About this image
Drawing photographed by George L Roberts. Bendigo was Nottingham's famous Bare-knuckle fighter. Bare-knuckle fighting was ever popular during the free-wheeling days of the late 18th to mid 19th centuries and the only rules that governed these prize-fights had been drawn up in 1743 by a Thames waterman called Jack Broughton. These remained 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 wrestling. 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 respite, 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 grappling match as the combatants became bruised and tired. Nottingham's famous bare-knuckle fighter who is celebrated by not only having a public house named after him (see NTGM003606, now renamed the Hermitage) was William Abednego Thompson (1811-1880), better known as 'Bendigo.' Bendigo was among the last of the great prize-fighters and was perhaps, the champion of all. His fans were many, and included such respected members of society as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who even penned a verse to the fighter entitled 'Bendigo's Sermon.' Bendigo's upbringing, like that of many of the fighters of the period, had not been easy. At the age of fifteen, 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 prize-fighting was to become Bendigo's main occupation and by the age of 21 he had successfully defeated a number of local men. Bendigo loved to taunt his opponents as they fought by making faces at them or composing impromptu rhymes at their expense. Such asides made him a crowd pleaser and his contests were often witnessed by upwards of 15,000 spectators. 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. Bendigo's last fight was on the 5th June 1850, against a young Redditch man called Tom Paddock. A fight that the champion was to win in the 49th round following a foul by his opponent. Up until that point though the fight had been too close to call and Bendigo, now in his fortieth year, decided to quit the ring. During his later years he became a Methodist preacher and 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.' Bendigo died on 23rd August 1880 seven weeks after falling down the stairs of his home in Beeston, his grave is marked by a stone in the Bath Street Gardens (a former burial ground in Nottingham) where it is the only memorial not to have been moved.