Born in Nottingham in 1811, Thompson was the last of 21 children, himself one of triplets named Abednego, Shadrach and Meshak, after the young men in the Book of Daniel who emerged from the fiery furnace of Babylon.
By the age of 18, he was already fighting for money, to provide for his family. He defeated his first eight opponents — including the champion of the nearby town of Bingham. At age 21 he was a regular prize fighter. Thompson was a southpaw boxer who compensated for his lack of height (he was barely 177cm or five feet, ten inches tall) with an incredible ability to punch hard and fast, and was said to be devoid of fear. He was also very agile, earning the name "Bendy" because of his constant bobbing and weaving around the ring; his nickname evolved and "Bendy" Abednego became "Bendigo."
Though it was his speed and agility that won him his fights, it was Thompson's personality and sense of humour which endeared him to the crowd (or "fancy" as fight fans were then known). He would make up rhymes about his opponents during the fights, and distract them with insults and tall tales of their wives and mothers while pulling funny faces at them. It wasn't long before Thompson was drawing crowds of over 10,000 people to his illicit fights, held secretly out of town in barns or fields.
Thompson's career is mostly remembered for the fierce rivalry between himself and another local man, the Hucknall-born, Ben Caunt. In 1835 the two met for the first time for a purse of £25. This fight lasted a mere 22 rounds, and was a relatively easy affair compared to their later rematches. At the time a round didn't last a set amount of time, but was called whenever a fighter was knocked down. Bendigo, who was 19kg (three stone) lighter and 15cm (six inches) shorter, got into difficulties during the fight and started to stumble frequently. This, along with his constant manic laughter and free flowing insults, frustrated Caunt, who finally struck Thompson while he was kneeling and so lost the match on a foul. A writer at the fight described Caunt as "full of trickery and treachery — he has no ethics" and Thompson "as deadly and as poisonous as a rattlesnake with about the same ethics."
Over the next two years, Thompson fought three fights, first of all dispatching the renowned John Leachman of Bradford in a 52-round contest, before moving to Newcastle the following year to defeat Charley Langham in 51 rounds. A few months later, Thompson responded to a letter in a newspaper from Liverpudlian William Looney, challenging "...any man in the world for £200 stake and £200 a-side". The two met on 13 June 1837, on a hill at Chapel-en-le-Frith the halfway point between their hometowns. The fight lasted for 92 rounds, but will probably be remembered for Thompson's reaction to Looney contemplating a haymaker in the fifteenth round, falling to the floor "on his nether end throwing up his legs and laughing". Thompson took control of the fight shortly after and started somersaulting in the ring, endearing him to the crowds. However, even through the constant barrage of punches Looney fought bravely on and even nearly won the fight with a massive right hand when under some pressure from Thompson. Eventually Thompson's athleticism shone through and he was declared the winner after dominating over an hour of fighting.
When order was restored, Thompson was given brandy and recovered his stamina. In the fiftieth round it was Thompson's turn for some underhand tactics, lashing out some kicks on Caunt but the referee dismissed the complaint. In the seventy-fifth round, the referee stopped the fight as Thompson fell to the ground without being struck, an illegal tactic in prize fighting. After the fight, Thompson claimed it was a slip; a claim backed up by contemporary accounts, putting him well ahead and coasting. After the referee called the foul against Thompson, pandemonium broke loose. His supporters attacked Caunt with whatever weapons were to hand. Caunt was dragged to his coach by his seconds and attempted to flee. The coach was arrested by Thompson's mob who dragged Caunt out, but during the ensuing melee he escaped riding bareback on a stolen horse.
In 1839 when Thompson was 28, he was given the task of defeating the fearsome Londoner James "Deaf 'un" Burke for the All England Title and a purse of £220. The backers admired his wit and courage, and now a crowd favourite he was a perfect match for the title. The fight was held in a field at No Mans Heath in Leicestershire, in front of an unruly crowd of 15,000 people. It lasted just ten rounds, with Thompson battering the helpless Burke, who himself had just successfully toured America. After half an hour, the frustrated Burke became so enraged with the barrage of punches and insults coming from his younger, faster and stronger challenger, he grabbed hold of Thompson and full-on head butted him, thus losing on a foul and lifting the championship away. The "Nottingham Jester", Champion Prize Fighter Of All England was presented his Champion's Belt a few weeks later at a ceremony in The Queens Theatre, Liverpool. When he got home to Nottingham, Thompson met his supporters, and in such excitement he somersaulted into the crowd and ended up breaking his kneecap putting him out of action for two years. Thompson never stepped down from a challenge, and once he recovered from his knee injury he defeated 19 opponents over the next 4 years, including 7 in one month. Then finally, on 9 September 1845 at Lillington Level, Oxford, a half drunk riotous crowd of 10,000 came to see the third and final fight between Thompson and Caunt. Thompson's tactics were called into question as he crouched and bobbed his way around the ring, making it harder for Caunt to hit him. Hardly a round went by without a foul being claimed in a notoriously dirty grudge match. The atmosphere was all the more intense because of the fierce rivalry between the two sets of supporters, who only really came to finish what they had started 6 years earlier. The fight lasted a massive 96 rounds with Thompson tactically and methodically breaking his man down until, exhausted after two hours ten minutes, Caunt sat down without getting hit, losing on a foul. The fight was described by a contemporary writer as "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 by a hairs breadth, the blow landing on Caunt's brawny shoulder..."
Years later, when speaking on this fight, Lord Longford, a former backer said to Thompson in relation to Thompson's evangelising; "I hope you fight Beelzebub with more fairness than you fought Caunt or else I might change sides."
This fight seemed to have taken a lot out of Thompson, who went back to his childhood pastime of fishing. He became good friends with a well-known angler called William Bailey, who made and sold fishing tackle from his shop in Broad Marsh. Thompson won several All England Fishing Awards. Although enjoying his quiet life, Thompson accepted a challenge from a young Tom Paddock from Redditch and on the 5 June 1850, the 39-year-old William Abednego Thompson fought his last fight. In two minds as to whether to accept the fight or not, his 82 year old mother encouraged him by saying "I tell you this Bendy, if you don't take up the fight you're a coward. And I tell you more. If you don't fight him, I'll take up the challenge myself."
The fight was a close one and lasted over an hour. Paddock, the younger man by far, was getting the better of Thompson who started to go to ground very easily causing the end of the round. This infuriated Paddock who after flooring Thompson with a right hand in the 49th, thought he had gone down again. Paddock charged across the ring and kicked Thompson, and pulling him to his feet shouting, "Get up and fight like a man". Thompson's corner man called foul and the referee concurred, giving the decision. By all accounts, he was lucky to win that last fight and he never disagreed.
Speaking on his own career Thompson proudly said "I was engaged in 21 matched fights and never was beaten in one. What is more, I never in my life had a hit on the nose hard enough to make it bleed; and in all my battles I never once got a black eye." After declaring his retirement, he took up an unofficial role as Boxing Coach at Oxford University teaching rich young Gentlemen the noble art of pugilism. As it was an unofficial role, they had to disguise him as a professor to get him into the grounds. A far cry from when he was back at Nottingham Workhouse a few years before.
However, this mixing with the upper echelons didn't appeal to him much either, so it wasn't long before he made his way back to Nottingham. Soon after his return, his mother died, and Thompson saw this as failing to keep his promise to "keep Mam out the Workhouse" so he lost his way and turned to alcohol. Now though, he was a national celebrity and comparatively rich to boot. He became involved with The Nottingham Lambs; a politically motivated group who were rife in Nottingham causing much civil unrest and violence, and on some occasions even rioting through the Market Square, protesting against the conditions in which people were left to live and burning down Nottingham Castle before it was rebuilt. An official bumped into Thompson in the Three Crowns Tavern while on a visit to Nottingham and reported,
Upon turning away from my friend to reach for the tankard that I had ordered, I found him burying a portion of his facial development there-in. When I was informed that it was Thompson, one of the Nottingham Lambs, I did not question the matter but did exclaim: 'Great Scott! What must the Nottingham Wolves be like?
After a few years, the fallen champ became a sorry drunken mess, not even a shadow of his former self. Gangs of children would taunt him when they saw him out in the streets. A magistrate summed up Thompson, while sending him for one of his 28 visits to The House of Correction for Drunk and Disorderly, sometimes taking half a dozen constables to restrain him; "Thompson, when sober was one of the nicest men in Nottingham, but when yer drunk, you ain't!" After one of his "holidays" inside, Thompson started to take an interest in the prison chaplain's sermons, especially the story of David and Goliath, declaring, "I do hope the lit'lun licks the big'un."
In 1872, Thompson attended a congregation held by the converted collier Richard Weaver. He was invited up on stage and although illiterate, delivered a powerful sermon. Much to the relief of the local magistrate, he was persuaded to join the Ebenezer Lodge of Good Templars and use his influence preaching. Taking up a boxer's stance he would turn to his trophies and declare, "See them belts? See them cups? I used to fight for those, but now I fight for Christ." During one sermon, it all got a little too much for him, and while the rabble at the back were shouting and heckling, singing songs about his past fights, Thompson was said to have closed his bible, put his hands together, looked up and prayed; "Good Lord, Thou knowest that since I gave up my wicked ways I have devoted my life to Thy service, and have given Thee the whole of my time. But now, seeing what's going on in this room, I'll take with Thy kind permission just five minutes off for me sen" before vaulting the pulpit into the crowd and restoring order the prize fighting way.
His popularity as a fighter soon attracted massive congregations to his sermons and there were hundreds left outside some meetings. At one of these open air congregations at Sneinton Market, Thompson was told that the men already on the stage were "infidels", To which he stripped off his coat and replied "what, them that don't believe in God? I'll clear the stage." Thompson spent the next few years touring the country preaching to crowds of thousands becoming even more of a household name, and eventually getting noticed by politicians; "that although he couldn't read the bible, his straightforward manly speech could be useful". People said that he was "better off going after the devil as he had no man left to fight".
Thompson died on 23 August 1880 aged 69, after falling down the stairs of his home in Beeston. The fall fractured ribs and punctured his lung but he hung on for seven more weeks before he finally died. His funeral procession was a mile long and thousands lined the streets, including many nationally famous people of the period. Even The Times newspaper published his obituary, which was normally reserved for very illustrious people. He was buried in his mother's grave, marked by a stone in the former burial grounds at Bath Street Rest Gardens (just near Victoria Leisure Centre). It is the only memorial not to have been moved during redevelopment and bears the inscription;
"In life always brave, Fighting like a Lion; In Death like a Lamb, Tranquil in Zion".
The city of Bendigo, Victoria in Australia is indirectly named after Thompson. An early Australian farmer/gold miner was also a bare-knuckle boxer with a style reminiscent of Bendigo, and hence was given the same nickname, which was then applied to the area as Bendigo's Creek. The town that grew up around the area in the 19th century was officially known as Sandhurst, but the name Bendigo was restored in 1891, and still remains today
In Bestwood, a suburban part of Nottingham, there is a small copse known locally as "Bendigo's Ring". Legend has it that his spirit haunts the place, trying to exact revenge on the children that taunted him when he was often found there drunk.