Irishman John (‘Jack’) Langan was one of the greatest bare-knuckle fighters of his era. His contests were long and brutal but he emerged from such a punishing life to settle in Liverpool as the proprietor of a public house subsequently to die a relatively wealthy man.
He was born in May 1798 in Clondalkin, Co Dublin and grew up on the north side of Dublin city. His first bare-knuckle was aged 13 when he beat a boy five years his senior. After spending some time at sea he was apprenticed as a sawyer when 16. When aged 17 he was pitted against a 26-year-old man called Savage in an all-day fight in which his triumph resulted in his being charged with murder. To everyone’s relief Savage came to from his coma and lived to be 93.
His reputation as a fighter grew and in May 1819 he fought a fighter named Owen McGowran for a prize of 100 guineas. Langan was clearly a youth of adventurous spirit and following this fight he embarked upon a voyage to South America to fight with Simon Bolivar’s army. The expedition was an utter disaster, Jack Langan nearly starving to death and his brother (who had served on Nelson’s HMS Victory) died in Tobago. On returning to Dublin he had his first stint as a publican as the proprietor of ‘The Sign of the Irish Arms”.
After only a couple of years he had to flee Ireland having lost a paternity suit and surfaced in Oldham Lancashire working in his old trade as a sawyer. He was soon ‘back in the ring’, defeating local fighter Matt Wheeping on 30th April 1823 at Manchester before a crowd of over 5000. He then spent some time in prison in Ireland for absconding without paying his paternity award but was soon back in England to participate in one of the most famous bare-knuckle fights.
Langan challenged the top English fighter of the day, Tom Spring, and the bout was agreed for a sum of 600 gold sovereigns. On 7th January 1824 at Worcester over 30,000 paying spectators witnessed a fight which lasted for two and a half hours and 77 rounds at which point the exhausted Langan had to concede. A rematch took place near Chichester on 8th June 1824 where a crowd of 12,000 watched a fight which although an hour shorter was even more brutal than the first encounter. By the seventy-sixth round Langan was utterly exhausted but Spring’s hands were so badly damaged that he couldn’t finish him off. The umpire stopped the fight and declared Spring the winner. Despite the ferocity of the contest the two men remained good friends and, consequent to the punishment received, neither man would ever fight again.
Jack Langan then settled in Liverpool and set himself up as a publican. In the 1829 Gore’s directory his pub is located at 71 Whitechapel L1 but he later moved to 134 Waterloo Road L3 (the ‘Dock Road’). In his book Life Story of An Old Rebel John Denvir recounted that
“The first object that used to meet the eyes of those who had just “come over” as they looked across the Clarence Wall dock was an effigy of St Patrick, with a shamrock in his hand, as if welcoming them from “the old sod”. This was placed high upon the wall of a public house kept by a retired Irish pugilist, Jack Langan. In the 30s and 40s of the last century, up to 1846 when he died, leaving over £20,000 to his children, Langan’s house was a very popular resort of Irishmen, more particularly as, besides being a decent, warm-hearted, open-handed man, he was a strong supporter of creed and country”.
A contemporary illustration of Langan's fight with Tom Spring.
© Liverpool Footprints