As we have the Commonwealth Games taking place at the moment we thought we’d join in with the spirit of the games and write an article about sport. Our offering this week is about one John ‘Jack’ Slack, aka the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, aka ‘Knight of the Cleaver’; a bare-knuckle fighter, who was the champion of what is thought to be the first international Heavyweight fight which took place in 1754.
Stated to have been born in Thorpe, Norfolk, in 1721, where he ran a butcher’s shop in the county (hence his nickname), Slack was reputedly the grandson of another famous fighter, James Figg, the first English bare-knuckle boxing champion.
In 1743 Slack became the Champion of Norfolk after defeating three local men in boxing matches and by 1748 his renown was such that he sold on his butchery business to his brother and moved to London where his reputation as a fighter continued to grow. He was backed later in his career by none other than Prince William, Duke of Cumberland (himself known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising).
A contemporary description of Slack says that he was five foot eight inches and a half in height and weighed almost fourteen stone. His physique was ‘compact . . . superior to the generality of men in strength and of excellent bottom.’ He changed his style of fighting to suit his opponent and often came out the victor, punching his opponents with such force that the term ‘a slack’un’ came into general use, meaning a ‘smashing hit.’
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, he threw down a challenge to the formerly invincible Jack Broughton (a man some years older than he and known as the ‘Father of Boxing’ who had been taught by Slack’s grandfather, James Figg).
Broughton agreed but asked that the fight be deferred for a month as he was not immediately prepared for fighting. The match, which lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, duly took place on the 11th April 1750, Slack emerging as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself, it was estimated, not less than 600 l. Slack was the only man to ever beat the great Broughton and one nobleman, described as being of the first rank, lost 1000 l. on the match. That nobleman is thought to have been the Duke of Cumberland.
Then, on the 29th July 1754, back in his home county of Norfolk, Jack Slack challenged the Frenchman Monsieur Jean Petit (or Pettit) to a match. Pettit was a muscular giant of a man, reputed to have previously exhibited himself in a circus as a ‘strong man.’ This boxing match took place at Harlston. A letter reporting the fight appeared in the newspapers just days later. This one is taken from the London Evening Post and dated 3rd August 1754.
Extract of a Letter from Harlston in Norfolk, July 30.
‘Yesterday in the Afternoon Slack and Pettit met and fought. At the first Set-to, Pettit seized Slack by the Throat, and held him up against the Rails, and grain’d him so much as to make him turn extremely black. This continued for Half a Minute before Slack could break Pettit’s Hold; after which, for near ten Minutes, Pettit kept fighting and driving hard at Slack; when at length Slack clos’d with his Antagonist, and gave him a very severe Fall; after that, a second and third. But between these Falls, Pettit threw Slack twice off the Stage; and indeed, Pettit so much dreaded Slack’s Falls, that he ran directly at his Hams, and tumbled him down; and by that Means gave Slack an Opportunity of making the Falls very easy.
When they had been fighting eighteen Minutes, the Odds ran against Slack a Guinea to a Shilling; whereas, on first setting out, it was three or four to one on his Head. But after this Time Slack shorten’d Pettit so, as to disable him from running and throwing him down in the Manner he had done before, but obliged him to stand close fighting. Slack then closed one of his Eyes, and beat him very much about the Face. At twenty Minutes Pettit grew weaker, Slack stronger; this was occasion’d by Slack’s strait Way of fighting. At twenty-two Minutes, the best Judges allow’d Slack to have the Advantage over Pettit very considerably, as he was then recovering his Wind, which was owing to Game.
When they had boxed twenty-four Minutes, Pettit threw Slack again over the rails; this indeed Slack suffer’d him to do, as by that Means he fix’d a Blow under Pettit’s Ribs, that hurt him much; whilst Slack was again getting upon the Stage (it was not Half a Minute before he was remounted) Pettit had so much the Fear of his Antagonist before his Eyes, that he walked off without so much as civilly taking Leave of the Spectators, or saying any Thing to any Person, this the Cockers call Roguing of it; for it is generally thought that Pettit ran away full strong. The whole Time of their fighting was twenty-five Minutes, and this Morning the Battle was given to Slack, who drew the first Ten Guineas out of the Box. Thus ended this dreadful Combat. The Box was Sixty-six Pounds Ten Shillings’.
Although sometimes mentioned as a ‘dirty fighter’, victories continued for Jack Slack until 1760 when he finally lost to Bill Stevens (the Nailer) at a bout on a stage erected for the purpose of the fight in the Tennis Court, James Street, London on the 17th June 1760. The Duke of Cumberland, who had previously been the patron of Broughton had backed Jack Slack in this fight and again lost money on the bout.
Slack, after this, mostly retired from boxing himself and instead concentrated on his butchery trade. Many sources say he possibly opened a shop on London’s Chandois Street in Covent Garden (he had appeared in the rate books for this street in 1750), but at the time of his fight with the Nailer in 1760, he was reported in the newspapers to be settled at Bristol.
He still kept his hand in by training other fighters, possibly running a boxing school in Bristol (he was rumoured to occasionally fix fights for his protégées), and just occasionally was mentioned as fighting himself.
The London Chronicle newspaper, on the 5th January 1765, reported that:
Slack, the famous Boxer, who has been for some time in Dublin, is under an engagement to fight one Weyburn, a noted bruiser there, for a considerable sum.
Reports of the date and location of his death seem to vary so we are now able to confirm that John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
John Slack’s relations and descendants tried, with varying amounts of success, to emulate his feats in the boxing ring.
In November 1772 the newspapers were talking of a battle fought at New Buckenham in Norfolk between ‘Thomas Allgar, a Butcher of Norwich and James Slack, a Butcher of Bristol, youngest son of John Slack, the noted Bruiser.’ In front of a huge crowd of people, Slack junior lasted through seven minutes of sham-fighting before giving up. No injury had been received by either party, not even a bruise, and the spectators were enraged. James Slack narrowly managed to escape into a small public-house where he managed to procure a disguise in which he could slip away unnoticed.
Some months later, in April 1773, again at Buckenham Castle, Thomas Algar met with Henry Skipper, described as a Dyer and nephew of the famous John Slack; again Algar was victorious.
More successful was James ‘Jem’ Belcher, born in Bristol in 1781, to John Slack’s daughter. Known as the ‘Napoleon of the Ring‘ and a naturally gifted fighter he had but a short career, dying in 1811.
Jack Slack was still remembered some years after his death, the St. James’s Chronicle reporting on the 11th September 1781, and placing him alongside some very noteworthy personalities, that:
Some Years ago the three most remarkable Personages of the Age were Kitty Fisher, Lord B__te, and Slack, the Bruiser. At the present Day, says a Correspondent, the three most remarkable Personages are, the Perdita, Doctor Adelphi, and Sir Jeffery Dunstan.