Len Harvey vs Len Johnson II EXTREMELY RARE piece of British boxing history and political "colour bar" ignorance (unofficial) middleweight championship official on-site poster, 11th May 1932, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington, London. Mounted within vintage frame measuring 29 1/2" x 18 1/4".
Billed as British Middleweight Championship bout, but not recognised by the British Boxing Board of Control due to the colour bar.
Harvey W Pts over 15 rounds
Condition good (heavy creasing and sellotape residue and the frame shows sign of age)
The Un-crownable Champion
It’s hard to believe, but just over 80 years, a Mancunian boxer's achievements were overlooked because of the simple fact he was black. Below, author Rob Howard tells the story of Len Johnson and his career-long fight with the 'colour bar'.
Len Johnson, born in Manchester on 22 October 1902, learned the noble art on boxing booths, and eventually became the owner of his own booth – travelling around England with fairgrounds.
Len was a highly skilled boxer, with an educated left hand and a slippery defence that made him difficult to hit and left his features largely unmarked throughout his career.
Johnson embarked on a conventional boxing career in 1921 that saw him win more often than he lost, but seemed to be headed nowhere in particular. In 1925, however, he had his first real break when matched in a non-title bout with Roland Todd, the reigning British Middleweight Champion.
Johnson seized his opportunity by defeating Todd on points, repeating the feat in a rematch. These wins should have automatically earned him the right to a title contest, but the boxing authorities forbade such a match, due to Johnson’s colour.
At the time, boxing regulations included the infamous Rule 24, which stated that title contestants "…must have two white parents".
The rule didn’t stop Johnson’s domination of the British and European middleweight division. Despite not being allowed a shot at the title, he defeated many big names of the day, with the likes of Ted 'Kid' Lewis, Len Harvey, Gypsy Daniels, George West, Ted Moore, Jack Etienne, Harry Crossley, Leon Jaccovacci and Michele Bonaglia all failing in their attempts to beat him.
Australian Hero, British Outcast
Fed up with the attitude of boxing officialdom in Britain, Johnson spent six months in Australia, where he won the British Empire middleweight championship by defeating local hero Harry Collins. Johnson was popular and successful Down Under, but he found a different attitude when he returned home to get married.
On arrival in England, Johnson discovered that his Empire title – won fair and square – was not recognised by the boxing authorities, who had installed Scotland’s Tommy Milligan as Empire Champion. It was an open snub to the man now regarded by boxing fans everywhere as Britain’s best middleweight.
Sadly, there was little Len could do to object. The 'colour bar' rule which had permanently blighted his ring career (and would go on doing so) was unwavering, and although he relentlessly campaigned for a change, his was a voice in the wilderness. This was before the age of protests, and most promoters kept silent on this issue as they didn’t want to risk retribution from the boxing authorities.
It wasn't just the boxing authorities either. The 'colour bar' rule had the tacit support from politicians and had its origins in an irrational fear felt by the Victorian ruling classes of an insurrection amongst the black colonial inhabitants across the British Empire. It was believed that black boxers seen to be defeating white boxers could incite rebellion.
The 'colour bar' ended in 1947 when the new, reforming Labour government, recognising that the Empire was changing to the Commonwealth, leaned on the British Boxing Board of Control to effect a change.
Fighting For Rights
The change was just too late for Len. By 1945, his involvement with boxing was over (he had given up the ring in 1933, but continued to tour with his own boxing booth until 1939) and Johnson became a member of the Communist Party, a trade unionist, and a local civil rights activist.
Johnson spent many years championing the causes of the under privileged – six times, he ran unsuccessfully for a position on Manchester City Council - and was recognised as a community leader in Moss Side, where he frequently intervened in cases involving racial discrimination. Indeed, such was his standing that he was one of the local representatives at the influential Pan-African Congress in 1945.
Even his private life had a campaigning bent - amongst his friends was the American actor/ singer/ civil rights activist Paul Robeson.
Johnson died on 28 September 1974, a month shy of his 72nd birthday. He is remembered as a courageous campaigner and an intelligent, considerate man.
For all that though, what he might have liked most is the posthumous recognition of that hard-fought and fairly won Empire title, rightfully giving him his place in the record books and in history as a champion boxer.
Born July 11, 1907 in Stoke Climssland, Cornwall, England.
Harvey turned pro in 1920 and would go on to become one of the most decorated fighters in British boxing history.
In 1926 he was unsuccessful in his first attempt at a British championship, drawing over 20 rounds with Harry Mason for the British welterweight title. Known for his powerful left hand, right cross and uppercut, Harvey defeated Alec Ireland (KO 7) for the British middleweight belt on May 16, 1929.
After six successful defences, he dropped the title to Jock McAvoy in 1933 but bounced back to capture both the British light heavyweight and heavyweight championships with wins over Eddie Phillips and Jack Peterson respectively later that year. His win over Peterson is considered one of the finest of his career. Harvey lost a 15-round decision in a 1932 World middleweight title bid to Marcel Thil in London. In 1939 he defeated McAvoy in a bout recognized by the British Boxing Board of Control as the World light heavyweight championship.
Harvey announced his retirement from the ring on November 21, 1942 following a loss to Freddie Mills (KO by 2).
he would became a physical training instructor for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Harvey's pro record reads 111-13-9 (51 KOs) and includes wins over Thil and Dave Shade and memorable bouts with formidable foes Vince Dundee and Ben Jeby among others. He died November 28, 1976.