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Rediscovering champion wrestler Jack Wannop, ‘The Most Popular Man in New Cross’

The grave of champion wrestler and boxer Jack Wannop, his wife Miriam, and two of their children, Thomas and Mary, can be found close to the Brockley Grove side of the cemetery, in plot Z/CON/128. They have no headstone. Wannop was well known across Britain and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, when 100s of detailed match reports and interviews with him were published in national newspapers. Unlike many of his opponents in the ring on both sides of the Atlantic, who have been acknowledged with Wiki articles, blogposts and books, Jack was ignored (until now) by wrestling historians. 

Goldsmiths, University of London press officer and history student Sarah Elizabeth Cox has rediscovered the man once dubbed ‘the most popular in New Cross’ and is now working toward writing his biography. This guest post gives a brief overview of Jack Wannop’s life. You can find out more about Jack and other wrestlers and boxers in his south east and east London ‘circle’ on Sarah’s website

John ‘Jack’ Wannop was born at the very end of 1854 to Joseph and Elizabeth Wannop and christened in Crosby, Cumbria, in February 1855. Details of his early life are sketchy, but he appears to have moved to south London in about 1879 with Miriam and their toddler son Joseph. 

Wannop first appears in newspaper coverage of Cumberland and Westmorland style wrestling tournaments from 1876, winning prizes for 11 stone men on numerous occasions, and by 1880 he was competing in and winning wrestling tournaments at Lillie Bridge Grounds (on the Fulham side of West Brompton) and Lambeth Baths, among other venues. His name often appears alongside that of Tom Cannon, a British athlete much better remembered in wrestling history.

Miriam gave birth to Mary - their second of ten children in total - in 1879 and while the 1881 census shows the family in Wandsworth, they moved to New Cross shortly after, settling at 9 Batavia Road.

Sayes Court, Deptford, played host to Wannop V Tom Kennedy in 1883 for the Wrestling Championship in three English styles, which was described as “the most important match which has happened in London for many years” by the newspapers. Despite the heavy advance publicity, a large audience failed to materialise and after an hour and ten minutes of play, Kennedy stormed off and quit following a disagreement with the referee, leaving fans disappointed.

Jack’s brother Christopher also wrestled regularly in London in the early 1880s, until one night in August 1884 when the Wannops, along with local costamonger John Parker and two female friends alleged to be sex workers, were charged with a violent assault on William Slade, a corporal stationed at Woolwich. Witnesses said that Slade had an argument with one of the women over money, prompting her to call out for help from men at the Lads of the Village pub. Slade then went “three rounds” with Jack before Christopher knocked Slade out. While most of the group were arrested and hauled into court, Christopher evaded the law and ended up fleeing to America. The rest of the party were found not guilty and freed, with Jack even praised in court for his good character.

[Old Bailey transcript, September 1884]

Jack - who was a carpenter by trade and never appears as anything except a carpenter on UK censuses - took on the role of wrestling and boxing instructor at the New Cross House around 1885. Then known as The Glass House, the pub started hosting a series of wrestling meets over the summer under Jack’s management. The South London Palace also played host to Jack’s performances as a boxer and wrestler, and he organised regular tournaments and benefits at New Cross’s two major entertainment venues (now both long gone), the New Cross Public Hall and Amersham Hall, featuring boxing, wrestling, swordsmanship and more. The Glass House was soon demolished and replaced with the building standing today, and Jack moved what was by then known as the New Cross Boxing Club to the Lord Derby pub on Woodpecker Road.

[21 May 1885, The Sporting Life]

In 1888 he set sail for America with much fanfare to meet a challenge from the manager of formidable American grappler Evan ‘The Strangler’ Lewis to compete for a Catch Wrestling World Championship title and $1,000 prize. He was also reunited with Christopher. Unfortunately, in a significant blow to Jack’s reputation a cablegram home on 10 May 1888 began: “Wannop was nearly killed.” 

The Strangler thrashed him and rumours circulated that Jack had been calming his nerves with a few drinks before the match. Over the rest of the year and into 1889 he stayed in the US, taking on a series of opponents in the wrestling and boxing ring with varied success and no shortage of mayhem. On one occasion his opponent fled a boxing match half way through when someone yelled ‘police!’ and sailed off into the night. On another, a drunk set fire to the ring. Jack’s final fight, a boxing match against the former black heavyweight champion George Godfrey (who had recently lost his title to Peter Jackson) was also a flop, with Jack blaming his loss on a bout of rheumatism. 

[Jack Wannop and Tom Thompson, 1889 – sadly, these are the only photographs of Wannop found after two years of research]

Back in New Cross, the heavyweight Cumbrian wrestling legend George Steadman quickly demolished Jack’s star wrestling student and caretaker of the Lord Derby boxing gym, George Brown, for the English wrestling championship at the New Cross Hall. At 5ft 7 and a Herculean 16 stone, Brown must have cut quite the local figure. And like many in the local sporting scene, he later became a pub landlord.    

Jack Wannop issued a challenge to then British heavyweight boxing champion Jem Smith, much to the shock of commentators who believed Wannop to have gone insane or have a death wish. But Wannop was simply game for anything. With a handful of wins and a slightly larger handful of losses, he returned home to New Cross, his wife, and at least four small Wannops, in April 1889. When a journalist for The Sporting Life came over to meet him, he couldn’t get close, so mobbed by friends and admirers was Jack. “Without doubt Jack is the most popular man in New Cross, as was plainly evidenced by the friendly grips he was affectionately favoured with by young and old,” the story read. He returned to fighting fitness and had a series of high profile wrestling and boxing matches across the early 1890s, losing to Smith but beating Josh Cosnett among other heavyweights.

Wannop’s Gymnasium opened on Hatcham Park Mews in 1891 and became a popular social hub for young men in the area. After selling fruit or toiling in factories by day, they flocked to Wannop’s ‘chapel’ for beer and a fight by night - including, in 1892, the novelty of local man Tom Thompson wrestling a donkey from Deptford called Steve. The 1892 British heavyweight boxing championship fight between Jem Smith and Ted Pritchard was also held there. In partnership with friend Sidney Kemp, Jack also opened a gym at 41 Stanstead Road in Forest Hill a couple of years later. In 1893 he took to the Elephant and Castle Theatre stage with friend and veteran boxer Jem Mace, the two playing themselves in a well-received fight scene in a play titled The Days to Come.

[Wannop training in Bromley for his 1890 boxing match with Jem Smith]

Settling into a sort of elder statesman role in New Cross, Jack formed a club dubbed the New Cross High Hat Brigade, which held picnics, sports days, and regular meetings in the Marquis of Granby. In 1904, and pushing 50, he was still taking part in local wrestling events but appears to have retired around this time - just as wrestling was becoming increasingly fashionable in the capital. 

The 1911 census shows him to be employed as a carpenter by A.G.Scotts and living with Miriam and their three youngest, 18 year old May (a biscuit packer), 15 year old Sidney (a butcher), and 8-year-old Hilda at 16 Cottesbrooke Street. 

Sidney Clarence Wannop of 'D' Battery, 174 Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, was killed on 23 March 1918, aged 22 - the fourth Wannop child to die before their parents. Sidney has no known grave, his body perhaps never recovered from the Somme, but his name appears on the war memorials at St James Hatcham, New Cross, and at Pozieres. Thomas Wannop and Mary Wade, nee Wannop, are buried with their mother and father in the single Brockley plot.

Jack Wannop died from ‘senility’ in 1923 at the age of 68. A short article published on 14 February by the Daily Herald’s boxing columnist concluded: “I was informed on Monday night that Jack Wannop, an 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 that he was not in robust health”. 

Miriam lived on Cottesbrooke Street long enough to see the bombs fall on New Cross, passing away in 1948.
Jack Wannop played a significant role in the sporting and cultural history of south east London and a pretty major one in keeping wrestling alive in the capital in the years before its heyday under the heavyweight showmen, such as Hackenschmidt and Gotch. He deserves a biography which captures a personality acknowledged by all who knew him as kind, good humoured and game for anything. 

His three-decade career of dramatic highs (wrestling for the Prince of Wales at an illicit night of prize fighting headlined by notorious US boxing champion John L. Sullivan) and lows (his terribly timed rheumatic attacks) and the role he played in the history of British wrestling as it transitioned from sport to sports entertainment should be recorded. And I would like visitors to The Five Bells to imagine Jack there as I do when I go in: propping up the bar with the boys and sipping a sherry (his favourite tipple), with his enormous pet bulldog Busybody by his side.

Dallas Actor's Grave Found In Cemetery

When setting out to try to locate the family headstone of the actor J.J. Dallas I did not envisage that of the many such cemetery forays aimed at finding the final resting places of some of the many half forgotten luminaries buried here, this search would provide a such a frisson of anticipation. The family grave lies close to the Ivy road pathway in Ladywell cemetery and inscribed in remarkably clear lapidary splendour is the name of J.J. Dallas on a headstone which I sighted when it was fortuitously caught in a sunlit moment amid overhanging branches.

wonderful image of J.J. Dallas ( courtesy : Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America)
Wonderful image of J.J. Dallas (courtesy : Music Hall Guild)

So just who was J.J. Dallas ?

John Joseph Dallas (real name John Joseph Allan) was born in the Soho district of London in April 1847 the son of John James Allan, jeweller, and his wife Cordelia née Beaumont. After gaining his thespian experiences as a vocalist and filling in with jobbing roles on the variety stage as an actor he made his London debut in 1878 in Franz Von Suppe's opera Fantinitza at the Alhambra Theatre.

His subsequent stage history is set out below from the D'Oly Carte Opera Company website :
He was soon engaged by John Hollingshead, who was stockpiling low comedians for the Gaiety Theatre, in 1880. Dallas appeared in many Gaiety productions during the next several years, notably The Forty Thieves (1880-81), Aladdin (1881-82), and F. C. Burnand's Bluebeard (1883), all of which were huge money-spinners.

Dallas performed in productions at the Avenue and the Prince of Wales's from 1885 to 1888, before returning to the Gaiety with August Van Biene's Company in Faust Up-to-Date in 1889. He appeared in a Cinderella pantomime in Manchester for Christmas 1889, and then toured with his own company in Little Jack Sheppard in 1890.

In August 1891 he was engaged by D'Oyly Carte to replace Rutland Barrington as Punka, the Rajah of Chutneypore, in The Nautch Girl at the Savoy. The next month Dallas was in turn replaced by W. S. Penley at the Savoy, but joined Carte's touring "D" Company where he played Punka until the tour ended in December 1891."D" Company was back on tour in March 1892, this time with Dallas playing the title role in a newly revised version of The Vicar of Bray. Haddon Hall was added to the tour in December 1892, and Dallas played the Vicar and Rupert Vernon until the tour ended in December 1893.

He next traveled to America with Carte's American Utopia Limited Company, playing the role of King Paramount I in New York and Boston (March-June 1894). Returning to Great Britain later that year, he left the D'Oyly Carte briefly to appear in The Lady Slavey at London's Avenue Theatre, but rejoined Carte's "D" Company when The Vicar of Bray was restored to the repertoire in November 1894. Once more cast in the title role, he played the Vicar until January 1895 when he again left the Company.

Dallas returned to the London Stage, appearing at the Avenue in The New Barmaid (1896), and the Shaftesbury in The Wizard of the Nile (1897). He rejoined the D'Oyly Carte organization once more, touring with "D" Company from December 1898 to September 1899 as the Vicar, Rupert Vernon, and King Ouf in The Lucky Star.

In 1900 he appeared in Charles Hoyt's A Parlour Match at Terry's Theatre in London. After visiting Australia in 1906, he returned to London in Nelly Neil at the Aldwych in 1907. In 1909, he toured The J. P. and Our Flat, and at Christmas 1909 appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre, Clapham, as Widow Niblick in Goody Two-Shoes.

A versatile entertainer, Dallas continued to perform in music hall sketches until his death in 1915. He also wrote a musical comedy, One of the Girls (Grand Theatre, Birmingham, 1896), and a Christmas pantomime, Jack and Jill and the Fairy Rill (Palace Theatre of Varieties, Manchester, 1897).

J.J. Dallas

So J. J. Dallas (whose stage persona is somewhat at variance with the ruthless oil baron character of J.R. in the popular American TV series Dallas ) enjoyed a fine acting career,  had six children, an invalid wife, and went bankrupt -- maybe a typical 19th century actor's story? He also played in a whole series of Savoy Theatre comedy roles. J.J.Dallas died at Eveline Road, Forest Hill, on the 24 August 1915.  He was interred in Ladywell cemetery four days later where he now lies undisturbed alongside other family members under a shady canopy, one might even say ' His Final Curtain'!

Following the discovery of his headstone - the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America ' who were delighted with the discovery of his grave' have indicated that in time they may consider a possible restoration.
JJ Dallas gravestone
Newly discovered J J Dallas headstone (with Mike Guilfoyle : Foblc Vice Chair) courtesy of Phillip Barnes-Warden.Add caption

Alexander Zass - The World's Strongest Man and his Lost Lewisham Love

Whilst poring over cemetery burial records on Deceased Online, I lighted on the scant archival details of what appeared a sad early death from August 1928 and became intrigued by what later turned out to be a misspelt surname. The burial record is that of a Blanche Minnie Millicent Zars (nee Leach) of Devonshire road, Forest Hill who died aged 19 and was buried in Ladywell cemetery, wife of Alexander, she is described as an artiste. The daughter of Music Hall performers, with links to Camberwell, some accounts record her death as due to being bitten by a baboon during a circus act in Manchester. It seems that Alexander was truly besotted by Blanche and after her untimely death never talked about his wife or even allowed the name Blanche to pass his lips. A number of people who knew him also mentioned an undercurrent of sadness seemed to hang about this generally sunny man, and speculated that it might have had something to do with his wife.Whatever the answer, he took the story with him to the grave. The seal seemed to have been set for ever on the mystery of Mrs Zass.

Blanche fated to die young was indeed the first wife of the world famous Russian strongman Alexander Ivanovich Zass, hailed as the 'Amazing Samson' as well as a number of other stage names, 'The Iron Samson' or simply 'Samson'. Alexander was born in 1888 in Czarist Russia at Vilna, (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and broke away from his stern father, Ivan Petrovich Zass, who had paternal for him becoming a locomotive driver, to enter the circus as a strongman. In so doing he acquired skills in wrestling, aerial gymnastics and virtuoso horse riding. Such was his impressive reputation as a strongman, that the renowned Russian animal trainer, Anatoly Durov was quoted as saying that inspite of Alexander's small height and weight that' One day, my child you will be a very famous strongman', much like the epic Bogatyr ( courageous hero ) figure of Russian folk legend.

It appears that horse carrying was part of his circus act. During the First World War he served in the Imperial Russian Army in the Vindavsky cavalry regiment ( as befitted his passion for equestrian feats perhaps!) and whilst a prisoner of war succeeded in escaping from his Austrian captors, no less than four times, it seems his last escape bid to Budapest was in cartoon fantasy fashion, effected by him being able to bend his cell bars! Which feats of superhuman escapology and phenomenal strength laid the foundations for his development of and early promotion of the use of isometric exercises which proved useful in aiding his escapes.

Following the war he toured internationally as a circus performer (there was a story that he worked for British Intelligence over this period) and in 1924, having been brought to England by the Theatre impresario, Sir Oswald Stoll, he appeared in the English magazine ,' Health and Strength ' next to his idol,
the German bodybuider Eugen Sandow.  In one of his multiple public athletic lifts a young Winston Churchill was one of those elevated!  The circumstances surrounding his romance with Blanche are a little unclear, but it seems that it was most likely a circus connection. How long Alexander lived in Forest Hill is presently unclear , but it appears that Blanche may have died of a miscarriage (rather than due to any simian bite), three years after they were married in 1925, and her tragic early death left him a devastated widower.

He made a living selling mail order courses on his innovative muscle toning methods (isometrics) from the 'Samson Institute' in London. In 1926, and wrote an autobiography in Russian 'The Amazing Samson' (which is still in print) and continued to perform extraordinarily bold feats of strength in 'road shows' across the country, much in the fashion of his biblical namesake, such as the one described below from the Nelson Leader in 1938.

After the Second World War he worked as a circus animal trainer as well as performing his Music Hall strongman stunts. In 1954 he appeared on an early BBC TV programme , effortlessly bending bars with a lilting commentary from the TV presenter Eamonn Andrews. Away from strongman stunts, he found a home in Rochford, Essex described as a ' popular over-wintering place for circus performers' and lived out his final years living with his pre-war assistant, Betty Tilbury and her husband, Stan (also a stage performer) until his death in 1962.

The first Russian champion of weightlifting in the pre-Revolutionary era, Alexander Ivanovich Zass, followed in the circus tradition of having at his request for an early morning interment and now lies buried in the parish churchyard of St Peter and St. Paul, Hockley, Essex. In 2008 to mark the centenary of his first public appearance, after joining the circus, a bronze statue was erected to the Russian Samson in Orenburg,Russia,

A British Pathe newsreel from 1934 below shows Alexander performing some of strongman stunts.

Nurse Sophie Hilling who gave her life for her country in the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Nurses treating soldiers at a clearing station in France
Wedged between a posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross, John George Pattison and the famed educational pioneers the McMillan sisters on the Old Deptford Town Hall Board of Honour (unveiled in 1919) is the name of Sister Sophie Hilling A.R.R.C. Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Reserve : a native and lifelong resident of the Borough of Deptford, who was awarded the Royal Red Cross (Second Class) for bravery, coolness and devotion to duty whilst on active service in 1917 and who died aged 34 of pneumonia in Number 72, General Hospital, Trouville, France on 12th October, 1918.

General Hospital, Trouville, France on 12th October 1918
Sophie was born Sophia Hilling in Deptford in 1884 the middle child of Samuel and Sarah Anne Hilling, who was from Suffolk. She trained as a Nurse in Birmingham between 1908 and 1912 before joining the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve)  during WW1. Sophie was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal, first established by Queen Victoria in 1883,  in October 1917 when she was working at the Welsh Metropolitan War Hospital in Cardiff. Hence the post-nominal after her name -Associate Royal Red Cross.

Sophie served overseas in TrouvIlle, located on the Normandy coast, France. British military hospitals were often situated on the coast so that casualties could be evacuated for longer term treatment in Britain. In the summer of 1918 she had an excellent confidential report from the Matron of 72 General Hospital where she had been working as a Home Sister. On the 10th October, 1918 she was admitted to 72 General Hospital with influenza pneumonia on the 'dangerously ill ' list  and sadly died at 22.30 on the 12th October after four years of war service. This was during the second more virulent wave of the 'Spanish' flu pandemic which was to cost the lives of an estimated 7500 members of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) during 1918.

The Matron -in-chief , BEF, Dame Maud McCarthy, recorded Sophie's illness and subsequent death in her war diary  these have now been transcribed and are available to view on line) Her Matron , Eva Cicely Fox, wrote a letter to Maud McCarthy a few days later regarding Sister Hilling's funeral,  which is the subject of a moving reading by Mark Farmer now available on You Tube -

Letters from the Front Line: Death of Sister Sophie Hilling, October 1918

On the 27th September 1919,  at a special meeting of the Deptford Borough Council, the Mayor Councillor , W. Wayland, unveiled in the Council Chamber an Honours Board erected to the memory of Sister Sophie Hilling, a native of Deptford, who died in France in October from pneumonia at the age of 34 while acting as a nurse with the forces'.

Her 'heart -broken' mother attended the funeral (her father had died in 1897) and impressed by all the wreaths on display was heard saying ' How they must have loved my Sophie'.

Sarah Hilling choose these words to be added to her daughter's CWGC headstone- (no doubt with the late War poet Rupert Brooke 's timeless epitaph in mind?)


Sophie's grave lies in Tourgeville Military Cemetery, Basse-Normandie, France.

Lovingly immortalised in the 1916 trench song The Rose of No-Man’s Land, as “the one red rose the soldier knows”  Sister Sophie Hilling paid the ultimate price and is now rightly remembered for her bravery and devotion in the service of her country.

Sophie's parents are buried in Brockley cemetery.

The Royal Red Cross Medal ( Second Class) awarded to Sophie in 1917