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 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.
Though 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, Bendigo answered 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...
Part 2 - "One of the most scandalous brawls in boxing history"