For many years now I've been singing a song I wrote based on Arthur Conan Doyle's poem 'Bendy's Sermon'. Last year I appeared on BBC TV's Flog it! to sing the song during a segment they did about Bendigo's life. I've known that poem all my life because when I was a kid my grandad used to recite it. He also told me that his grandad had been a bareknuckle fighter and a personal friend of the legendary Bendigo. The man he was talking about is my great-great-Grandad John Henry Taylor. My Mum is keen on family history and she found out that he was born in 1854 but after that few official records of his life exist. Fortunately back in the 1980s my grandad wrote down a few things about his family and those notes tell us what he knew about John Henry Taylor and the kind of life he led.
John Henry was a twisthand in the lace industry working two shifts a day, usually 4am to 9am and 1pm to 6pm. Twisthands were paid by the amount of work produced, not by the hours worked but it was a good job to have and they were regarded as an elite workforce. In Nottingham some rooms in pubs were often reserved for 'Twisthands Only.' When John Henry was a young man he had been a bare knuckle fighter. We don't know much about this other than what my Grandad told us.
He said John Henry only weighed 8 stone but was fierce and would happily fight any man up to 10 stone. He had a backer who was a pub landlord in Beeston and that is where he would train. When John Henry won a fight his family would not see him for about a week, as he drank away his winnings in the pubs. He told us that John Henry was a member of the Nottingham Lambs, a politically motivated group who were known for causing civil unrest and violence. So what of his friendship with Bendigo? Could John Henry have known him, as family legend says?
This seems unlikely at first glance given that Bendigo was 40 years his senior. However Bendigo lived until 1880 seeing out his final days in the Beeston area and was a known drinker. John Henry was also a drinker and a fighter who had his boxing connections in the Beeston area around the 1870s. Bendigo is also said to have had links to the Nottingham Lambs. We have no hard evidence but it is certainly feasible that as a young fighter in the 1870s in Beeston, he would have been taken to meet the great man for some advice.
I like to believe what Grandad told me, that John Henry and Bendigo were friends. Bendigo died in 1880 aged 69 and they say his funeral procession was a mile long and thousands lined the streets. I am sure that somewhere in the crowd paying his respects would have been a young boxer called John Henry Taylor.
Bendigo is a track on the album 'Savage Pilgrims', released on July 6th 2020.