Brockley Boy Burglars Birched! Finding minor Wannop scandals in the Brockley News

I have written before on my love of local newspapers. It’s genetic, I reckon. My father worked as a junior reporter, then sports and crime reporter, rising to news editor and editor at the Luton News and Dunstable Gazette from the age of 17 until his early 60s. My mother was at the same titles and then the Leighton Buzzard Observer as a reporter and theatre critic for her entire career.

While most newspaper reporting on Jack Wannop’s career was published in the Sporting Life and a couple of other Victorian sports newspapers, I dip with regularity during my research into the all-London and east and south London papers too, including the South London Press, South London Chronicle Kentish Mercury and the London Evening Standard. 

In 1880 a new ‘hyper-local’ – if you’ll excuse the modern phrase – publication, the Brockley News, New Cross and Hatcham Review (hereafter, Brockley News) went into print specifically for the New Cross and Brockley area in what is now the Borough of Lewisham. As with most local and regional papers, it covered news from much further afield as well.

It was with great excitement that I received a notification from the British Newspaper Archive last week that every page of the Brockley News from the year 1890 and then 1892 – 1930 is now available online. I don’t know what has happened to the first decade’s issues, or those from 1891. In 1890 it was published fortnightly on Saturdays and cost one half-penny. By 1900 it was a Friday weekly, and double the price.

What new detail might I be able to dig up on Jack Wannop and his world, without leaving my sofa? Would I finally come across a full-length obituary printed upon his death in February 1923? After all, he had lived in the area for more than 40 years by that time and died in the hospital in nearby Greenwich.

Sadly, the obituary remains elusive, but over the weekend I came across a few interesting NIBs from the paper which give a little bit of insight into what life was like in New Cross for bored, reasonably poor, kids – particularly when it comes to one of Jack’s four sons, Thomas.

I have written previously on Thomas, briefly, in my article The Fighting Wannop Boys. He died tragically young, his lungs damaged from the effects of poison gas on the battlefields of WW1. After military service Thomas had found work as a swimming pool attendant, likely at Laurie Grove Baths or Ladywell. Thomas is one of four residents of the Wannop family grave at Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, alongside his parents Jack and Miriam and one of his sisters, May, who died in 1918. 

A scour of the Brockley News revealed that, as a kid, Thomas Wannop was a bit of a naughty boy! Albeit one punished with a typically-Victorian severity which appears unduly harsh to modern eyes in relation to the crimes committed.

(The house at 15 Merritt Road, home to victim and thief in 1900, as it looks today. 71 still stands as part of a short row in a slightly different style to the rest of the Victorian street. It has a blue plaque for the Beaver Housing Society, an organisation which built low-cost social housing, but I have not been able to determine if it is the original or a replacement for the building in existence when the Wannops lived there)

His first reported arrest came in 1900 when the Wannops were resident at 71 Merritt Road, Brockley, a street running alongside the large cemetery where several family members were later buried.

Under the headline BROCKLEY BOYS BIRCHED, the 16th May issue of the paper reported that nine-year-old Thomas and his friend Augustus Beatty, who was also nine and lived at number 15 on the same street, were convicted of stealing a purse containing 37 shillings, the property of John Wooldridge who also lived at number 15. Mrs Wooldridge noticed the purse missing and notified the police.

By the time the alarm was sounded, Thomas and Augustus had made their way through about 12 shillings, enjoying a lovely time at the Deptford fairground. They were apparently robbed of three shillings and around 21 were recovered. After admitting the offence, six strokes of the birch rod were ordered for each boy. Ouch.

Thomas did not, apparently, learn his lesson. 

In October 1903, Thomas and his pals Arthur and Albert Anderson, Arthur Bradley and Harry Groves, who were all aged between 11 and 13, were convicted of breaking and entering a warehouse at Honour Oak Park and stealing fireworks belonging to an Edward Jerry.

Under the headline BROCKLEY BOY BURGLARS BIRCHED, the Brockley News reported that one of the boys filed a key so as to make it fit into the warehouse lock “and made use of it on several occasions to secure an entrance.”

All the boys bar Wannop received four strokes each with the birch rod. An October 2nd issue of the paper reported that Thomas was to be sent to a remand home for a week. The following week’s copy confirmed the birching of the others but noted that Thomas would now be sent to the Shaftesbury training ship until he was 16 years of age. I am not sure whether this was because he was the oldest of the boys, the ringleader, had prior convictions, or it was a combination of these factors.

This industrial school ship had been established by the London School Board in 1878 as a way of dealing with ‘problem’ boys – including those who frequently played truant from school. A former P&O ship called the Nubia was purchased for the enormous sum of £7,000 and moored on the River Thames near Grays in Essex.

This website documenting the history of Britain’s children’s homes has lots of further detail, including some incredible photographs of boys in sailor outfits eating in the mess, labouring to make sails, and performing military drills and gymnastics. The photographs are dated from 1898 to 1903, so likely taken a little too early, but Thomas could be among the boys pictured.

In 1909, at the age of 19 our petty thief was working as a ‘tin works labourer’, most likely at the biscuit tin factory of A. G. Scott in Deptford (the 1911 census shows his father Jack to have been a carpenter at a Scott’s factor in his senior years) and in December of that year Thomas enlisted in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, Horse and Field Artillery.

The Brockley News offers a couple of other Wannop-related run-ins with the law.

In October 1895, “a boy named Wannop” (the Kentish Mercury published the same week confirms this was the second-oldest son of Jack and Miriam, Jack Wannop Junior, who would have been about 13 at the time) gave evidence in the case of a SERIOUS CHARGE AGAINST GIRLS. There is no suggestion he was involved in any way, other than witnessing the event.

Annie Marsden, 17, of Hughes’ Field, and 16-year-old Susan Jones of Hyde Street, Deptford, were arrested for “attempting to steal from a man unknown at New Cross”. Wannop said he saw the prisoners “go up to a gentleman, who was the worse for drink, and rifle through his pockets”. They afterwards met “a rough looking man”, and Wannop heard one of the young ladies say “that’s alright, getting £2 out of him”. Two other lads, Fred Vanner and Sidney White, corroborated the evidence. Upon arrest, Marsden told the police officer that the unknown man was her brother-in-law. Jones told her to stop being a fool, he was a perfect stranger. At the station, Marsden insisted that they had only stolen his handkerchief.

As the victim was never traced, Marsden and Jones were ‘only’ sentenced to a week’s hard labour for the crime of loitering, rather than robbery.

Most concerning for me is a brief snippet from 1914 titled ALLEGED ASSAULT ON A BARMAN in which Jack Wannop was accused of striking a barman at the New Cross House across the chest. Jack Wannop? My Jack Wannop? Surely not?!

For a man very much embedded in the rough and violent world of pugilism throughout his 20s, 30s, and 40s, Jack’s criminal record is almost non-existent. Compared to many of his peers, who were constantly in and out of prison or paying fines for assault on strangers, cops, their girlfriends, engaged in robbery or cheque fraud, or found drunk and disorderly in the street, Jack Wannop was an upright pillar of goodness and community spirit.

Although… there is some insinuation that in the mid 1890s, while in Cornwall on an exhibition wrestling tour with Tom Thompson, the pair may have acted in some capacity as “heavies for hire” – paid to intimidate voters during an election campaign for a local government seat. However, beyond one throwaway line in a local newspaper article at the time which indicated Jack’s involvement, I have found no other evidence to back the claim up.

His only arrest, to my knowledge, was in 1884, when Jack, his brother Christopher, a friend and two local women were accused of assault against a soldier, late at night, near a New Cross pub. Not only were the party found not guilty, but the court heard a good character reference for Jack and determined that his only role in the affray was to recover the victim’s hat and return it to him. Christopher, on the other hand, sounded a bit more involved, but he never appeared in court, having done a runner and jumped aboard a ship to the United States. 

(The chiselled jaw of Jack Wannop Junior. Jack had three surviving children, one of which was also named Jack Wannop. Jack Wannop III’s son is called Tony. Tony’s with us today (albeit on another continent) and has shared some wonderful photos of his father and grandfather with me!)

The Brockley News offers no age, occupation or precise address for the Mr Wannop involved in hitting the barman in 1914. At the time, Jack Senior (a regular at the New Cross House for decades, the original pub being home to his first boxing and wrestling club) would have been 60, his son Jack about 33. Both were boxers, sturdy men, and the only Jack Wannops living anywhere near by.

Jack Snr and his wife Miriam were at this time living on Cottesbrooke Street, Deptford, and for many years Jack Jnr and his wife Alice were their neighbours. The article about the assault refers to Wannop’s address as Nynehead Street, which is a small road running almost parallel to Cottesbrooke Street, the two meeting at a junction. There is currently a block of flats in the middle of the two roads, with residents having their front doors on Cottesbrooke and balconies on Nynehead.

The complainant, Thomas Matthews, said that the defendant, one of the Jack Wannops, struck him in the chest at the pub. He did not strike him back. The magistrate, a Mr Hutton, noted that Matthews must be a “very peaceable, good, man”. Wannop said that Matthews had “used an objectionable name against him”. He denied the assault, but alleged that Matthews had a piece of iron on him and that he had “closed with the complainant to protect himself”.

Witnesses were called on both sides and the case eventually dismissed. I cannot find any other reports in other local newspapers to cross-reference, but my hunch is with the younger Wannop for the unsolicited chest chop.

Sadly, despite my excited hopes, I have found nothing else so far in the Brockley News on the original Jack Wannop’s later years, the closure of Wannop’s Gymnasium, for example, or his death. Given how many of his friends, family, and journalists such as Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong who covered his career in the sports papers were long dead by 1923, it appears that the passing of the once great champion – by then a 68-year-old who was wracked with rheumatism and used a walking stick – might have gone unremarked. I remain hopeful that the Sporting Life may have noticed, but the paper is only digitised at the moment up to 1914, and my pandemic-related restrictions and/or poor time management when it comes to getting to an archive in search of a paper copy, are still ongoing.

(April 1893, details from an assault-at-arms, featuring wrestling by Wannop and Thompson, boxing, and sword fighting)

There’s plenty more to be found on the local boxing and wrestling world of late Victorian and pre-WWII New Cross in the Brockley News – including references to ‘Professor’ Wannop and ‘Professor’ Tom Thompson wrestling at the Lewisham Gymnastic Club fourth annual assault-at-arms at the Ladywell Baths in 1894 (the article running just above details of a proposal for a ‘palace of varieties’ to sit on the site of the New Cross House at the corner of Laurie Grove).

An 1893 article also names Jack as the wrestling instructor for the St Peter’s Literary and Athletic Society. The group’s 10th annual assault-at-arms at St Peter’s Hall, Brockley, included a performance by Jack and Tom, their “struggles and falls being watched with much interest” before a “lively and scientific display of boxing.” 

This week’s research findings are neither here nor there for anyone considering writing a grand history of pugilism, but in building a picture of what life was like for Jack and his family, and envisioning the place they inhabited as the 19th Century turned into the 20th and the world ticked toward war, the Brockley News, New Cross and Hatcham Review has much to offer.

The loss of a local press which recorded every tiny detail of daily life on every street corner, from violent murders, assaults and burglaries to the admittedly often-dreary overly-detailed minutes of niche clubs and societies, to celebratory kids’ school sports achievements or weird comedy wrestling matches with a donkey, takes away from future historians the chance to see the colour of ‘ordinary’ people’s lives. In my opinion.

It is the minor stories and mundane events which cumulatively add so much to our understanding of those who walked these streets, and propped up the bar at the New Cross House, before us.

Plus, as this story published by the Brockley News in 1908 shows, local newspapers are often just a really funny read:


One thought on “Brockley Boy Burglars Birched! Finding minor Wannop scandals in the Brockley News

  1. […] Thomas Wannop was born in Brockley, south east London, on 17th March 1890 and grew up on Batavia Road, New Cross. As a toddler he was among the first cohort of pupils to attend the newly built Childeric Road School (now Childeric Primary School) when it opened in 1893. He had a somewhat troubled childhood – read more here. […]


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