Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bendigo - a Boxing Legend

Tuesday, 11th October 2011 - we were to learn - was a memorable day for one of Beeston's worthies from the past. As near as could be seen, it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Victorian bare-knuckle boxing legend, William Thompson, better known as 'Bendigo'.

Once again there was a good crowd of local people to witness the unveiling of the latest local blue plaques to mark the time, during his later life, when Bendigo lived in Beeston.

We all gathered at the Pearson Centre where, fittingly, we were joined for the occasion by a modern-day local boxing champion, Jason Booth, currently the holder of the British and the Commonwealth super-bantamweight titles. We also welcome the Mayor of Broxtowe, Councillor Jacky Williams as well as a representative of Nottingham Castle Rock Brewery  which had recently launched a 'Bendigo' beer.

Alan Dance outlined the story of Bendigo's  life and career as a boxer. Like modern-day celebrities, the story of his life has become confused by much repeated flowery 'facts'. Although it is generally believed that he was one of triplets born to Mary and Benjamin Thompson, only William and his brother Richard were baptised at St Marys Nottingham on 16 October 1811, and Richard died about two weeks later. And the story that he was the last of 21 born to the couple is also difficult to square with the facts - they were married, apparently, in 1805 and only a relatively small number of their children - perhaps seven - are recorded in the baptismal register.

But doubts about the details cannot take anything away from his remarkable career as a prize fighter which started after his father died when Bendigo was 15 and he and his mother spent time in the workhouse. Determined to support himself and his mother, he turned to the boxing ring - where winners could take away large purses, sometimes £300 or more - and great acclaim.  So it was to be with Bendigo whose career took in many grueling contests, each lasting as many as 96 rounds and all attracting a huge following. These included three marathon fights with his local rival Ben Caunt. The second of these contests was the only fight that Bendigo lost - and then only on a disputed technicality - and in his final fight, aged 39 and fittingly against his old rival Caunt, he was able to finish with a dramatic win.

His flamboyant style and agility and athleticism in the ring earned him a huge popular following, something which was to continue for the rest of his life. At first, his retirement years were spent following his love of fishing but he soon became a heavy drinker and became involved with the Nottingham Lambs, a violent, politically motivated mob. Now a drunken mess, he was committed 28 times to the House of Correction.

To escape this life, he became interested in religion and moved to Beeston - to a cottage on what is now Wollaton Road, immediately to the north of Anglo-Scotian Mills. This cottage, now demolished, had another claim for fame - its chimney, which can still be seen in the side of the mill building, was reputed to be the tallest house chimney in the land.

Bendigo now threw all his energies into preaching - in his own indomitable style - attracting great crowds, eager to see and hear their hero.

He died at Beeston on 23 August 1880, following a fall on the stairs of his cottage. His funeral procession, reputed to be a mile in length, took him to his final resting place in what is now Bath Street Rest Gardens, where his distinctive memorial survives.

Following Alan Dance's outline of Bendigo's life, we walked around to a spot opposite the site of his cottage where the plaque had been fixed to an adjacent pillar to watch its unveiling by Jason Booth (shown second from the right in our photo, accompanied by, left the right, Alan Dance, the Mayor and the representative from Castle Brewery)

The purpose of the blue plaque scheme is to link people with place and to make people aware of the importance of both. And, it seemed to have an immediate effect  - a young woman stopped as she passed and told the writer that she thought that she was related to Bendigo and would be certainly looking into it.  It seems, the plaques are working well !

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Blue Plaques

Unfortunately, I was away when the plaque was unveiled to mark the factory in Beeston where Thomas Humber made bicycles and where Humber motorcycles and eventually cars were made. By all accounts it was an excellent occasion so I was sorry to miss it. All the more reason to make sure not to miss the latest unveiling.

There will be many Beeston residents who will not have a clear idea - if any - of the life and work of this latest Beeston person to be commemorated with a plaque. They may have wondered about the origin of the name of 'Clifford Avenue' in Beeston and they may also be unsure why Nether Street School was renamed The John Clifford School.  They may have spotted the date stone on the building when walking through the short piece of Nether Street that is on the west side of Station Road - ' Erected  in 1806, Enlarged in 1836'.  Its put to good use today as a nursery but they may have wondered what it was built for and what happened there all those years ago This latest plaque will put person and place together and help to answer those questions.

We were welcomed by the nursery's owners, Roy and Hilary Ruddock who take much pride in the history of their building and the way they had been able to rescue the building and convert it for an excellent modern use. Although drizzling rain threatened the ceremony and there was a possibility that the ceremony would have had to be indoors, everyone was determined to do it properly and gathered around the site of the plaque to hear Professor John Beckett give an outline of the life of John Clifford.

Though he was not born and did not die in Beeston, his parents moved their family here from Sawley when he was very young and it was undoubtedly the influences of his early education, his time as a lad in the local lace factories and his conversion and commitment which arose from his membership of the local Baptist chapel - which was then based in the very building where we had gathered - that shaped his life.  It was this chapel community that sponsored his time at theological college from where he went on to a lifetime ministry in west London. It was from that base that he developed as a national and, indeed, an international figure for social issues, in particular as a campaigner for non-denominational education. Rev Kevin Dare, the present Baptist Minister in Beeston, then read an extract from Dr Clifford's sermon which he delivered on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his ministry, which illustrated clearly the power of his oratory and his commitment to his life's beliefs

The plaque was then unveiled by the Deputy Mayor of Broxtowe, Councillor Margaret Handley (accompanied by her husband on the left of our photograph, which also shows, left to right, Rev Kevin Dare, Hilary and Roy Rudduck and Professor John Beckett) 

Now, thanks to this simple memorial, the contribution of Rev Dr John Clifford and the part paid by Beeston, and particularly this building, will surely not be forgotten. Those interested to learn more about this, might wish to read our account of his life and work.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blue Plaques for Beeston

It is very pleasing to see real progress with the local joint initiative by Beeston Civic Society, Beeston & District Local History Society and Stapleford & District Local History Society, to mark those who have historic links to the local area with a blue plaque. These plaques, already familiar in London and other major centres, link the person with the place with which they were associated very effectively and its good to see the idea being taken up in smaller towns - and in the wider Beeston area in particular. The first was placed in Chilwell earlier this year to commemorate the life of Thomas H Barton, the local bus pioneer and, in Stapleford, a plaque for Arthur Mee, the writer and journalist, has been unveiled - with more, we understand, in the pipeline.

On Saturday afternoon last, there was an excellent gathering to witness the latest placing, this one on Church Street Schools, Beeston - now, of course, converted to apartments - to commemorate the life of teacher and historian, Arthur Cossons and the exceptional contribution he made in Beeston over many years.

We all gathered at the Methodist Church hall, where Alan Clayton, the Chairman of Beeston & District Local History Society welcomed three generations of the Cossons family headed by Arthur Cosson's son, Sir Neil Cossons and his daughter, Hilda Stoddard. Peter Robinson, Chairman of the local blue plaque project, spoke of its objective of linking 'person with place' - and today it was the well deserved 'person', Arthur Cossons, and the 'place', therefore, undoubtedly Church Street Junior Boys' School. For Sir Neil it was a time to remember their father in the context of his own early life in Beeston and his time at his father's school and the family home on Union Street, now lost through redevelopment.

We had also gathered to witness the unveiling of an associated plaque to mark the remains of the Village Cross which had, until about 1860, it is said, stood in the area previously known as 'The Cross, where the War Memorial now stands, until it was taken down and used as part of a nearby wall. It was there, in 1929, that it was rediscovered by Arthur Cossons, who had it erected next to the school. During his lifetime, there is no doubt that he made sure that his pupils and the wider population of Beeston were aware of what it was but now, with memories fading, there was a need to add an explanation of what it was. Professor John Beckett set out the evidence to the audience. While there was no evidence that Beeston had held ancient rights to hold a market, the old name for Middle Street - Market Street - may point to its local use to mark a corn market and its proximity to the Church pointed to its use as a focus for processions at Harvest time.

We all then walked around to Church Street, with plenty of opportunity to compare our experiences of Arthur Cossons time at the school there. We readily agreed that there was no doubt that his enthusiasm and dedication to local history has had a lasting effect on local people and their continuing interest in their town's history.

The unveiling itself was performed by Sir Neil, assisted by Hilda, his sister (left) and the other members of the family. On his right are (left to right) Alan Clayton, Peter Robinson and Professor John Beckett. The plaque is fixed to the side of what was the caretaker's house at the school, as the building which housed the Boys' Junior School - of which Arthur Cossons was Headmaster - which stood to the rear of the site, adjacent to what was Church Lane - as distinct from the fully restored original Board School building on Church Street - was demolished as part of the redevelopment.

Everyone then moved around the corner where Margaret Cooper, a Beeston historian who taught in Beeston schools, was invited to unveil the plaque which now describes the 14th Century cross.

We all then returned to the Methodist hall for light refreshments, to view a small exhibition of the life of Arthur Cossons - and, of course, to continue to chat and swap memories between friends. An excellent occasion to mark one of Beeston's worthy 20th Century figures.