YOU may have seen them in the hit TV show Peaky Blinders, and if you’re of a literary bent you may have read about them in Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock, which spawned two film adaptations. Clothed in cloth caps and wielding razors, they cut frightening figures. I’m talking, of course, about the racecourse gangs that plagued pre-war Britain.
With race attendances soaring the gangs made their money by offering “protection” (a euphemism for demanding money with menaces) to racetrack bookmakers, and fought with other gangs for control of the turf. Pickpockets ran rife at racecourses, and robberies and assaults on bookmakers and punters were common. Thankfully, this type of organised crime never really infiltrated British boxing, but there were times when these unsavoury characters made their presence felt at fight shows.
It was the weekend of the 1909 August Bank Holiday (then held throughout Britain on the first Monday in August) and a special event was staged on the Saturday at the Memorial Grounds in London’s Canning Town, the former home of West Ham United. It was Britain’s first big outdoor boxing show since the introduction of Queensberry Rules, its setting reminiscent of the earlier bareknuckle era when illicit prize fights occurred in the open air.
The protagonists were British lightweight champion Johnny Summers – a Yorkshire-born Canning Town man – and Jimmy Britt of San Francisco. This was a rubber match, Britt having won a disputed 10-round decision at London’s Wonderland, which Summers had avenged with a 20-round points win at the National Sporting Club. Instead of being held in the afternoon, the fight was timed for 6:30 PM to allow people who’d attended the hugely popular Alexandra Park races earlier that day to be there. This was a mistake.
A 5,000-strong crowd sat or stood in the late-July heat, all but a clutch of them kept away from the ring by a tall stockade. The fight was a thriller, Summers battling to victory in most of the rounds before cementing his superiority with a ninth-round KO. No sooner had Britt been counted out than a large mob of organised thugs advanced swiftly from the outskirts of the gathering, swarming through the crowd like a team of crack commandos. They snatched wallets with lightning speed and ripped watch chains from the waistcoats of startled fight-goers. Those who resisted were silenced by a cosh, but most were too scared or stunned to react.
They tore down the stockade and stormed into the ringside area where boxing writer James Butler was seated. He recalled: “A party of rich American sportsmen who had come to support Britt provided a rich haul, and three former champions and several famous jockeys [were] stripped of several hundred pounds worth of notes, watches and diamonds.”
One immaculately dressed spectator who was left unscathed was the legendary Freddie Welsh, who was there to challenge the winner of the match, which he duly did, beating Summers four months later. Perhaps the villains, though armed with coshes, feared tackling the redoubtable Pontypridd battler, or perhaps because of their unwritten code Freddie was “off limits”.
Alf Mitchell, an ex-bareknuckle fighter from Cardiff, rescued elderly sportswriter Tom Dunning of The Sportsman, who was being set upon by thugs. Alf flattened the assailants and led Dunning to safety. Tom wrote of the rescue in his newspaper report, stating “it was a troubling time for many”, but otherwise he and his fellow reporters largely glossed over the episode. It did not reflect well on boxing or bode well for future outdoor shows. The jury was still out on whether open-air boxing was a good thing.
The scene, however, was recalled vividly by Butler and also by Summers in his serialised life story. Summers notes that the pick-pocketing began before the fight had started and that members of his entourage were robbed. A Gaumont film of the fight shown in cinemas received rave reviews. Theatrical trade paper The Era observed: “Next to the contest, the most interesting scene in the picture is the crowd, which at the finish broke loose in excitement”. This of course only tells half the story.
The Summers-Britt fiasco wasn’t Butler’s only brush with gangsters. In July 1921, world bantamweight titlist Pete Herman was weighing in for his bout with Scotland’s Jim Higgins at the National Sporting Club. The fight would take place at the club’s newly leased Holland Park Arena, but the weigh-in was held at its Covent Garden HQ, a former theatre.
“Members of one of England’s most notorious race-gangs crashed in through the stage door,” recalled Butler. “As Higgins climbed on the scales there was the usual hush as spectators listened for the announcement of the weights. Suddenly a blood-curdling scream pierced the theatre. The leader of the gang had slashed the face of a thug belonging to a rival gang.” It seems likely from this description that the gang concerned was the notorious Sabini mob from Clerkenwell, incidentally the inspiration for Greene’s Colleoni gang in Brighton Rock.
Four years after that weigh-in, Brighton itself was the setting for another racetrack-driven debacle. It was August 5, 1925, and Johnny Curley of Lambeth, the reigning British featherweight champion, was facing former two-weight British titlist Joe Fox of Leeds, over 20 rounds at the Brighton Dome.
A week earlier, three men from Birmingham had attacked a man called Isaiah Elboz, of Brixton Road, Lambeth, slashing his face and arms with a razor at the Embassy nightclub on Brighton’s Middle Street, and two club stewards who tried to intervene were also cut. Afterwards, police arrested the perpetrators in their hotel beds.
The three injured men appeared in court swathed in bandages. Despite requiring 12 stitches to his face, Elboz refused to cooperate with the court and claimed he recalled nothing of the incident. The court was told the three accused were members of a race-gang known as “the Birmingham Boys”. One of them had been acquitted four years earlier of killing an East End Jewish bookmaker at Sandown Park Racecourse.
Rumour had it members of the rival gangs involved in the nightclub mêlée would be at the Curley-Fox fight. The rumours were true. “Raucous-voiced racing men sat alongside ladies, beautifully attired, and stood up before the big fight and shouted odds as if they were in Tattersall’s ring,” observed a reporter. According to Boxing News, a group of Curley backers crowded round Fox’s corner and yelled disparaging remarks at him throughout the contest, while Fox supporters did the same to Curley.
The fight was a poor, scrappy affair, and BN felt the hostile atmosphere may have unsettled the boxers. Fox, who was nearing the end of a 16-year pro career, “looked the ghost of his old self”, but Curley was even more disappointing. BN thought Fox deserved the decision, but our writer observed that any referee bold enough to have chosen a winner would have made himself a target for the loser’s race-gang backers.
Wisely, referee Sam Russell declared it a draw, but this did not placate the crowd. Free fights followed, a table was hurled into the ring, chairs were thrown and smashed and the next two boxers, Sid Cannons and Charlie Wye, who were waiting to start their fight, had to flee the ring as the rest of the show was abandoned.
Boxing News editor John Murray wrote in his weekly column: “We hope that should a second meeting between Fox and Curley take place, the gentlemen who made themselves so obnoxious at Brighton will rest content with the newspaper reports of this return contest, or that they will restrict the settlement of any differences with rival gangs to some racecourse. They are not wanted among the attendance at a boxing contest.”
But that wasn’t the last such episode Boxing News would report on. In April 1935, BN columnist Ted Scales was left gobsmacked by a similar scene in Islington’s Penton Street Drill Hall. When George Odwell of Camden Town KO’d local favourite Con Flynn of Islington in the main event, skirmishes erupted throughout the crowd. “The light, unbattened chairs proved useful missiles,” Scales wrote under the heading “Rival Gangs in Drill Hall Warfare”. “Row after row of the chairs were toppled over, bottles and glasses were smashed, and there was hand-to-hand fighting in all parts of the hall.”
Scales had been tipped off about probable gang trouble a day before the event, and wrote: “I never saw the promised razors.” But he did witness a helpless man being brutally battered by a group of assailants, one of whom beat him about the face with one of the ring stools, as well as “two women smashing away at each other in fury” alongside the other brawls. He wrote: “It had been a disgusting scene. I imagine that really it was local betting that led to the trouble, as I understand that during the course of last week tremendous sums of money were laid on the fight.”
It’s unsurprising, given their connections to gambling and sport, that pre-war gangs gravitated to boxing. Indeed, they came from the same deprived communities as the fighters and fight-goers, and some ex-boxers belonged to the gangs or worked for them as enforcers. After the war, the race gangs disappeared, only to be replaced by other villains with boxing ties – most notably former pro boxers Ronnie, Reggie and Charlie Kray.