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Yesterday’s Heroes: Meet the Littlewoods

Miles Templeton tells the story of Harold and Allan Littlewood, two boxing brothers who died tragically within six months of one another

THERE was once a large coal mine at Lofthouse, a small village two miles to the north of Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Six days a week, William Littlewood and his sons would trudge up Canal Lane from their home a short distance away to put in a hard graft at the coal face. Two of these lads, Harold and Allan, had to lead the pit ponies as they hauled tubs of coal along the pit floor, hundreds of feet underground. Harold and Allan were also professional boxers with a big reputation among their fellow workers.

Harold was the oldest, born in 1892, and he commenced professional boxing in 1911 and he soon showed that he was a hard hitter, winning three bouts out of four in 1912 with one-round knockouts. By 1913 he was a top-of-the-bill performer, and he fought the first of a series of 20-rounders at Leicester, where he knocked out local fighter George Hill at the Boulevard Rink, Leicester, in two rounds. He followed this up with another knockout against Albert Taylor at Wakefield. He was now ready for his biggest challenge, a match against Joe Fox of Leeds, a future British bantamweight and featherweight champion. Unfortunately, Fox was too good for him, winning quite easily over the full course. I have tracked down six more contests for Littlewood after this, and he didn’t lose any of them.  

He had his last bout in August 1914 and within the month he had joined up to serve in the Great War. As a soldier Harold proved himself as capable as he was in the ring, and he earned rapid promotion to sergeant with his regiment, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. On July 1, 1916, he became one of the 20,000 young men cut down on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This was the worst day in history for the British army and the same battle also saw the loss of Tom McCormick, the ex-British and Empire welterweight champion.

Allan must have felt his brother’s loss deeply. As a coal miner he was not expected to enlist to fight for he was in a reserved occupation, his duties being vital enough for the war effort, and this must have come as some relief for his parents. Allan was three years younger than Harold and he also turned professional in 1911. With a level of confidence so typical of the brothers, Allan entered a competition held at Sheffield to decide who was the best bantamweight in Yorkshire.  He had the misfortune to come against Louis Ruddick of Leeds early in the competition and, with his opponent being a seasoned campaigner and far more experienced than the young miner, he lost the bout quite convincingly.  

For the next few years Allan continued to ply his trade in rings around Wakefield, Keighley, Leeds and Featherstone and by 1916 he was starting to make some headway. He won an important contest in June that year, just eighteen days before his brother’s death, when he stopped George Jephson in the fifth round of a twenty-rounder at Wakefield. Harold’s death affected him deeply and it took him another six months before he re-entered the ring.

He was matched against Frank White of Hemsworth, in a 20-rounder at the Opera House, Wakefield.  As Hemsworth was just a short distance from Lofthouse, this was a local derby and the whole area was talking about the contest. Littlewood was the favourite, despite being outreached.  After an even first round Allan was decked twice in the second with stiff right-handers.  Only the bell saved him being knocked out. In the third he was taken out immediately with another right-hander and his head crashed against the boards as he fell.   He never regained consciousness, dying the next day, aged just 22.   

Two brothers lost under different tragic circumstances and only six months apart. Times were so hard back then.

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