The “Queensland Giant” was the victor in one of Australia’s great nineteenth century international sporting contests, but sadly he’s forgotten today even in his hometown. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
Dick Barker (pictured above) was one of twelve siblings and was born in Ipswich, Queensland, on the 5th of November 1861. The Barkers lived at 26 East Street which was the family home for perhaps a hundred years. The house was only knocked down in the 1960s and locals today will recognise the address as where a mental health foundation is now.
The Barker children grew up to be mostly schoolteachers and newspapermen, but Dick chose a different path and took up bare knuckle boxing. You see, he stood out from the crowd when he grew to a well-proportioned seven feet tall and weighed seventeen stone. In a modern comparison, professional wrestling’s Andre the Giant stood seven feet four inches and weighed a huge thirty-seven stone.
In 1891 Dick left Ipswich and went to Sydney where he arrived with an introduction to the great Australian champion boxer, trainer, and promoter Larry Foley. Foley put Dick on as a casual gardener so that he could work for his coaching and his board and lodging. Foley’s gym and accommodation was behind his White Horse Hotel on George Street in Sydney. That’s where Dick lived and learned the according to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules and how to box with gloves for the first time.
As soon as Dick stepped into a ring, he became known as the “Queensland Giant”. He won his first few fights, but his highest profile contest by far came in 1895. That’s when a giant Dutchman named Harry Placke came to town. Placke was one of the best marathon swimmers in the world and when he arrived in Sydney it was with a burst of publicity.
Placke was six feet nine inches tall and weighed sixteen stone, and Foley immediately saw the potential of the “Battle of the Giants”. The match was made and so the fight between Dick and the Dutchman was on. Foley promoted it with everything he had, telling his well-moneyed followers that never before in the history of boxing had two men of such stature met in a ring. They were seen as two perfect specimens who were determined to batter each other to the floor. It was Australia’s fight of the decade.
The event took place at Foley’s Hall at Woollahra in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The crowd was packed in like sardines. Some reports said the fight went for thirteen rounds, others said it lasted thirty rounds.
What Dick lacked in science he made up with the effectiveness of his wallops. Placke was the better athlete, but inexperience meant he became a punching bag. Dick landed blow after blow, but Placke just kept getting back up to do battle in a virtual coma. Finally, the referee stopped the fight and Dick was declared the winner. But Placke had to be helped out of the ring, and then he collapsed and was taken to Sydney Hospital.
Some reports say Placke was unconscious for three days, others say he was out for a fortnight. But whatever, Placke was in hospital for weeks, hovering between life and death.
Dick was arrested and charged with inflicting grievous bodily harm, and Larry Foley and his offsiders remained under police surveillance. They all lived in fear of what might happen, until the happy day came when the Dutchman regained consciousness and eventually recovered.
Dick’s cut of the prize purse was just two pounds and ten shillings, which was about a week’s pay back then. There was nothing for Placke until he appeared – smiling but still very shaky – at his benefit which yielded him fourteen pounds. Foley went on to establish himself as the “Father of Australian Boxing”.
As for Dick, that was his last fight. He became a brewer’s drayman, and it was said that he would juggle beer barrels in great style.
He was a quiet, unassuming man, and his only trouble was his height. That’s because whenever he walked down the street, he towered over everyone and was looked upon as a freak, which he hated.
Dick was fifty-six years of age when he died of a heart attack in Sydney in 1918.
Dick’s mother passed away in Ipswich two years later on what would have been his fifty-eighth birthday. His siblings also achieved a degree of fame – two of his brothers were well-known newspapermen in Ipswich and Brisbane, and another brother was ranked fourteenth in the world for the best handwriting.
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Dick Barker Queensland Giant heavy-weight 1895 – National Library of Australia
Larry Foley – Wikipedia Commons
Harry Placke – The Bulletin, 29th September 1937, page 48