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Just who was Bendingo and why does Nottingham want a new statue for him?

Stu Armstrong

My name is Stu Armstrong, I am a huge boxing fan but an even bigger fan of BKB and work as the Head of Media for UBBAD Promotions, the worlds biggest promoter of BKB UBBD

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If you know your boxing history then odds on you have heard of Bendingo, and now Boxing fans are trying to bring back a Nottingham sporting legend to the City Centre.

Boxer William “Bendigo” Thompson used to bring crowds of thousands to the Old Market Square during the 19th century and became one of the best bare-knuckle boxers of his time, despite him being a historic champion, the only memorial in Nottingham is a stone statue on top of a restaurant in Sneinton, local fans are now trying to campaign to get Bendigo to get the same recognition as the likes of Robin Hood and Brian Clough by having a statue made of him in bronze in the city centre.

So in 200 years this could very well be Dave Radford, Michael Ferry, Jimmy Sweeney or Christian Evans and that’s why UBBAD are getting getting involved, so lets get behind Ryan and his campaign to honour a Bare Knuckle Champion of yesteryear.

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bendigo 2So just who was Bendigo for those that don’t know? 

Credit: LeftLion.com

William Abednego Thompson, better known as Bendigo, was arguably England’s greatest bare-knuckle boxer and one of Nottingham’s most famous exports – he even has a town named after him in Australia (well, kind of… an early Oz farmer/gold miner was also a bare-knuckle boxer, his style was reminiscent of our Bendigo and so the nickname stuck. When his ranch grew to a town, it took upon his adopted name).

Born into the slums of Nottingham on 18 October 1811, he was the last of 21 children, himself one of triplets, Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach named after the young men in the Book of Daniel who emerged from the fiery furnace of Babylon. Which was rather apt, seeing as Nottingham in Victorian times wasn’t exactly the cover of a Quality Street tin. With over 300 people per acre crammed into certain parts, it was one of the most densely populated areas in the British Empire – at a time when the Empire covered a huge chunk of the world.

Naturally, the slums were rife with pestilence and disease, and the life expectancy here was less than half the national average – a shocking 22 years. The town boundaries had not changed since they were erected nearly 800 years before, and the Industrial Revolution led to massive overcrowding. A town that probably housed around 1,000 people when built now squeezed in about 50,000. One government official even labelled Nottingham as the ‘Worst town in England’. The worst affected areas were Narrow Marsh and the streets crowded between Long Row and Parliament Street, the people here said to “be the poorest of all Queen Victoria’s children”. One of these streets, New Walk, was Bendigo’s stomping ground.

The young Bendigo was a born athlete, being noted as an excellent runner, cricket player, stone thrower and somersaulter. For a bet he once threw half a house brick over the River Trent with his left hand! Like most men of his era, he was well into cockfighting and badger baiting down at the local pub and fished at the Leen and the Trent. When he was 15 his father died, and so it was every man for themselves in the Thompson house. Bendigo was sent to the Nottingham Workhouse with his mother, but he didn’t stay long. His time here proved to be the turning point in his life. Experiencing the harshness of Victorian poverty, he vowed never to return.

After leaving the Workhouse, Bendigo scraped a living selling oysters in and around the streets of Nottingham. Getting bored with the stink of fish, he got a job as an iron turner, which developed his muscular physique. His background, his environment and now his job put him in good stead for his future career path of Prizefighting. In other words, he was hard as fuck.

By the age of 18 he was already fighting for money, in order to put food on the table. He destroyed his first eight opponents – including the Champion of Bingham – and by the time he was 21 he was virtually a professional fighter. Although a lot smaller than many of his opponents at just 5’ 9”, he had an extremely quick hand speed, an extraordinarily hard punch and fought without any fear whatsoever. Not only was he stronger and faster than many of his contemporaries, but he was also very skillful, earning the nickname ‘Bendy’ due to his bobbing and weaving. People just couldn’t get near him. It wasn’t too long before ‘Bendy’ Abednego became Bendigo.

Bendigo 1Though it was his speed and agility that won him his fights, it was Bendigo’s personality and sense of humour that won him the crowd. Over 100 years before Muhammad Ali, he would make up rhymes about his opponents during fights, and distract them with insults and tall tales of their wives and mothers while pulling funny faces. It wasn’t long before the local hero was drawing crowds of over 10,000 people to his illicit fights, held way out of town in barns or fields in an era when public transport was virtually non-existent.

All legendary boxers need a fierce rival, and Bendigo’s was another local lad from Hucknall, Ben Caunt. In 1835, the two met for the first time for the princely sum of £25. The fight only lasted 22 rounds, which was relatively easy compared to their rematches (back in those days, a round lasted until one fighter was knocked down, with no time limit) Bendigo, who was three stone lighter and six inches shorter, got into difficulties early on and started to go down a bit easily. This (along with Bendigo’s constant manic laughter and free flowing insults) frustrated Caunt, who ended up striking Bendigo while he was kneeling and so losing on a foul. A writer at the fight described Caunt as “full of trickery and treachery… he has no ethics” and Bendigo as “deadly and as poisonous as a rattlesnake with about the same ethics”

Over the next two years, Bendigo had three fights, first of all dispatching the renowned John Leachman of Bradford in a 52-round contest, before travelling to Newcastle the year after to take out Charley Langham in 51 rounds. A few months later, Bendigoanswered a letter in the newspaper from a Liverpool man called William Looney, challenging “any man in the world for £100 stake and £200 a-side”. They met on 13 June 1837, on a hill at Chapel-en-le-Frith – the halfway point between their hometowns. The fight lasted 92 rounds(!), but will probably be remembered for Bendigo’s reaction to Looney contemplating a haymaker in the 15th round by falling to the floor “on his nether end throwing up his legs and laughing”. Bendigo took control shortly after and even started somersaulting in the ring, endearing him to the crowds.

Bendigo on LeftLionWilliam Abednego Thompson, better known as Bendigo, was arguably England’s greatest bare-knuckle boxer and one of Nottingham’s most famous exports – he even has a town named after him in Australia (well, kind of… an early Oz farmer/gold miner was also a bare-knuckle boxer, his style was reminiscent of our Bendigo and so the nickname stuck. When his ranch grew to a town, it took upon his adopted name).

Born into the slums of Nottingham on 18 October 1811, he was the last of 21 children, himself one of triplets, Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach named after the young men in the Book of Daniel who emerged from the fiery furnace of Babylon. Which was rather apt, seeing as Nottingham in Victorian times wasn’t exactly the cover of a Quality Street tin. With over 300 people per acre crammed into certain parts, it was one of the most densely populated areas in the British Empire – at a time when the Empire covered a huge chunk of the world.

Naturally, the slums were rife with pestilence and disease, and the life expectancy here was less than half the national average – a shocking 22 years. The town boundaries had not changed since they were erected nearly 800 years before, and the Industrial Revolution led to massive overcrowding. A town that probably housed around 1,000 people when built now squeezed in about 50,000. One government official even labelled Nottingham as the ‘Worst town in England’. The worst affected areas were Narrow Marsh and the streets crowded between Long Row and Parliament Street, the people here said to “be the poorest of all Queen Victoria’s children”. One of these streets, New Walk, was Bendigo’s stomping ground.

The young Bendigo was a born athlete, being noted as an excellent runner, cricket player, stone thrower and somersaulter. For a bet he once threw half a house brick over the River Trent with his left hand! Like most men of his era, he was well into cockfighting and badger baiting down at the local pub and fished at the Leen and the Trent. When he was 15 his father died, and so it was every man for themselves in the Thompson house. Bendigo was sent to the Nottingham Workhouse with his mother, but he didn’t stay long. His time here proved to be the turning point in his life. Experiencing the harshness of Victorian poverty, he vowed never to return.

After leaving the Workhouse, Bendigo scraped a living selling oysters in and around the streets of Nottingham. Getting bored with the stink of fish, he got a job as an iron turner, which developed his muscular physique. His background, his environment and now his job put him in good stead for his future career path of Prizefighting. In other words, he was hard as fuck.

By the age of 18 he was already fighting for money, in order to put food on the table. He destroyed his first eight opponents – including the Champion of Bingham – and by the time he was 21 he was virtually a professional fighter. Although a lot smaller than many of his opponents at just 5’ 9”, he had an extremely quick hand speed, an extraordinarily hard punch and fought without any fear whatsoever. Not only was he stronger and faster than many of his contemporaries, but he was also very skilful, earning the nickname ‘Bendy’ due to his bobbing and weaving. People just couldn’t get near him. It wasn’t too long before ‘Bendy’ Abednego became Bendigo.

Bendigo on LeftLionThough it was his speed and agility that won him his fights, it was Bendigo’s personality and sense of humour that won him the crowd. Over 100 years before Muhammad Ali, he would make up rhymes about his opponents during fights, and distract them with insults and tall tales of their wives and mothers while pulling funny faces. It wasn’t long before the local hero was drawing crowds of over 10,000 people to his illicit fights, held way out of town in barns or fields in an era when public transport was virtually non-existent.

All legendary boxers need a fierce rival, and Bendigo’s was another local lad from Hucknall, Ben Caunt. In 1835, the two met for the first time for the princely sum of £25. The fight only lasted 22 rounds, which was relatively easy compared to their rematches (back in those days, a round lasted until one fighter was knocked down, with no time limit) Bendigo, who was three stone lighter and six inches shorter, got into difficulties early on and started to go down a bit easily. This (along with Bendigo’s constant manic laughter and free flowing insults) frustrated Caunt, who ended up striking Bendigo while he was kneeling and so losing on a foul. A writer at the fight described Caunt as “full of trickery and treachery… he has no ethics” and Bendigo as “deadly and as poisonous as a rattlesnake with about the same ethics”

Over the next two years, Bendigo had three fights, first of all dispatching the renowned John Leachman of Bradford in a 52-round contest, before travelling to Newcastle the year after to take out Charley Langham in 51 rounds. A few months later, Bendigoanswered a letter in the newspaper from a Liverpool man called William Looney, challenging “any man in the world for £100 stake and £200 a-side”. They met on 13 June 1837, on a hill at Chapel-en-le-Frith – the halfway point between their hometowns. The fight lasted 92 rounds(!), but will probably be remembered for Bendigo’s reaction to Looney contemplating a haymaker in the 15th round by falling to the floor “on his nether end throwing up his legs and laughing”. Bendigo took control shortly after and even started somersaulting in the ring, endearing him to the crowds.

However, even through the constant barrage of punches, Looney fought bravely on and he even nearly nicked the fight with a massive right hand when under some pressure from Bendigo. Eventually, as with most bouts of the time, Bendigo’s stamina and athleticism shone through and he was declared the winner after dominating over an hour’s brawling.

Bendigo’s name and status was steadily rising, and on April 3 1838 Caunt finally got his rematch for £300 prize money. Although three years younger in an era when every year counted, Caunt came into the ring in poor shape compared with the excellent physique of his opponent. Bendigo trained especially hard for this match and easily outfoxed and out-manoeuvred Caunt, leaving him looking clumsy in his attacks. However, the fight went on for 75 rounds of furious combat. That was marred – or enhanced, depending on your point of view – by foul play and crowd violence.

In the fifth round, Caunt had Bendigo against the ropes and nearly strangled him but Bendigo fought back, peppering his opponent with body shots and more insults. Desperate for victory and revenge, Caunt was said to have Bendigo by the throat, strangling him again in the thirteenth. By the time Bendigo’s followers had cut the ropes and entered the ring his face was going blue. A fight broke out between the two sets of supporters and Caunt took a few hits across the back with a ring stake.

When order resumed, Bendigo had a hit of brandy and stepped back up to the scratch. In the fiftieth round it was Bendigo’s turn for some underhand tactics, lashing out some kicks on Caunt, but the referee dismissed the complaint. In the seventy-fifth round, the referee stopped the fight as Bendigo went to ground without being struck, an illegal tactic in Prize Fighting. After the fight, Bendigo claimed it was a slip; a claim backed up by contemporary accounts, putting him well ahead and coasting.

Naturally, all hell broke loose. His supporters attacked Caunt with sticks, stakes and whatever else they could get their hands on. Caunt was dragged to his coach by his cronies and attempted to flee. The coach was held up by Bendigo’s mob, Caunt was dragged out, but during the melee he eventually escaped, riding bareback on a stolen horse…

In 1839, when Bendigo was 28, he finally reached the summit. He was given the task of defeating the fearsome Londoner James “Deaf ‘un” Burke for the All-England title and a purse of £220. The fight was at No Mans Heath in Leicestershire, in front of an unruly crowd of 15,000 people. It lasted just ten rounds, with Bendigo battering the helpless Burke, who had just successfully toured America and was seen as an unofficial world champion. After half an hour, the frustrated Burke became so enraged with the barrage of punches and insults coming from his younger, faster and stronger challenger, he grabbed hold of Bendigo and full on headbutted him, thus losing
on a foul and gifting the championship away.

The “Nottingham Jester”, Champion Prize Fighter of All England was presented his belt a few weeks later at a ceremony in The Queens Theatre, Liverpool. When he returned to Nottingham, Bendigo met his jubilant supporters and got a bit carried away. He somersaulted into the crowd and ended up breaking his kneecap, which put him out of action for two years.

Bendigo was a true fighting champion, and once he recovered from his injury he defeated 19 opponents over the next four years, including seven in one month. But there was one fight the public were desperate to see – and on 9 September 1845 at Lillington Level, Oxford, a half-drunk riotous crowd of 10,000 came to see the third and final fight between Bendigo and Caunt.

Bendigo’s tactics were called into question as he crouched and bobbed his way around the ring, making it harder for Caunt to hit him. Hardly a round went by without a foul being claimed in a notoriously dirty grudge match. The atmosphere was all the more intense because of the fierce rivalry between the two sets of supporters, who only really came to finish what they had started 6 years earlier.

The fight lasted a massive 96 rounds, with Bendigo tactically and methodically breaking his man down until, exhausted after two hours ten minutes, Caunt sat down without getting hit, losing on a foul. The fight was described by a contemporary writer as “one of the most scandalous brawls in boxing history. Both men used every foul under the sun and invented a good many others… Bendigo was tossed from the ring… Caunt trying to crash him on the ring stakes to break his back. Bendigo’s followers attempted to bludgeon Caunt whenever within striking distance… on one occasion missing by a hair’s breadth, the blow landing on Caunt’s brawny shoulder”

Years later, when speaking on this fight, an old friend said to Bendigo; “I hope you fight Beelzebub with more fairness than you fought Caunt, or else I might change sides”

This fight seemed to have taken a lot out of Bendigo, who slipped into semi-retirement and went back to his childhood pastime of fishing. He became good friends with a well-known angler called William Bailey, who made and sold fishing tackle from his shop in Broad Marsh.

Although enjoying the quiet life, Bendigo reluctantly accepted a challenge from a young Tom Paddock from Redditch, and on the 5 June 1850, the 39-year-old William Abednego Thompson fought his last fight. In two minds as to whether to accept the fight or not, his 82 year-old mother encouraged him by saying “I tell you this Bendy, if you don’t take up the fight you’re a coward. And I tell you more – if you don’t fight him, I’ll take up the challenge myself.”

The fight was a close one and lasted over an hour. Paddock, the younger man by far, and himself a future champion, was getting the better of Bendigo who started to go to ground very easily. This infuriated Paddock who, after flooring Bendigo with a right hand in the 49th, thought he had gone down again. Paddock charged across the ring and kicked Bendigo, and pulled him to his feet shouting, “Get up and fight like a man”. Bendigo’s corner man called foul and the referee concurred, giving the decision. By all accounts, Bendigo was lucky to win that last fight and he never disagreed.
Feeling he was getting too old for prizefighting, ‘The Nottingham Jester’ stepped down undefeated as champion, with two prize belts and four silver cups to his name. Bendigowas perhaps the last of the great prizefighters and to some is considered the ‘Champion of Champions’. He is credited with inventing the left-handed ‘Southpaw’ stance, ensuring his legacy lies within the fabric of boxing forever. His outspoken character and record in the ring attracted a massive fan base, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a verse to the fighter titled ‘Bendigo’s Sermon’

You didn’t know of Bendigo?
Well that knocks me out!
Who’s your board schoolteacher?
What’s he been about?
Chock-a-block with fairy tales –
Full of useless cram,
And never heard of Bendigo
The Pride Of Nottingham!

Speaking on his career, Bendigo proudly said; “I was engaged in 21 matched fights and never was beaten in one. What is 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 once got a black eye.”

After declaring his retirement, he took up an unofficial role as boxing coach at Oxford University, teaching rich young gentlemen the noble art of pugilism. As it was an unofficial role, they had to disguise him as a professor to get him into the grounds. A far cry from when he was back at Nottingham Workhouse a few years before.

However, mixing with the upper echelons of society didn’t appeal to him much either, so it wasn’t long before he made his way back to Nottingham. Soon after his return, his mother died and Bendigo saw this as failing to keep his promise to ‘keep Mam out the Workhouse’, so he lost his way and turned to alcohol.

By now, he was a national celebrity and comparatively rich to boot, something like a 19th Century Richard Pryor crossed with The Incredible Hulk, and his life took a serious turn. He became involved with the Nottingham Lambs, a politically-motivated group who caused much civil unrest and violence in Nottingham. On certain occasions, they even rioted through the Market Square, protesting against the shockingly poor living conditions of the time (it’s this lot that burned the last Nottingham Castle down before the thing that’s there now was built, by the way).
An official bumped into Bendigo in the Three Crowns Tavern while on a visit to Nottingham and reported, ”Upon turning away from my friend to reach for the tankard that I had ordered, I found him burying a portion of his facial development there-in. When I was informed that it was Bendigo, one of the Nottingham Lambs, I did not question the matter but did exclaim: ‘Great Scott! What must the Nottingham Wolves be like?’’

After a few years, the fallen champ became a sorry drunken mess, not even a shadow of his former self. Gangs of children would taunt him when they saw him out in the streets. A magistrate summed up Bendigo, while sending him for one of his 28(!) visits to The House of Correction for Drunk and Disorderly, sometimes taking half a dozen constables to restrain him; “Bendigo, when you’re sober you’re one of the nicest men in Nottingham, but when you’re drunk, you ain’t…” After one of his ‘holidays’ inside, Bendigo started to take an interest in the prison chaplain’s sermons, especially the story of David and Goliath, declaring, “I do hope the lit’lun licks the big’un.”

In his later life, he moved to Beeston to try and curb his drinking and avoid the Nottingham Lambs, but he only managed a few sober moments here and there, fishing by the Trent. Despite all these problems, at the age of 59 he managed to dive into the river to save three people from drowning. One time he pulled a woman from the river who offered him a reward. “Reward? I am the champion of England” he replied, scornfully rejecting the kind offer.

In 1872, Bendigo attended a congregation held by the converted collier Richard Weaver. He was invited up on stage and, although illiterate, delivered a powerful sermon. Much to the relief of the local magistrate, he was persuaded to join The Ebenezer Lodge of Templars and use his influence to preach. Taking up a boxer’s stance, he would turn to his trophies and declare, “See them belts? See them cups? I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ.”

But not always. During one sermon, packed with people more interested in the preacher than his message, it all got a little too much for him, and while the rabble at the back were shouting and heckling and singing songs about his past fights, Bendigo was said to have closed his Bible, put his hands together, looked up and prayed; “Good Lord, Thou knowest that since I gave up my wicked ways I have devoted my life to Thy service, and have given Thee the whole of my time. But now, seeing what’s going on in this room, I’ll take with Thy kind permission just five minutes off for mesen” before vaulting the pulpit into the crowd and restoring order in the traditional manner.

His popularity as a fighter soon attracted massive congregations to his sermons and there were hundreds left outside some meetings. At one of these open-air congregations at Sneinton Market, Bendigo was told that the men already on the stage were ‘infidels’, To which he stripped off his coat and replied “What, them that don’t believe in God? I’ll clear the stage.” Bendigo spent the next few years touring the country preaching to crowds of thousands becoming even more of a household name, and eventually getting noticed by politicians, who noted “that although he couldn’t read the Bible, his straightforward manly speech could be useful”. People said that he was ‘better off going after the Devil as he had no man left to fight’.

Bendigo died on 23rd August 1880 aged 69, after falling down the stairs of his home in Beeston. The fall fractured ribs and punctured his lung, but he hung on for seven more weeks before he finally died. His funeral procession was a mile long and thousands lined the streets, including many nationally famous people of the period. Even The Times newspaper published his obituary, which was normally reserved for only the most illustrious people. He was buried in his mother’s grave, marked by a stone in the former burial grounds at Bath Street Rest Gardens (just near Victoria Leisure Centre). It is the only memorial not to have been moved during redevelopment and bears the inscription;

“In life always brave,
Fighting like a Lion;
In Death like a Lamb,
Tranquil in Zion”

Bendigos GRave

 

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