Johnny Walker

John Walker, a baker at the new bakery on the corner of Creed Street was well known as a prize fighter, as was his eldest son, also John. This piece from the Bucks Herald Sat 9 Jul 1842 give us some idea how disreputable these fights were.

PRIZE FIGHT

The thieves, pickpockets, and swell-mob fraternity mustered in stronger numbers than usual at the prize fight on Tuesday, between two fellows called Johnny Walker and Ned Adams. The affair had been appointed to come off close to Virginia Water, but there, and at two or three other places, the magistrates interfered and compelled the ruffians to ‘move on’. At length, after considerable time ha been spent in marching and counter-marching, the pummelling, which lasted nearly an hour and a half, commenced near the village of Bracknell. Walker, who was the winner, appeared but little hurt; but the nose of the other was split after the first few rounds and his cheek was “cut open” to a great extent. The fight it is sidewise got up by a “sporting viscount” (who had heavily backed the winner). The most barefaced robberies were committed in the vicinity of the ring during, and especially immediately after, the fight. Regularly organised gangs of from 15 to 20 each under a fellow who acted as their leader, robbed everyone who had the least appearance of respectability, without let or hindrance, of money, watches, and indeed of every thing of value they possessed, and which they were fools enough to take to such a gathering as a “prize fight.”


He was about 40 when he came to Wolverton and presumably his best fighting days were behind him. One assumes that he had made enough money from this brutal pugilism to establish himself in business. He was born in the parish of St George the Martyr in Southwark, exactly the same place that George Weight, Wolverton’s first vicar, had worked as a curate. Was this coincidence, or did George Weight’s move to Wolverton a few years earlier generate some interest in the Walker household?

He must have been a tough old character because his bruising youth did not appear to have shortened his lifespan. In fact he live beyond the average for the era, dying at Wolverton in 1892 at the age of 84, still baking to his last days. His widow was his second wife and was 30 years younger, The sons and daughters had long ago moved on and nobody wished to inherit the business. In 1901 the shop was run by the widowed Hannah Smith as a grocer but it seems that she kept the bakery going as she employed 25 year old Arthur Lovell as a “bread maker”. 10 years later she was operating the place as a corner shop selling sweets.

Once in the fight game it may be difficult to leave it alone. The Northampton Mercury reported on September 10th 1859 on the death of a 25 year old Albert Whyman during a fight at Wollaston. The fight started as a quarrel outside the Nags Head at closing time and because of the noise the landlord cleared them away and the crowd, larger now, trooped off to a nearby field. As the fight started men took sides and presumably money changed hands. John Walker is described as the “backer” of the unfortunate Wyman.

It appears that Whyman was getting the better of the fight until his opponent swung one punch to his head, which felled him and from which he failed to recover. The opponent, one George Whyte, was committed to trial for manslaughter. John Walker was given a warning by the magistrates and released.

Ben Caunt

An English Prize Fighter

Ben Caunt was the other prize fighter who fought Bendigo in the infamous fight around Wolverton in 1845 1845. He appears in three Times articles in 1860 and 1861. It appears that his life had been going downhill since his prize fighting days.

In 1860 he was sued by a tailor named Mead for an outstanding bill of £28 5s 6d – a sum equivalent to about 6 months wages for a skilled working man, so not a trivial amount. Caunt was then the proprietor of a public house called the Coach and Horses in St Martin’s Lane and had been for eighteen years. The pub may not have had the best reputation because we learn from the trial that there had been complaints in the past. There were suggestions that a man had been hustled and robbed in his house and of cheating at cards. And given his fighting reputation the pub also attracted ruffianly men who worked out some of their own pugilistic passions. All these accusations he strongly denied.

Nevertheless he was a man in difficulty. He had recently lost his licence, although the immediate cause is not clear from this account.

The story here seems to revolve around a certain Mr. Matchet, who was certainly a rogue, even a con man.
According to Caunt, Matchet had come to his public house to stay on returning from India with £2300. Having suitably imporessed his landlord Matchet then proceeded to by drinks all round and run up a bill of £55. It was Matchet who ordered clothes from the tailor, partly for himself, but he also managed to include a suit apiece for a mr Jones and a Mr Butler. He also threw in generously a pair of trousers for Caunt’s son.

At this point Matchet disappeared, leaving Caunt with the bill. Caunt refused to pay the tailor, except for the trousers for his son and so the matter came to court.

The first jury in June 1860 could not agree on a verdict and were dismissed. At a second hearing a moth later another jury found for Mead and Caunt was stuck with the bill.

A year later his death was reported.

The Times September 11th 1861

DEATH OF BEN CAUNT

Yesterday morning, at 4 o clock, Mr. Benjamin Caunt, proprietor of the Coach and Horses Tavern, St Martin’s lane, expired somewhat suddenly at his residence. The deceased, familiarly know as “Ben Caunt”, had been a leading member of the prize ring, and held for some years the championship, which he succeeded i gaining after many hard-fought battles. All day yesterday Caunt was inhis business as usual, but showed some signs of indisposition. He retired to rest at his usual hour last night, and this morning he was found dead in bed, without having apparently experienced much suffering. During the last year or two Caunt has been very much affected in his mind by the loss of his licence, of which the magistrates deprived him on account of informations laid against him by his neighbours of the nuisance occasioned about his house by large crowds of sporting men who took an interest in the then pending prize fights – particularly in that between Heenan and Sayers for the championship, which Caunt himself had just resigned. When his body was discovered at 4 o’clock this morning, the time at which he was usually called, medical aid was immediately resorted to; but it was ascertained that death must have taken place some time previously, probably an hour or two.

Caunt’s will was valued at under £100 so he really had little to show for his years of prize fighting. He also spent 3 months in prison in Derby for larceny when he was 22. He certainly achieved some fame but was only 46 when he died.

Bendigo

A 19th Century Prize Fighter

Some time back, in the context of Hugh Miller’s encounter with Wolverton, I posted Sir Frank Markham’s account of the prize fight centred around Wolverton Station in 1845. You can read it here.

I have recently found some further references in The Times to the two protagonists, Ben Caunt and W. Thompson, alias “Bendigo”.

Bendigo first, and the sad end of Ben Caunt tomorrow.

According to Sir Frank Markham, Bendigo became a preacher after he retired from the ring. I don’t know about his subsequent career, but prize fighting was a tough business. There are frequent reports of fatalities in these bouts and the government had made the practice illegal – not that this stopped it. On more than one occasion the victor of one of these contests found himself up on a charge of murder. It was the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules governing fighting later in the century that brought boxing under some sort of code.

On July 19 1851, Bendigo was moved to write a letter to The Times defending The Noble Art of Self Defence. The letter is incoherent and semi-literate, quite unlike the normal letters of the period with their long and elegant sentences. The Time type-setter, however, rendered the letter as it was written and published it with a preface, which is possibly patronising. It is quite Dickensian with phonetic spelling and the “h” appearing before some vowels – hexient for excellent and ham for am. You cant’t always make sense of what he says, but as a sociological document it is interesting.

THE NOBLE ART OF SELF-DEFENCE.

We have received the following letter in defence of the English practice of this “noble” art.

The writer, as will be seen, is modest enough to distrust his own “science,” but we cannot presume to improve on the defence of a professor, and leave his blows to tell as he struck them.

“TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.

“Sir, – Seeing as you ar so palite as to admet opinins of the various arts ento your collms as was the cas with the piana fortes an other maters arterwards the opening off the Great Exhibition i make bold to trubbel you with a fewe Remarkes regarden we profesors off the art of sef defense  In the Ring it appears to mee that the kicking bisness in your most hexient notiece too day off Leicester square assalt at arms in aney thing but fare game an we doant fancy this french in old England its worse nor Lancasher purrin which we turns our backes uppon the gents must hav a prety thirst for Blood to go to Encurage such practessis an i Hope you will put it done as i ham no pertikler schooler i shall be obleege if you wil Mak it knowne an i shal feel obleege

“Respectfy

“BENDIGO.

“n,B kickeing an in the face to wit i wish they may get me at that game

“Nottingham jouly 17 Flying Horse.”