The turning point in Bendigo's life came when he went to a revivalist meeting conducted by Richard Weaver, the ex-collier and evangelist preacher at the Mechanics Institute, Nottingham. 'I was determined to alter the course of my life so I resolved to go and hear him,' Bendigo later recounted. 'And when Mr. Weaver saw me in the body of the hall, he invited me to step on to the platform, which I did, and thank God that I did. For I gave my heart to God and have been a changed man ever since.'
Richard Weaver convinced Bendigo of the error of his ways - to the joy of Nottingham magistrates and the amazement of the 'Nottingham Lambs.'
Bendigo was taken in hand by the Ebenezer Lodge of Good Templars led by the redoubtable evangelists, Richard Weaver, John Dupe, founder of 'The Hallelujah Band' at Wolverhampton, and his brother Jemmy Dupe, founder of 'The Salvation Band' at Nottingham.
Well-known for his preaching at Nottingham Goose Fair, Jemmy Dupe (pictured below) had a bluff, open-air style of speaking. According to his congregation he used to preach in the same tone as the captain of a steamer would order his men about in the midst of a gale in the Bay of Biscay. Jemmy took Bendigo along with him when he addressed crowded open-air meetings in Nottingham Market Place and Sneinton Market, and at the age of 60, the old prizefighter took to preaching in his own right. 'A Fight for the Gospel,' Bendigo would announce.
At the outset, Bendigo's enthusiasm was somewhat misdirected: 'Who's them fellows on the platform?' he asked.
'Infidels!' answered Jemmy Dupe.
'What's that? Why, fellers that don't believe in God, or the Devil?' queried Bendigo, beginning to strip off. 'Come along, we'll clear the platform.'
Bendigo enthusiastically joined the band of Nottingham evangelists touring the provinces, packing out Mission Halls where hundreds were unable to gain admission. His fame as a prizefighter brought him vast congregations. At these meetings Bendigo was decently dressed in a frock coat (picture right) with black velveteen waistcoat over his broad chest. He stood straight as a pole and except for a certain flattening of his nose, bore few traces of his encounters - he might almost have been mistaken for a mild-mannered family coachman.
Despite his speech being affected by his missing front teeth, his fame and unique style of preaching drew enormous crowds: 'I've been a fightin' character an' now I'm a miracle. But what could I do? The first thing they done wi' me was put me in the workhouse. There I got among fellers as brought me out as a fightin' character. Thirty year ago I licked Ben Caunt. Now 'ere I am, an' I wish I could read out of this Blessed Book, so's I could talk to you better - but I never learnt to read proper. It's two years since King Jesus came to me an' had a bout wi' me - an' he licked me in the first round.'
His rag-tag and bob-tail friends had originally given him a just a fortnight before he was locked up again, but now they began to say: 'If God can save Bendy, He can save me!' This talk so impressed Bendigo that during his sermon, he would thrill his audience by exclaiming: 'Go it rag! Go it tag! Go it bob-tail!' Bendigo was worth a hundred theories.
He appeared in special services at the Cabmen's Mission Hall, King's Cross, London, run by John Dupe, who was Superintendent of the Mission. Quoting the handbill advertising the meeting, John Dupe hailed him as 'a miracle of mercy, the greatest miracle of the 19th century.'
In December 1874 the Christian Herald reported: 'Mr. Dupe has done well in bringing Bendigo to London. Bendigo is no scholar; he can't read the bible; he is not much of an orator; but his honest, manly speech is calculated to be especially useful . . .' Four years later another Nottingham-born missionary, General William Booth, founded the Salvation Army in London.
In a London street, Bendigo ran into Lord Longford, one of his former backers. 'What's your game now, Bendy?' the sporting nobleman asked.
'I'm fighting Satan now, your lordship, and Scripture saith that victory will be mine.'
'Hope so, Bendy, but if you don't fight Beelzebub fairer than you did Ben Caunt, then I'll change sides.'
Bendigo often stood in Nottingham Market-place selling Bibles from a barrow on which his trophies were displayed. He had his own unique way of presenting tracts to passers-by. Making an aggressive move, he would pretend to throw a punch but then open his fist to reveal a religious tract - along with a broad smile. Sometimes he would adopt a fighting stance and point to his trophies: 'See them belts; see them cups; I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ!'
In the same Market-place, before his conversion, he had been notorious at election times as the leader of the 'Nottingham Lambs', engaged by one political party or the other. Decked out in party colours, they would boo and heckle, sometimes with stones, sticks and fists, the opposition candidate and his supporters. On the occasion of John Walter of The Times being returned for Nottingham, Bendigo, as ex-Champion of England, led the victorious procession through the Market-place wearing his champion's belt and mounted on a white horse.
It was his knee that failed him in the end. At his home in June 1880, Bendigo went downstairs to let in his lodger and pitched down the steep narrow staircase, fracturing several ribs. A lung was punctured and after lingering in pain for several weeks, the gallant old fighter died on 23 August. The Times newspaper only normally featured obituaries of the royal and illustrious yet on 24August 1880 this item appeared:
Death of Bendigo
His funeral procession, which included nationally famous sportsmen, pugilists, preachers and many friends, was a mile long and thousands lined the route. Dick Weaver spoke in praise of him and the mourners sang his favourite hymns 'Welcome Home' and 'The Sweet By and By.' Truth to tell it was not a completely sober occasion but he got a Champion's send-off and was buried in his mother's grave at Bath Street cemetery.
A town in Victoria, Australia, was named after him and at the end of the century a handsome memorial stone, embodying a recumbent lion, was placed over his grave. The inscription reads:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle