlier noted that Jack looked a little lighter upon his return from America than he had been at departure. 

“It will be no walkover for either man,” continued the paper. “While Wannop is almost certain to be victorious in the Northern back-hold style, Carkeek, according to the opinion of good judges, will more than hold his own when it comes to the catch-hold business. Wannop… without doubt has every inducement to put his best leg foremost, as defeat can scarcely tend towards enhancing his reputation as a first-class wrestler.” 

The Saturday night crowd was not as large as expected, but certainly enthusiastic, and the combatants “deserved all the applause bestowed on them,” reported the Royal Cornish Gazette. The Sporting Life’s Walter Armstrong officiated as referee.

True to predictions, Wannop, having won the toss, quickly took victory in the first two falls in the Cumberland style, throwing Carkeek in less than eight minutes. Carkeek won the next two in the Cornish. The third round of Catch wrestling (“the finest and best contested ever seen in the West of England” according to The Salt Lake Herald) lasted an exhausting 50 minutes without either man gaining the advantage. 

“So evenly were the men matched” that after close to three hours wrestling, time was eventually called and the battle declared on hold until Monday night. Returning to the ring two days later, the men were set to ‘play’ for 20 minutes at a time with 5 minute intervals. The Omaha Daily Bee’s reporting described Wannop as being in “much better form”, with Carkeek acting on the defensive, continuing:

“Although Wannop made splendid attempts, Carkeek saved himself capitally. After an interval, Carkeek did good work, but Wannup [sic] was too clever. Even when his opponent actually stood him on his head, Wannop managed to land himself safe.

The enthusiasm was great and the play most exciting. In the third bout Wannop walked on his head in a most extraordinary manner, Carkeek holding him by the legs, but could do nothing.”

Carkeek got Wannop into a double Nelson and put him over onto his back, with both men playing “a determined game”. After another interval, Carkeek attempted a second double Nelson but Wannop “collared his opponent” and turned him over in grand style. With Carkeek attempting everything to escape, Wannop pulled him down fair with sheer strength. The excitement was intense – both men had “obtained a back each” and whoever won the next would take the match. 

The next round was set for just twenty minutes and as the clock ticked down, Armstrong was forced – after two entire evenings of action – to call a draw. Cheers were given to both men’s “plucky play”, the Western Daily Mercury concluding:

“Wannop played the most manly game, Carkeek resorting to the low trip too much. If Wannop had been in as good a condition as Carkeek, there can be no doubt as to what would have been the result of the contest.”

Carkeek returned to the United States for the next decade, before journeying back to England in 1899 to take on any wrestler who fancied him. In 1910 he was arrested in America under the name of John Fletcher, accused of being part of the ‘Mabray gang’ of dozens of sporting men accused of fixing boxing and wrestling matches for enormous sums of cash. For some time he had been an employee of the Wisconsin Central Railway Company. The case was dismissed, but not until Carkeek is said to have spent more than two years in prison.

Certainly the reputation of wrestling as a legitimate sport appears to have been greatly impacted by the incident. You can read more about the Mobray gang in this detailed Pro-Wrestling Historical Society post.

Jack Carkeek died in Havana, Cuba, in 1924, at the age of 63.

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