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 !