The Most Popular Man in New Cross (Introducing Jack Wannop to Carthorse Orchestra)

I was recently invited to Carthorse Orchestra, a charming online evening gathering of intimidatingly creative and literary types hosted by the author David Collard. Each week David organises an eclectic programme of short readings, discussion, film and performance to entertain and connect people during lockdown.

The night was themed ‘wrestling with French literature or wrestling, with French literature’ and I was honoured to join a number of writers and readers from the continent, a magician, and Toby Litt, novelist and writer of thoroughly entertaining wrestling history slash memoir slash many other things, Wrestliana (Galley Beggar, 2018).

We talked about wrestling very old, old, and new, and compared ‘The Rugged South London Tough Guy’ Mick McManus v Catweazle some 40 years ago to the fast-paced punk-aesthetic antics of Bethnal Green’s modern indie wrestling scene.

A transcript of my 15-minutes-or-so talk, including parts not read aloud due to time constraints and various tangents for questions and discussion, is presented below as a quick ‘beginners guide’ to Jack Wannop.

There are more original research blogs on the way.

On the southern edge of Brockley Cemetery in south east London, the side running along Brockley Grove, just in front of a patch of unmarked paupers’ graves and behind a few rows of old, weathered, but more intricate headstones, is a small plot half outlined with two inches of sunken grey stone edging. There’s a shard of broken ornamental urn lying in the middle but no proper marker with names and dates or platitudes. You wouldn’t know the following unless I told you:

About ten feet down lies May Wade, nee Wannop, a 25-year-old newlywed who died in 1918. Above her is her father, John ‘Jack’ Wannop, who was born in Crosby-upon-Eden, Cumbria, at the end of 1854 and died in Greenwich hospital in 1923. Then there’s Thomas Wannop, born 1890, dead aged 38 with lungs ruined from battlefield poison gas. Finally, a few feet below the surface, lies Miriam Wannop, Jack’s wife, a remarkable mid Victorian woman who lived long enough to see WW2 bombs fall on New Cross, and outlived most of her 10 children.

A few seconds’ walk away are the graves of Jack’s pugilist pals, the Herculean George Brown – a 5ft 8, 18 stone wrestler and Greenwich publican, and Dick Leary, a middleweight boxer described as one of the cleverest in his class. Jack lived to say goodbye to both. Dotted around the cemetery are Wannop babies too, one, Margaret, belonging to Jack and Miriam, John and Alfred, born a couple of years later, I believe to be grandchildren, most likely the sons of Jack Jnr and his wife Alice. Alice would have given birth to Alfred the same year her mother in law, Miriam, had her final child, Hilda.

I’m not a relative, but I pop by and see them sometimes, and check for litter. On more than one occasion I’ve said ‘alright Jack, how you doing’ out loud, then sat down and checked my mental state.

I am obsessed with Jack Wannop. It started two and a half years ago, at the beginning of an MA in History at the cemetery’s closest university, Goldsmiths, and during a period of singledom (kind of). I realised that chasing dead men was much more interesting and satisfying than pursuing live ones.

Researching and writing about Jack has led me down countless rabbit holes piecing together the stories of his friends too, all of which are missing from wrestling and boxing history despite having the most fascinating, often very tragic, stories to tell. Jack Davenport and Jem Haines, two African American heavyweight boxers based in London in the 1880s and ‘90s, as violent outside the ring as they were in it. Ching Hook aka Hezekiah Moscow, a Jamaican bear tamer, boxer and music hall artist who disappeared on his wife and kid and ten-year boxing career in 1892, never to be seen again. Dick Leary and big George of course, Alec Munroe, stabbed to death in a Whitechapel dosshouse in 1885, John Smith, dead at 28 from brain trauma after several brawls in Brockley, and Tom Thompson, a middleweight boxer and Jack’s wrestling pupil, dead in his 30s and now under bushes in a mass grave with ten other adults and babies who died in the same hospital in the same week.

I found Jack quite by accident, having read in an essay by historian and journalist Professor Tim Crook that there was televised 1970s wrestling on at the Laurie Grove baths, a Victorian bath house on the Goldsmiths’ campus now used as art studios and exhibition space. Mick McManus, the other South London Tough Guy, was a regular headliner (“Not the ears! Not the ears!”). I wanted to try and find some pictures or TV listings, something like that. I don’t really know why. I had been heavily into WWF for a few years as a teenager, but it was over 15 years since I’d given wrestling of any kind much thought.

Before setting the correct date boundaries on my British Newspaper Archive search, I noticed something: hundreds of hits for wrestling in New Cross in the 1880s instead, and the same name over and over again – Wannop, Wannop, Wannop. I Googled him, looked on wrestling history blogs, books, research papers, what there is of them when it comes to olde British wrestling. It was pretty much zilch.

Yet here were enormous quantities of Victorian newspaper articles digitised in the archives, match reports, interviews, sketches, describing a man being credited with popularising the new style of catch-as-catch-can wrestling in London at a time when London did not have its own style. I read up about the link between catch wrestling and the form that became professional wrestling ie. show wrestling, a couple of decades later. Could I claim Jack to be an English founding father and New Cross a ‘home’ for professional wrestling?

These newspaper articles refer to Jack’s popularity, describing him in 1889 as “the most popular man in New Cross”. They presented a pillar of the community, a good, genial man, the “gamest wrestler who ever set foot in a ring”. He’d suffer a loss occasionally then get straight back in the newspapers the next day with a challenge to any man in the world.

His name appeared across dozens of American newspapers as well as they documented his 1888-89 wrestling and boxing tour – he boxed too and is often referred to as a rare but prime example of an athlete who excelled at both. Back in New Cross he founded the New Cross Boxing Club around 1885 in the back room of the New Cross House pub (known as The Glass House), later moving to the Lord Derby when the original House was demolished and replaced. And in 1891 Wannop opened his own gymnasium called, imaginatively, Wannop’s Gymnasium. It had a permanent wrestling ring, a boxing ring, punching bags and weights. It hosted the 1891 heavyweight boxing championship match between Ted Pritchard and Jem Smith, and the following year a novelty event between Jack’s pupil Tom Thompson and Deptford greengrocer Alf ‘Nobler’ Fry’s donkey, Steve.

[Evening News (London) 26th April 1890]

Jack Wannop was born up north and his name starts to appear in wrestling competition listings in the late 1870s. He was 5ft 8.5 and about 11.5 stone then, but averaged 13 or 13 and a half stone later in his career, which made him a relatively unusual heavyweight for his time among the malnourished masses of working-class London.

Jack and Miriam moved to the capital around 1880, first to Wandsworth then on to New Cross – their first son Joseph was the only northern born child, the other nine were created down here. For three years in a row, Jack took the London Prize for men of all weights at the Cumberland and Westmoreland Association annual Good Friday games, which at that time were held in West London and attracted enormous crowds of mostly northern men, competing and spectating.

In 1883 a match was put on in Deptford between Wannop and Tom Kennedy, billed as the British wrestling championship, although with no governing body for wrestling, no such title technically existed. Wannop won after a fairly lengthy bout when Kennedy and his friends contested a judge’s decision and stormed off. It was intended to test the water – would London take an interest in wrestling, or would only the same group of northern expats turn up?

Due to the messy ending, and the moans that Deptford was the middle of nowhere (come on, there were regular train services from central London even in 1883!) unfortunately the turnout and reception wasn’t great and no wrestling boom as such immediately gripped the city. But Wannop and his supporters at the Sporting Life could now claim him the champion, at least.

As Toby Litt aptly explains in Wrestliana, wrestling in Britain has long been a regionally specific sport. The Cumbrians have their own style, with its own rules and traditions, the Cornish theirs and the Lancashire men theirs. Graeco-Roman came over from the continent and was popular in the United States too, and the Japanese soon make an impact with sumo and jiu jitsu. Wrestling in London, then, was an immigrant sport and there was no real London style of wrestling at this time. Wannop could do them all, bar the Japanese stuff (I’m sure he would have tried).

So how do you put on a city wrestling tournament when everyone who enters it knows and fancies best their own form and might excel in one but not the others? How do you attract a metropolitan crowd when most Londoners have no real knowledge, experience or particular interest in ancient northern or Cornish grappling styles?   

You invent a new one with a new name – catch-as-catch-can wrestling, or catch-hold wrestling, derived admittedly from Lancashire wrestling so not entirely novel, but it means catch a hold anywhere you like. Bar… you know.. one certain body part. A style that’s exciting to watch for newcomers but not so vastly different it puts off the old timers, and a style that has simple enough rules that anyone can understand it. And there’s no yokelly costumes like the Cornish and their wrestling jackets.

After more than two years of research, taking in everything I have read about Wannop and the men he trained, I can still fairly confidently say that he was pioneering the idea of the new modern catch wrestling style when no one else here in London was. The Sporting Life newspaper even had the following to say in 1885:

The celebrated John Wannop – whose gauntlet of defiance still lies on the floor of the Sporting Life office in the shape of a challenge to wrestle any man in the world in any style or any number of styles, despairing of meeting with a foeman worthy of his steel and heartily sick of inviting creation to tread on the tail of his coat, very pluckily offered a silver medal to be wrestled for on Monday evening… in order to encourage the sport at which he is one of the greatest living exponents.

The wrestling was arranged to be in the catch hold style… this is the first in a series of meetings Wannop intends to hold this summer and as the style of wrestling adopted seems to be the most natural way of any we have yet seen, we think Wannop should have the credit of introducing it and that it ought to be called Wannop’s style.

And yet, until I started this project, you could read any history of catch wrestling and poor old Jack wasn’t there. The American circus wrestlers of the 1880s largely take the credit. Is that partly because wrestling history is more often than not written by North Americans? Histories will say that the Lancashire style became catch, and catch led to the early 1900s wrestling-in-theatres boom among London’s fashionable crowds, Hackenschmidt and Gotch (neither being British) taking the credit for that. Jack has always been missing, but is right there in the newspaper archives in black and white.

Jack boxed prolifically, trained, and put on his own boxing and wrestling shows in the gymnasiums or larger New Cross public halls across the 1880s. In 1887 Jack and big George Brown were the only wrestlers invited to perform for the Prince of Wales, at a special private show honouring the visiting American heavyweight champion boxer John L. Sullivan. Never mind that prize fighting was still very much illegal at this time, if the Prince wanted to commission the sport’s biggest names to fight for him, he would do. The event was reported across British newspapers. I’d love to know Bertie’s mother’s views on the antics of Mr Sullivan.

Still struggling to get a wrestling match with a “foeman worthy of his steel”, in ‘88 Jack Wannop accepted the challenge of Evan ‘The Strangler’ Lewis’s managers in the United States, Lewis being the most feared and dominant wrestling in America at this time. It didn’t go well. US papers ran rumours that Wannop was a bit of a flop, with drinking before the match maybe having had something to do with it. I’m calling that as rumour and nothing more – it would have been completely out of character. I know this guy well enough by now.

When Jack returned to London a year later, in an interview with the Sporting Life he described being lured to the US under false pretence, the match being a set-up designed purely to make Lewis look good.

He had better luck in the boxing ring over the rest of 1888-’89 and there were dramatic events aplenty, including one night where a drunk set fire to both the boxing ring and himself by spilling oil everywhere trying to light the gas burners, probably with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. The drunk later died. Jack struggled with rheumatism, losing a match in 1889 with the former black heavyweight boxing champion George Godfrey because of his health (also because Godfrey was really good) before heading home. He was greeted like a warrior returning from war upon arrival in New Cross. The Sporting Life’s correspondents couldn’t get near him when they turned up to try, such was the crowd outside the door, so at first they published a list of all the men who shook Jack’s hand instead.

Jack had considerably better luck in both his sports over the next couple of years, his reputation repaired after the American disappointment. He formed the New Cross High Hat Brigade in 1892, a social club for the area’s sportsmen, many of whom moved into the pub trade in their 30s and 40s and made way for new blood in the professional ring.

Jack’s last recorded wrestling match, I believe, was in Greenwich in 1904, aged 49. The last sign I can find of him organising tournaments or shows was a couple of years after that. Wannop’s Gymnasium, which opened in 1891, disappeared from the newspapers by 1894, but he still organised events elsewhere. All four sons enrolled in the military. Sidney was killed on the battlefield in 1918, his body never recovered from France. Joseph served from 1899 to 1923 and died in 1929. Jack Jnr had some success in amateur boxing, and later worked as an assistant foreman in a paint store, and raised three children.

The 1911 census gives some indication of the Wannops’ lives after Jack’s pugilistic days were over. At 56 he was employed as a general carpenter by the Deptford factory A.G.Scotts, which produced the tin boxes used for biscuits. Teenage daughter May was a biscuit packer and Thomas had previously been working as a tin works labourer. Jack’s name pops up sometimes in 1900s newspaper articles harking back to glory days of boxing and wrestling. When the South London Palace was demolished in the mid 1950s, a piece by the former manager’s son fondly remembers the popular appearances of the well-known wrestler.

I’m yet to find an obituary beyond the following paragraph, but that doesn’t mean one wasn’t produced, just that the newspapers I need from 1923 are yet to be digitised and physical archives have been out of reach. This appeared in the Daily Herald on the 14th February 1923, tacked on to a report of some recent boxing by other men:

I was informed on Monday night that Jack Wannop, the old time wrestler and knuckle fighter had died at Greenwich hospital. Wannop was a very strongly built athlete, and a typical example of the old school. I saw him struggling along with a stick a few months ago and although his powerful frame had not diminished and his face was bronzed, it was apparent he was not in robust health.

Wannop had a couple of fights with Jem Smith, last of the prize ring champions, and still in the land of the living. Wannop used to run a gymnasium in New Cross but it did not move with the times and eventually with the decline of wrestling the place had to be given up. It was in the gymnasium that Jem Smith fought Ted Pritchard when South London was startled by a long stream of hansom cabs through old Kent road to the fight.

My plan is to write a narrative non-fiction book based on my blog research – a group biography telling Jack’s story in detail chronologically, with every other chapter or two presenting a shorter biography of another man who wrestled and boxed in south or east London in the 1880s and ’90s. There’s murder, mystery and mayhem to be found and a whole host of minor characters on top of the lads already mentioned: Alf Ball who ran the Deptford Boxing pavilion and later became a cinema pioneer; two mixed race female boxers known as the Muscular Maids from Mexico; Dave Cable, Tommy Orange and Bill Cheese, who all sound like kids tv characters but were in fact popular east London pugilists, and many more.

Of course every historian thinks their work would make brilliant TV or film and I am sure there are many others like me who cast characters in their head every time they watch a wrestling show or screen drama. But I can’t rest on this until the BBC are banging down my door to start work on a Peaky Blinders or Ripper Street style gritty blood-soaked series. In the meantime, there is a slightly more realistic task at hand alongside work on the book – that’s to get Jack Wannop a gravestone, or at the very least a blue plaque in New Cross: to John Wannop 1854-1923, Boxer and Champion Wrestler, The Most Popular Man in New Cross.

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