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13 November 2014

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You are in: Nottingham > History > Local history > Nottinghamshire legends: Bendigo

William Bendigo Thompson (1811 - 1880)

William Bendigo Thompson (1811 - 1880)

Nottinghamshire legends: Bendigo

From bare-knuckle boxer to Methodist evangelist... Read about William Bendigo Thompson's extraordinary life.

Born on 11 October 1811, English bare-knuckle boxer William Bendigo Thompson was the last of 21 children.

Bendigo eventually became a Methodist evangelist, though illiterate he had his own way of delivering a sermon. 

Adopting a boxer’s stance he would point to the hard-earned trophies by his side and address his audience with the following words:

"See them belts, see them cups, I used to fight for those.  But now I fight for Christ."

"See them belts, see them cups, I used to fight for those.  But now I fight for Christ."

William Bendigo Thompson

His nickname apparently is a corruption of the Old Testament name Abednego Thompson.

Bendigo’s upbringing, like that of many of the fighters of the period, had not been easy. 

At the age of 15, following the death of his father, he was sent to the Nottingham Workhouse. 

Though he didn’t remain there long, he was to experience the terrible harshness of life in poverty, vowing never to return. 

Having tried his hand at oyster selling on the streets of the city he took up a trade as an iron turner, thus developing his muscular physique. 

But bare-knuckle was to become Bendigo’s main occupation and by the age of 21 he had successfully defeated a number of local men.

Bendigo's boxing stance

Bendigo's famous boxing stance

Rules of 'fight club'

Bare-knuckle fighting was popular during the freewheeling days of the late 18th to mid 19th century. 

The only rules that governed these prize fights had been drawn up in 1743 by a Thames waterman called Jack Broughton, remaining the only written rules for over a century. 

They stated that a round lasted for no set length of time, but ended when a fighter was knocked down or thrown to the ground by brawling. 

Once floored, the fallen fighter had thirty seconds to come up to the ‘scratch’, a marker set in the centre of the ring. 

During the bout, no fighter was allowed to take a break, and would be instantly disqualified if he ‘fell without taking a blow’. 

These contests became a war of attrition, often developing into a form of wrestling match as the combatants became bruised and tired.


In February 1839 he met the fearsome ‘Deaf’ James Burke in a fight for the championship of all-England at Heather in Leicestershire. 

Within half-an-hour Burke was well beaten. 

In a fit of temper he resorted to head-butting his much younger southpaw challenger - thus losing the contest by being disqualified for foul play… rather like the American wrestlers of today!

The man's last fight was on the 5th June 1850, against a young Redditch chap called Tom Paddock – a fight that the champion was to win in the 49th round following a foul by his opponent.

Bendigo was not unlike Muhammad Ali, taunting his opponents as they fought by making faces at them or reciting rhymes at their expense, something the spectators loved, often upwards of 15,000.

Bendigo and the Forest Tavern

Bendigo died at 60 at his Beeston home.  He’s buried in St Mary’s Cemetery in Sneinton, and the tombstone confirms August 23, 1880 was the date of his death.

A well-respected world famous boxer of his time, Bendigo’s trophies were on show for several years at the Forest Tavern, Mansfield Road.

A portrait was also displayed at the pub.  This was painted in 1850, commissioned by the then landlord. 

In 1835 he became Champion of all England, and 1955 saw him entered into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Rumour has it that bare-knuckle fights took place in the pub although it’s doubtful, there was very little room! 

If any bare knuckle fights did take place I suspect that the lounge, originally to be found at the rear of the pub on the left hand side is where it would have taken place. 

From memory, this was the biggest room in the pub and is where the Maze nightclub was situated. 

The Maze's stage area would have been in or near to the corner of that room.

Bendigo's legacy

The Bendigo pub in Sneinton opened in July 1957, replacing the Old Wrestlers formerly on the site.

Nottingham’s tram users needn’t be left out. Tram 203 is named after the boxer nominated by viewers of East Midland’s Today.

There’s even a place called the City of Greater Bendigo in Victoria, South East Australia. 

Ironically, just like the famous "gent of the rings" home city, the Australian counter part is also famous for mining, although yellow gold, rather than black coal was the mineral extracted from down under.

Find out more about the region's legends on BBC East Midlands Today, from 18:30 on BBC 1 every weekday.

last updated: 08/04/2009 at 15:54
created: 14/02/2005

Have Your Say

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Tony Whelan
I was born in DunLaoghaire, Eire, but my family emigrated to Bendigo in 1858. I was a toddler, just two years of age, the youngest of eight children. We were met at the docks in Melbourne by a Catholic priest driving a baker's van. My dad sat in the front and the seven kids sat in the back, and they were allowed to eat as much bread and as many buns as they liked all the way to Bendigo. Mum was sick, so she wasn't allowed to disembark because of quarantine regulations, and so I stayed with her for the night until the same priest came back in the baker's van. Apparently mum sobbed her eyes out all night, not knowing what would become of them in this strange hot land: she really missed Ireland. Mum and Dad raised us well, giving us a good education and providing love and support. All the children became teachers, nurses, company managers, wives and husbands- thirty grandchildren and ten great grand children. Many a time my parents would have loved to return back to Ireland, but they had to wait 25 years for the chance, but both of them loved Australia by then. Their faith in God saw them through many a discouraging time, and they lived to old aged and died peacefully with their children and grand children surrounding them. Bendigo, is a beautiful city, considered the best preserved Victorian (as in victorian heritage) city in the World. It has the world's largest and longest Chinese dragon, which is displayed on Easter Monday in a procession. It's cathedral was the last English Gothic cathedral ever constructed. The gold from Bendigo apparently allowed for much of London's nineteenth century development. The city was known as Sandhurst Town in the beginning, but I believe that the boxer, Bendigo, came to the mining town, and so impressed the excited crowd, that by popular opinion, the town should be renamed, Bendigo. It is now the third largest city in Victoria.

Tony Wells
I heard the poem on R4 on Sunday & was transported back in time by some 40 ears! Coincidentally, only last week, a colleague in Derby asked me if I knew of Bendigo. Having lived on Pullman Rd in Sneinton from 1961 - my dad used the Bendigo Pub regularly - I well knew the history & proceeded to talk AT him non-stop for narly 2 hours about my visits to the sleeping lion on Bath St. It's good to se a rekindling of a memory of a great son of Nottingham. A shame to see the pub is now called "The Hermitage"

Clive Stevenson
Just heard Arthur Conan Doyle's poem 'Bendy's sermon' on the BBC and looked it up on the internet.Great stuff. Good fun.

Janet Levey
Bendigo died at Beeston. His funeral cortege, which was followed by numerous fans, walked to Nottingham. When they reached Canning Circus they stopped to refresh themselves at the Sir John Borlace Warren before proceeding to the service!

Jane Cook nee Thompson
I was always told that Bendigo was one of my ancestors. I would like to know if he really was. He has that Thompson look about him! and the Thompson men that I knew were always ready for a fight.

maxine Thompson
I am proud to say Bendigo was my great great grandfather, i would like to know more about him

ali john
Has anyone heard of a bare fist fighter named Fred Widdowson he was my G.Grandad from Basford

P Goddard
There is a field near Chapel en le Frith in Derbyshire called "Bendigo's Field" where he once fought

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