Sitting here almost a year into the pandemic, on a freezing, grey, miserable evening, months since I saw a friend, it seemed fitting to bring you a little story about happier, sunnier, more sociable times.
I cannot find out much about why Jack Wannop started the New Cross High Hat Brigade but can deduce from the Sporting Life’s reporting on its activities, and the names of the membership that it was a group formed as a spin-off of sorts from Jack’s boxing and wrestling clubs, and consisted largely of amateur and professional sportsmen and former sportsmen (many now in the pub trade) from New Cross, Deptford and Greenwich.
Whether they had any sort of specific civic function or unifying factor (fire fighting, fundraising or neighbourhood marshalling, for example) beyond simply being Jack’s mates, is difficult to determine. It appears they might simply have been a bunch of lads in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who were into pugilism, booze and wearing top hats when out on the town.
Jack established the High Hat Brigade in 1892, the year after he opened Wannop’s Gymnasium off Hatcham Park Road, and he put his right hand man Warren ‘Dais’ Patte in charge. The Sporting Life’s coverage of the annual summer outing in 1895 lists some members’ names: Jack and Jack Wannop Jnr, Sid Kemp as president, Colonel Baker (of the Duke of York, Blackheath Hill) as treasurer, Henry Kirby ‘of Holland and Co’, George Brown (‘of wrestling and boxing celebrity’), Arthur Turner, the boxer Richard ‘Dick’ Leary, Jack Hart, Johnny Keely, Will Taylor, Tom and Jem Thompson, George Camp, Dan Clarke (‘that bonnie Scotsman, Wannop’s friend’) and others. Hexham Clark – a Broughton wrestler, who knew Jack from his Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling days, but I have no idea why he was in south London at this time – also attended the event.
After gathering at Baker’s place, the High Hat Brigade set off “through the most salubrious Kent district” careering behind “four spanking greys”. The Sporting Life’s report, most likely scribed by Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong – a regular Life columnist and Wannop career chronicler – sets the scene:
“The day was gloriously fine and everyone was in grand spirits. Beyond measure the outing was a success, and the spread, under the catership of ‘Colonel’ Baker, was a champion set out and beyond reproach.”
Having called at pretty much every pub on the way, by the time the company arrived at the Lamb Inn, Sundridge, the men were getting hungry. After whetting keen appetites, they headed to the grounds.
“The bonniest bit of turf met our view to be found in a day’s journey, we were all astonished – such a green! With surrounding hills. Then here was Jack Wannop, prince of boxers and wrestlers; Dick Leary, mine host of the Fox and Hounds, Greenwich; George Brown of the Sugar Loaf, Greenwich, who once on a time wrestled a match with George Steadman, the champion of England; and last but not least by any means, Colin Campbell of the Dover Castle, Greenwich.”
Under the influence of the beautiful surroundings, lovely weather, and god knows how many pints sunk on the way, the athletes stripped off, “a move that was not only instantly copied, but imitated to the letter by the rival company present.”
“Considering that Jack Wannop had brought down some of the choicest spirits in his collection of artistes, we might be called a rather thick lot, and a few of us looked it.”
Cricket was the first item that the opposition [some East End lads, described as the Mallet Club] had on the card, and “thanks to Dais Patte’s corkscrew way of bowling” the cockneys didn’t stand a chance, but “accepted their defeat with a good grace.”
“This won’t do, get stripped, lads,” ordered Colonel Baker.
“Dick Leary threw off his duds, Geo. Brown cast off most of his attire, Colin Campbell threw his garments to the winds, when the subject of boxing was mooted. Just to whet the appetite of the yokels, Tommy Rolles and Johnny Kelby boxed three rattling rounds, the climax being such a near thing that an extra round was ordered.”
After a bitter set-to, Rolles got the verdict. Then a man in the crowd said he’d take on Dick Leary – “our Dick”. Leary commenced in an easy fashion and played light, actually having the worst of the first round. But “a revolution was awaiting the enemy”!
“After Leary had been fanned a trifle, he stood up on the green award in front of the opposition. ‘Twas a treat, Dick, who is one of the most accomplished of all Wannop’s pupils, played fast and loose with his adversary, who, when he fell down, was only lifted up to be laid out again.”
Then came the tug of war between the Mallet Club and the High Hat Brigade, with the Cross-buttocker as referee. It was easily won by the Brigade, which is unsurprising given the attendance of big boys Campbell and Brown. Wannop V Dais Patte with the gloves was up next, in a “rare set-to which delighted the assembly”. Brown then faced the equally sizeable Colin Campbell in the best of three rounds.
“These gentlemen are brother bungs in Greenwich, combined being somewhere above 40st, and probably a pair of more formidable looking gladiators never toed the scratch. The first round was splendid, as each tried for a knock out. ‘Blower’ Brown hit the representative of the Clan Campbell a fair twister in the breadbasket, thinking such would end the war. Not for Colin, who merely laid his man out when Wannop called ‘Time’.”
In the second round, both stood up “full of fight” and did wonders, with Brown appealing to Wannop at the end of the round to tell him who was winning. Wannop’s dictum was: “fight on”. Fight on they did, the referee ultimately calling a draw. The day went on – Arthur Turner and Charley Cave giving a splendid exhibition, as did Sid Kemp and William Dees of Newcastle. Kemp also won the 100 yards, with Patte and Hart tied in second place and Jack Wannop Junior (who was only 13 years old!) in third.
The Sporting Life rightly signed off its write-up with praise for the lady behind the sandwiches:
“Finally, a word of praise is due to Miss Crook for the handsome way in which she set out the spread.”
The High Hat Brigade feature in the Sporting Life on a few other other occasions, although their activities do not appear to have been regularly covered. On Christmas Day 1895 Jack – using the Sporting Life in the way these guys often did, as a Victorian Facebook wall – placed an advert in the paper requesting “the entire brigade to marshall themselves to-day (Wednesday) at one o’clock prompt” to meet at Mr Scott’s, the Marquis of Granby in New Cross, with the instruction that “the usual rules with regard to top gear and other eccentricities” should be strictly adhered to. Two days later, the Life reported that some of the gang sadly had better things to do:
NEW CROSS HIGH HAT BRIGADE
A limited number of members of the above assembled on Wednesday last at the Marquis of Granby, New Cross, in ordinance with annual custom. Prominent among those present being Jack Wannop, “Hexham” Clarke, R.B. Nugent, J.T. Robins, C. Moore, J. Thompson, J. Wannop jun., G. Camp, the “Cross-buttocker” &o. Letters of apology were sent by Messrs. Dais Patte, George Brown, Colin Campbell, Dick Leary, and Sid Kemp.
No doubt the unfavourable weather coupled with a rather late announcement partly accounted for the unusually meagre gathering, but the absentees, and also those other members who turned up in billycocks, are respectfully informed that the regulation fine will be duly imposed. The next meeting will be held at Mr. Colin Campbell’s, the Dover Castle, Greenwich, on the 29th, at eight o’clock.”
I’m not quite sure what to make of the part about being fined for not turning up, or arriving in a billycock (a type of rounded hat, like a bowler or derby) instead of a top hat! Come on, Jack, it’s Christmas Day…
The last mentions I can find of the group is in the Sporting Life are on the 15th and 17th September 1900, in notices, probably placed by Jack, which request that “old members” of the brigade attend the Princess of Wales, Grove Street, Deptford at 8pm on September 16th and 23rd to make arrangements for a picnic and sports, which will include a blind wheelbarrow race, boxing, wrestling and running. Baker was named as president, Kemp as chairman, and the first advert also appears to have a warning on dress: “the old rules will be strictly adhered to”. The picnic and a tournament were fixed for October 8th, with members and friends starting the trip at 9am from the Princess of Wales, Mr T.H. Thompson’s well-known hostelry on Grove Street, Deptford.
The regular reminders to appear attired correctly are quite comical in their strictness. I thought at first it may be some sort of private joke, but it seems Jack really was rather particular about the effort his boys should be putting in to their appearance. A 15th December 1892 note in the Sporting Life is especially tyrannical!
JACK WANNOP’s High Hat Brigade will meet, as usual, at the Glass House, New Cross, on Christmas Day. Any member disobeying the rules in showing up without the regulation tile [tie?] will be immediately disqualified, and a double penalty inflicted. Other disqualifications and pitfalls surround the institution too numerous to mention, of which all members have had due notice.
High Hat Brigades existed elsewhere, although there doesn’t seem to be any connection between groups and little information to be found (do write to me if you know stuff!) on what these associations were all about.
Four years before Jack formed his New Cross club, the Sevenoaks Chronicle, reporting from the Sevenoaks Guy Fawkes parade, observed “40 of the High Hat Brigade in the procession, as well as Women, Clowns, Soldiers and Sailors” (“there was one character who looked very wild, and who we understood was meant for Jack the Ripper, but it was perhaps fortunate it was not the real Jack the Ripper, or we have no doubt our indefatigable Police Superintendent would soon have landed him safe in the Police Station”).
In April 1890 the Newcastle Daily Chronicle reported on a Newcastle cycling club’s adventures in “tall silk hats”, dubbing them the High Hat Brigade, while an 1899 issue of the West Middlesex Gazette indicates the existence of an Uxbridge group using the name, a member of which found himself in court on assault charges against a teenage boy. The Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter in 1898 publicised “cricket novelties” coming up in the year ahead, including a “match between well known players wearing high hats in the old style of cricket, and a Foss Eleven. The High Hat Brigade will include Abel, Maurice Read, Storer, and many other well-known players”, and a 1913 copy of The Era mentions a music hall song including the lyrics “when the high hat brigade are on the raid”.
In conclusion, I believe Jack’s ‘gang’ to have been a social club for dads and lads, a respectable collective formed for past and present members of the boxing club to hang out in the pub, with occasional escapes to the country for fun in the sun. They would have made a fine looking bunch – burly, hard-working, moustachioed men who’d made a pretty decent life for themselves. Marshalled by ‘the most popular man in New Cross’, they really knew how to organise a pub crawl.