WHITECHAPEL, east London, 1931. A large throng of working-class men – their heads mostly covered by cloth caps – listens intently to a smartly dressed man with battered features. His Cockney voice booms through the crowd and is clearly audible in the British Movietone newsreel clip I am studying via YouTube 89 years on. “Today, my friends, I want to tell you why I have joined the New Party,” he says before extolling the merits of the party’s leader, the notorious fascist and anti-Semite Sir Oswald Mosley. The puzzling thing about this clip is that the speaker is none other than East End boxing legend Ted Kid Lewis, a Jewish former world champion who was an idol to Jewish people everywhere.
Fans of the hit BBC TV series Peaky Blinders will be familiar with Mosley – or at least with the overblown caricature of him seen in series five of the show – when Peaky Blinders kingpin Thomas Shelby is cajoled into joining forces with Mosley with predictably dire consequences. This is not unlike the situation Lewis found himself in back in the early 1930s.
Lewis had fought his last contest in December 1929, and it was around this time that he met Sir Oswald and Lady Mosley at a cocktail party. According to Lewis’ son and biographer, Morton Lewis, the ring legend was bewitched by the personal magnetism of Sir Oswald, a former Tory and Labour MP who was starting his own political movement. A brilliant and sublimely confident orator, some were tipping Mosley as a future Prime Minister. Ted knew little about politics but felt flattered when this distinguished man asked about his fighting career and his childhood in the Whitechapel slums. Mosley seemed to sympathise with the plight of East Enders and claimed one of his aims was to combat poverty in the area.