Herbert Placke went down in history as standing nearly seven feet tall, although other reports suggest he was probably somewhere around 6ft 6, perhaps 6ft 10. Even without media exaggerations, the Dutchman towered over Jack Davenport, who was no small man for his era at 5ft 9.
Placke had arrived in England from Australia and thrown out a challenge to any man in the country, including the heavyweight champion Jem Smith. A columnist for The Sportsman writing many years later in 1917 said that the last named declined after taking one look at Placke. It would be a shame to put him on the floor, Jem joked.
In Australia the intimidating Placke had fought an even bigger man, the 7ft (or 7ft 6 according to other reports) 21-stone Dick Barker. Taking a punch from Placke, Barker fell so hard, from such a height, that he cracked his skull open on the floor.
Placke was struggling to find a Brit to take him on when Jack Davenport caught wind and immediately volunteered his services for a match at the National Sporting Club’s HQ.
“Jack looked like a midget compared to the Dutchman,” reported The Sportsman, but Placke cut “a rather inglorious figure” as the fight commenced – his colossal size doing little to compensate for the fact he was not a particularly skilled boxer. Davenport won easily, and Placke packed his bags and headed to America to throw out a new challenge over there. Years later, The Sportsman reminisced that Davenport “had Placke on the floor for the best part of the two rounds they sparred. As a fact, Placke knew no more about boxing than a two year old babe, and his excuse, when he got wind enough to make one, was ‘I am a swimmer, not a fighter!’.”
A man at the club even offered to wager that the lumbering Placke couldn’t last three rounds against Bill Baxter, who topped the scales at 8st 8lb.
Within weeks of his release from prison in 1896, Davenport, then aged 33, living on West Street, St Martin’s Lane in central London, and described as a “shampooer” by The People newspaper, was arrested for breaching the terms of his licence. Having failed to report himself as required on November 18 and neglecting to alert the authorities to a change of address, Davenport was accused of trying to disappear himself.
In his defence, he explained that he could not read, and consequently did not know what the conditions of his release were. In November he had travelled to Liverpool with a “show” and fell ill, he said. He had intended to report himself once he returned to London but he was ill again and didn’t make it.
Jack got another six month’s hard labour.
And in 1898 Davenport yet again faced prosecution. He had secured a job working as a doorman at the Victor Emmanuel Club, 38 Old Compton Street, Soho, central London. Alongside an Italian restaurant-keeper named Emmanuel Ferrari of Frith Street and Carlo Verga, the club’s steward, Davenport was accused of keeping a common disorderly house.
Metropolitan Police Sub Divisional Inspector Tildesley visited the club on a Tuesday afternoon, finding about 20 men congregated around the bar. Ferrari, upon being told that he would be arrested, claimed that he had given the club up the previous year and didn’t really have any more to do with it, but agreed to give Tildesley a tour of the five-floor premises – which comprised of a 60ft by 30ft dancing room with a piano on a platform, two retiring rooms, a supper room about 30ft square, a big kitchen in the basement and several other floors used as “living rooms”. Reports had come in of the premises being used by “foreigners of both sexes of bad character,” with singing and shouting heard in the street until 5am. Another police officer had previously been called to the venue at 3am to arrest a woman for wounding another woman with a knife. Davenport, Verga and Ferrari were arrested, and at the preliminary hearing bailed on sureties of £50-100.
On Friday 4 February 1898 the Evening Standard reported briefly on the trial, describing Davenport as “a negro boxing man… doorkeeper and responsible for a great deal of violence”. The three men pleaded guilty to keeping a disorderly house, Ferrari and Davenport being sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour and Verga, who was determined to be the man in charge of the club, receiving six.
Ferrari, as an aside, was a very naughty man and not prone to changing his ways. Prior arrests had taken place in 1895 and again in 1896, when he was fined a substantial sub for selling alcohol without a licence at 46 Old Compton Street, known as the Umberto Club and then the Marguerite Club. In 1897 he was fined £70 for serving alcohol and tobacco illegally at the Victor Emmanuel, and in 1904 was arrested again alongside his wife Elizabeth for permitting 88 High Street, Islington, to be used for unlawful purposes.
Davenport saw in the turn of the century from prison, having been convicted in August 1899 of stealing the sum of £3 10s from a Joseph Marius of Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square. Reporting on the trial, the Morning Post noted that Davenport had spent much of his adult life locked up. In the present case, he had alarmed the victim’s wife by appearing in her bedroom as she dressed, and when her husband arrived, Davenport “ill-treated” him. Sir W. Quayle Jones handed down 18 months with hard labour.
On the 1901 census we find Davenport back on the Isle of Wight, a 38-year-old convict, single, a ‘General Labourer’, born in America, now residing (yet again) in Parkhurst Prison.
A new Jack Davenport – a white boy from Borough scaling less than 7 stone – began to appear on boxing match listings – but by January 1902 our Jack was back, challenging any man in England. Harry Jacobs informed the Sporting Life that he’d be pleased to back Davenport against Boston’s Sandy Ferguson at Wonderland in the East End. Two days later the paper, describing Ferguson as a “Goliath” and Davenport as “Habbijam’s old trial horse”, put their faith in Jack, predicting that “if he’s anything like his old condition” he should “stay the four rounds and earn the talent money.”
Starting off in a “vicious style”, with Davenport showing “considerable feeling against the big fellow” Ferguson gained the verdict, although there was little in it, and Davenport left the ring to liberal applause. A few days later, Davenport declared himself to have been out of condition for the match and in want of another turn. “With a few weeks training he thinks he can hold his own,” stated the Sporting Life. If Messrs Wright and Jacobs would put up another purse, “he’ll be pleased to have another shy at the big ‘un.”
In February some friends of the fighter – now referred to as a “veteran” in the sporting papers – organised a fundraiser with the intention of raising enough money to send Jack home to America after two decades in England. This, from the Sporting Life:
“Several years ago Davenport was acknowledged to be one of the best men of the day, and a plucky, resolute, boxer. When there was a coming champion, Jack was the trial horse, and if an opponent could what is termed as ‘hold his own’ with him money could be found to back the unknown. Davenport’s fighting days are practically over, though he can make a good show with the best of them still. However, he wishes to go back to his country, and with this object in view a subscription is on foot and doubtless will be liberally responded to.
Davenport is getting advanced in years, and cannot be expected to enter the lists against the present generation, so that his occupation as a boxer is, from a financial point of view, unremunerative – not enough to even keep the wolf from the door.”
It does not sound like the fund was a success. On Saturday 8 February 1902, the almost 40-year old Davenport entered Mr. J.T. Hull’s grand boxing tournament at the Drill Hall, Woolwich, putting on a “real good showing” (but losing) to Fulham’s Arthur Bobbett, the “clever” heavyweight showing “kindness” to his opponent. A notice posted in the Sporting Life a month later declared Davenport to be “in poor circumstances, as younger men have supplanted him in the estimation of the public”, with fundraising efforts for the fighter continuing.
Davenport thought this as good a year as any to challenge Woolf Bendoff but the match does not appear to have taken place:
In 1903 he lost to Frank Escott and others, and in the same year Bob Habbijam’s West End School of Arms, which had stood on Newman Street, central London, for more than two decades, closed, although Habbijam had no intention of retiring. Davenport’s match at the club against the heavyweight Jack Davies was described by a Sportsman columnist as one of the most notable bouts in memory (the writer also refers to a “Black Jack Stevens, fatally stabbed in the hopfield” – someone to research at a later date, perhaps!).
A 1909 ten-round bout at the Old Drill Hall, Birkenhead, took place between two “old-timers” – John Jackson of Crewe and a Jack Davenport (“London”), most likely our subject rather than the tiny Borough man. It looks like the fund to send him to America was unsuccessful. And it is here, after this loss, that we lose track of him.
A number of articles published around 1913 remember the fight with Placke, or refer to Davenport in passing while reminiscing about other fighters.
There are four John Davenports on the 1911 UK census who were born in the early 1860s, none of whom were born in America. I have found only white American John Davenports living in the US on the 1910 census.
Bob Habbijam told The Sportsman at the end of October 1917 that Davenport was alive and well and doing “something with munitions” in Manchester to help the war effort.
There is one man of the same name buried in Manchester in 1919, another in 1939 (a “retired joiner”) and one in ’43. There are two buried in London in the 1940s. I can’t find death records in the record sets I currently have access to. The Sporting Life is only digitised up until 1912, The Sportsman until 1924. There is a slim chance that an obituary to Davenport may have been published in either but is not yet available through the British Newspaper Archive.
I don’t know what happened, in the end, to John Davenport. He doesn’t sound like he was a good man but perhaps we should refrain from judging too harshly his thieving, his violence outside of the ring, his involvement with shady characters? He was a tough guy in a tough place at a tough time, no doubt doing the best he could for an illiterate man who had known little in his life except how to prove his worth with his fists.
In 1923 a Sports Argus columnist by the name of ‘Bird’s Eye’ published the last word on Davenport. The writer recalled the battles with police, and the bloody mess Davenport would be in by the time he was secured in a holding cell. Alcohol played its part, and an existing or developing psychiatric disorder perhaps, if the reports of raging random attacks on police and Davenport’s “howling” anger and belief all authority was against him are to be believed. There aren’t many people who could survive more than two decades of blows to the head, and ten years of their life locked up, and have their brains remain entirely intact.
Davenport most likely could have been a contender if he’d committed to the art, physically he was in a league with the men who took on Peter Jackson in ’89 – the Alf Mitchells, Jem Smiths and Woolf Bendoffs of London. For the “gamest boxer” in the city, I’m surprised he didn’t try – Jackson was on our shores during a rare period where Davenport was out on the streets. It seems that Jack spent much of his boxing career too distracted just fighting to survive.
The lives of non ‘famous’ black Victorians remain under-researched and difficult to do so. I have not yet found a photograph of Davenport, or any of the black Caribbean or American-born pugilists I have traced through newspapers and other records, with the exception of Ching Hook. I know that Davenport was 5ft 9, 12-13 stone, and had a “cast over his eye” – which is open to interpretation, but this could mean that one or both of his eyes were unusual-looking following treatment for cataracts while serving his longest prison sentence in the 1890s. The Black Chronicles image portal is a beautiful, valuable, resource, and includes a number of portraits of boxers (Frank Craig, Peter Jackson) alongside unidentified young black men in London in the 1880s and ’90s with little or no information available on who they were or what they did for a living. I can but speculate.