On 9 September 1845, in front of 10,000 people in a field near Stony Stratford, William “Bendigo” Thompson beat “Big Ben” Caunt over 93 rounds in a grudge match for the heavyweight title of England. Both were bare-knuckle fighters, holders of the title at different times and both were from Nottinghamshire. They are commemorated in churchyards 6 miles apart in Nottingham and Hucknall.
As the spectator numbers suggest, bare-knuckle fighters were celebrities in nineteenth century England. If successful, the rewards could be considerable. The purse for the grudge match was £200, or £18,000 in today’s values. The sport was, of course, illegal and brutal. Not until the Marquis of Queensbury set out rules in 1867 did boxing acquire a measure of respectability.
So, it goes without saying that these were colourful characters. None more so than Bendigo.
Last of 21 children and one of triplets born on 11 October 1811, Bendigo was a full time fighter at 21. He has been described as an eccentric, the “Nottingham Jester” and he ended up in the town gaol 28 times for drunken behaviour. He saw the light after he retired, becoming a revivalist preacher in 1872.
He captured the popular imagination. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, once a boxer himself, penned 19 four-line stanzas about him after hearing him preach in Birmingham, calling him “the pride of Nottingham”. His fame spread far and wide: the inhabitants of Sandhurst, Victoria, Australia, were inspired enough to rename their town “Bendigo”. His talents were many: he won the All England Fishing Award and even gave pugilism instruction in Oxford, disguised as a professor. His obituary appeared in The Times on 24 August 1880:
Bendigo, a once celebrated pugilist and winner of eight prize-fights within the year died yesterday evening at Beeston, Notts. aged 69. His death was occasioned by a fracture of the ribs which penetrated the lungs. [He fell downstairs]. Of late years the deceased had been a preacher and was well known as a leader of revivalist services.
His memorial is a striking tomb chest which bears the inscription:
Here lies William Thompson, “Bendigo” of Nottingham, who died on August 23rd 1880. In life always brave, fighting like a lion. In death like a lamb, tranquil in Zion.
The tomb was placed in St Mary’s Rest Garden, an “overflow” burial ground bought by Nottingham’s parish church in 1834 to cope with an outbreak of cholera. It became the burial ground for St Catharine’s in 1896, when that church was built alongside it on St Anne’s Well Road to provide a place of worship closer to the rapidly growing suburb of St Anne’s. The church has now been sold and the burial ground is a small park.
His arch rival, Ben Caunt, was born in Hucknall, to the north of Nottingham, in 1814. A miner, he started boxing as a youngster and faced Bendigo in the first of their 3 fights in 1835, when the purse was only £25 (just over £2000 today). Despite being 3 stones heavier (he weighed over 17 stones at his peak), he lost but won the second match in 1838. The decisions were, as might be expected, controversial, often turning on interpretations of foul play, like whether someone went down, thus ending the round, without being hit or whether a punch was landed while the opponent was in his corner.
After becoming champion of England in 1841 he spent 6 months in America, hoping to become the champion of the world, although that contest did not materialise. Following the 3rd fight with Bendigo in 1845, Ben retired from boxing, first to work on a farm but later to become the prosperous landlord of the Coach and Horses pub on St Martin’s Lane in London. He could not resist the call of his sport, however, and came out of retirement in 1857 for a purse of £200 to fight Nat Langham in London. After 60 rounds and both exhausted, they settled for a draw. He died in 1861 of pneumonia and was buried in his home town.
Bendigo – a Local Hero? by Geoffrey Oldfield, in The Nottinghamshire Historian No. 44, Spring/Summer 1990. Copy held in Bromley House Library, Nottingham.
Bendigo by Richard Iliffe and Wilfred Baguley, in Victorian Nottingham – a Story in Pictures Vol II, 1971. Copy held in Bromley House Library, Nottingham
The author David Fells has a book and a web-page on Ben Caunt. The details can be found at http://www.bencaunt.co.uk/
The images of the boxers are in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Wikipedia has articles on them, which have been used in this post.
The third fight between Bendigo and Ben Caunt was written up in the Nebraska State Journal in 1910. A copy can be found here. The writer puts Caunt’s fighting weight at 105 pounds (under 8 stones) which must be mistaken or a misprint. The article also places the location of the fight at “Sutfield Green”, as do Iliffe and Baguley, who make a claim that this is in Oxfordshire but there may be doubt as David Fells places it near Stony Stratford, on the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire border. The Wikipedia article on Bendigo claims it was at Lillington Level, Oxford. There is a village called Lillingstone Lovell, not far from Stoney Stratford which might fit the bill. Prize fights often took place on county boundaries, to avoid the constabularies by hopping across the boundary when they were spotted.
The history of St Catharine’s can be found on the Southwell and Nottingham Church History Project website.