The Genial Giant of Hucknall Torkard
Everything about Ben Caunt was big. 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings, big bodied and barrel chested, 18 stones in weight, big voiced with a booming laugh which carried a long way and a larger than life character combined with honesty integrity and intelligence with an unusual agility for so big a man. He was marked for something special. Kings and princes knew of him and the nobles of the land backed him in the toughest of tough careers a man could pursue, pugilism. Unknowingly to this day the people of the United Kingdom and the world can hear the echoes of his career booming out hourly in London.
In 1814 in a cottage near Newstead railway station the future heavy-weight champion of barefist fighting Ben Caunt was born to Robert and Martha Caunt nee Butler. Baptised on the 15 May 1814 in Hucknall Torkard he grew into a strapping lad and spent his youth there eventually becoming a blacksmith, an occupation which helped prepare him for the toughest and most popular sport of the period, the art of bare knuckle fighting. Not until the Marquis of Queensbury Rules introduced in 1867 were there standard laws regulating the conduct of pugilism, but the so called London Rules were generally agreed to prior to fights taking place and though later interpretation could lead to argument the actual fight was never no holds barred. Deliberate eye gouging for instance would not be acceptable conduct.
Very few of Ben's fights seem to have been recorded so only the ones known and remembered and recounted to someone who wrote down the circumstances are related here.
Ben came to notice as a pugilist in his first important fight about 1835 when he defeated a member of his own family, Richard Butler at Wighay Field Hucknall. Then around 1836 and relatively inexperienced he fought the English champion Bendigo William Thompson of Nottingham but lost over 22 rounds. When after losing patience with Bendigo's tactics of constantly going down on one knee for a rest he struck Bendigo as he rested on the knee of his second. The referee then disqualified Ben for a foul blow. Not until 1838 was he given another chance for the title and this time made no mistake defeating Bendigo over 76 rounds of bitter combat. Bendigo complained that he had tripped accidently when he was disqualified for going down without being hit. But the victory was clear cut and the" trip" was over Ben's fists and a cross hip throw finished the fight. A perfectly legal tactic at the time. During the next seven years he lost the championship to Nick Ward but regained it in a re-match.
Pugilism was also popular in America and Ben went on a financially successful exhibition tour of that country. He returned with an American fighter the gigantic Charles Freeman who went on to grab the championship in 1850 but he died shortly afterwards of Tuberculosis.
Another great pugilist John Leecham, known as Brassey, challenged Ben Caunt for the title in 1840 at Six Mile Bottom Haymarket during a race meeting. Succeeding in his defence of the championship Ben acknowledged this to be his toughest fight. After defeating Bendigo a second time he was met at the Nottingham City/Hucknall border by the Old Hucknall Brass Band. Heading the parade dressed in a yellow muffler and plum coloured waistcoat with the championship belt around his waist Ben marched into Hucknall to a tremendous reception by the townsfolk. Calling into the Old Coach and Six Inn with the children of the town gathered outside to see him, Ben, a bit of a practical joker, heated some farthings on a shovel then hurled them through the window, laughing uproariously as the children tried to pick them up. By employing this method of giving them some money he not only had some fun but helped the smaller children obtain a greater share of spoils than would have been the case if in the general melee the older and bigger children could retain first grab of the coins.
In 1845 Big Ben and Bendigo again fought for the title and this time Bendigo prevailed over 96 rounds with a controversial verdict given by the referee. The tactics employed by Bendigo were brought into question as he constantly went to ground for a rest during the fight and there were many who declared he should have been disqualified. However the rules, or lack of them, did not forbid such tactics and the verdict stood. Ironically, this time, it was Big Ben who was disqualified for going down for a rest before a blow was struck.
Ben retired aged 45 years in 1857 to become a publican and fight promoter at the Coach and Horses Inn at St. Martins Lane London. He had one more fight, to settle a dispute between his wife and the wife of his one time protege, another Nottinghamshire man, Nat Langham, the current heavy-weight champion of England and the result was a draw. Once again despite being well past his best years Ben had shown himself a worthy adversary.
Early in 1851 a great tragedy came into the life of Big Ben when his son Cornelius Butler Caunt and a daughter Martha were killed in a fire at the Coach and Horses. The full circumstances of this have yet to be discovered. Another son Benjamin Butler Caunt married Frances Bryan at St Martins in the Fields London on 20 October 1861. One can wonder where the direct descendants are of these two at the present time.
Ten years later during the third quarter of 1861 Big Ben Caunt died aged 47 years in London and a death mask was taken of his features which show no sign of damage from his years as a prizefighter. His body was taken back to Hucknall, the place of his birth, where his funeral attracted a huge throng of people and the visitors to his grave were reported as far outnumbering those who visited the tomb of the poet Lord Byron who is also buried there.
A big man, one of the a great personalities of the times was gone, his booming voice silenced . No more to toll the end of the time for quaffing of the ale with the call "Time Gentlemen Please" as the great bell of Westminster rang the hour. From this last characteristic, support of the sporting gentry and the reminiscence of his voice coming out of his deep barrel chest, the hour bell in Westminster takes its name of Big Ben. A former Member of Parliament Mr George Caunt discovered how the bell came to be named from old Westminster documents and related the information to another M.P. Mr William Whitlock who in turn passed it on to the editor of the Hucknall Dispatch in about 1957. One can well imagine the drinkers feeling the dramatic tolling of that great bell perfectly matched the end of quaffing of the ale for the day. For it brooked no argument and neither did the presence of Big Ben Caunt.
Though there has been resistance to the idea of the great bell of Westminster being named for a prizefighter it is now accepted that the official reason for the name, that the bell was named after an obscure Commissioner of Works, is wrong and the evidence clearly shows the common people bestowed the name Big Ben on the hour bell in honour of Ben Caunt.
Jeremiah Caunt, of Skegby by Mansfield Notts, a nephew of Ben was a police constable in the Sheffield Police and heavy weight champion of the Midlands Police Force. His son Jesse Caunt 1863-1944 also of Skegby, fighting with barefists when the Marquis of Queensbury rules took effect, scorned the use of padded gloves, met all comers and retired undefeated, Though appears not to have received an opportunity to fight for the championship. Jesse, the father of seven sons, lived at Stanton Hill. Just up the road from Skegby. Three of his sons served in the Great War but only Arthur a Grenadier Guardsman survived and though he seems to have been a useful boxer with the gloves he did not pursue boxing as a career but spent his working life as a miner at Annesley colliery Notts. There was verbal tale of Arthur "Taming the Terror" which now appears to be lost with the passing of the generations.
Hucknall seems to have forgotten its first and last champion as Ben's iron railing enclosed grave has been in a dilapidated and neglected state for many years. Perhaps one day the Hucknall Town Council may re-discover its forgotten national figure and return the grave to its former condition. With promotion it could assist in encouraging visitors and tourists to the town.
Bendigo William Thompson 1811 -1880 of Trinity Walk Nottingham became a Methodist preacher after his retirement from pugilism in 1850. In those days one of the favourite pastimes of the rowdy elements of society was to bait the preachers as they preached the gospels on the streets of Nottingham. Bendigo gave them short shrift by picking out the biggest and the seeming toughest of the ruffians and with the power of his fists taught the miscreant the error of his ways and the gospels at the same time. Needless to say other trouble makers fell into line quickly and soon learnt not to trifle with Bendigo. After his death in 1880 his praises were sung in concert halls throughout the land in a monologue entitled The Pride of Nottingham which someone had written about his life and it was the top of the pops in its day. Where is the monologue now? Who knows! Hopefully not lost for ever.
I close this article with the thought that at a time when pugilism, not soccer, was the great national sport of Britain, Nottinghamshire provided three national champions in Bendigo William Thompson, Big Ben Caunt and Nat Langham.
Article kindly contributed by Doug Caunt, once of Skegby.