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Feather's Miscellany: Deadhead

...At that time boxing was still allowed in the gym and he knew I went in the odd night to spar with prisoners who boxed to keep them in trim. So I arranged to see him there the nights I went in. But the very first time I'd agreed to teach him he was in the cooler. He'd been fighting with another prisoner. We began our boxing lessons in his cell...

John Waddington-Feather tells a tale concerning a prisoner, Bertie 'Deadhead' Deadham, who was fascinated by the noble art of boxing.

I shall never forget Bertie 'Deadhead' Deadham - BM14587 Deadham, B. He was one of the first prisoners I met when I was appointed an honorary chaplain at the County Gaol. He was in for burglary, his main occupation then, though he dabbled a bit in pick-pocketing and bag-snatching by way of a change.

About average height, he was sallow and underweight, in poor physical condition when he came into nick. But he soon fattened up with regular meals and plenty of exercise in the gym.

Like most of those inside, Bertie wasn't a bad lad at heart. The really bad ones remain outside master-minding crime - or ending up in Parliament.

Once inside, Bertie's chances of getting a job on the out diminished greatly. He wasn't qualified to do anything but steal and he'd no friends outside till he took up boxing seriously.

He could look you straight in the eye and tell you a bald lie, honest he could. And he had that peculiar habit of all prisoners, of speaking out of the side of his mouth when he didn't want anyone but his hearer to hear what he was saying.

He was streetwise but not very bright, hence the name 'Deadhead', a joke among his fellow prisoners; one of those guys who'd rather be seen as a fool than not noticed at all. Yet like most of the men doing time, there was something good in him which shone through, something I responded to.

He'd been in and out of institutions since birth when he'd been taken into care. He never knew who his father was and his mother was quite inadequate. He hadn't been shown much love in life and as a result he wasn't prepared to give any. He was a loner and distrusted everyone and seemed set for a life of crime.

I got to know him well for he'd no family, so the chaplains were his only visitors apart from a prison visitor, a kindly soul who came in once a week to see lonely prisoners.

'Deadhead' had one great passion boxing. Somewhere along the line he'd taken to boxing and watched every fight he could, or listened to them on the radio. He'd never boxed himself and I told him he ought to join a boxing club when he got out of prison.

"Will you teach me, boss?" he challenged, one day.

At that time boxing was still allowed in the gym and he knew I went in the odd night to spar with prisoners who boxed to keep them in trim. So I arranged to see him there the nights I went in. But the very first time I'd agreed to teach him he was in the cooler. He'd been fighting with another prisoner. We began our boxing lessons in his cell.

The punishment cell was a bare miserable place with only a mattress on the floor and a slop bucket in one corner. In the other corner was a table with a plastic jug full of water. No radio, no magazines, no smoking, no meeting fellow prisoners; only out of his cell for an hour's exercise morning and afternoon, walking round and round an exercise yard by himself. He was glad to have someone to talk to when I turned up and soon, boxing came into our conversation. It was time to put words into action.

I'd been nagging him for some time to learn how to box and then join a boxing club when he'd finished his sentence. He'd more chance of going straight then. As he wasn't allowed in the gym while on punishment, I taught him in his cell. First the basics: stance, guard, footwork, but when we moved to the finer arts of boxing I got into trouble.

There were just the two of us in his cell. We both took our coats off and I sparred with him, teaching him how to jab and uppercut. I was showing him out to put a right cross under the opponent's heart when it happened.

"Keep throwing your left at his forehead, Bertie," I said, "like this." Then I put in a couple of jabs at his forehead. "Get him to keep his guard well up, then swing round and put in a right into his chest." I swivelled round and jabbed at his chest, but just then he slipped. I couldn't pull my punch and he landed squarely on it and went down gasping onto his mattress.

He was deathly pale and lay there a moment catching his breath till I helped him to his feet. "Are you all right?" I asked, apprehensively.

"Yes, boss," he replied, the colour coming back into his face. Then he lifted his shirt. An ugly red weal was already making its appearance.

He was rather proud of it and showed it to his mates when he left the cooler, telling them the chaplain had done it.

I made him report sick to check it out and to say how he'd come by his bruise. I also told the governor who gave me a mild reprimand and said I was never to box in a cell again. The prisoner might turn nasty on me.

Bertie kept his word and joined a boxing club when he was released. He did rather well as an amateur and made a name for himself. As a result he landed a job working for an undertaker as an odd-job man. That was some years ago, but the last I heard of him he'd married, settled down and was still working for the undertaker - boxing the dead, I suppose!

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