“I’m Not So Black As I Am Painted” – The Violent Life of Jack Davenport (Part I)

Jack Davenport was angry. The young American, fortified with drink and brooding over his wrongs – real or imaginary – threw punches indiscriminately as more than a dozen policemen rained down blows with fists and truncheons. Finally, subdued, he was dragged once again to a holding cell.

Did the police have it in for him or did he have it in for the police? Thirty years later a writer for the Sports Argus claimed that Davenport saw every man in blue as his natural enemy. Lying in wait outside court houses and “oiled up” with liquor, he’d hurl himself at the nearest copper with all his might.

Or was Jack Davenport the Jack Davenport remembered by The Sportsman in 1917? The “comical card… seldom without a smile… it made one laugh just to look at him”. He was frequently at Habbijam’s, and would fight anyone “for the love it, rather than stand idle.”

“Davenport was often in trouble, but, all the same, he was not half a bad fellow. Those who patronised boxing in those days will remember him as one of the gamest of the game.”

The Sportsman believed him to be in Manchester, “doing something in munitions” during WWI.

The Argus was sure he died in an asylum.

This is Part I of Jack Davenport’s story.

His boxing career looks lengthy on paper, until you understand that he was locked up for half of it, an eight year sentence for murderous assault in 1890 taking up the best years of his life.

A few months prior, Davenport had been arrested for drunkenness at least once, his name appearing in the daily Drunk and Disorderly column of the Islington Gazette on Wednesday 5 March. Davenport, then 26, noted as a pugilist, and living at Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, was found on Pentonville Road, waving a stick about and using bad language.

His fine of 20 shillings was four times that of most of the other drunkards nabbed in the region that day. Was this because of the stick, the language, or because Davenport was black, American, 13 stone of solid muscle, and had it in for the cops?

His name started appearing regularly in print in 1885, with The Sporting Life advertising a benefit for Jack Natty at the Paragon Music Hall in Bermondsey, attended by “the best boxers and wrestlers in London”, Natty and Davenport in the wind-up.

In March 1886, “a select party of voyageurs in almost every conveyance – principally Hansom cabs” reached a well known pub on the way to Epsom, “on the Surrey side of the water” to see Davenport take on Jim Kendrick, each posting £25 to settle a “difference of opinion”. Kendrick had packed on some muscle since his last encounter with Davenport and greatly improved.

Standing 5ft 9 and “11 stone 10lb in condition” but more like 13 stone when out of it, Jack Davenport was born in Baltimore, USA, on 1 February 1863, noted the Sporting Life.

By the time of his match with Kendrick he had experienced considerable success in a number of open competitions, with an unbeaten record against “numerous good men”. He was victorious over the shorter, lighter, Kendrick in their previous encounter but after 20 rounds in Surrey over one hour and 18 minutes, hit the grass after a right-hander to the jaw, and failed to respond to the count.

A few weeks later, Kendrick was matched with Bill Goode at the Lambeth School of Arms. Goode was seconded by Bob Habbijam as Davenport had been. By the 12th round, one of Kendrick’s seconds started using “terrible language”, the noise becoming deafening, and at the 18th round the police broke in – a “scamper” for the windows and doors ensuing, with everything in the place smashed to pieces and numerous spectators trampled underfoot. Goode, Kendrick, and a dozen audience members were arrested.

[The Pied Bull, 1 Liverpool Road, N1. It still stands, as a branch of the Halifax bank. Image via Pub Wiki.]

The same week, Davenport, then 23 and described as a sailor (like most of the American and Caribbean-born black boxers I have been researching, he likely arrived in London in the early 1880s and may have jumped ship), was indicted for assaulting Frederick Bowles, a constable of the Metropolitan Police Force.

On the first day of May, Bowles was patrolling the High Street, Clerkenwell, when he saw Davenport and a number of other men emerge from the Pied Bull pub on the corner of Liverpool Road. A fight broke out, and Davenport attacked Bowles, kicking him in the leg then knocking him down and pounding him with his knees as Bowles tried to blow his whistle. Bowles nearly passed out.

Asked at trial if Davenport had anything to say to the officer, he apologised and said that his behaviour was down to drinking liquors “with which he wasn’t well accustomed.”

Bowles was off work for months. Davenport got one year, eight months of hard labour.

He was back in town by February ’88 and anxious for a fight. As is tradition, his friends at the Blue Anchor, Church Street, Shoreditch, arranged a benefit, Habbijam as MC and all the East End “elite” in attendance. Not many people turned up to watch – a shame, commented the Sporting Life, as Davenport was “always one of the first to assist others under similar circumstances.”

Felix Scott, a Barbados-born Liverpudlian and former Royal Navy stoker, had by this time declared himself black champion of England and Davenport was among the men (the others including Ching Hook and Meat Market Charlie Bartlett) with an eye on the title. He challenged Scott to a fight at a time and place of his choosing for up to £100 a-side – this being the suggestion of an over-generous backer. Scott couldn’t match it, and then Davenport refused to go to Liverpool, the two going back and forth in the newspaper for days to agree terms.

From the Sporting Life, Monday 4 June 1888:

“Davenport wishes once for all to see who is the best man, and, if Scott does not come to these terms, Davenport trusts to hear no more of him, as he shortly goes away to train for another job he has in hand. An answer will be promptly attended to.”

The match came off at the Pelican Club in June, Davenport being disqualified for striking “a fowl blow” that was later agreed to be accidental. A couple of weeks later they met again under Queensbury rules, the lighter and more agile Scott dominating the first four rounds with precision shots to the forehead and throat, and despite being thrown around the ring in round five by a buoyant Davenport, was declared the winner after ten rounds.

In a comical bit of sports reporting fat-shaming, both Davenport and his mid-July opponent Alec Burns were described as “soft and flabby” by the Sporting Life, yet fought a “terrific battle” over seven rounds until Davenport was knocked out:

“Although the battle was witnessed by ‘Bulls and Bears’, the best of order prevailed, and the ‘divils’ [sic] in acknowledgement of their toughness, were awarded a golden tribute. Good boys, both. Though Davenport suffered defeat he was by no means disgraced.”

He fought prolifically across the year and into 1889, being matched regularly with the Welsh heavyweight Alf Mitchell among others. A spar of “very exciting character” with the ‘Meat Market Black’ Charlie Bartlett – a butcher by trade – in February 1889 was declared the fight of the night. Davenport lodged for a time at the Sun and Apple Tree pub in White Hart Yard, Catherine Street, the Strand.

The fight moved to Hampshire in June ’89, with “every action taken to prevent a surprise, scouts on the surrounding hill tops” keeping an eye out for law enforcement as Davenport engaged in a £50 prize fight at 3.30am with Jack Thoroughgood. The latter quit after dislocating his shoulder 55 minutes in.

Losses, including one to my main man Jack Wannop, were regular and Davenport – who was then aged only 26 – told the Sporting Life that he’d been fighting unfit, and as he was getting older, he considered that it might be a good idea to actually do some training. The paper later observed, after yet another loss, that he’d “gone off sadly, of late.”

“The Affray in Tolmers Square” as it was called by Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, saw the arrest of Davenport alongside Walter Hermann, a 27-year-old engineer, and his wife Eleanor, 25, on charges of maliciously wounding a Frederick Winter with intent to do the sculptor grievous bodily harm.

On Saturday 21 July as the clock approached midnight Winter had walked to the King’s Head pub on the corner of Euston Road and Hampstead Road, sober he said, with intent to enjoy a swift drink before closing time. He was approached by Eleanor Hermann who accosted him for two or three fingers of whisky, clinging to him, begging him to go home with her as she was extremely hard up. Why she approached Winter specifically is unclear, perhaps he looked to be a man of means. But with only a few shillings on his person, Winter repeatedly declined until he didn’t, leaving the tavern with her a few minutes later. Under much pressure, I’m sure.

Two minutes’ walk away at 13 Tolmer’s Square, Eleanor unlocked the door, lit a candle, and showed her companion up to the second floor front room, locking the flat door behind her. Standing in the dimly lit 16-foot room, Winter handed Eleanor the agreed eight or nine shillings and a few seconds later she unlocked the door to admit her husband and Davenport.

Hermann was in no rush – he removed his coat and sat down. The stocky Davenport approached Winter “menacingly”, demanding more money while shoving the cornered Winter with his forearm. Approaching the door to leave, Winter was pulled back by Davenport, who demanded money several times more. Having already emptied his pockets, Winter refused, offering instead his gold ring. Enraged, Davenport, who Winter believed may have had something heavy in his closed fist (or he may just… have been a boxer), smacked him around the left ear with a blow “like the kick of a horse”, following up with another punch to the left eye. Winter’s brow bone spliced open and blood poured into the victim’s eye. Blinded, he grasped for a chair and thrust it toward the window, the smashed glass raining down into the street as Winter screamed “Murder!” and yelled for help.

In an attempt to silence him, Davenport grabbed a poker, beating Winter around the head and arms until he dropped the chair he was attempting to use for self defence. Walter was supposedly sat on the bed the entire time, and Eleanor on the couch, confident perhaps that their “heavy” had the situation under control. Winter remembered hearing a police whistle and the three prisoners running for the door.

Frederick Andrews, the constable on duty, had heard the row from outside – a woman leaning on the door of number 18 dismissing it only as “a row between husband and wife” in an attempt to deter him entering. As he entered the property, Eleanor swiftly exited, leaving her husband and Davenport at the scene of the attack. Davenport was restrained by members of the public and taken to the police station while Andrews arrested Hermann.

Despite being beaten around the skull with a metal poker, Winter remained conscious, slumped on the couch and bleeding profusely from the head, his clothing soaked red. Taken to hospital in a cab and put under anaesthetic, his left arm was operated on, his face stitched. True to the saying about no honour among thieves, Hermann blamed Davenport and Davenport blamed Hermann for the murderous assault.

Winter remained in the hospital over a month. Weeks later he was still in splints and bandages, unable to work, or sleep, and in constant pain.

“The female prisoner did not tell me she was a married woman, or I should have cut her dead [instead of leaving the pub together],” the widower said under cross-examination.

Davenport, the jury was told, was a man of such violence it had taken 16 police constables to detain him during a previous arrest. The boxer had little chance of attracting sympathy. A number of newspapers quoted Davenport’s appeal for clemency, including the Globe on Tuesday 5 August 1890:

“I’m not so black as I’m painted,” was the plaintive wail of John Davenport, negro and pugilist, when charged with a savage assault resulting in a broken arm. John Davenport now has eight years in which to make such modifications in his skin as he may find possible.”

The Daily Telegraph reported:

“A powerful negro named John Davenport, who described himself as a barber, but is believed to be one of the minor pugilists, made a forcible if unconscious appeal to the Common Serjeant’s sense of humour at the Central Criminal Court yesterday… evidence was called to show that Davenport was a nuisance to all of Hampstead-road… Davenport turned his ebony countenance beseechingly upon each witness as he appeared in the box, but they were not to be deterred from giving him the worst possible character.”

We find him on the 1891 UK census at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, alongside dozens of other labourers, clerks, sailors, butlers, French polishers and painters detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

In May 1895, under the headline of ‘Jack Davenport’s Future’, the Sporting Life informed readers that Davenport had briefly gone blind, but was now recovered. Hearing of the arrival in London of the black American Frank Craig, Davenport was gunning to get back in the ring. The paper euphemistically noted that his circumstances still restrain him:

His return to the streets of Central London was announced on Monday 20 July 1896:

A few months later, Jack was matched against a giant – one of the biggest men at the time to have ever taken to the English prize ring.

<< Part II to come >>

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