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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.