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William ('Bendigo') Thompson
by Thomas Earloil on canvas, 1850NPG 4191
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07 February 2019, 02:44
The sitter is William Thompson, better known as Bendigo, the prize fighting champion of England - also known as "The little 'un" or "The Nottingham Jester". In fights he'd fall on his back and laugh at his opponents, he'd somersault over them, he'd taunt them about their wives, make up poems about them - which pleased the crowds. At about the time of the portrait he fought his last fight against Tom Paddock - which he won by a foul. Being rather old to fight he was allegedly goaded by his mother who threatened to take on Paddock if Bendigo did not.
Bendigo was celebrated by Arthur Connan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame in a poem "Bendy's Sermon". Bendigo was a great self publicist, saying that he was the last of 21 children and the last of triplets named Shadrach, Meshack and Abednigo (corrupted to Bendigo) after the biblical trio who entered the fiery furnace and survived - this seems untrue, he had a twin who died, no record of the biblical names exist. He fought Ben Caunt, a much bigger man - whom Big Ben, the bell not the clock is said to be named after -and won. When Ben Caunt died and was buried in the church in Hucknal where Byron lies - more people attended Caunt's funeral than Byron's. Amongst the mourners Bendigo wept at his old adversaries grave.
Bendigo was the leader of a Nottingham Gang called "The Nottingham Lambs". They attended his fights and if things were not going so well would attempt to cudgel his opponent - as happened to Ben Caunt who had to flee one fight semi -naked on horseback. The Lambs also had questions raised in Parliament, due to their activities in Nottingham elections. They were hired as protection and intimidated opponents - certainly stones were thrown and heads hit with "twigs".
After his fighting days Bendigo became a drunk, said to spit in peoples beer to start a fight, hitting policemen and often being sent to jail. He sank to the level where he was taunted by children. Then one day - so he asserted - while in prison he listened to a sermon about David and Goliath, he shouted out "I hope the little ‘un wins" to much laughter, but so began his conversion.
Bendigo became a preacher, he'd say see them belts and cups, once I fought for them but now I fight for Christ. It is recorded that he was taunted at such events and would say a prayer asking God to give him a few minutes off - after which he leapt from the pulpit, and dispatched the hecklers with his fists.
Bendigo died six weeks after a fall on the stairs. His funeral was a huge affair, but there were two groups who disputed where he should be buried, Bulwell or Sneinton, eventually Sneinton was accepted. A figure of a lion has been erected over his grave.
Bendigo had been born in Nottingham in 1811, in a city where life expectancy was seven, cholera was rampant. Much more could be said; he was illiterate, a champion angler, could be brutal and he was a cricketer - before W. G. Grace he held the record distance for throwing a cricket ball.
Does the portrait hint at why he'd welcomed salvation?
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