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Len Johnson – a man who changed a city

Len Johnson
Terry Dooley tells the story of Len Johnson, whose inspirational fight against racism must never be forgotten

A BLACK man walks into a bar in 1953 to buy a few drinks for his white companions — please stop me if you’ve heard this one before — and not only was he asked to leave but the police were called just in case he kicked up a fuss.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is one of those tales people tell about the segregation that was in place in America for far too long, after all the Americans were behind the times whereas here in good old Blighty that type of thing didn’t happen. You would be wrong for thinking that, though, as this story took place in England, right here in Manchester.

The man who walked into the pub was Len Johnson. Born on October 22 1902, Johnson retired from boxing in 1933 with a record of 95-33-7 (36) and with badly damaged eyes. He was unable to contest the British or European titles due to the colour bar that was in place from 1911 until 1948, a legacy of Jack Johnson shaking up the world and also based on concerns that black men beating white men would cause unrest in the colonies.

The bar was lifted when Dick Turpin fought Vince Hawkins for the British and Commonwealth middleweight titles in 1948. Sadly, this was too late for Johnson, who only found title success in the colony of Australia, where he fought for the vacant British Empire Middleweight title in February 1926 – a decision win over Harry Collins. The victory was not recognised by the British boxing authorities due to the colour of his skin.

It was a state-sanctioned bar, too. When talk surfaced in 1922 of a meeting between world light-heavyweight champion Battling Siki and Joe Beckett, the Home Office released a statement that read: ‘The view held by the authorities is that in contests between men of colour and white men the temperaments of the contestants are not compatible. Moreover all sorts of passions are aroused. Such contests… are considered against the higher national interest and arouse passions which it is inadvisable to stimulate.’

Johnson served his country as part of the Civil Defence Heavy Rescue unit during World War II. British, American, and black soldiers of other nationalities served during the war, either at home or abroad, standing up to be counted for countries that claimed to be fighting fascism in the name of freedom yet which continued to discriminate against people back home. This remains one of the biggest, darkest jokes of the black comedy that was the twentieth century.

Johnson made a conscious decision when walking into the Old Abbey Taphouse pub in Hulme on September 30 1953. The furore caused by the refusal to serve a local hero went all the way up to the Lord Mayor, Alderman Moss. As word spread a protest began. A few days later the pub landlord and Len discussed it then sat down for a drink together. He had made a huge stride towards lifting the colour bar in his own city by drawing attention to just how ludicrous it was to deny basic human rights to people based on the colour of their skin.

The punchline? Johnson was teetotal.

“Len and [fellow Communist Party member] Wilf [Charles] had been challenging colour bars in Manchester, and had been trying to stop employers discriminating against black workers,” stated socialist, trade unionist, and historian Geoff Brown when speaking to Boxing News. Brown and Dr Shirin Hirsch of Manchester Metropolitan University have held workshops about Johnson in the pub, now called the Old Abbey. It is the last remnant of the Greenheys estate and still stands in the Manchester Science Park.

“They were very experienced anti-racism campaigners,” added Brown. “They knew exactly what they were going to do, take it to the Town Hall to the Mayor. Then other people, black and white, challenged the landlord — this was a solid piece of campaigning.”

One of four children born to an African former seaman, Bill, who came to England in 1897 and a mother of Irish descent, Johnson and his family faced prejudice on the streets of Manchester. His mother, Margaret Maher, was attacked in the street for being with a black man. Johnson also recalled being called “N***** lips” and “Sambo” in school when writing an autobiographical essay about his life (the essay forms part of the Len Johnson Collection that is held at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford and is curated by Library Manager Lynette Cawthra). This was before Windrush, so some of the black sailors who settled in the North West married and had families with local women at a time when racism was rife and right out there in the open.

An early job as an errand boy in a local druggist was arduous on Johnson, he had to fill tins with rat poison and ignored the advice to wear gloves. Once the phosphorous started to burn his skin he donned the gloves before eventually following his dad into the boxing trade by way of a street fight that didn’t go his way while training as a moulder.

A verbal dispute had spiralled into a physical one. A single punch to Johnson’s eye prompted him to give up. It was the first sign that his eyes would be a lifelong problem. ‘Had I at the time been able to analyse the factors involved in the painful punch, it is probable that I would not have lifted them [his fists] again,’ he wrote.

‘For the truth which I learned much later was that my eyes, being only shallowly sunk, were very vulnerable… Experience and reasoning convinces me that youngsters with poorly protected eyes should be discouraged from following the hazardous calling of professional boxing.’

His brother, George, fared better on the streets, often beating up bullies and authority figures. He died aged 33 from tuberculosis. ‘He was the real champion in our family,’ was Johnson’s tribute to him. All three Johnson boys, his other sibling was a sister, were taken to the Alhambra boxing club, which was run by former fighter Jack Smith. Despite the fact he had lost his first and only street fight, Johnson was fascinated by the sight of two men going at it. He wrote: ‘They didn’t cover their faces when an opponent hit them in the eye, they snorted and went in to retaliate.’

Smith did not see much promise in him after Johnson lost his first two fights to a fellow novice called Young Marshall, so Johnson moved on to the Bert Hughes-owned boxing booths and learned his trade over hundreds of rounds.

By 19, he had moved to 15-rounders and in 1925 he had what in other circumstances would have been a breakout year when beating current British and former European middleweight champion Roland Todd in a pair of non-title fights as well as knocking out Billy Pritchard to win the Northern Area middleweight title, the only belt he could contest in his own country. He also beat Ted Kid Lewis that year.

He earned a decision over future three-weight British and Commonwealth titlist Len Harvey in 1927. He later said that his loss to Marcel Thil in eight in France in 1932 should have been his last fight yet he fought six more times — three wins, three defeats.

Unfortunately, a May 1932 rematch against Harvey that was billed as being for the “unofficial British middleweight title” went against him. Johnson lost on points, the timing was never quite right for him. If he had won the BBB o C would have refused to acknowledge his title claim anyway.

By September of 1932, Johnson’s left eye was “[c]ausing me a little anxiety” and rheumatism meant that he could not straighten either of his arms. Bad cuts and the stitches needed to seal them had caused lasting muscular damage. Johnson stated that sometimes his vision would wax and wane for up to four or five rounds at a time. “Now I can’t see blows coming until it is too late… I have a cataract… It simply spells finish,” he stated when speaking to a local reporter.

A month later and Johnson was indeed finished with boxing. He said that he was proud to walk away as he was avoided by contenders because he was too good and couldn’t fight for titles because he was black.

Despite his professional pain, some personal happiness came his way when he married Annie Forshaw in 1926 only for that union to be tainted by tragedy when one of their two children became ill then died while they were in the US trying to launch his career over there. Johnson later revealed that they did not make it home in time for the child’s burial (Topical Times, February 4, 1933). 

Johnson’s marriage to Annie hit the skids and they divorced, but there were bright personal moments after he met Maria Reid, a Nursing Sister, and became the adopted father of her three children. The family doubled in size when Maria’s sister died and the couple adopted her three kids.

Johnson’s passion for politics defined the rest of his life; he could not be a champion in the ring so championed worthy causes outside of it. The former fighter met and became friends with Paul Robeson during one of the self-proclaimed “fed up” periods of his boxing career and would later campaign tirelessly as the UK arm of the ‘Let Paul Robeson Sing Again’ movement.

His political life led him to the Communist Party in 1945. Wilf Charles recruited him and the two went on to form the New International Society in 1946 alongside International Brigade veteran Syd Booth. Their decision was made due to the rise of the far-right on the streets of Manchester. “The society’s aims are simple: true internationalism, colonial liberation, peace and the ending of race discrimination,” said Johnson.

It was probably one of the best years of Johnson’s life as he was a big part of the Fifth Pan-African Conference that took place in Manchester’s Medlock Hall between 15-21 October 1945. Johnson also unsuccessfully stood for Moss Side East as a candidate for his party in 1949, 1955 and 1961, he remained a Communist Party member until he died.

By the age of 70 he had finally managed to retire from his job as a foreman, one of many he took up after boxing. Not to a life of riches and rest, but, instead, to one of poverty. He had once said that “if I had been a champion things would have been different”. In his obituary for the Manchester Evening News he was quoted as saying: “[I was] never a fighter, always a boxer, and all for a fiver and second-class travelling expenses.”

Johnson never lost hope nor did he drop his beliefs in the face of adversity. He had faith, and sometimes faith can be rewarded in either a small or grand gesture. Johnson was instrumental in forming the first Ex-Boxers’ Association here in Manchester in 1952, it would eventually become the Ex-Boxers’ Association of Great Britain. By the time he was 70 he was in dire need of the help of the organisation he had helped create.

Vincent Ford, a former boxer and member of the Association paid Johnson a visit and was appalled to see that he had fallen on hard times. “On leaving Len that night I went to the club in Manchester our Ex-Boxers’ Association used and they were all grieved to know of Len’s ill-health and poor financial situation,” he recalled when contributing to the Michael Herbert book Never Counted Out!: The Story of Len Johnson, Manchester’s Black Boxing Hero and Communist.

“The club members were a tough crowd from the nearby Smithfield Market. The next morning a van rolled up at Len’s, and, without any fuss, unloaded fruit of all kinds, flowers, spuds and vegetables, also a TV…Len was very well thought of.”

His former colleagues raised £70 for Johnson. He was presented with the money at the club: “Len actually cried … and that was the last time I saw him,” added Ford. Johnson died in a hospital in Oldham on September 21 1974, he was 71. He had very little money despite being highly-regarded in a sport that had allowed his career to be stymied by prejudice.

Decades after his death one of the children he had adopted, Brenda, summed up what type of a man he was when talking to Herbert about what Johnson and her aunt had done for them: ‘‘It took a black man to take three children that our own father didn’t want to know and he was a white man. He could have turned round and said no, let the Welfare have them. But he didn’t. That meant he had three more mouths to feed… He was one hell of a guy. I can’t put my feelings into words.”

Our opening line should now reflect Len’s life: an ex-boxer walked confidently into a pub and this action led to a protest that drew in 200 people and helped change a city. His ringwalks had shown him to be brave, especially when his eyes went, yet stepping into that pub also proved he was principled, and he acted on his principles in an authentic way. His name rings out in political circles. Hopefully it starts ringing out again in boxing ones, along with the names of all the other forgotten black fighters who fought under the yoke of their country’s shameful colour bar.

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  • Really interesting article which I will share with my dad (K R Robinson author of Lanky Bob), but ruined by the use of ‘yolk’ instead of ‘yoke’ in the last paragraph, editor??

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