Pugilism began in the eighteenth century and was very different to the boxing we know today. Back then it was acceptable to headbutt an opponent, man hug them until they couldn’t breathe, and gouge eyes with turpentine to cause temporary blindness. It was completely illegal but that didn’t seem to bother anyone, unless someone died – which occasionally they did. Fights took place in sludgy fields and basically went on until someone was too bollocked to carry on.
One former Champion of England was Ben Caunt, born in Hucknall Torkard on 22 March 1815. Caunt, the son of a Newstead Abbey gamekeeper, grew up in a family of five boys, so it’s no surprise that he quickly learned to handle himself. He enjoyed wrestling and boxing with neighbouring kids and was pretty successful because he was bigger than Viccy flats. One day he was spotted lobbing youths around by Joe Whitaker, an eccentric known as the Duke of Limbs. ‘Limbs’ also had his eyes on another handy fella, a cocky upstart from Sneinton called Bendigo, and arranged a sparring fight with gloves on. When this went well, an official fight was fixed for July 21 1835 at Appleby House on the Ashbourne Road, but with gloves off.
It was a clear case of brains against brawn, a bit like Rocky IV, with Caunt cast as the nasty Russian and Bendigo as Stallone. Bendigo was lithe, agile and able to quickly slip stance from left to right foot. Caunt was leaden, a beast of immense power, weighing in at 18st and standing at 6’ 2”. He had sledgehammers for fists, but lacked the finesse and grace to outwit his opponent. Caunt’s tactic was to use his tree trunk arms as a kind of human vice and crush Bendigo, but he struggled to catch the slippery bogger. Every time he got near him, Bendigo would go down on his knees, which in those days signified the end of a round. Eventually Caunt lost his rag and lamped Bendigo as he sat with his trainer. It was declared a foul and the fight was ended. The mind had defeated the machine.
Caunt spent the next two years training – although he would never exert the scientific discipline of Bendigo, the defeat had taught him to be better prepared. He did this by destroying local celebrity William Butler in fourteen rounds, followed by a six-round whooping of Boneford, before he got another pop at Bendigo in 1838. Now that Bendigo was well established, he upped the stakes from £20/25 a fight to £100. Fortunately the Fancy – the boxing fraternity – were so eager to see the clash, two backers stumped up the cash and it was game on.
The much-anticipated fight nearly didn’t go ahead after a local magistrate took exception to illegal brawling on his manor, so a new location was quickly sought out in a neighbouring borough. Inevitably, some people got lost in transit which would have particular significance for Bendigo as his spiked shoes went awol and he was forced to wear a substitute pair of ‘crab shoes’ which weren’t suitable for the muddy ring. The two fighters battered each other for one hour and twenty minutes until the 75th round when Bendigo slipped to his knee. As he had not received a blow, it was declared a foul and Caunt was proclaimed the victor. It would be the only fight Bendigo ever lost and he would claim it was due to his shoes, which was a bit like when Man U got hammered by Southampton and Fergie blamed it on their grey kit.
Bendigo’s supporters, the infamous Nottingham Lambs, were not best pleased with the ref’s decision and so took matters into their own hands. This consisted of dragging Caunt off his horse as he headed away from the ring, demanding he carry on the fight. Caunt refused and was only saved from a mauling when his own posse of supporters waded in.
Another match was floated but nothing materialised because Bendigo, the eternal joker, injured himself while pissing around doing somersaults and so badly damaged his leg it looked as if he may never walk again. This was fortuitous in that it ended all the mithering about who was really the Champion of England and enabled Caunt to establish himself in the ring, though not without drama.
His first title defence came against Bill Brassey in 1840. It was a peculiar affair in that both men had chosen yellow as their fighting colours, though Caunt also opted to enter the ring in a large Welsh wig. Clearly being champion had gone to his head. The fight itself was scheduled for early in the morning so the toffs could nip off and catch the afternoon races, which was probably for the best as it took Caunt 101 rounds to fend off his opponent.
Success would be short lived as, four months later in February 1841, he lost his title to Nick Ward after twelve minutes. Caunt was so big, the only way to survive him in the ring was to drop to your knees the minute he had hold of you to bring the round to an end. Lacking in self-discipline and unable to learn from past mistakes, a frustrated Caunt lashed out as his opponent and lost on a foul blow. But, as usual, there was some dispute over this ruling and a rematch was set three months later. This time Caunt kept his calm and took back the title after 35 rounds, receiving a pretty purple velvet champion’s belt.
He was whisked off to Hucknall in a carriage with a band playing behind him. But he was such a heavy bogger, the plank on which his carriage sat snapped, sending him tumbling to the ground. He wisely decided to walk the last few miles. He received a rapturous welcome and his spirits were so high that when he reached his local boozer, the Coach and Six Inn, he heated a few farthings on a shovel and lobbed them onto the street, chuckling as kids scalded their fingers trying to pick up the bounty. When the celebrations were over he enjoyed a two year tour of America, where he sparred with The American Giant who “had arms and legs strong enough for the working beam or piston rod of a Mississippi steamboat”. It was such a profitable venture that he brought the Giant back to the UK with him.
During this hiatus, Bendigo had miraculously recovered from his injury and a third rematch was arranged for a sweltering day in September 1845. Caunt lost three stones for the fight, weighing in at one pound under fourteen stone for the first and only time in his career. But everything else was at it had always been: there was the usual calamity over location, the Lambs were as rowdy as ever, and Bendigo delighted in taunting his opponent. The fight itself lasted 93 rounds, with Bendigo declared the winner after a dubious foul.
There was talk of a fourth fight against Bendigo, with Caunt insisting it must happen on a raised stage so that the Nottingham Lambs couldn’t pervert proceedings, but this never materialised. Instead, Caunt pursued a successful career as landlord of The Coach and Horses, where he would entertain punters with his party trick: flattening a pint pewter pot with only the fingers of one hand. But disaster struck in 1851 when a fire broke out and two of his children perished in the flames. He would never be the same again and eventually lost his licence. Soon after he passed away on 10 September 1861 at the age of 46. He was buried in St Mary Magdalene Parish in Hucknall, in the same church as Lord Byron. Rumour has it that more people visited his grave towards the end of the nineteenth century than that of the flamboyant poet.
This article originally appeared in Dawn of the Unread. To read more about Ben Caunt and Bendigo, please see their comic Bendigo versus Nottingham.
The source for this article was: Ben Caunt: The Nottinghamshire Bare-Knuckle Boxer who Became Champion of England by David Fells