MUCH has been written about Freddie Mills, such a hero in the years following the Second World War. I have contributed myself to a documentary about him, regularly featured on BBC Four, in which I described him as a man who typified Britain’s bulldog spirit at this time. A lot of nonsense has also been written about the man, and I have no time whatsoever for the ludicrous theory that he was somehow involved in the “Jack the Stripper” murders – he wasn’t.
He is particularly well-remembered today for the tragic manner of his death. He certainly struggled in his later years after his business ventures started to go awry. When he retired from the ring in 1950, he initially did very well and he soon became what is known today as a ‘celebrity’, regularly appearing on TV in all manner of programmes, from quiz games to music features. He also forged a minor acting career. What is less known about him is his brief stint as a top-line boxing promoter, a sideline that he enjoyed and in which he managed to become quite successful.
In 1951, Freddie managed quite a few useful fighters, including some good lads from Bristol. He took out a promoters licence in January 1951 and aimed to stage regular shows at the Bristol City football ground, Ashton Gate, where he planned to feature his two young stars, Gordon Hazell and Terry Ratcliffe. His first show took place on May 28, 1951 and both Hazell and Ratcliffe emerged victorious against challenging foreign opposition. Eight-thousand came through the turnstiles that night and Freddie was off to a fine start. He promoted at this venue on three further occasions, each a great success.
In August 1952, a terrible tragedy befell the North Devon coastal town of Lynmouth, when a fierce storm caused severe flooding and 34 people lost their lives. The local boxing community was quick to rally round and Freddie was at the forefront. Within the month he had organised a charity show at nearby Barnstaple to help the distress fund, and in attendance were some of the most prominent local civic dignitaries and also the ex-world flyweight champion, Islington’s Terry Allen, who boxed an exhibition, free of charge.
Freddie was used to bigger stages, however, for he had graced them all as a boxer, and he hired the Empress Hall, Earls Court, where boxing had been staged for many years, in March 1952. He took over the place from David Braitman and Ronnie Ezra, who had promoted there for some years previously. His first show featured local hero, Joe Lucy, Yolande Pompey and Freddie King of Wandsworth, another fighter in whom Mills had an interest.
In his programme notes, Mills stated, with typical jocularity, that “I shall endeavour to bring you the best possible available talent at popular prices, and all dissatisfied customers can meet me in the ring afterwards.” He need not have worried about customers not being happy, for Freddie staged many shows there over the course of the next four years and most of his top-line contests were pearlers. His first British title bout took place in 1953 when one of his favourites, Joe Lucy, picked up the vacant lightweight belt from another Londoner, Tommy McGovern.
Freddie was, without doubt, Britain’s most popular boxer when he was active and no one else achieved his level of acclaim until Henry Cooper came along in the 1960s. It is therefore gratifying to note that a young Cooper boxed for Mills on an Earls Court show in 1955, stopping Joe Crickmar of Stepney to win his eighth professional contest.
Our photograph this week shows Frank Williams of Birkenhead shaking hands with opponent Gaetano Annaloro of Tunisia, at the weigh-in before their 10-rounder on Freddie’s second promotion at Earls Court in April 1952.
When Freddie stopped promoting, in 1956, he moved on to other business and media ventures and, as we know, was dead within nine years, at the young age of 46.