“Here we find the courageous Cumbrian trying conclusions with half a pint of bitter” [Finding Wannop’s Gymnasium – Part II]

Trying to find the exact location of Wannop’s Gymnasium in New Cross has been one of the most time-consuming and frustrating parts of my research.

As explained in a previous post, which pieced together all the evidence collected on my hunt and took an educated guess at an address, Wannop doesn’t appear to have been particularly good at marketing the place: there is no mention of a road name or more precise address in any advert for the building, including the one for his opening night in January 1891. Nor is a street name mentioned in any coverage of boxing or wrestling matches at the site. The most detailed it gets is “New Cross”, “New Cross Gate” or, on one occasion, “close to the Five Bells”.

A new article, discovered in The Licensed Victuallers’ Mirror – a publication I had previously not been able to access – finally sheds far more light than any other clipping, map or post office directory I’d been scouring so far.

A reporter and a newspaper sketch artist, hearing word that the great Cumbrian wrestler had opened his own premises in New Cross, set off to find it and tap on Jack’s shoulder for a chat.

They found this challenge as difficult as I, and while they do not specify a precise address either, they left enough clues in their write-up to conclude that I was almost correct in my previous conclusions on the gym’s location.

A South-Eastern train dropped them “leisurely at a station on the broad high road” – that would be New Cross Road, and the station now known as New Cross Gate. The gymnasium was “close to the station” but they did “not happen soon upon it”. The writer notes:

“The genial Cumbrian has not largely advertised himself; no painted signs point the way to his seminary.”

But they are saved a wasted journey by a friendly policeman, who shows them in the direction of a “dark mews” and tells them that Jack’s “shanty” is about half way down.

[The writer and artist ask a police officer for directions. Observe the ‘Spirits, Ales’ sign, which suggests they may have been outside the closest pub, The Five Bells]

I had originally pinpointed the site of the gymnasium as being at the end of Hatcham Park Road, and thus now demolished and replaced with a TK Maxx and other retail outlets and their carparks.

But let’s say the reporter and his mate had still been on New Cross Road, just about to turn onto Hatcham Park Road at the other end, when they came across the policeman. He’d merely have to gesture slightly to his right to indicate the turning onto Hatcham Park Mews.

The reporter continues:

“Here again we were at fault. The mews contained a number of stables, as it is the nature of a mews to do; and before one comes to the stables is a small conventicle which may once have been the temple of the Anabaptists.

“In proportion and appearance it resembles very much the Friends’ Meeting House, which in the first act of The Dancing Girl occupies the O.P. side of the Haymarket stage.”

Well, look what we find if we turn at the Five Bells onto Hatcham Park Road then venture down Hatcham Park Mews today and stop at the bend, around the half way point:

The frontage has clearly been modernised but the brick looks older, right? And the shape is somewhat.. chapel-like.

“A communicative ostler surprised us by saying the building was the home of Wannop. And there is perhaps nothing so extraordinary in the fact that a building, in which tough contests aforetime were fought with the enemy of souls, should become subsequently the scene of more material battles”

The two men hammered on the front panels of the “converted conventicle” to no avail – all was dark and silent.

[Outside Wannop’s chapel]

“We were about to turn our backs on New Cross in very disgust, when the same communicative ostler… again approached and volunteered the information: ‘P’raps Mr.Wannop is hup at the Five Bells.

“Forward the Light Brigade! Charge the Bells!”

[Hatcham Park Road, showing the turning onto Hatcham Park Mews, and the Five Bells on the right. They do the cheapest glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in London by the way – yes, cheaper than Wetherspoons. Image from Google Maps]

“The Five Bells is a large, but comfortable ‘pub’ at the top of Wannop’s Mews, and here we find the courageous Cumbrian trying conclusions with half a pint of bitter.

“After a few preliminary observations on ‘fine old fashioned writers,’ and topics of that exhilarating character, we approach the subject of our quest, and wish the Champion all the success he deserves in his professional capacity.

“‘The Reverend John Wannop’ is suggested, under the circumstances, as a proper designation for a gentleman hiring a chapel: but this does not appear to meet the fancy of the pugilist.”

In answer to some questions of a biographical nature, Jack told them his birthplace (Carlisle) and coyly noted that he was “over thirty years of age” (he would have been 36 in 1891), tipped the scale between thirteen and fourteen stone when in training, and had a chest measurement of 42 1/2 inches. He then zoomed quickly through some career highlights:

And with that the Licensed Victuallers’ party wished him success with his new business venture and took their leave, observing that at the end of the mews are some “firemen preparing the escape, which, next to Jack Wannop’s gymnasium, is the chief feature of the bye-way.”

Plans for the gorgeous Grade II listed fire station in New Cross at 266 Queens Road were approved in July 1891 and it was completed three years later – I’ve so far been unable to find much information about a smaller premises previously on Hatcham Park Mews or the corner of the Mews with Hatcham Park Road.

@drbenswift suggests that the firemen mentioned here could actually be men responsible for keeping fires going, in boilers or steam trains perhaps (rather than those responsible for putting rogue ones out).

Modern flats take up the first few metres of the Mews and once you round the bend with the chapel-shaped building on your right, you find more modern developments. The chapel-shaped building is incongruous – wedged between the new-build Smikle Court and Marlu Court.

Local newspaper adverts for services indicate that there was certainly a Free Church of England premises on Hatcham Park Road itself during the early 1880s but if a small religious building stood on the Mews I can find little evidence of it.

Although… In 1887 a Rev Patrick Frederick Duffy, alias the Rev Frederick Clarke was arrested for fraud, having numerous collecting books and printed circular appeals designed to raise money for churches in various parts of London which did not exist or that existed but were in use by other congregations and had nothing to do with Duffy.

He was also found with printed advertising for upcoming sermons at “St Paul’s, Hatcham Park Road, New Cross”, which was described as “a small mission building rented by the prisoner” and supposedly due to open on 15 May 1887 under the “Rev Dr Clarke”. No such premises existed, as far as I can determine, on Hatcham Park Road but could it perhaps be the same building on the Mews which was later rented by Wannop?

As an aside, Duffy was quite the character:

[Hampstead and Highgate Express, 27 August 1887]

Finding Wannop’s Gymnasium matters because almost everywhere else he lived, worked and played has disappeared. The Five Bells thankfully still stands. His first boxing gym at the New Cross House was demolished and replaced with the current building in the 1880s. His second, at the Lord Derby on Woodpecker Road, was also later demolished. His fourth, at a pub in Forest Hill, remains but has been converted into flats. His family homes on Batavia Road and Cottesbrooke Street were replaced by flats and my office. The public entertainment halls on Amersham Vale and Lewisham Way, used regularly for boxing and wrestling, are gone.

I’m not 100% certain that the chapel-like building on Hatcham Park Mews today is Jack’s manor but I do believe this precise location, give or take a few metres or so to its left, is correct.

Suggestions and further evidence from better local historians than I are always very welcome.

This post is written with enormous thanks to the excellent detective skills of my Official Unofficial Research Assistant, Dr Ben Swift.

[1893-94 map of Hatcham Park Road and surrounding area. The site of the current chapel-like structure is indicated in brown, and another possible location for the gym/chapel suggested in blue]

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