A Deep Dive into William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson - Nottingham's 19th Century Bareknuckle Boxer

Words: Freddie Stringer
Illustrations: Charles Hunt (c. 1846)
Saturday 20 April 2024
reading time: min, words

This month we take you on a trip back to the early 19th century, to paint a picture of a very different Nottingham, where prize-fighter turned evangelist Bendigo rose from the slums to become a national hero in the ring.

Bendigo Thompson

For most residents of Nottingham during the 19th century, existence was precarious in all directions. Due to the Industrial Revolution, the population had trebled during the previous century, causing massive overcrowding and widespread infection of diseases such as typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis and cholera. The average life expectancy was at a shockingly low 22 years old. Executions were still happening, notably the hanging of accused Luddite Daniel Diggle in 1817, and a year later a catastrophic explosion of a ton of gunpowder killed ten people and caused damage to the majority of the properties between the canal and the marketplace.

It was into this world that William Abednego “Bendigo'' Thompson was born. It was 1811 and the area of modern-day Parliament Street was a tightly packed slum. This melting pot of crime, death and disease saw widespread rioting often threaten to destroy the city - but perhaps the fire and brimstone were the reason that the city was able to forge such a fierce, determined fighter.

Bendigo claimed to be one of a set of triplets named Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago derived from the young men in the Book of Daniel who were aptly thrown into the fiery furnace of Babylon. It is disputed whether this is true or not as St Mary’s Church records him as the younger of twins. It is also disputed as to how many siblings he had with some saying around 21 and others claiming only six or seven. As he grew into a young man of around fifteen, his father died and he began to work in a workhouse and subsequently became an iron turner, before he fell into prizefighting.

Not much is documented about how he became a fighter but at eighteen he began bare-knuckle boxing in order to provide for his struggling family. He quickly defeated his first eight opponents, including the champion of a nearby town, Bingham. In the next few years, he became a professional prizefighter and his results began to be properly recorded, which was difficult as the sport was outlawed and the locations of the bouts secret until after the fight had taken place. Despite being barely 5ft 10, he could compensate with famously quick, hard punches. Known by many as a man devoid of fear, he eviscerated opponents with his quick and tricky style. He fought from a left-hand stance (southpaw) but could shift around quickly and hit hard with either fist. He was an all-around athlete who was agile and a fast runner as well as an accomplished jumper and acrobat. His agility lent him the name ‘Bendy’ and in combination with his original nickname Abednego, he became ‘Bendigo’.

Perhaps the fire and brimstone were the reason that the city was able to forge such a fierce, determined fighter.

Along with his clear physical prowess, it was Bendigo’s antics with which he made a name for himself. Often seen taunting opponents in the ring, he would make up rhymes on the spot or tease them about their mothers and sisters in order to get a rise out of them and gain an edge in the bout. He was fervently supported by a mob known as the ‘Nottingham Lambs’ who were not keen to see their hero lose and would often get involved in the fight if they felt they had to. Over eighteen years he went on to fight 21 times, only losing once as a result of slipping on some grass and being disqualified for going down without being hit. On 8 February 1839 at the age of 28, Bendigo defeated fearsome Londoner James “Deaf” Burke for the ‘All England’ title (Championship of England) which he would go on to defend for many years.

After retiring from boxing, Bendigo would often join his former supporters the Nottingham Lambs in their violent, drunken rampages. As a result, he was imprisoned many times over his lifetime. This led to Bendigo wanting to make a change. In 1872, Bendigo attempted to escape his habit by moving to Beeston in order to get away from his unhealthy lifestyle. Here he spent time at pubs (in moderation of course) and on other hobbies such as fishing. At the age of 59, he rolled back the years while on a fishing trip and was able to dive into the water and save the lives of three people from drowning.

Around this time he visited an Evangelicals meeting at the Mechanics Institute and began to see the error in his ways. Bendigo found the congregation to be enthralling and he soon found another calling as a Methodist evangelist. His fame brought enormous crowds to the sermons he would go on to give, with numbers so large some had to be turned away due to a lack of space. He was known to use his boxing days anecdotally in his preaching, quoted as stating “See them belts, see them cups, I used to fight for those. But now I fight for Christ.”

From this point on Bendigo spent years touring the country preaching to crowds of thousands, becoming even more popular as he went. He eventually gained the attention of various politicians who felt that “although he couldn't read the bible, his straightforward manly speech could be useful.”

Thompson died in 1880 aged 68 at his home in Beeston. He fell down the stairs and despite suffering a fractured rib and a punctured lung, he clung to life for almost two months before unfortunately meeting his end. His funeral procession was incredibly long and was watched by thousands who lined the road, several of whom were famous and wealthy. He was buried in Sneinton, not however, as has been claimed by some, in his mother’s grave.

Posthumously, he was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. The Bendigo name lives on in the city of Bendigo in Victoria, Australia. The namesake of which comes from the founder of the city who was known to be handy with his fists and was thus nicknamed ‘Bendigo’ after the prizefighter from Nottingham himself.

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.