Searching for Clever Dick Leary and George Brown, the New Cross Hercules

It has all gone a little quiet here on the Grappling with History blog, my apologies. I’m currently working on my MA dissertation about Jack Wannop and his New Cross gymnasiums; researching and writing a lengthy blog post on Burnley wrestler J. W. Price (1870 – 1957); and still hoping to put together an article on Wannop’s boxing match with Jem Smith in 1892. Then book planning begins!

Having not left my flat since March for anything other than food shopping, I decided last weekend that my first ‘outing’ would be a trip to Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries – where Jack is buried – to search for his friends, the wrestler George Brown (1850 – 1906) and champion boxer Richard ‘Dick’ Leary (1865 – 1912).

First, we said hello to Jack, Miriam, Thomas and Mary. The Wannop plot is looking rather unloved, and I really should do something about it:

Brown was Jack’s wrestling student (earning the moniker ‘Wannop’s Big ‘un’) and exhibition wrestling partner. He must have cut quite the figure at around 5ft 7 and 16 stone and is often referred to as the ‘Herculean’ Brown of New Cross. With a name as generic as George Brown he has been rather difficult to trace through records and newspapers, but I’ve managed to piece together some of his career highlights for future publication. Unfortunately, no photographs have yet been found.

My post about Brown’s 1888 heavyweight championship match in New Cross, which he lost to the mighty George Steadman, is published here.

In August 1895, Brown became the landlord of the Sugar Loaf pub in Greenwich, which is sadly long gone, and at 56 died at his house on Napier Street, New Cross (possibly Napier Close, off Amersham Vale) from dropsy.

The Sportsman, 17 July 1906

The Deceased Online database of death dates and grave plots informs me that Brown is buried in grave ‘A/Con/208’ in Brockley Cemetery’s round central section, but despite several hours of searching we were unable to find him. The overgrown grass is beautiful but not helpful for hunting! With waist-high weeds and unsteady footing from grave edges, we could get a good look at the rows of headstones around the edges of the circle but not in the centre of each quarter. Of course, in a cemetery this old, many of the headstones have inscriptions which have entirely worn away, and some, like the Wannop plot, will have no marker at all.

We did find a George Brown who died in the 1920s, and a bench dedicated to a Locksley George Brown (“A man of principle, heart of a lion, RIP”) but our heavyweight grappler remains hidden in his final ring for now.

Oh dear! Brown, allegedly scaling 18 stone at this point, was thrown quickly by the 12 stone Gallagher (The Sporting Life, 15 November 1889)

Next we tried to find Richard ‘Dick’ Leary, a well known boxer from Deptford who died at his home (7 Albion Hill, Lewisham) in his 40s in 1912, leaving behind a wife, Ada, five young sons (Henry, Arthur, Charles, Edward and Walter) and a daughter. In 1895 Leary had become the landlord of the Fox & Hounds at 56 Royal Hill, Greenwich, a lovely little building which still stands today as the Greenwich Union. Dick is buried in C/Con/144/X on the outskirts of the Brockley side of the cemetery in an area bordering Brockley Road.

The Sporting Life, 11 April 1912

I am yet to start any serious research on Leary’s boxing days, but in a brief death notice published in the Illustrated Police News, he was described as “undoubtedly one of the cleverest men in the 10st class”. The Sporting Life‘s headline claimed him as “One of the best boxers of twenty years ago”:

“Several times he came very near to winning premier honours. In 1888 at the Royal Aquarium, he qualified for the semi-final, in which, after a rare tussle, and one of the cleverest bouts ever seen, he was defeated by Dick Burge (now a second at The Ring), who in turn was beaten by the late Ted Pritchard in the final … Leary was frequently called upon to concede weight with more than ordinary success.

It was only a few months ago that he was present at the Amersham Hall, New Cross, looking fit and well, and had the pleasure of witnessing his son, a member of the old Goldsmith [sic] B.C., winning a competition. Always well behaved and greatly respected, the deceased, since his retirement from the ring, prospered as a licensed victualler.”

A Sporting Life write-up of a boozy 1895 outing for Jack Wannop’s New Cross High Hat Brigade social club – George Brown and Dick Leary in attendance. My favourite quote from another portion of this article: “Considering that Jack Wannop had brought down some of the choicest spirits in his collection of artistes, we might be called rather a thick lot, and a few of us looked it.”

Dick Leary’s grave was also, sadly, nowhere to be found – this portion of the cemetery including more than its share of unmarked plots and worn-away stones. Not to be deterred, I’ll be heading back in future for another search. It was still a lovely day out, culminating in some much needed large wines at the Brockley Jack.

You can read more about Jack, George and Dick’s famous, fascinating and fantastic permanent neighbours on the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries website. I was recently invited to contribute an article on Jack, which you can read here, or via Ladywell Live. Even if you’re not odd enough to spend your weekends wading through brambles on a hunt for dead pugilists, it’s a beautiful peaceful place for a walk, jog or squirrel-watch.

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