Bendigo v Big Ben – 19th Century Fight Trilogy

As boxing trilogies, the one from way back, between two of Nottingham’s earliest prizefighters, could easily have been more recognised, after all, the pair shared an impressive 190 rounds, yes, 190, during that of the early-mid 1800s – they were certainly for the ages.

Separated by just three-and-a-half years, and approximately six-and-a-half miles, that of William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson, and ‘Big’ Ben Caunt, were seen as the behemoths of the early age of the sweet science, the dawning age of the prizefighters; behemoths and brutal ring technicians, as their own, three-way dance, ultimately showed.

Thompson was to be born first, in the New Yard area of Nottingham (now Trinity Walk), in the mid-October 1811 amidst lifelong ‘tales’ of his early upbringing, and of his siblings – it’s claimed he was one of triplets, thus becoming one of six siblings (maybe seven), two of whom were said to have passed in their own, early childhood; meanwhile, Caunt, who was born in nearby Hucknall Torkard, in March 1815, to a gamekeeper, was one of five brothers himself and where it would soon become clear, at a young age, where his future would lie.

And thus a collision course between Bendigo and Big Ben was birthed…..

Those three meetings, to which there could easily have been four, would take place over a decade-long period, between 1835 and 1845, with both Nottinghamshire pugilists having ideals of going on to claim championship gold – they both succeeded, for their part, as well.

To watch them however, or even be that opposing fighter, was something that was to be done at your own peril, especially if reports from their own meetings were anything to go by.

Upon the culmination of the trilogy, in the September of 1845, a writer for The Observer newspaper was quoted as saying of Thompson and Caunt that their (last) contest was –

“One of the most scandalous brawls in boxing history.

“Both men used every foul under the sun and invented a good many others….

“Thompson was tossed from the ring….

“Caunt trying to crash him on the ring stakes to break his back.

“Thompson’s (followers) attempted to bludgeon Caunt whenever within striking distance….

“On one occasion missing him by a hairs breadth, the blow landing on Caunt’s brawny shoulder.”

Theirs would certainly rank as being for the ages, and, with the close, geographical proximity of the two fighters, and no doubt their respective followers, all manner of roughness could well have occurred, and probably did.

Even a decade earlier after their first collision, in July 1835, a local reporter would say of them, even then, that –

“Caunt was full of trickery and treachery – he has no ethics,” whilst on the other-hand “Thompson was as deadly and poisonous as a rattlesnake, with about the same ethics.”

Maybe you get the feeling that you’d not wish to bump into either when in a dark alley, or anywhere else for that matter, especially if they’re in a fighting mood.

Beginning just a few years apart both Thompson (1830) and Caunt (1833) were already winning prizefighter contests at a young age, Thompson himself said to have defeated his first eight opponents, one of whom being the Birmingham champion, and this by the time he was 21.

With the first contest between the battlers a non-title contest, but lasting an impressive twenty-two rounds itself, Thompson’s first of any real significance would come four years later, in the February of 1839, when he was 28-years-old.

With a purse of £200, and the All England Title on the table, Thompson fought, and overcame, Londoner James ‘Deaf’ Burke, after just ten rounds; Burke, who was actually deaf, was disqualified for striking Thompson when he was down.

Meanwhile, the following year, 1840, and Caunt would find himself embroiled in a mammoth tussle with the bare knuckle fighter, Bill Brassey, they battling for over 101 rounds; a year later and Caunt was challenging Nicholas Ward for the Heavyweight Championship of England, Caunt losing via a disqualification after the referee succumbed to crowd pressure, they claiming that Ward had been struck whilst he was down.

Caunt would go on to win the rematch with Ward just four months later, legitimately, over thirty-five rounds, before later in the year travelling to America in order to challenge the Pennsylvanian-born, Tom Hyer, for the World title, but received no reply, returning home six months later, empty-handed.

A far-cry from the modern-day, multi-million pound/dollar deals, television contracts, and other endorsements; back then, some two centuries ago, it was just about beating each other up, proving who was the toughest, who was the best fighter, about pride, and the occasional good purse, and maybe a title or two, if you were good enough.

Not that much motivation was needed in which to fight, especially if there’s local bragging rights on the line also, as there was with Thompson and Caunt.

Now though, with that pairing having had their trilogy, whilst another, scheduled meeting, in 1838, was cancelled, by the mid-1840s, they were continuing their battling ways elsewhere, before stepping away, for a period, from the sport.

For a few years at least Thompson would be seen to turn to his other love, fishing, to while away time, Caunt meanwhile became a farm labourer and landlord of a local, public house; both returning to the prizefighter scene for one last hurrah.

In the summer of 1850 Thompson returned to answer the challenge of Tom Paddock, it coming at the ‘order’ of Thompson’s mother, who it’s claimed said that –

“I tell you this Bendy, if you don’t take up this fight you’re a coward. And I tell you more. If you don’t fight him I’ll take up the challenge myself.”

That fight would last for over an hour, between William Thomson and Tom Paddock that is, and for some fifty rounds, before the referee, and following calls of foul play from Thompson’s corner awarded the Nottingham fighter the contest – Thompson would finally retire, undefeated, as a champion, shortly after.

Thompson’s life soon spiralled into a sorry decline following retirement and he would eventually pass away in 1880, aged 68, following a bad fall at his home in Beeston.

Buried in the Bath Street Rest Gardens, the inscription on Thompson’s grave reads –

“In life always brave, fighting like a lion; in death like a lamb, tranquil in Zion,” and has since been inducted into that of The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame (1955), the International Boxing Hall of Fame (1991), and the Bare Knuckle Boxing Hall of Fame (2011).

Caunt meanwhile, his brief return to prizefighting would see him fight Nat Langham, in the September of 1857, they going some sixty-five rounds before being declared a draw, due to exhaustion.

Pneumonia would be seen to take Caunt, just a few years after his last contest, in 1881, at just 46-years-old, he being buried at the Parish Church of St Mary Magdalene, in Hucknall.

Both William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson, and ‘Big’ Ben Caunt certainly left a lasting legacy on that of the Nottinghamshire prizefighter, boxing scene, one which, even to this day, near two centuries on, is still fondly remembered.

*Article provided by Peter Mann (Senior Correspondent).

*Main image @boxingtreasures Caunt is dropped by Bendigo in fight no III on the 5th June 1850.

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