Extract from ‘The History of Rochford Hundred’ by Philip Benton of Wakering Hall 1867 [p.216]
Amongst the celebrated characters of Foulness was John Bennewith, (called the Foulness champion) a man of great muscular development, who kept the roughs of the island in wholesome discipline. He sustained, according to the notions of that day, the reputation and manhood of his birthplace, in repeated pugilistic encounters.
He reigned undisputed master upon skittle grounds, at quoits, and at the annual fair, where he commenced his first exploit in 1810. Although requested, he would never enter the boxing schools, and consequently was devoid of science; he could defend his chest, but exposed his head, consequently the efforts of his adversaries were always directed to blind him.
Amongst his neighbours who acknowledged his prowess were the Infant,* the Giant, Bullock's Bones, and others of herculean proportions, who entertained a wholesome dread of, and respect for him. Several of these he disposed of with one hand, including Rippengale, a marsh waller ; this fight took place in Burchell's meadow, near Wakering. He fought likewise, and defeated, Philip Moss, in Hadleigh House meadow, and subsequently Minter, a bargeman, at the same place.
He fought, also. Great Kent, and at Sheerness, one Keith, a dockyard man, and then went to Suffolk, and tried his skill with the best man in Woodbridge in 1811.
But the battle that he is best remembered for, is Ids celebrated encounter with Joshua Hudson, at Rettendon, (circa 1816.) He was backed by two of the most considerable farmers in the island, and upon reaching Pigg's Bay, in South Shoebury, was brought to the ground in a post-chaise, accompanied by Golden Prentice, who subsequently emigrated to Adelaide. About 2000 spectators were present, including nearly all Foulness. His pride upon this occasion was doomed to disappointment; although generous to his opponents, often giving them another chance if not coming to time, he met no mercy here. The first round concluded with Hudson's going down, and whilst seated upon his second's knee, he is said to have given his supporters a signal that he could beat, thus encouraging them to bet freely. In the next round Jack received a tremendous blow under the chin, which fairly lifted him from the ground, where he laid insensible; when time was called. Jack was still unconscious, but at last started up, exclaiming, "Where is he? Where is he?" Hudson dismissed him with the remark that he was a cock only fit to crow on his own dunghill.
His next adventure was with Garrod, the Suffolk champion, at Cricksea. He was nearly killed, having been knocked down seventeen times, and his head was frightfully swollen. In his fight with Leggatt, a plasterer from London, (a professional) then employed upon the repairs at Southminster church, he proved victorious. His brother Thomas, called "Howgego", acted as second, and his wife as bottle-holder. John, at this period, was 29, and his opponent 44. He hopped into the ring, shook hands, and commenced singing a ballad, composed for the occasion, commencing with —
“If your name is Leggatt, that bold fighting man,
Why I’m the cove your hide will tan.
Or on the spot will die.”
Having been struck to the ground several times in succession, he was roused to fury by the reproaches and imprecations of his wife, and gave his opponent a settler, which fractured his ribs. Jack then bent his steps to the King's Head, at Southminster, where he danced a hornpipe in his happiest style. He was one of the best dancers of his class, being a very active man.
We must now pass over an unfortunate period in our hero's life; having fallen amongst bad company, and adopted lawless habits, he left the island for a time, but returning, became an altered man, and was frequently found on his knees in his parish church, and, let us trust, found that peace, which the world is unconscious of. This family had a curious custom, which was to have their coffins unscrewed immediately after the clergyman had completed the burial service.
* A notion may be formed of this man's strength, when he has been known to smash the stave of a water-butt with his fist.