William Abednego Thompson
Boxer and prizefighter 1811 - 1880
You didn't know of Bendigo?
Well, that knocks me out!
Who's your Board School teacher?
What's he been about?
Chock a block with fairy tales -
Full of useless cram,
And never heard of Bendigo,
The pride of Nottingham.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Born outside Nottingham
, in an uncertain era of Luddite
England, William Abednego
Thompson was the youngest of 21 children, and one of triplets. Growing up in the streets of Sneinton
, an impoverished and tough suburb, he learned early on to hold his own in a scrap
. He was a natural athlete, as capable of running and stone-throwing as he was at boxing and street fighting. He got his nickname
as a result of his bobbing and weaving
, being known as 'Bendy' as early as seven. Although left-handed, he was capable of fast movement and punching with both hands.
At the age of fifteen, his father died, and he and his mother was sent to the workhouse. On his release, he vowed that none of his family would return, and worked hard to keep his promise, hawking oysters around the city and working as an iron-turner in nearby Radford with his brother. This heavy physical work enhanced his already-capable body, and by age 18 he was prizefighting, becoming a remowned professional fighter by the time he was 21.
Although boxing was gaining in popularity and acceptability, prizefighting was still illegal, and he soon attracted a band of 'heavies' - supporters who protected him and would help spirit him away should a fight be raided. The 'Nottingham Lambs', as they became known, later began helping Bendigo in less conventional ways by interfering in fights which weren't going his way, and by threatening referees and opponents alike.
Despite this, Bendigo attracted great fame, and was undoubtedly a great fighter. In private life, he was good-hearted, witty and charming. Unfortunately, as with many people, he changed under the influence of drink, and was frequently in trouble with the Law as a result. He was so often in prison that over 20 years, a frequent headline would appear: "Bendigo in trouble again". He moved out to Beeston on the other side of the river, away from his friends, in an attempt to reform. He is also noted as saving two people from drowning in the River Trent, declining a reward with the shout of "Reward? I am the Champion of England!"
From a Lion to a Lamb
This all changed after a meeting with Richard Weaver in 1871 at a revivalist meeting. Richard soon convinced Bendigo of the error of his ways, and the former scrapper became an evangelist, to the delight of the local magistrates and police, and the suprise of the 'Lambs'. Although illiterate, and without many social graces, he nonetheless attracted great crowds, and did much good in the poor communities where he preached.
The Lion had indeed become a Lamb, but it was not to last long. In June 1880, he fell downstairs at his home, fracturing several ribs. He finally died on 23rd August of complications, among them a punctured lung. His obituary in The Times read:
"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. Of late years the deceased had been a preacher and was well-known as a leader of revivalist services.".
He is buried in his native Sneinton, where there is still a pub¹ named after him (and true to its name, is a scary place if you don't like a scrap). In fact, Australia also seems to have taken him to their collective hearts. in the state of Victoria, there is a town named after him. Given its origin as a gold-mining town, doubtless Bendigo's grit and drive was a vital part of daily life...
Thanks to girlotron for reminding me of the pub, and to la petite mort for the bit on Oz.
¹ Ironically, the pub was closed, in part because of its reputation as a house of brawling. The statue of Bendigo is also long-gone.