William Thompson (boxer)

William Abednego Thompson (11 October 1811 23 August 1880) was an English bare-knuckle boxer who won the heavyweight championship of England from James Burke on 12 February 1839.[1] He was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.[1]

William Thompson
Statistics
Nickname(s)Bendigo, Bendego (in period newspapers)
Weight(s)Averaged 165 lb (75 kg),
weight range 164-168 lb
Height5 ft 9.75 in (1.77 m)
NationalityEnglish
Born(1811-10-11)11 October 1811
Sneinton, Nottingham Unitary Authority, Nottinghamshire, England
Died23 August 1880(1880-08-23) (aged 68)
Beeston, Broxtowe Borough, Nottinghamshire, England
StanceSouthpaw stance
Used London Prize Ring Rules after 1838
Boxing record
Total fights20
Wins19

Early life

Born in New Yard now Trinity Walk,[2] Nottingham in 1811, Thompson, claimed to be one of a set of triplets named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, after the young men in the Book of Daniel who are thrown into the fiery furnace of Babylon. However, he was baptised at St. Mary's Church Nottingham on 17 October 1811 with his TWIN brother Richard. Richard then died and was buried at the same church on 25 October 1811. If he was one of triplets, then the third must have died at, or soon after, birth. It has often been claimed that he was the youngest of a struggling family of twenty-one children born to Benjamin Thompson, a mechanic in the lace industry, and his wife Mary in the slums of Nottingham. However, this is a myth. William was one of 6 children (possibly seven) and had a younger sister, Mary, who died at there age of four. The eldest child in the family, Rebecca, born 1805, remains a mystery as no further details of her life can be found, and William grew up with just two surviving brothers, Thomas and John. William Thompson was strong and developed as a young man and performed well in sports, demonstrating natural ability. His father died when he was only fifteen, and accompanied by his mother, he was sent to the Nottingham Workhouse. After leaving the Workhouse, Thompson sold oysters on the streets of Nottingham before landing a position as an iron turner, a job that enhanced his muscular build.[2]

By the age of 18, he began fighting to provide for his family. He defeated his first eight opponents,[1] including the champion of the nearby town of Bingham.[3] By the age of 21, he became a professional prize fighter and the details of his contests began to be recorded.[1] Thompson was a southpaw and once on a bet he is said to have thrown half a house brick over the River Trent with his left hand. He compensated for his lack of height (he was barely 177 cm or five feet, ten inches tall) with an incredible ability to punch hard and fast, and was said to be devoid of fear. He was also very agile, earning the name "Bendy" because of his constant bobbing and weaving around the ring. His nickname evolved and "Bendy" in combination with his name Abednego became "Bendigo".[2]

Though it was his speed and agility that won him his fights, it was Thompson's personality and sense of humour which endeared him to the crowd. He would make up rhymes about his opponents during the fights, and distract them with insults and tall tales of their wives and mothers while making funny faces at them. It wasn't long before Thompson was drawing crowds as large as 10,000 to his illicit fights, held secretly out of town in barns or fields.

First bout against Ben Caunt

Thompson's career was punctuated by his fierce rivalry with the Hucknall-born boxer Ben Caunt. On 21 July 1835 the two first met to split a purse of £25. This fight lasted 22 rounds, 35 minutes, with each round being called when either boxer's knee touched the ground. Bendigo, who was 19 kg, 49 pounds or three stone and a half lighter and 15 cm (six inches) shorter, got into difficulties during the fight and started to stumble frequently. This, and his continuous laughter and insults, frustrated Caunt, who in the last round struck Thompson while he was sitting on his second's knee in his corner, costing Caunt the match on a foul. A reporter present at the bout, wrote of Caunt that he was "full of trickery and treachery he has no ethics" and Thompson "as deadly and as poisonous as a rattlesnake with about the same ethics."[2][4]

Over the next two years, Thompson fought three fights, first dispatching the renowned John Leachman of Bradford in a 52-round contest, before moving to Newcastle the following year to defeat Charley Langham in 51 rounds.

A few months later, Thompson responded to a letter in a newspaper from Liverpudlian William Looney, challenging "...any man in the world for £200 stake and £200 a-side". The two met on 13 June 1838, on a hill known as Chapel-en-le-Frith, the halfway point between their hometowns. The fight lasted for 92 rounds, but will probably be remembered for Thompson's reaction to Looney contemplating a haymaker in the fifteenth round, falling to the floor "on his nether end throwing up his legs and laughing". Thompson took control of the fight shortly after and started somersaulting in the ring, endearing him to the crowds. However, despite receiving a continuous barrage of punches, Looney fought bravely on, nearly winning the fight with a massive right hand counterpunch. Eventually Thompson's athleticism shone through and he was declared the winner after dominating over an hour of fighting.[1]

Fame

First title bout with Caunt, 1838

Thompson's star rose steadily. On 3 April 1838, before a crowd of 5,000, Caunt finally obtained his rematch at Skipworth Common, worth £300 in prize money. Although younger by three years, Caunt came into the ring in poorer condition than Thompson, who had trained hard prior to the match. Thompson's superior conditioning gave him greater speed and agility than Caunt, and better defensive skills. The fight lasted for 75 rounds of furious combat. In the fifth round, Caunt had Thompson on the ropes and nearly strangled him but Thompson fought back, peppering his opponent with body shots and more insults. Desperate for victory and revenge, Caunt was said to have Thompson by the throat strangling him again in the thirteenth round. By the time Thompson'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.[1][5]

When order was restored, Thompson was given brandy and recovered his stamina. In the fiftieth round it was Thompson'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 Thompson fell to the ground without being struck, an illegal tactic according to London Prize Ring Rules. After the fight, Thompson claimed it was a slip; a claim backed up by contemporary accounts, putting him well ahead and coasting. After the referee called the foul against Thompson, pandemonium broke out. His supporters attacked Caunt with whatever weapons were to hand. Caunt was dragged to his coach by his seconds and attempted to flee. The coach was arrested by Thompson's mob who dragged Caunt out, but during the ensuing melee he escaped riding bareback on a stolen horse.

Champion of England, 1839

On 8 February 1839, when Thompson was 28, he was given the task of defeating the fearsome Londoner James "Deaf" Burke for the All England Title and a purse of £220. The fight was one of the first Thompson fought under the new London Prize Ring Rules. The backers admired his wit and courage, and now a crowd favourite he was a perfect match for the title. The fight was held in a field at No Mans Heath in Leicestershire, near the village of Heather, in front of an unruly crowd of roughly 15,000 people.[6] It lasted just ten rounds, with Thompson battering the helpless Burke, who himself had just successfully toured America. 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 Thompson and full-on head butted him twice, thus losing on a foul and lifting the championship away. The "Nottingham Jester", Champion Prize Fighter Of All England was presented his Champion's Belt a few weeks later at a ceremony in The Queens Theatre, Liverpool. When he got home to Nottingham, Thompson met his supporters on 23 March 1840, and in his excitement while somersaulting he hurt his kneecap and was laid up for two years.[6][7]. Thompson never stepped down from a challenge, and once he recovered from his knee injury he defeated 19 opponents over the next 4 years, including 7 in one month.[1]

Defending the title against Caunt, 1845

On 9 September 1845 at Lillington Level, Suffield Green, Oxford, an unruly and partly drunken crowd of 11,000 came to see the third and final fight between Thompson and Caunt who would settle the score for 200 a side. Thompson'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 had come to finish what they had started 6 years earlier. The fight lasted a lengthy 93 rounds with Thompson tactically and methodically breaking his man down until, exhausted after two hours ten minutes, Caunt sat down with his back turned on his "nether end" without getting hit, losing on a foul. Thompson would receive criticism for putting his knee to the mat to end the round after receiving only a light blow, or possibly no blow, but the referee never called him for a foul.[8] Thompson would be declared the winner on a foul despite Caunt's advantage in height, weight, and youth. 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... Thompson was tossed from the ring... Caunt trying to crash him on the ring stakes to break his back. Thompson's [followers] attempted to bludgeon Caunt whenever within striking distance... on one occasion missing by a hairs breadth, the blow landing on Caunt's brawny shoulder..." Bells Life wrote that Thompson's methods were opposed to the principles of a fair, stand-up fight and were the actions of a coward.[8][9]

Years later, when speaking on this fight, Lord Longford, a former backer said to Thompson in relation to Thompson's evangelising; "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 Thompson, who 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. Thompson won several All England Fishing Awards.

Last title bout with Tom Paddock, 1850

Although enjoying his quiet life, Thompson accepted a challenge from a young Tom Paddock from Redditch and on 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. In the seventh, Paddock was suspected of kicking Thompson but no foul was called. Paddock, the younger man by far, was getting the better of Thompson who started to go to ground very easily causing the end of several rounds. This infuriated Paddock who after flooring Thompson with a right hand in the 49th, thought he had gone down again. Paddock charged across the ring , and pulled him to his feet shouting, "Get up and fight like a man". Paddock hit Thompson while he was down and lying across the ropes in the last round. Thompson's corner man called foul and the referee concurred, giving Thompson the decision.[10]

Retirement and decline

Feeling he was getting too old for Prize Fighting, Thompson "The Nottingham Jester" stepped down undefeated as Champion, with two prize belts and four Silver Cups to his name. He is credited with inventing the '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;[3]

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 own career Thompson 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 the art of pugilism. As it was an unofficial role, the staff disguised him as a professor to avoid suspicion and hide his true lower class origins. The role was a step up from his impoverished life in the Nottingham work house.[11]

His blending with the upper classes wasn't entirely to his liking, and he soon made his way back to Nottingham. Not long after his return, his mother died, and Thompson saw this as failing to keep his promise to keep his mother out of poverty and the workhouse, so in his grief he returned to alcohol. Now though, he was a national celebrity and comparatively wealthy. He became involved with The Nottingham Lambs; a politically motivated group who were rife in Nottingham causing much civil unrest and violence, and on some occasions even rioting through the Market Square, protesting against the conditions in which people were left to live and burning down Nottingham Castle before it was rebuilt.[11]

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 Thompson, 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; "Thompson, when sober was one of the nicest men in Nottingham, but when yer drunk, you ain't!" After one of his "holidays" inside, Thompson 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."[11]

Late life

On 6 June 1850, immediately after his fight with Tom Paddock, he was arrested for drunkenness on Chandler Street in Nottingham and released after paying a 5 shilling fee.[12] He eventually moved to Beeston to try to curb his drinking with his friends in Nottingham, but could not stop his habit for long, having only a few sober moments fishing by the Trent. Once at the age of 59 he managed to dive into the river to save three who appeared to be drowning. When a woman he had rescued from the Trent offered him a reward, he declined, reminding her he was the champion of England, and rejected her offer with scorn.[11]

In 1872, Thompson attended a congregation held by preacher Richard Weaver. Though Thompson was illiterate, he delivered a strong and convincing sermon. When preaching at the Ebenezer Lodge of Templars, he would take up a boxer's stance, turn to his trophies and say, "See them belts? See them cups? I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ." During one sermon, he became perturbed by hecklers at the back of the room and shouted in frustration "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."[11]

His popularity as a fighter soon brought enormous crowds to his sermons with scores left outside. Thompson spent the next few years touring the country preaching to crowds of thousands, becoming more popular, and eventually the gained attention of politicians. Some in the public sector noted, "that although he couldn't read the bible, his straightforward manly speech could be useful".[11]

Thompson died on 23 August 1880 aged 68, after falling down the stairs of his home in Beeston. Though suffering from a fractured rib and punctured lung, he clung to life for seven weeks before he died. His funeral procession was exceedingly long and watched by thousands lining the roads, including a number of the wealthy and famed. Impressively The Times of London published his obituary, which was usually an honor bestowed only on the most famous Britains. He was buried in St. Mary's burial ground, Sneinton, and not, as has been claimed, in his mother's grave, She died in 1854 and is buried almost a mile away in the General Cemetery. William's tomb, which features a crouching lion, can now be viewed at the burial grounds at Bath Street Rest Gardens near Victoria Leisure Centre. It bears the inscription[13][1][6];

"In life always brave,
Fighting like a Lion;
In Death like a Lamb,
Tranquil in Zion".[11]

Selected fights

5 Wins, 1 Loss[14]
Result Opponent(s) Date Location Duration Notes
Win Joe Hanley Oct 1832 England 16 rounds
Win Ben Caunt 21 June 1835 Nottingham England 22 Rounds Won on a foul, Caunt struck Thompson when he was down
Win Bill Looney 13 June 1837 Chapel-en-le-Firth, England 99 Rounds
Loss Ben Caunt 3 April 1838 Shelby, England 75 rounds Lost on foul
Win James Burke 12 February 1839 Heather, England 10 rounds Won Championship of England, on foul
Win Ben Caunt 9 September 1845 Stoney Stratford, England 75 rounds Defended English Championship, won on foul
Win Ben Caunt 5 June 1850 Mildenhall, England 75 rounds Retained English Champion, won on foul, then retired

Legacy

A public house in Sneinton, Nottingham was named after its famous resident. The Old Wrestlers pub was converted to Bendigo's in 1957 and became popular among Sneinton locals. Ironically the pub was forced to close in the late 1990s due to brawling but re-opened as The Hermitage in 1999 and remained in operation for another decade before again in 2009. As of 2013, the building has been renovated and is used for private events, although the statue of Thompson above the entrance still remains and locals commonly refer to the site as Bendigo`s or The Bendigo to this day.

The area of Sneinton just north east of the pub falls within the Nottinghamshire Police beat called Bendigo. This covers the area from Kentwood Rd north east to Highcliffe Rd and part of Colwick Wood, including the north part of Racecourse Rd (opposite the entrance to Nottingham racecourse). Just off this road is a small new build housing area, the main road being Bendigo Lane.

One of the trams operated by Nottingham Express Transit carries the name of Bendigo Thompson.[2]

The city of Bendigo in Victoria, Australia is indirectly named after Thompson. An early Australian shepherd on the Ravenswood Run[15] was also a bare-knuckle boxer with a style reminiscent of Bendigo, and hence was given the same nickname, which was then applied to the area as Bendigo's Creek. The town that grew up around the area in the 19th century was named as Sandhurst but reverted to Bendigo in 1891.

In Bestwood, a suburban part of Nottingham, there is a small nature reserve on Sunrise Hill that was a copse known locally as "Bendigo's Ring". The name is now mistakenly associated with nearby Glade Hill which still carries a highly-visible copse. Legend has it that his spirit haunts the place, trying to exact revenge on the children that taunted him when he was often found there drunk.

A character named Gonolph Bendigo, clearly meant to be analogous to William Thompson, appeared in the second series of Defoe, a comic anthologised in 2000AD. Although Defoe is set in the seventeenth, rather than nineteenth, century, the character owes a lot to the real-life boxer, being a retired bare-knuckle fighter of note whose nickname was also "Bendy" and who famously defeated a Ben Caunt.

See also

References

  1. "William Thompson, Boxing Record". Cyber Boxing Zone. Cyber Boxing Zone, research by Jan Scotniki. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  2. "William "Bendigo" Thompson". 9 February 2016.
  3. "William Thompson". findagrave. findagrave memorial. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  4. Struck in his corner on his second's knee in "Prize Fighting", The Derby Mercury, Derby, Derbyshire, England, pg. 1, 29 July 1835
  5. Crowd size 5000 in "Prize Fight Between Bendigo and Caunt", Sheffield and Rotterham Independent, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, pg. 3, 7 April 1838
  6. "Our Nottingham, William Thompson Bendigo". Nottingham People. Our Nottinghamshire. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  7. Verified prize amount, number of rounds, and head butting foul in "Pugilism", The Newcastle Weekly, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, pg. 7, 22 February 1839
  8. "Contest for the Championship and 200 pounds a side", The Observer, London, Greater London, England, pg. 3, 15 September 1845
  9. 93 rounds, 11,000 people, and 200 a side in "Bendigo and Caunt", The Era, London, Greater England, pg. 7, 14 September 1845
  10. Hit while he was down in "Fight for the Championship", The Leeds Intelligencer, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, pg. 8, 8 June 1850
  11. "William Thompson, Champion of England, Firebrand, and Preacher". Left Lion. Left Lion Nottingham Culture. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  12. The Nottingham Guardian, Nottingham, England, pg. 3, 6 June 1850
  13. "Nottingham", Daily News, Greater London, England, pg. 6, 28 August 1880
  14. Roberts, James, and Skutt, Alexander,Boxing Register, (2006) International Boxing Hall of Fame, McBooks Press, Ithica, New York, pg. 46
  15. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 July 2009. Retrieved 10 August 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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