by Joe Earp
William “Bendigo” Thompson was born in 1811 in New Yard now Trinity Walk, off Parliament Street. The area Bendigo was bought up in were no more than slums compared to modern social housing. Naturally, the slums were rife with pestilence and disease, and the life expectancy here was less than half the national average — a shocking 22 years. The town boundaries had not changed since they were erected nearly 800 years before, and the Industrial Revolution led to massive overcrowding. A town that probably housed around 1,000 people when built now squeezed in about 50,000. One government official even labelled Nottingham as the ‘Worst town in England’. The worst affected areas were Narrow Marsh and the streets crowded between Long Row and Parliament Street, the people here said to “be the poorest of all Queen Victoria’s children”.
Bendigo was the youngest of triplets, called Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, after Hebrews cast into the burning fiery surface. He was the youngest of 21 children which shows his Mother must have been a strong woman, a gene which was no doubt passed on to young William. The house he was born in has now gone, being redeveloped in the 1970s. All there is to show that one of history’s greatest boxers was born and brought up there is a small plaque on the current building wall (see below photo).
When he was 15 his father died and William was sent to the Nottingham Workhouse with his mother. After leaving the Workhouse, Thompson sold oysters in and around the streets of Nottingham before obtaining a job as an iron turner. As a young man, William became a superb all round athlete, excelling in all types of physical activities. There is one such tale which tells of Bendigo throwing a brick from one side of the River Trent to the other. No doubt he did this as a bet showing his physical strength and skill.
It was the age old sport of bare knuckle fighting for which Bendigo would be forever linked with. Supported by the violent drunken mob known as the Nottingham lambs, who were likely to intervene if their hero was losing, Bendigo fought epic contests against Ben Caunt, a Hucknall miner four and a half inches taller and three stones heavier, and went on to defeat Deaf James Burke for the championship of England. Between the ages of 21 and 39, he fought twenty one times, losing only once after slipping on the grass and being disqualified for going down without being hit. These were the days when a fight could last over a hundred rounds- a round ending when either man fell as the result of a blow. Faking was hard to prove, and Bendigo exploited this, especially against bigger men, using his own speed and agility to inflict considerable damage in between rests on the turf, when he could taunt his opponents by kicking his legs in the air and laughing.
After his retirement from boxing, Bendigo slid into alcoholism, joining his former supporters, the Nottingham Lambs, in drunken rampages, as a result he was imprisoned twenty-eight times in the House of Correction on St John’s Street (approximately modern King Edward Street). However William’ story was by no means over. In 1872, he visited an evangelical meeting at the Mechanics Institute, saw the error of his ways and was converted. After that, he spoke regularly at revivalist meetings, and more than once (according to legend) found his old boxing skills useful in pacifying a rowdy audience.
To sober himself up Bendigo moved to Beeston to get away from his ‘old crowd’. He moved into a little cottage on Wollaton Road in Beeston and seems to have settled down. The cottage was later pulled down and the Anglo Scotain Mills were built on the site. There is a plaque which marks the site of Bendigo’s cottage and can be found on the wall close to the entrance to the main building (see below photo).
William seems to have taken to life in Beeston well, his favourite past times being fishing at Attenborough and drinking (in moderation) in the local pubs. His favorite pub apparently being the Cadland in Chilwell. It was during one of these fishing trips along the River Trent that Bendigo showed his old physical strength. At the age of 59 he managed to dive into the river to save three people from drowning. One time he pulled a woman from the river who offered him a reward. “Reward? I am the champion of England” he scornfully rejected the kind offer.
Thompson died on 23 August 1880 aged 69, after falling down the stairs of his home in Beeston. The fall fractured ribs and punctured his lung but he hung on for seven more weeks before he finally died. His funeral procession was a mile long and thousands lined the streets, including many nationally famous people of the period. Even The Times newspaper published his obituary, which was normally reserved for very illustrious people. He was buried in his mother’s grave, marked by a stone in the former burial grounds at Bath Street Rest Gardens (just near Victoria Leisure Centre). It is the only memorial not to have been moved during redevelopment and bears the inscription;
“In life always brave,
Fighting like a Lion;
In Death like a Lamb,
Tranquil in Zion”.