In our last issue we wrote about Bendigo, the Beeston based boxer and campaigner. Local historian Alan Dance, who has researched Bendigo for a new book (out soon!) contacted us to tell us how some of the things we know of Bendigo might have been the product of some artful image manipulation from the giant pugilist himself. Read on, as Alan explains all…
I thoroughly enjoyed the article in issue 44 about Bendigo – real name William Thompson – but I’d like to take this opportunity to correct some of the details shown. I have recently been doing some in-depth research into his life in preparation for a forthcoming book – Bendigo, the Right Fist of God – of which more anon. Much has been written about him over the years, most of it, apparently, based on a newspaper article published in 1874. In that year James Greenwood, a London journalist, interviewed Bendigo. Perhaps he was not too clever with dates and numbers and other facts about his life; perhaps he was prone to exaggeration or just liked to spin a good yarn. And he had spent over twenty years in the ring, and had consumed more than his share of Nottingham ale.
Perhaps the first thing that trainee reporters are told is Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It certainly seems to have been the case with Greenwood’s article, for this sowed the seeds for the myths that are still being perpetuated. So, let’s look at some of these.
The best known two are that Bendigo was the youngest of 21 children and that he was one of triplets, whose mother gave them the nicknames of Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego, after the three men thrown in the ‘fiery furnace’ on the orders of King Nebuchadnezzar (Book of Daniel, Chapter 3).
Mmm. Really? OK, let’s examine the records. These show that Benjamin Thompson and Mary Levers were married at St. Mary’s Church Nottingham on 12th July 1805. Their first child, Rebecca, was born three months after their wedding and was baptised at St. Mary’s on 11th October 1805. Then came Thomas (baptised 30th May 1807) and John (20th November 1809). Then we come to William. In later life, William appears never to have mentioned the other two of the alleged triplets. Not surprising, since the Parish Registers clearly show that on 16th October 1811, Richard and William, the twin sons of Benjamin & Mary Thompson were baptised. No mention of triplets. Not only that, but just 12 days later, on to the 28th October, Richard was buried. He had perhaps lived for less than 3 weeks.
Bendigo, of course, had a glittering career as a pugilist, but died in his cottage in Beeston in August 1880
Now, triplets are fairly rare, but it is possible that Mary did give birth to three boys. The only possible explanation is that one died at, or very soon after his birth. No record exists of either a baptism or burial, but in 1811 there was no legal requirement to register either. If there was a third child, then it must have been quietly disposed of, possibly by the midwife. Only one child survived, so why would his mother need to think up three nicknames?
So, after six years of marriage, Mary had given birth to 5 children (possibly six). Yet Bendigo claimed to be the youngest of 21. He definitely wasn’t, for on 8th January 1815, another child, Mary, was baptised. However, she too died young, being buried on 3rd July 1818. William was almost seven at the time of his sister’s death, so he ought to have remembered her. But as she was the last child of this marriage, it is true to say that William was the youngest surviving child; but of six, not 21.
Much could be said about Bendigo’s family. His father was reputedly a mechanical genius, but a bit too fond of the ale (he dropped down dead in the Kings Arms in Chapel bar in 1827); Bendigo’s brother John became a respected optician with his own business; his nephew William (son of Thomas), killed his wife in 1876 at their home in Sheffield and was tried at Leeds for her manslaughter (he was found not guilty).
Bendigo, of course, had a glittering career as a pugilist, but died in his cottage in Beeston in August 1880. But even after death the myths continued, for it was soon claimed that he had been buried in his mother’s grave. The truth is, she had died in September 1854 and rests in the General Cemetery, almost a mile from Bendigo’s grave in Sneinton. Ironically, she is the only occupant of the grave, and there would have been room for Bendigo to join her.
So just how do these myths come about? No doubt celebrity status plays its part, the desire to exaggerate, and of course the tendency for newspapers to print what they believe will sell.
I mentioned earlier a forthcoming book. Bendigo – The Right Fist of God will be published later this year. This is a novel based around his astonishing life story, and has been jointly written by myself and David Field, (author of In Ludd’s Name, reviewed in Beestonian Issue 44). You may wonder how we dealt with the truth and fiction surrounding his life. Since we are both keen historians who are reluctant to perpetuate myths, we have not repeated any of the untruths. We think, however, that we have dealt ingeniously with these anomalies, but just how, you will have to wait for the book’s publication to find out!