William Abednego Thompson (1811 – 1880) boxer, preacher
“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 Abednego Thompson who at the age of 60 became a preacher.
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.”
William Abednego Thompson:, “I have been a fighting character, but now I’m a miracle. What could I do? I was the youngest of 21 children, and the first thing that was done with me was to put me in a workhouse. There I got among fellows who brought me out, and I became a fighting character. Thirty years ago I came up to London to fight Ben Caunt and I licked him. I’m 63 now, and I didn’t think I should ever come up to London to fight for King Jesus. But here I am, and I wish I could read out of the blessed Book, and I could talk to you better. But I never learnt how to read, though I’m hoping by listening to the conversation around me to pick up a deal of the Bible, and then I’ll talk to you better”.
Bendigo name: Bendigo Creek was named after “Bendigo’s Hut”, the hut of a shepherd with the nickname of “Bendigo” who had resided at the creek during the 1840s. The shepherd was nicknamed after the Nottingham bare-knuckled boxing prize-fighter William Abednego Thompson, generally known as “Bendigo Thompson”. It was reported that the shepherd, who was also the hut-keeper, was “some pugilistically inclined individual” and “a fighting sailor”. The former sailor, who had run away from his vessel, had been working on the ship that Thomas Myers had come to Port Phillip aboard. The shepherd/sailor was given the nickname of “Bendigo”. After a plebiscite on 28 April 1891, which had been called as a direct result of agitation to have the old name back, the city was renamed on 4 May 1891 to the more popular original name of “Bendigo”.
In 1851 when gold was discovered the diggings were named from Bendigo Creek where a shepherd nicknamed after the world champion prizefighter, William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson of Nottingham had established a residence. The township, which developed, was first named Castleton after an English mining town, but a few weeks later was changed to Sandhurst, no doubt an association from the famous military academy. When gold production declined it was felt the name ‘Bendigo’ might more readily attract much needed overseas financial investment. In 1891 a poll was conducted and residents voted in favour so the City was the officially named Bendigo.
While William Abednego Thompson was not an Australian, his legacy remains as the indirect source of the name ‘Bendigo‘.
Above image Bendigo Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral: Source and more information http://www.ohta.org.au/organs/organs/BendigoCathedral.html
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