The sums of money involved in boxing and wrestling during the late-19th century were quite frequently astronomical. Local tournaments might be fought for a modest £5 or a nice silver watch, but bigger bouts could attract a purse of £25 to £100 – well over a year’s salary for a labourer – with a zero added on the ends of those sums for the best known men.
Where exactly this money came from – tickets sold, bets placed, wealthy backers donating to host an event or support their favourite fighter, pub landlords putting up a purse in exchange for a night’s custom, advertisers, crowd-sourced pennies, the personal pockets of the boxers themselves – varies from match to match. Life-changing fortunes could be won or lost in a night, and a dark and murky world of gambling, fixed fights and criminality rumbled below. Wealthy backers, among them lords, politicians and royalty, typically went unnamed in the newspapers. “A gentleman” was used more often than not.
In the 1880s, three men are acknowledged as being Jack Wannop’s backers – Harry Hoare (‘Better known as the Old Kent Road Discharged American’), Dais Patte (his real name was Warren and he appears to have been a close friend of Jack’s, who boxed and MCd at competitions too) and Sam Sloper, the latter two men being almost-neighbours in Catford by the early 1890s. Both are buried in Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries.
Samuel Sloper’s story is, quite literally, a rags to modest-riches tale.
Born in Hoxton, London, in 1848, at 19 years of age Sam married a Rotherhithe woman six years his senior named Charlotte Frances Sanders. By 1871 they were living in Bermondsey, Southwark, and had two young children, three-year-old Charlotte and baby Samuel. Sam senior was at this time working as a rag merchant, a lowly occupation which I cannot imagine afforded the family a comfortable life. Their home at 167 Drummond Street is long gone, and the site’s huge Peak, Frean biscuit factory and other manufacturing buildings converted into expensive rental studios for start-ups.
Ten years later, and with six surviving children to provide for in a house on Milton Court Road, Deptford, Sam appears on the 1881 census as a ‘Commission Agent’, a commonly-used euphemism for unlicensed bookie or someone who “passes on bets received from their clients to another bookmaker, relying on the commission paid for the business”.
The shiftiness of this behind-the-scenes work kept him largely out of the newspapers, unlike the athletes he was supporting and making an income from, but he pops up here and there in the local and sporting press. In 1886 the Kentish Mercury reported that a Samuel Sloper was refused a wine license for the Duke of Edinburgh public house. The pub’s location is given as Hyde Street in Deptford, although I have struggled to find evidence for a pub of this name on this particular street. Hyde Street did have a Queen Victoria and there were two Duke of Edinburghs elsewhere in Deptford but I cannot find Sloper on the licensee histories for any of the premises. In February 1889 the newspaper reported on the transfer of licenses for the Duke of Edinburgh from Samuel to a Henry Roberts.
Sam was among “local celebrities” to attend a bumper benefit at the New Cross Public Hall in March 1888, hosted by Jack Baldock and Jack Harper, the men who had seconded the English heavyweight boxing champion Jem Smith during his recent bout with Kilrain (and took the credit for turning what would “probably have been an ignominious defeat” into a draw for Smith).
Sam, alongside other recognisable names like Ching Ghook and Dais Patte, was also among attendees at Pat Murphy’s “literally crammed” benefit in June 1888, which was held at the Forester Music Hall, Mr Lusby’s “pretty” venue on the Cambridge Road. The event intended to raise funds for Murphy, a “well known oarsman” who “had the misfortune of losing three of the fingers on his right hand”. That really is bad luck. An extra long programme, which finished very late, included jugglers, a shadow-graphist, music hall idols and Highland flingers. A lot of men gave five shillings a piece to Murphy’s fund.
In 1888 when Jack Wannop departed for America and in 1889 when he returned, Sam was among the first names mentioned in the Sporting Life as being there to shake his hand.
The younger Charlotte Sloper, then aged 21, was married to a Catford hairdresser by the name of Thomas Bright in September 1888, her father’s occupation entered on the wedding registration as ‘Licensed Victualler’ and the Sloper family’s home as 32 Achilles Street, New Cross.
In June 1892 Sam Sloper was summoned to court, charged with unlawfully using the Lord Palmerston pub (described in the London Evening Standard as ‘Clifton Street, Old Kent Road’ although it was probably the Lord Palmerston at 81 Childers Street), for the purpose of betting. Mrs Susannah Nicholl and James Edward Nicholl were summoned for aiding and abetting him, with James saying he knew nothing about anything and he was but a mere servant of his father, and Susannah being dismissed. Sloper was described as a “silver betting gentleman” by Mr Biron for the prosecution, who argued that even if Sloper was not very rich, he could not carry on such business with impunity. He was fined £25 plus £5 and five shillings costs, and paid up immediately.
At 4pm on Thursday 17th December 1892, Charlotte Sloper said goodbye to her husband and their son George and the men left the family home at 18 Rutland Road, off Perry Hill in Catford (now renamed Rutland Walk), in a horse-drawn trap, or ‘dog cart’, in the direction of Bermondsey.
After calling at Ballards, a boot merchants, father and son started for home. The sun had gone down, but it was a clear and fog-free night. After travelling down the Broadway and King Street in Deptford, their quiet horse allegedly going at a slow pace, they turned on to what was then called Ravensbourne Street and there, in the darkness, and with no lamps installed on the trap, collided with a speeding horse and costermongers’ barrow occupied by two men.
“Near the large archway of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway”, the Slopers were pitched violently out of their ride, the older man falling hard on top of the younger on the pavement. George struggled up and saw his horse bolt into the night with trap in tow, and the lightless costermongers dash off too. A passerby sprinted off to capture the Slopers’ horse while another attended to Sam, who was bleeding and unconscious. He was propped up on a cushion which had also been thrown from the trap, then a lady living at no. 73 kindly brought out a chair. A bowl of water was fetched and blood washed from Sam’s face, before the Slopers were brought home in a cab, Sam repeatedly touching the back of his head and mumbling insensibly to the cabman.
Witnesses saw the costermongers pass the Cranbrook Tavern and head toward Mill Lane, but no one could identify them and the pair escaped into the night. The Slopers’ horse was recovered uninjured.
At half past six, the Slopers entered their Rutland Road residence, with Sam bleeding from the ears, nose and mouth, and only “partly sensible”. Charlotte put him to bed and called for a doctor, Dr Stevenson and Dr Collier later arriving.
Sam, who had no recollection of the accident at all (although he still recognised his wife) died six days later at 2.30pm, aged 43.
Speaking at the inquest held on his body at the Rutland Tavern, Perry Hill, Catford, George confirmed that his father had been perfectly sober when the collision occurred.
Dr Collier of St George’s Lodge, Catford, who had originally sent his assistant but later attended on Sam personally, stated that Sam had suffered a concussion of the brain. The deceased had rallied a little for a couple of days and “lingered” on, before a quick decline and death. A post mortem found no sign of a fractured skull and brain substance was normal, but the left side of the brain was covered by a large clot of blood.
Sam Sloper’s cause of death was given as “haemorrhage on the brain through one of the blood vessels giving way, caused by a blow consistent with a fall through being thrown from a trap … the head must have come into contact with some hard substance.”
The Coroner commented on the costermonger having driven off after the accident instead of offering assistance, and the inquiry was adjourned while authorities searched for the suspects. Mr Holmes Moss, the solicitor watching the inquest for Mrs Sloper and family, believed the costermongers would be forthcoming but later discovered that “the information he had been given was unreliable”. With no further evidence available, the jury at the adjourned inquest returned an open verdict.
Sam Sloper’s death was reported by the Sporting Life on the 1st January 1892. Under the headline ‘Death of a well known bookmaker’ a short article described his betting business as “extensive in the south eastern district of the metropolis” and noted that he was leaving behind a widow and six children. The following day another article stated that his death “cast a gloom over the New Cross and Catford districts, where the deceased was well known and respected by all with whom he came in contact”:
“Mr Sloper was a familiar figure at most of the principle race meetings, and a munificent supporter and promoter of nearly every description of legitimate sport. He was one of the kindest and most genial of men, whose purse was always available in the cause of deserving charity. In New Cross especially, where he resided a good many years, his loss will be felt in numerous quarters.”
A write-up of the funeral for “the mortal remains of this well known sportsman” was published in the Life on the 9th January, detailing the funeral procession – an open hearse and three mourning coaches – and attendees. Family members, including Charlotte, George and Samuel who were all in their early 20s, and the younger children, Sarah, Emily and Gertrude, were joined in Brockley Cemetery by some 500 members of London’s sporting world.
Dais Patte, Harry Hoare and Jack Wannop were among those gathered to “pay a last tribute of respect to one who, it was truthfully said, never made an enemy.”
The Slopers stuck together. Approaching her 70th birthday, Charlotte Frances Sloper can be found on the 1911 census (nine children born alive, six still living) lodging in Catford with her daughter Gertrude and Gertrude’s plumber and decorator husband, their children, and 39-year-old George. Having survived the crash that killed his father, George became a house painter, whitewasher and decorator.
Charlotte died in 1924 and is buried in Brockley Cemetery, her last address given as 244 Sangley Road, Catford, and ‘description of person’ listed in the burial register in the usual manner of the time: simply as “Widow of Samuel”.