William BendigoBendigo

Champion Prizefighter

'You didn't know of Bendigo?
Well, that knocks me out!
Who's your Board School teacher?
What's he been about?
Chock a block with fairy tales -
Full of useless cram,
And never heard of Bendigo,
The pride of Nottingham.'
Bendigo's Sermon
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The revivalist meeting stumbled when the preacher's old prizefighting and drinking cronies began to heckle from the back of the hall:

'There was Tommy Platt of Bradford, Solly Jones of Perry Bar,
Long Connor from the Bull ring, the same what drew with Carr.
Jack Bull the fighting gunsmith, Joe Murphy from the mews,
And Ikey Moss the betting boss, the champion of the Jews.
A very pretty handful, a-sitting in a string,
Full of beer and impudence, ripe for anything.'

The preacher, dressed in a frock coat, broke off his sermon, closed his bible, and put his hands together. 'Good Lord,' he said. '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 meself!'

'He vaulted from the pulpit like a tiger from the den.
They say it was a lovely sight to see him floor his men.
Right an' left, and left an' right, straight an' true an' hard,
Til the Ebenezer Chapel looked more like a knacker's yard.
Platt was standing on his head, and looking at his toes;
Solly Jones of Perry Bar was feeling for his nose.
Connor of the Bull Ring had all that he could do,
Raking for his ivories that lay about the pew.
Jack Ball the gunsmith was in a peaceful sleep,
Joe Murphy lay across him all tied in a heap,
Five of them all twisted in a tangle on the floor,
And Ikey Moss the betting boss had sprinted for the door.
Five repentant fighting men a-sitting in a row,
Listening to words of grace from Mr. Bendigo,
Listening to his reverence, all as good as gold,
Pretty little baa lambs all gathered to the fold.'

The hecklers now listened attentively to the evangelist, ex-champion prize-fighter of All-England and ex-drunk when he returned to the pulpit to resume his evangelical preaching.

Into a Harsh World

Times were hard when William Abednego Thompson came into the world. The workhouse was full, the Luddites were smashing stocking frames, and thousands were on poor relief. Nor did it help being one of triplets and the youngest of 21 children. His mother, Mrs. Thompson of New Yard, Nottingham, gave birth on 11 October 1811 to Shadrach, Mesach and Abednego, so named after the young men in the Old Testament who emerged unharmed from fiery furnace of Babylon.

Tough as it was growing up in the streets of Nottingham, Bendigo soon learned to hold his own, for he was a natural-born athlete with fast hands. Known as 'Bendy' by his teens - the name came naturally from his 'bobbing and weaving' fighting technique - he could punch hard, but just as importantly, knew how to duck.

Only fifteen years old when his father, a framework knitter mechanic, died, Bendigo was sent to the workhouse with his mother. Not there long, he came out swearing that neither he nor his mother would ever again enter its grim doors. For a time he hawked oysters around the streets of Nottingham before becoming an iron-turner along with his brother at Radford. Working with iron developed his muscular strength.

He excelled at all outdoor sports - running, somersaulting, cricket and stone throwing, and like many others indulged in badger-baiting and cock-fighting at local pubs. But what a throwing arm! With his right hand he threw a cricket ball 115 yards; and for a bet, hurled half a brick with his left hand across the River Trent - a distance of 70 yards. His angling gained him a few prizes and he was also known to swim a bit, pulling three drowning folks out of the River Trent during his lifetime.

Bare-knuckle prize-fighting was his real game. By the age of 18 he was fighting for money. He vanquished his first 8 antagonists, one of whom was the renowned Champion of Bingham. At the age of 21 he was a regular pro-fighter, and though most of his opponents were bigger men, his fists were as hard as nails and he was skilful beyond the ordinary. He was utterly without fear.

'Bendy's short for Bendigo, you should see him peel,
Half of him was whalebone, half of him was steel.
Fighting weight eleven ten, five foot nine in height,
Always ready to oblige, if you want a fight.'

Bendigo never refused a challenge. His crouching southpaw stance - being left-handed, he became the first well-known fighter to fight the 'wrong way' round - disconcerted his opponents. Not to mention his antics. He was like a jumping-jack, bobbing around, and with an agile mind, quick wit, and sometimes vitriolic tongue, he would rile his opponents with personal remarks. The crowds loved it. But it was his remarkable agility and speed that won him his matches. By the time he came to fight Ben Caunt of Hucknall, a miner and son of Lord Byron's gamekeeper, Bendigo had built up a considerable reputation - and a following.

An enthusiastic crowd of supporters known as the 'Nottingham Lambs' used rough, strong-armed methods, making it their business to break up fights that were not going Bendigo's way. They intimidated referees and umpires, using bludgeons indiscriminately. Great rivalry flared between the 'Nottingham Lambs' and Ben Caunt's band of ruffians.

The law frowned on prizefighting and fights were usually held in out-of-the-way spots, often in a hollow where the ground formed a natural amphitheatre. Rings were 24 feet square constructed from eight posts and two rope rails with a 'scratch' mark in the centre of the ring. Another surrounding ring pitched ten feet back held the umpires, backers and privileged spectators known as the 'Fancy.'

Bendigo Fighting Ben CauntBen Caunt was 6 inches taller and 3 stones heavier than Bendigo when they fought on 21 July 1835 at Nottingham. At first, Caunt used his greater strength to throw Bendigo to the ground and fall across his stomach. 'Big Ben' then grabbed Bendigo by the throat (pictured right) before trying to break his back against a ring stake. But Bendigo soon learned to use his rapid footwork. Avoiding all heavy blows from Caunt, he mercilessly teased him, calling him 'a chuckle-head' and 'a dirty toad' Whenever Caunt managed to close with him, Bendigo would go down. 'I slipped!' he would plead and the end of the round would be called.

A round lasted no set length of time but ended when a man was knocked down. The downed fighter had 30 seconds to come up to 'scratch' in the centre of the ring. A fighter could be disqualified if he fell without a blow, just going down for a rest, but as it was difficult to judge whether a man had fallen to a light blow, the clever ones exploited it. Covering the fight, a writer of the day described Caunt as 'full of trickery, treachery and having no ethics' and Bendigo as 'deadly and poisonous as a rattlesnake with about the same ethics.'

Eventually, the taunts became too much for Caunt and in a fury he rushed across the ring calling on Bendigo 'to stand up and fight like a man.' Dealing a mighty blow to Bendigo, who was still seated on his second's knee, Ben sent Bendy and his second sprawling. Caunt was promptly disqualified. They had fought 22 rounds.

The stakes, 25 a side, were handed to Bendigo, but this unsatisfactory result left a bitter rivalry between the fighters and their supporters. The victory for Bendigo brought him bigger challengers and he moved to Sheffield where his new neighbours backed him against the celebrated John Leachman, known as 'Brassy of Bradford.' The fight lasted 52 rounds and Bendigo won.

The fight against Charley Langham at Newcastle in 1837 was just as tough and Bendigo won in the 51st round.

Bird's Eye Blue

A bragging letter appeared in the newspapers, written by William Looney of Liverpool, challenging any man in the world for 100 stake and 200 a-side. Bendigo took up the challenge and went into hard training at the seaside village of Crosby while Looney trained at Aintree. They met on 13 June 1837 on the summit of a hill at their half-way point of Chapel-en-le-Frith.

In his 'green and white' colours, standing square and stiff, left foot out, arms held high, 'Big Bill' was obviously the more powerful. Bendigo, in his 'bird's eye blue' colours, stooping slightly with right foot forward, was lighter on his feet and as crafty as they come.

In the First Round, 'Bendigo put two left-handers on his canister and moving rapidly round his opponent tipped Looney left-handed smellers.'

In the Third, Looney landed a heavy right on Bendigo's ear and his supporters shouted: 'Let 'im have it, Bill!' so he tried the same again and wished he hadn't. Bendigo met him with such a blow to his forehead that both men came to earth together.

In Round 15, as Looney contemplated a sledge-hammer thump, Bendigo 'dropped on his nether end throwing up his legs and laughing.' Bendigo's supporters became distressed that he was not treating the fight seriously - wagers were in the balance. In the next round, a crushing thump from Looney to Bendigo's ribs was met with 'lefts on his own distorted phiz.'

In Round 27 Bendigo 'gave it him on his conk and then threw him a clever somersault.' From then on the fight went mostly in Bendigo's favour, yet Looney, astonishingly fought on, coming up at the end of each round with unflinching pluck and throwing one of his terrible right-handers just when Bendigo seemed to have it won.

In Round 59 Looney threw the Notts. man in such a way that he fell with his head doubled under him and narrowly escaped breaking his neck. It was a marvellous struggle and ended after 92 rounds when Bendigo was declared the winner.

For Next Page of Bendigo click Ben Caunt

Sherwood Times