Bendigo part 3

01/04/2006

Bare-knuckle champion of All England, political firebrand, preacher, rock as owt - Abbott profiles the mighty Bendigo, Nottingham's pugilistic hero


Bendigo, elderly preacher. You still wouldn't have a go, though, would you?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

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