A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
12th March 2011
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One of life’s little quirks is the name of the Victorian gold rush town Bendigo. Like many places in Australia it was given several names until 1891, when the official name of Sandhurst was changed back to the pre-gold rush name: Bendigo.
“Bendigo” is not an aboriginal word as some have thought but refers to a local shepherd who was famous for boxing. His real name is not known; Bendigo was the nickname given to him for his similarity to the famous British boxer William Thompson.
William Thompson was born in Nottingham 1811, the youngest of triplet boys. They were given the biblical nicknames of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – the three young Jewish men in Babylon who would not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image and so were thrown into the fiery furnace. It was by the name ‘Abednego’ that William Thompson started his career as a professional bare-knuckle fighter. The name was shortened and changed by a process called metathesis to Bendigo.
William Thompson was the Mohammed Ali of his day. He was a clown who drew a crowd and was crowned a champion. He was particularly fast and athletic, a man of great jest and constant talk. He was very acrobatic, dancing around his opponents, baiting them with a steady stream of taunts and insults. He was a crowd pleaser always showing off and even doing somersaults in the ring during a fight. But all this covered a highly skilled pugilist – a southpaw who was technically ahead of his time. In the early 19th century he was the biggest draw card in the, then illegal, bare-knuckle boxing world with crowds of over ten thousand following him. He was crowned as the Champion Prize Fighter of All England. His fame spread throughout the empire, even to the sleepy farming area in central Victoria where a local shepherd’s fighting earned him the nickname Bendigo.
Bendigo Thompson, like many other poor men, found in boxing a fame and fortune that would normally have been denied somebody who grew up in the poorhouse. Prior to the 20th century pension systems, the poorhouses of Britain, such as the one in Nottingham to which his widowed mother had to resort, were not much better than the prisons. Boxing was a way to make fast money and get out of poverty, but it came at a dreadful cost. It was illegal for very good reasons. It is a sport designed to injure and damage the contestant. The promoters make money, the gamblers exchange money and the crowd is entertained by violence – but the boxers lose. Their careers are short and their health is often destroyed. One of Bendigo’s famous fights with his great rival Ben Caunt, went for 96 rounds lasting over two hours. His last fight (of a mere 49 rounds!) was when he was 39.
But what do retired boxers do? He went fishing and won some All England Fishing awards. He became a coach in Oxford but that didn’t last. When his mother died he turned to alcohol and political violence. It was a time of great unrest and the ‘Nottingham Lambs’ of which he was a part, used violence to protest the unjust and appalling living standards of the city of Nottingham. But his hopeless drunken behaviour brought him to the attention of the magistrates and 28 times he was imprisoned for drunken disorderliness. Two decades after his last fight, small children were seen mocking the once great athlete as he descended into habitual drunkenness.
This could have been the sad, all too common end of another extraordinarily talented boxer but God had other plans and other purposes for him. In a manner that astonished all who knew of him, especially the magistrates and the Nottingham Lambs, Bendigo was transformed by the gospel. At a revivalist meeting conducted by a converted miner, Richard Weaver, he gave his heart to God and was a changed man from that time on.
At the age of 60 he became a preacher. His preaching was not literary or learned. He was literally illiterate and so couldn’t read the Bible. His preaching was of the obvious character of a transformed life. Drawing huge crowds because of his fame, he told people: “I wish I could read out of this Blessed Book, so's I could talk to you better - but I never learnt to read proper. It's two years since King Jesus came to me an' had a bout wi' me - an' he licked me in the first round.” He would often point to his trophies and say 'See them belts; see them cups; I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ!'
At 69 years of age he died - not knowing that he would indirectly give his name to a city in Victoria – just as many of its citizens to this day remain ignorant of him and his troubled life. But Bendigo was a man of Nottingham. He was born there, raised there, fought for it and fought in it. In a short poem chastising educated people’s ignorance of him, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called him “the pride of Nottingham”. It was only fitting that Bendigo would be buried in Nottingham. Thousands attended his funeral, the procession being more than a mile long. Even the Times printed an obituary of him, though he was a humble and poor man whose tumultuous life was full of toil and trouble.
But it is his tomb’s epitaph that records his transformed life and his real home city. “In life always brave, fighting like a lion: in death like a lamb, tranquil in Zion.”