Jack Wannop wants a go with… George Hackenschmidt?! (And it’s goodbye, for now, from Grappling With History)

It is with an extremely heavy heart – excuse the drama – that I have taken the decision to put Grappling With History on an ‘extended break’, in order to concentrate on my book proposal, continue research for the book, focus on my personal life and – fingers crossed – return to pro-wrestling training. All after the 9-5 of course.

Over two and a bit years I have written 48 posts, totalling just under 80,000 words, based on 100s of hours of research, as a side-project to a full-time office job, a part-time Masters degree, wrestling school, then a global pandemic, co-authoring one academic paper, giving a number of short talks, publishing several magazine articles, and trying to keep some cats and a human relationship alive. 

All while complaining that I don’t have time to write a book 🙂  

WordPress tells me these articles have attracted some 14,000 views, alongside thousands more who have read about Jack and the lads in the Lewisham Ledger, Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine or caught me rambling elsewhere. Twitter followers have picked up nicely too – indeed, I will continue to publish snippets and clips on @wrestling1880s, but perhaps with less regularity. There will be no more research blog posts for the forseeable.

These numbers may be chicken feed to some authors but I’ve found it quite overwhelming for my little old after-hours hobby, and want to thank you for reading, following, sharing, asking questions, and offering advice and help. 

Messages and emails from descendants and distant relatives of Jack Wannop, in particular, have brought me so much joy. This weird stalker of your great great grandfather or wife’s great great uncle can’t wait to bring you even more stories, but hopefully in printed form, with a pretty cover.

I may have shared too much with you, in fact, and even sabotaged my own book pitch. It was always my intention to find and spread the unheard stories of forgotten people as far and as wide as I could. I have no interest in them being locked behind paywalls, languishing in ninety quid textbooks or in a drawer as a PhD thesis. Yet, with plenty more material still burning a hole in my laptop ready to leap on to a page (or TV screen, one day!), with my sensible-person-who-desperately-wants-a-book-deal hat on it seems about time to call it a day, for now. Historian friends have been telling me off.

I’ll leave you with a delightful anecdote discovered this week in the publication Boxing World and Mirror of Life, which has been newly digitised by the British Newspaper Archive.

I often wonder what Jack Wannop made of the wrestling superstars who toured grand halls in the years following his prime. By the mid 1890s Jack, with exhibition partner Tom Thompson, was travelling up and down the UK performing catch-wrestling in music halls to what sounds like moderate success, but by then he was in his 40s.

At the time the ‘wrestling boom’ years occurred in London (let’s call it 1898-1908, give or take) his reputation, and perhaps his health, were not what they were. Jack found work as a wrestling instructor, but had given up the keys to his own gym. By 1911 the census indicates he was employed as a general carpenter at a biscuit tin factory, although it is always interesting to me that, from the age of 16 onward, he only ever appeared on the census as a carpenter. 

[An advert for Jack’s tournament – possibly his last – in Boxing World and Mirror of Life, 6 April 1907]

Jack’s 1880s and early 1890s wrestling and boxing shows at the New Cross House, New Cross Hall, Amersham Hall (next to New Cross railway station) and in his own gymnasium had once attracted large crowds, who gathered to see competitions between boys and men who were, by and large, local Londoners.

But by the early 1900s, not only had Jack been replaced as the chap in charge of wrestling and boxing in the district by Sam H. Croft, who was operating Croft’s Physical Culture Institute out of Jack’s former gym, but also by a new international type of wrestler, bringing his international types of wrestling, and a new form of performance which was far more popular among London’s fashionable crowds.

I highly recommend ‘The Strongest Men on Earth: When the muscle men ruled showbusiness’ by Graeme Kent as a fantastic read on this decade. 

While dipping into entertainment and exhibitions from at least 1884 (when he was allegedly disqualified from entering the Cumberland and Westmoreland games in London after winning his category in ‘81, ‘82, ‘83, on the grounds that he had ‘performed in a music hall’) Jack was a rugged bareknuckle boxer and Cumberland and Westmorland wrestler of the old school.

That said, throughout the 1880s he often pushed an element of the burlesque or ‘sports entertainment’ in his larger events. I think of the boxing ‘muscular maids from Mexico’, the Sisters Mills at the New Cross Hall, Tom Thompson wrestling a donkey named Steve at Wannop’s Gymnasium, the musical interludes, or lemon cutting with swords between boxing matches.

After touring with Tom, Jack continued to dip into music hall performance until at least 1901, but would usually play second fiddle to a bigger name, failing to win one of Jack Carkeek’s touted tenners, for example, when he didn’t last 15 minutes in the ring with him. A new form of show-wrestling based on audience challenges – often fixed in advance – was in vogue, and for a brief time was the most popular entertainment in the metropolis. 

Jack’s final attempt in 1907 to book a legitimate tournament for local lads in New Cross drew a disappointingly small crowd, although the ever-dependable Jem Mace showed up. It probably didn’t help that quite a few of Jack’s long-serving pals, including big George Brown, were newly dead or heading in that direction. 

[Boxing World and Mirror of Life’s report from the 1907 tournament, 20 April 1907]

When asked why I think he disappeared from wrestling history – no Wiki article, books or public acknowledgement at all for the way he pioneered catch-wrestling until I started banging on about it – a lot of elements come into play. One factor, I’ve concluded, is simply that Jack Wannop was born 15 years too early. As a Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestler he took his craft from the green fields of outer-Carlisle into London’s pubs and theatres, and was then supplanted by the hefty jacked frames (and often-disappointing mat wrestling) of the Great and Terrible of Turkey, Japan, India, America and Eastern Europe in wrestling’s so-called golden era.

I’d love to know middle-aged Wannop’s thoughts on the rippling body-beautifuls, showoff stuntmen and fixed fights pulling in audiences in their thousands, particularly when these guys started headlining on his home turf. Frank Gotch (1877-1917), Hackenschmidt (1877-1968), Ahmed Madrali and the Japanese jiu-jitsu wrestler Taro Miyake (1881-1935) were among those topping the bill at the grand New Cross Empire between 1903-8, mostly performing in sketches and worked matches. Did Jack go? Would he have scoffed, seethed with envy, or was he impressed?

Walter ‘The Cross-Buttocker’ Armstrong’s columns in Boxing World and Mirror Life – which he continued writing almost up to his death in 1917 – give us some insight into what a northern veteran might make of it all.

Armstrong did not mince his words about these “make believe music hall matches” and called with regularity for “the revival of legitimate wrestling” through his newspaper columns.

Writing in December 1907, Armstrong recalled a trip made with Jack to the Euston Theatre of Varieties some 12 months prior, in which he had introduced Jack to “a champion with a high-sounding name, who was performing there and posing as hero of the arena”:

“Wannop was bent on winning the tenner offered, and would have wrestled for all he was worth in order to collar the flimsy. We had to wait the great man’s convenience for a considerable time, but at last we ran against Matt Steadman, son of the old champion of England, who procured us an interview.

“Evidently, Jack’s figurehead, combined with his bulky appearance, did not impress the mighty all-conquering hero. Wannop was at the time a little under forty, and not by any means past his best: but the champion considered that Jack was too old, and he would lose caste by wrestling an old man.

“At fifty years of age Geo Steadman was as good a man as he ever was in his life; the same applied to George Louden, and I know a man now who only reached his wrestling prime at 45. Wannop too old at forty! Faugh! 

“The gentleman from foreign parts was anxious to give Wannop a wide birth. No doubt he heard of some of Jack’s exploits, how a little over 20 years ago he won the middleweight championship at the Cumberland and Westmorland Good Friday sports at Lillie Bridge three years in succession…

“As for Wannop being too old, I am happy to say he is nothing of the kind, and is open to wrestle any of the foreign champions Catch Hold above the waist, first down on the ground or ‘mat’ to lose.”

Jack actually would have been 52 in 1906 – although he often knocked a few years off earlier in his career when talking to news reporters. Armstrong’s memory may have been a little fuzzy, and he was certainly a man of glorious hyperbole at the best of times.

Three years later, in 1910, Armstrong returned to the story in a column titled The Bursting of the Hackenschmidt and Zybsco Bubble – Each Thrown Pointless By Gotch – Pollution and Degradation of A Fine Old Pastime – Cowardly Exit of Spurious Champions. (Brilliant).

This time he name-checked Hack explicitly:

“Such wrestling as Hackenschmidt has shown the public could never have been swallowed as the genuine article if it had been bolstered up by a class of reporters entirely ignorant of the rudiments of the science. Hack snorting defiance to all comers a few years ago was a sight for the gods.

“However, some three years since I introduced Jack Wannop to him, a man who could wrestle in all styles and a good man at every one of them, Hack declined taking Wannop on, as he would lose caste he said by competing with an aged and inferior wrestler. 

“Jack was at the time only in the forties [closer!], and as for being an inferior wrestler, Wannop was as near first class as makes no matter. 

“At that time Hackenschmidt had Matt Steadman as a pliable ‘chopping block’. We saw Matt on that occasion so I, there and then, offered to find backing for Wannop to wrestle both Hack and Matt in three different styles. This was also declined as Steadman knew perfectly well that Jack Wannop could ‘fell’ the pair of them in the Cumberland and Westmoreland.

Hack never had any stomach for a champion…”

And that is, according to The Crossbuttocker, how the greatest wrestler of the late Victorian period failed to get it on… with George Hackenschmidt.

Thank you so much for reading.

With any luck, and a lot of work, I hope my next post might contain some book news!

– Sarah

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