By day, the young man who had been attacked at the Brockley Jack was a 28-year-old brass-moulder called John Smith. By night, he was a prize-fighter known as The Greenwich Bruiser.
Smith lived on 13 Torr’s Lane, Deptford, at the time of his death in 1886, which might have been a different address to that of his wife Alice who was on Eugenie Lane (possibly Eugenia Road) in Rotherhithe, or perhaps she moved shortly after becoming a widow. I cannot find a Torr’s Lane on the map today, but believe it to have been off Lower Road. There was a Torr’s Factory in the area owned by a Mr Torr.
At 11 o’clock on the late August Bank Holiday morning, Smith left his wife at home and told her he was going to the Croydon Races. This was a lie. He went to meet his mate for beers. Nine hours later, Alice found him in New Cross opposite the Admiral Duncan pub with two black eyes, “pieces kicked out of his face”, and swollen lumps on his head.
While drinking in the Brockley Jack (now at 408 Brockley Road) the Bruiser had been set upon by two men, one rather confusingly also called John Smith, the other Micky Flynn or Flinn, although the Kentish Mercury went with John Smith and James Watts in their reporting. Smith, who lived at 10 Long Acre, Bermondsey, and Flynn/Watts of Tabard Street, Borough, were both just 18 years old. The Woolwich Gazette described them as “rough characters”.
James Lucas, an inspector of weights and measures from Deptford, later told the inquest that he had seen a large crowd gathered outside the White Swan and Smith (the soon to be dead one) was quarrelling with the other Smith and Flynn. An unnamed man who was neither Smith or Flynn stood in front of both of them and said “here, have a go at me! I’ll fight you!” but Smith (getting one step closer to being dead) said he wanted to fight him instead, and they went “several rounds”.
The group exited the pub a while later, leaving it in my imagination like a scene from 1990 movie Road House but with fewer mullets, upturned tables and smashed glass everywhere. Smith was then savagely set upon out on the Greenwich Road by five more men, including one who delivered a “terrific blow”.
Every time Smith fell to the floor his head hit the ground with a terrific thud. Another witness, a friend of the deceased named John Parker, swore that Smith started the fight at the Brockley Jack, and the pair had been drinking in there all day.
Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not, because these are all (bar Wannop) such common names, but Jack Wannop was also friends with a John Parker (a costermonger) who liked a fight outside a pub – in 1884 the pair were arrested alongside two women for an assault on a corporal in the Royal Artillery.
Smith’s Parker did not know how it was that Smith ended up fighting seven men (said to be “brickies”) at the same time. One man caught in the group skirmish at the ‘Jack – possibly Parker, which would explain the memory loss – had his head smashed through the pub’s window.
It had all began because of a dispute over a bet.
Smith somehow managed to walk half an hour to the Admiral Duncan, supposedly following his attackers down the road in pursuit of more fighting. After meeting his wife, he went home and took a bath, but said it was too hot and “made him feel queer”. Alice soaked some brown paper in vinegar and wrapped it around his head after he started complaining about pain in his head the next morning. On the Tuesday after the Bank Holiday, he went out again with Parker and a young woman, “sung about 14 songs” and was well enough to go to work on Thursday despite constantly complaining about head and rib pain. The Bank Holiday attack was not the first fight he had been in that month.
About a fortnight after the assault, Smith went to Guy’s Hospital and got a bottle of some form of medicine, and then purchased another from a chemist on Deptford High Street but did not consult a doctor. He continued to suffer from pains, cold sweats, and could not eat, then ended up briefly at King’s College Hospital.
Things took a turn for the worse on the 15th September and Smith was admitted to the Greenwich Union workhouse on the order of a Deptford relieving officer, and was then moved to the institution’s infirmary. Within hours of arrival, Smith became delirious, and had to be restrained by several men in order to avoid “doing himself mischief”. He had very bad diarrhea and stomach pains but his condition improved slightly after a couple of days and he was well enough to consume brandy, milk and eggs, which sounds like a rather pleasant last meal.
Smith “sank and died” on the 24th of September 1886. Various regional newspapers reported that a post-mortem concluded his death to have been from inflammation of the brain and “meningitis of several weeks standing, which would have been caused by violence such as having fallen on a hard substance”. His spleen was congested, caused by a kicking, and his lungs congested too, but the Coroner could not confirm whether death was due to violence caused in early August, late August, or somewhere in between. Evidence heard at the inquest suggested that Smith did not complain of the original injuries received at the Brockley Jack specifically, and thus an open verdict was returned on whether Flynn and Smith were responsible for the head injuries that killed him. It would be up to a jury to decide whether the death was caused by any one particular man.
The pair had their charges upped to ‘maliciously wounding’ and were remanded in custody again, having already served two month sentences with hard labour for the assault. But a man seen to have delivered a crunching blow to the deceased Smith’s head out on the street was not identified and police issued a description of the wanted man to the public. Flynn and Smith were brought up again in court but the new charges dismissed, as it could not be proven that they delivered the fatal injuries.
Mr Chapman, foreman of the jury, said there were frequent assaults by gangs of ruffians on the Greenwich Road, and the matter had previously been put before the Greenwich Board of Governors and Directors, who had instructed the vestry clerk, a Mr Bristow, to write to the Commissioner of Police to make the case that a greater protective police presence on the street would be a good start.
The deceased John Smith might have been known as The Greenwich Bruiser, according to reports of his death, but it is not a nickname that appears in the newspapers beforehand. Tracing him in boxing reports as John Smith or Jack Smith is not made easier by the fact Jem Smith was heavyweight boxing champion at this time, and a Cornish wrestler named Jack Smith was also in the area in 1884 (and had recently fought Jack Wannop and done himself an injury). Wannop also boxed a Jack Smith of Birmingham in 1885.
Lots of John Smiths in south east London are to be found doing an assortment of bad things in the 1880s – but whether any of them might be the victim John Smith or the murderer John Smith, or one of goodness knows how many other John Smiths in their twenties in this part of London cannot be determined.
A few months before his death, a John Smith of Deptford who worked as a whitesmith – a metal worker (The Bruiser also being a metal worker…) – was charged with stealing a pair of boots and an umbrella from the Admiral Napier pub. There were so many John Smiths around that on the day the Kentish Mercury reported this incident (July 30th 1886), it printed a story right underneath it about another John Smith stealing an overcoat from a shop in Deptford. Almost all the Johns, in all the cases, had been drinking.
At the inquest, Smith’s wife Alice had said of her husband that he could fight well, but was “a very inoffensive man”.
The Kentish Mercury countered:
“Instead of being a quiet man, deceased would seem to have been a boxing man.”