Meet John ‘Jack’ Slack, alias the ‘Norfolk Butcher’, alias the ‘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.
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.’ 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.
On the 14th March 1750, at Broughton’s Amphitheatre in Oxford Road, London, Slack 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). Slack, who possessed a talent for getting under other fighters’ skins had, according to the Derby Mercury of 6 April 1750, instigated a dispute with Broughton earlier in the month, during a controversial election campaign in Brentford, which was dogged by allegations of corruption. For reasons unknown, this altercation about the election had resulted in “personal abuse” being exchanged between the two pugilists.
Subsequently, so the Mercury claimed, during a bout at the amphitheatre, Slack “came upon the stage” and “offered to fight Mr Broughton immediately for 20 guineas”. Broughton declined the offer, arguing that he was “not immediately prepared” whereas Slack had been “in keeping some months”. However Broughton did agree to a contest the following month, and a bout was duly arranged for 11 April 1750. In fact, Broughton was eager for the fight – or for the money to be derived from it! He regarded Slack with the utmost contempt and made no sort of preparation; also, so afraid was he that the ‘butcher’ might not turn up at the last minute that he gave him ten guineas to make sure of him! The betting was 10-1 on Broughton when the men appeared in the ring. After all, as boxing went in those days, he did know something about defence, and he was master of two famous blows, one for the body and one under the ear, which were said to terrify his opponents. As for Slack, there was nothing elegant about him. His attitude was said to be ugly and awkward, he was strong and healthy but quite untrained in the true meaning of the word. Standing only 5 feet 8 inches he still weighed as much as 14 stone, nearly as much as his antagonist, who was a taller man.
The match duly taking place on the 11th April 1750, backed by one of Broughton’s patrons, the Duke of Cumberland – he himself to be known as Butcher Cumberland after the Jacobite uprising). This Duke was so enthusiastic at the prospect earning a considerable sum of money for this fight that, it was said, he bet 1,000 guineas on Broughton.
The match lasted just fourteen minutes and eleven seconds, a blow from Slack between the eyes blinded Broughton, and Slack had only to continue hitting him until he was unable to rise again. Slack, it seems, easily emerged as the victor to win the Championship of England and bagging himself not less than 600 guineas. As for the Duke of Cumberland; well, he was quite upset by the loss of his money. At first he told everyone that he had been “sold,” though later on he appeared to have forgiven Broughton and pensioned him. But not so! He went to Parliament, where he was very influential, and had legislation passed that closed Broughton’s Amphitheatre. Thereafter, and to the end of his days, “he could never speak of this contest with any degree of temper.” As for Broughton, he never again raised his fists for money, except to instruct the young and hopeful with the mufflers. When he died, on 8 January 1789, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, the only boxer to be so honoured.
Four years later, on the 29th July 1754, Slack was back in his home county of Norfolk, challenging 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 Harleston. 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 Harleston 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 ten years previously had been the patron of Broughton, found that he really did miss the sport despite the money that that earlier fight had cost him. This time he backed Jack Slack, by not only arranging for the bout to be held in London, with no interference from the law, but also placing a bet on him. However, this time the sum was 100 Guineas, but at least it showed that his heart was still in the game. Unfortunately, the Duke was again on the losing side on three counts; Slack lost the championship, the Duke lost his 100 guineas together with any further interest in boxing.
Feature Photo (Above): – “The Bruiser Bruisd; Or, The Knowing Ones Taken-in” is by an unknown artist in 1750. It depicts the boxing match between Jack Slack and John Broughton in the same year. Newspapers at the time noted how Broughton feared that Slack would not turn up to fight, and so offered him ten guineas ‘not to break his engagement’. It was also said that Broughton was the superior boxer at the beginning of the fight and that the odds were ten to one in his favour. However, confidence was short-lived as Slack ‘put in a desperate hit between Broughton’s eyes, which immediately closed them up’. The blood pouring from the left eye of Broughton is indicative of this wound and the faces of the audience reflect the disbelief that the British Champion had been beaten by Slack in just fourteen minutes. This unlikely result sparked rumours that the match had been fixed, although there does not appear to have been any evidence to confirm this. The spectator depicted directly behind Broughton in a state of disbelief is possibly the Duke of Cumberland, Broughton’s patron who ‘lost several thousand’ on a bet. The Gentleman on both sides of the gallery are pictured giving money to men by their sides, having lost their bets too. The Title implies that the ‘knowing’ spectators were ‘taken in’ by Broughton, however an attempt to incriminate Broughton by emphasising his larger frame in comparison to Slack, is overshadowed by the emphasis placed generally on the exchange of money. Money is presented as underpinning the sport; inviting the viewer to question the honesty of professional boxing. It is possible that the prospect of profiting was an incentive for boxers and patrons to conspire and fool others.
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 Chandos 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”.
Three years and six months after this fight John Slack died at Bristol on the 17th July 1768 and was buried in that city two days later.
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:
“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”.