By Ken Zurski
On July 21, 1835 Benjamin Caunt and William Thompson, two of England’s best known boxers and biggest rivals, faced off in a test of strength, will and endurance, typical of a boxing match at the time.
Thompson, considerably lighter and shorter than the 6-foot, 2-inch, 250-pound Caunt, was known as much for his relentless taunting as he was for his fighting. During the bout, Thompson would chant clever but insulting sing-song rhymes directed at his opponent’s wife or mother. Usually the submissive jeers worked to Thompson’s advantage, but Caunt was different – or was he?
For twenty-two rounds, Caunt endured Thompson’s verbal assaults until he finally had enough. During a short break, Caunt walked over to the opposing corner and blindsided Thompson in the head while he sat, ending the fight on a foul and sending the unsuspecting winner slumping to the ground in a heap.
A rematch would take place three years later.
In that contest, Caunt had the advantage early on, but in the 13th round lost his cool again. He began to strangle his opponent with both hands until Thompson nearly passed out. Thompson’s corner crew stormed the ring to help the struggling boxer and subdue Caunt. In defense, Caunt pulled a rope spike out of the ground and began waving it in front of him. Caunt eventually backed off and Thompson was revived with a few sips of brandy. The bout continued until the 75th round when Thompson finally hit the ground from exhaustion. Caunt was declared the winner and returned to his hometown of Nottingham City where he was treated to a hero’s welcome and crowned the new heavyweight champion of England.
The two rivals third and final match in 1845 was mostly Thompson’s to lose. Caunt was hit so hard and bleeding so profusely near the eye that in the 93rd round he retired to his corner to sit. The referee, however, never called for the break and Caunt was ordered to continue. He didn’t. Thompson won by a deliberate foul. Following the embarrassing defeat, Caunt went into a semi-retirement, but his legacy did not.
Despite his even record of wins and loses, Caunt was a giant of a figure in England. Not only due to his a physical attributes, tall and solidly built, but his affectionately playful manner and “booming” laugh too. “A huge, slow-witted, beef-raised pugilist of tremendous powers,” a newspaper recounted in 1910, “who gained prominence through sheer muscle and pluck.” Caunt earned the nicknames “Tokard Giant” referring to his English birthplace, “the bare-knuckled boxer” (there were no gloves used), and the moniker that seemed to stick more than others: “Big Ben.”
“Big Ben” was lured back into the ring one more time in 1857 at the age of 42 to settle a dispute involving the two combatants wives. After 60 rounds both men were too exhausted to continue and declared it a draw.
Four years later, Caunt died from pneumonia.
But his story doesn’t end there. In fact, it goes back 20 years to 1834, when a fire ripped through Westminster Palace. Ten years later, the rebuilding committee decided to add a massive clock tower to the new design, including a tolling bell. In May of 1859, after several construction delays and a few broken casts, the bell rang out for the first time.
Shortly after its unveiling, a Parliamentary committee was formed to come up with a name for the bell, similar to York Minister’s “Great Peter” named for the saint, of course, and the church which bears it’s name.
One man on the committee towered above the rest, not only in size but in stature as well. His name was Sir Benjamin Hall. He was the Chief Lord of Woods and Forrests and he stood a whopping 6-foot-4 inches tall.
Hall would typically send the room into a frenzy with his confrontational debates and fiery speeches. During one raucous session dominated by Hall, an exasperated colleague stood up and said: “Why not call him ‘Big Ben’ and be done with it.” No one knows for sure if the acknowledgement was in reference to Hall’s larger-than-life demeanor or the bell. The nickname stuck and Hall apparently sold the idea that the bell was named after him. He died in 1867. The story, however, comes with a mix of skepticism and doubt. Not a word of it was documented. It’s hearsay and most of it was Hall’s doing, not much more.
The more plausible explanation, and the one supported today, is that the bell in London’s iconic Elizabethan Tower is named after the boxer, Benjamin Caunt. That’s because Caunt, like his size, was associated with heavy things, often the heaviest or biggest of things, or in this case, the nearly 14-ton bell. It must be a “Big Ben,” like the famous boxer, many surmised.
But being bigger was not always better.
In October 1859, several months after the great bell was installed, it cracked. The striking hammer was to blame. Either it was too strong or the bell was hung too rigidly, no one was quite sure. Whatever the reason, it was ridiculed in the press for being a mammoth failure, at least initially. “There is no more melancholy looking object than a large public clock which wont go.” the London Times sarcastically reported. Criticism of the time and expense it took to put up the bell was replaced by even harsher objections to how much more time and expense it would take to fix it. “An old adage tells us the fate of the best broth with too many cooks to prepare it,” the Times reported, openly blaming poor management and craftsmanship for the bell’s initial failure.
“In the name of common prudence,” the Times continued, “let the contract for the next bell be given to some of our eminent bell founders who have passed their lives and realized fortunes in the manufacture of bells of all kinds.”
Whether Caunt knew the bell was named after him is not known. Perhaps based on its ineffectiveness at first, he wanted nothing to do with it. When “Big Ben” tolled for the first time, Caunt, who was likely in Nottingham City – a distance of 175 kilometers to London – would have never heard it.
By the time the recasted bell rang again, nearly two years later, he was dead.