Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - Bendigo's Conversion

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THAT William Thompson, for a quarter of a century renowned in the P.R., the vanquisher of Deaf Burke, the giant Caunt, formidable Paddock - the bold "Bendy," who until the past year or two was notorious as the foremost "bully boy" amongst the "lambs" of Nottingham - that such a terrible fellow, after squandering through threescore chapters - counting each year a chapter - of his book of life should, after all, resolve on turning over a new leaf, seemed of all things the most improbable. But when it transpired that William Thompson evinced a determination to go far beyond even this - to go as far, indeed, as the public platform, and there, in the face of all corners, courageously offer himself as a living example of the truth that, no matter how far advanced in sinful conflagration a man is, he may still, if he has a mind so to do, be a brand plucked from the burning. It was scarcely to be wondered at, if those who heard the strange news were incredulous, and shook their heads, and regarded a relapse as a foregone conclusion. Under these circumstances, it appeared to me not an improper, if a possible, thing to get from Bendigo's own lips the story of his conversion.
    There were no difficulties to overcome. I found him in the peaceful enjoyment of the hospitality of the superintendent of the Cabmen's Mission Hall, at Kings Cross, and within ten minutes of my introduction we were sitting a cheerful company about [-87-] the parlour fire; and the comfortable-looking elderly gentleman with his legs crossed in his easy chair, and with a manner which unmistakably betokened how kindly he had taken to his amended career, proceeded with as much modesty as good nature to give me the information I required.
    It may not be out of place, before I endeavour to reproduce for the reader's edification Bendigo's narrative pretty much as he confided it to me, to render some idea of the sort of man, as regards personal appearance, the renowned champion, now in his 63rd year, is. Aged and used-up prizefighters are not invariably pleasant objects to contemplate, but Bendigo is a shining exception to the rule. He has the cheery aspect of an English country squire who has lived a life of unbroken serenity, and who, barring accident, may have a score of enjoyable years before him. His shoulders are immensely broad, and still as square as a plank, and the calves of his legs are hard almost as wood, and a fair sixteen inches about. He is light on his feet, and as active with his arms as a school-boy, and he has the laugh and certainly the bright eyes of one, all evidences of great physical power, and which are the more remarkable taken in connection with the tact that he has, in one sense, had "everything against him" all through his life. In the first place he was one of three children of one birth, his mother having presented his father with eighteen boys and girls besides. His boyhood was for the most part a scramble for the necessaries of existence, and at the early age of sixteen he stepped out of the streets, where his prowess as a bruiser had already made him famous, and entered the prize ring to fight for money.
    "That was my first set-to," said Bendigo; "it was for a purse, a collection made amongst the crowd on Silston-common and offered, for the sport of the thing, to any two lads who would fight for it. I fought and won it, and from that time, till in my fortieth year I fought Tom Paddock, I was engaged in twenty-one matched fights, and never was beaten in one. What is [-88-] more, I never in my life had a hit on the nose hard enough to make it bleed, and in all my battles I never got a black eye. I've got a broken thumb, as you see, and a broken finger, and I've got the bridge of my nose rather flattened, and one of my teeth knocked out, but that was through a kick in the face I got at football many years ago. I've got part of my ear knocked off - Deaf Burke did that when I was six-and-twenty; and I've got a damaged big toe - that Caunt did with the spike in his shoe. There's nothing else the matter with me that I know of 'cepting a broken knee-cap, which lamed me for seven years. I don't know that I took to fighting because I liked it. It came natural to me, and I was always at it as far hack as I can recollect. Besides, I did it to get a living. I could do it better than I could do anything else, and I had my mother to keep. She didn't mind me doing it - not she; she encouraged me to it. If anybody came to her in a fright and said, 'Lor, Mrs. Thompson, your boy's being half killed,' she would say, 'Ah, you leave him alone; he'll come off all right.' If ever I came home when I was a youngster, and she found out that another boy had licked me, she would say, 'Now just you go back and lick him, or I'll lick you.' She would, too.
    "She was a wonderful old woman. She was mainly the cause of my last fight - that with Tom Paddock. I held the belt then, and hadn't fought for some time. Well, I went to see her; she was eighty-two years old then, and I found her at her lodgings smoking her pipe and reading Bell's Life. 'There you are then, mother,' I says. 'Yes,' she says, answering me sharp, 'here I am. Have you seen this?' It was the paper she meant. 'No,' I says, 'I ain't.' She says, 'Have you seen this Tom Paddock?' 'No,' I says. 'I have,' says she, 'a needle-pointer at Redditch; a fellow with no more breadth to his shoulders than there is between the eyes of a mouse, and he challenges you to fight. And I tell you this, Bendy, if you don't take the challenge you are a coward. And I tell you more, if [-89-] you won't fight him I'll send and take up his challenge myself.' Eighty-two she was at that time. So of course I fought him, and beat him under the hour. But I'm a getting away from the beginning.
    "Did I in my young days ever have any religious thoughts? Well, not to speak of. When we were little un's at home together, mother used to make us say the Lord's prayer, and that, but I didn't think anything about it. Bat here was a strange thing. I used to pray before I knew anything about religion. It's a fact, sir, though it mayn't sound such, that I never fought a fight yet for money that I didn't go on my knees over-night and say, 'Let me win this fight, so that I may keep my old mother out of the workhouse' It wasn't religion; not a bit of it. I didn't know what religion was.
    "Now I'll tell you how I think it happened. My father, though a cabinetmaker by trade, had a bit of a turn for science, and he had a big telescope. He used sometimes to let me look through it, and I liked it. He used to talk about the starry heavens to me, and pint out Wenus and the Great Bear and Jupiter, and tell me a lot about 'em, and who it was that made em and looked after em. Well, they looked so beautiful through the telescope that I used to think a lot about this at times, and what a wonderful power it must be who ruled over 'em and kept 'em going; and when I was going to fight I used to think if He can do all that, He can help me, and so I used to ask Him. Did I used to say I'd try and do better if He would let me win the fight? No, I didn't; I did not want to do any better than win, but I put it in that way, 'to keep mother out of the workhouse.' And she was kept out of the workhouse. When my uncle died - a optician he was, and left us his stock-in-trade and his tools - I says to my brother, You take the lot, and allow mother six shillings a week on my account like, and so he did. And I used to buy the old lady her winter clothes, and he bought her [-90-] her summer clothes, and so she did pretty well until she died at eighty-three.
    "And now I'll tell you how I came to leave off my old goings on, and to be converted to the right way. You won't care to hear of my queer ways from the time I turned up fighting until I found grace; besides, I am going to get a kind friend to write my life, and I mean to get it published shortly.
    "So I'll skip over the time that I was knocking about Nottingham, and when the most common line in the newspapers was 'Bendigo in trouble again,' and which led to my seeing the inside of Nottingham Gaol seven-and-twenty times. I will skip over all that till we come to the twenty-eighth time. What was it for? Not for thieving. No; it was never as bad as that. When I was a boy, and up to the time when I was a young fellow, my life was a rough 'un, and if I saw any chap eating, and I was hungry, I'd take his grub away from him, Oh, yes, I'd do that; or if I was dry, and had no money for a drink, I'd think nothing of making free with somebody else's beer; but, d'ye understand me, I never would what you might call steal anything.
    "Well, this twenty-eighth time was for the old game. It was at one of the public-houses where they were set against me, and wouldn't serve me with any strong drink, even though I had the money to pay for it. So somebody got a pint of ale for me, and just as I was going to drink it, the landlord come along and knocks the jug clean out of my hand. Well, no sooner was he knocked down himself than in comes the policeman, and there was a row, and it was, 'Bendigo in trouble once more.' And I had to make the best of it before the bench of magistrates. Of course I knew em, well enough, and they knew me. There was one of em, a hearty, John Bull kind of man, that I took a likin' to, and I used always try and get round, and generally managed it, putting the matter to him in a man to man kind of way, d'ye see; but there was another, a [-91-] vinegar-looking, narrow-jawed cove, who was always hard on me.
    "Well, I made my story out pretty well, and made 'em laugh a bit, and, thought I, I shall get off this time; but I didn't. Said my friend on the bench, 'Bendigo, when you're sober you are one of the nicest men in Nottingham, but when you're drunk you ain't; therefore you will go to prison for two months, and afterwards give bail to keep the peace for three months longer.'
    "Well, somehow that sentence seemed to knock me over more than any of the twenty-seven I had served before, and I took to thinking what a fool I was not to live quiet and comfortable on my pound a week like another man. Yes, a pound a week-that's what I've got to live on. Did I save it up? Not I; I couldn't save. No; what I did when I was making a heap of money in the ring was to hand it over to my brother on condition that he always gives me a pound a week, and that's how it comes. And I've got a nice little country house, for which I pay two shillings a week, and I never was happier in my life, though I ain't very rich, you'll say. But I'm better off now than ever I was. I've got my belts - three of em the champion's, which was never took from me, and two others, and a lot of silver cups and things; they're all out of pawn now, and I've got em all at home in the cupboard.
    "Well, I was going to tell you about the conversion. Twice a day on Sunday we had to go to chapel - to hear the parson. I didn't care much  for listening to such things in general, but, somehow, this Sunday I did. When I say somehow, I mean to say I couldn't but do it. It was just in my line. It was about the set-to between David and Goliath. And when the parson began to talk about the big un-how tall he was, and how broad and strong - I was all the time picturing him as being a man after the style of the big on I had fought three times - Ben Caunt that was - and wondering how I should have [-92-] got on in a stand-up with Goliath. Well, the parson went on and told us about the little 'un - about David, and about his pluck in facing the giant, though he had only a sling and a stone to tackle him with.
    "When he came to describe the fight, I listened with all my might, quite lost myself listening, and when it came to the wind-up, and David floored the giant and killed him, without thinking that I was in chapel and that it was against the rules to say a word, I bawls out 'Brayvo ! I'm glad the little 'un won.' It was very wrong, and what made it worse for me, all the prisoners and the warders burst out laughing. The parson he turned away, but I could tell by the move of his shoulders that he was laughing too; which, perhaps, made it a little better. They thought it was a joke of mine; but it wasn't. I took to it too serious for joking, and when I got to my cell and was quiet, I kep' thinking about it, and about how somebody must have helped little David to lick the giant with his sword and armour, and about them old times when I used to ask that I might win the fight, that I might keep my old mother out of the workhouse.
    "Well, it was as sing'lar as though it was done on purpose. The very next Sunday the parson preached another sermon which seemed hitting at me harder than the one the week before. It was all about the three men, Shadrack, Mesheck, and Bendigo, who was cast into the fiery furnace, and who was saved by the Lord from being burnt. Oh, yes, I've heard about that since; it wasn't exactly Bendigo who was third man; but the name sounded like it to me, and I took it as such, though I didn't say anything to anybody. If one Bendigo can be saved, why not another? I said to myself; and I thought about it a great deal more than anybody there thought, I'll wager. If I'd have told em I might have thought that the sermons was got up for me. It really seemed so. Sunday after Sunday I looked out for something about me in the sermon, and there [-93-] it always was. After the one about the fiery furnace came one about the twelve fishermen. Now, I'm a fisherman myself. Bless you! I should rather think I was; one of the best in England. I've won lots of prizes, and got a fishing-rod that Mr. Walter, of the Times, give me. Well, after that come another sermon about the seven hundred left-handed men in the Book of Judges; and I am a left-handed man. Of course I am. It was that what took in the knowing ones I have had to stand up against.
    "Well, it was this always going on that made me make up my mind to turn as soon as ever I got out. It was on a Thursday, and in the winter, and when I was let out at the gaol door there was my old friends kindly come to meet me. 'Come along, Bendy, old boy,' they said, 'we've got something to eat and something to drink for you all ready. Come along.' But I had made up my mind, and wasn't to be shook; so I turned round, and I ses, 'Look here, I never will eat or drink along with you, or along with any man in a public-house again as long as I live. I've done with it.' They looked at each other, I can tell you. They couldn't make it out. But there was one man amongst em named Waters, and he said, 'Bendy, will you come along with me? I'm going to Beeston.' And I knew if I went with him I should be all right; and I went. And there I met another friend who wished me well, and said he, 'Bendy, what do you say to coming to the hall to-night to hear Undaunted Dick?' 'Who's he?' says I; 'I never heard of him.' 'It's Dick Weaver,' says he, 'a collier chap that was once in a bad way, but who is now converted and turned preacher.' 'Ay,' said I, I'll go and hear him; 'he's one of my own sort;' and I went, and I set on the platform, and there I could hear ' em: 'Why, how's this? there's Bendigo up there;' 'Look, look, there's old Bendy.' But I took no notice; only sat quiet and listened.
    Well, next night I was there again, and heard what did me [-94-] good more than ever. It was bad weather and snowing hard, and I had to make my way home late at night across a park; and when I was half way across I couldn't hold out any longer. So in the dark, and with the snow coming down, I went on my knees and prayed as well as I knowed how; and when I got up I felt a new man. I didn't quite go without ale; I had one half-pint between then and Sunday, and then I went to the chapel again and on to the platform, and, in the face of everybody who was there, I knelt down and told em how I was changed, and how that nothing should tempt me to go wrong again, and I've kept my word, and I mean to go on keeping it. Ever since that time not a drop of beer or spirits has passed my lips, and I never felt healthier, or stronger, or more lively, than I do now. I've tried the right road now for two years, but I ain't much of a hand at preaching as yet, because I can't read; but I'm learning as fast as I can, and then I shall get on better."
    And so Bendigo brought to a conclusion his singular story, to which may well be added that it would be difficult to conceive anything more convincing of the renowned old prizefighter's perfect sincerity than the spectacle of him holding in his formidable fists a limp child's first spelling book, and doing his desperate utmost to master the mysteries of A B C, as the first necessary step towards attaining the summit of his present ambition, which is to be able to read the Bible.