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Winston Churchill and the British Boxing Controversy of 1911
In February a Cambridge University panel of four, all sharing the same opinions, branded Winston Churchill an overrated racist imperialist. The British Empire, one speaker added, was worse than the Third Reich. In March, Policy Exchange and the Churchill Project published a point by point rebuttal by Andrew Roberts and Zewditu Gebreyohanes. One of the panelists replied in The Guardian. This mainly comprised previous opinions, but one critique was new to this writer: “In 1911, Churchill banned interracial boxing matches so white fighters would not be seen losing to black ones.”
The cited source, Professor Neil Carter, did not actually make that statement. Carter wrote that Churchill as Home Secretary was pressured by “establishment figures” and declared one match illegal. The action “acted as precedent for the Home Office and was used in the years to come to ban any high-profile fight between white and black boxers.”1
Churchill is otherwise absent from Professor Carter’s study of the prejudice against black championship boxers in Britain over four decades. Churchill was involved only in 1911, but the episode does illuminate an obscure period: his 20 months at the Home Office. (There were many interracial boxing matches in England at that time, but none with the floodlights of a championship shined upon them.) It is for the reader to judge what the facts say about Churchill’s involvement in the British ban against black championship boxers.
Johnson vs. Wells
In September 1911, Lancashire promoter James White announced a championship boxing match at Earl’s Court, London on October 2nd. It pitted the world heavyweight titleholder, African-American Jack Johnson, against Billy Wells, the British contender. A substantial purse of £8000 ($800,000 today) would be split 75% for the champion, 25% for the challenger.2
Controversy erupted, though the British Isles were relatively free of race antagonism. Lord Stanhope declared it wrong for whites to attack blacks and vice-versa, fearing repercussions in the colonies, whoever won. He said the match might cause “a breach of the peace, citing contemporary events elsewhere.3
After many weary years and two wars, Britain had just created the Union of South Africa. How would the match go down with the touchy Boers, who were increasingly dominating that government? Reverend F.B. Meyer of Regent’s Park Baptist Church expanded the argument: “God knows there is horror enough in the Southern States of America, trouble enough between ourselves, the settlers, in South Africa and the black population, difficulty enough and in plenty in India, and we do not want to make more bitter the antagonism between white and black.”4
Opponents seemed to be arguing that there was enough tension already without pitting black against white in a boxing ring and riling people’s emotions higher. Disallowing a boxing match, according to their argument, was a question of how wisely to proceed in a tense situation, not whether one race was superior in the boxing ring.
Such opinions reflected current events. In 1910, Jack Johnson had defeated former heavyweight boxing champion James L. Jeffries in Reno, Nevada. Afterward, race riots had broken out in the U.S., a sorry episode in the country’s history. On the positive side, Johnson’s boxing had encouraged African-Americans. Reno caused poet William Waring Cuney to write his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.”5
Rev. Meyer had no record of prejudice and had previously espoused black initiatives in London. In 1900 he’d supported Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams’ Pan-African Conference.6 But he feared violence following a Johnson-Wells match. Various bishops, head masters, MPs, lord mayors, and Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts agreed. Some objected to paying men vast sums of money for brutalizing each other.
The question was whether to allow a match which people ought not to interpret divisively and yet in fact would. The police, “keenly alive to the fact that such matches often degenerate into fights, which break the bounds of legality [warned] the organizers of their personal liability for aiding and abetting any offence which may be committed.” Lord Lonsdale, president of the National Sporting Club, thought the contest was lopsided. Johnson’s 75% share of the purse, he said, showed that he was three times better than Wells. Lonsdale also objected to “the cinematograph people” contributing to the match and threatening the peace by distributing a film of it.7
Then there was a contractual objection. Jack Johnson had signed a contract to appear at London’s Hippodrome during the Earl’s Court match. Johnson claimed he had cancelled that contract, although the Variety Theatres Control Association disagreed and filed for breach.8
Champion and challenger
Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant,” was a colorful character who motivated both supporters and detractors. He enjoyed the high life: fine dining, tailored clothes, fast cars, and lavish gifts to friends. (Stopped for speeding, which in these days required paying one’s fine on the spot, he handed the officer a $100 bill. The policeman said he couldn’t make change. Johnson told him to keep it, since he’d be coming back at the same speed.) His marriage count was uncertain, but three wives were white; Johnson declared he’d failed at relationships with black women. Impressed by his many conquests, a reporter asked for his secret. Johnson replied, “eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts.”9
Johnson was one of the first athletes to make money with endorsements and namesake businesses. He opened two “black and tan” desegregated night clubs. But he had many critics. Civil rights leader Booker T. Washington said it was “unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people…. Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race.”10
By contrast “Bombardier” Billy Wells was little known. He began boxing as a soldier in the Royal Artillery in 1906. Deciding to go professional, he left the Army and took the British heavyweight title 1911. No one thought he could beat Jack Johnson. Lord Lonsdale said Johnson was “one of the most scientific boxers I have ever seen, and Wells is exceedingly good but in my opinion lacking in experience.”11
Rev. Meyer gathered signatures for a “memorial” to Home Secretary Churchill, asking him to stop the fight. Young Winston was visiting the King and Prime Minister Asquith in Scotland, where Asquith was offering him a post he craved: the Admiralty. In his last month at the Home Office, the last thing he needed was furor over a boxing match.12
Since Jack Johnson was training in Paris, Solicitor-General Sir John Simon offered to short-circuit the controversy. Why not simply deny Johnson entry to England? Churchill rejected this. Johnson had every right to come, he said; meanwhile he would give the memorial “close attention.” The Galveston Giant was determined. “We have signed to box under NSC rules,” he declared. “If they stop this fight, England cannot claim again she is the nation that allows fair play.” Johnson arrived in London on September 23rd.13
The next day the Home Office declared the fight “illegal, as a breach of the peace and counter to the best interests of the nation and empire.” But as The Sporting News recorded, this was not the final word:
On first reading…it would appear that Mr. Churchill had vetoed the contest. But we have official authority for saying that such is not the case. The Home Secretary has shifted the real responsibility for the decision which shall settle whether the match is to go on or not to the shoulders of the Bow Street magistrate. It not as a judicial authority, but as the head of the department responsible for law and order in this country, that Mr. Churchill has ruled that “what is contemplated is illegal.” He gives no reasons for coming to this decision…14
The courts decide
Johnson, Wells and promoter White were summoned to Bow Street Police Court, Justice Lush presiding. They were charged with “aiding, counselling, abetting to commit a breach of the peace.”15 Jack Johnson acted as his own attorney: “He showcased not only his own mental acuity, but also [Police Superintendent Duncan] Mclntyre’s embarrassing ignorance of professional boxing”:
Johnson: “Are you familiar with the Marquess of Queensberry rules?”
McIntyre: “No, not very familiar.”
Johnson: “How do you know that if Johnson and Mr. Wells box on October 2 there will be a breach of the peace?”
McIntyre: “I say I apprehend there will be a breach of the peace.”
Johnson: “Have you ever seen a boxing contest?”
Johnson: “You have no idea what they are?”
Johnson: “The witness may go: I am through.”16
The boxing match was ultimately cancelled, not by Churchill but by the freeholders of Earl’s Court. As Johnson grilled McIntyre, England’s High Court granted an injunction preventing their lessees, and James White, from holding the fight. The court said the boxing match would go against the terms of the lease, which stated that all exhibitions “shall be of a high class and be conducted with due regard to the maintenance of order and shall be in no way contrary to decency or morality, and shall endanger or in any way injuriously affect any of the licenses in force for the premises.”17
The outline of events was briefly: 1) A public campaign against the fight. 2) Churchmen and politicians declaring boxing brutal and decrying fighting for prize money. 3) Boxing interests calling the protests “buncombe” and defending boxing as a virtuous sport. 4) Johnson’s conflicting contract with the Hippodrome. (5) Public concern over the possibility of violence, particularly if the fight was shown on film, regardless of the winner.
Churchill did not “ban interracial boxing matches so white fighters would not be seen losing to black ones.” Nor did he initiate the Johnson-Wells controversy. As Home Secretary, he recalled what had occurred in Reno, the practical considerations of which he may have had in view. History does not give us documentation of his motivations—only of multiple and conflicting motives of those around him, and the decision he in fact made.
One may fault his “executive ruling” as sloughing off the judicial decision to the courts. Their decisions, as Professor Carter noted, offered a precedent for later Home Secretaries to stop white-black championship bouts, an injustice to black boxers. Ironically, Johnson in his day contributed to the dearth of black challengers by preferring white opponents because, he said, there was more money in it.
The new Union of South Africa “made everybody nervous,” wrote Theresa Rundstedtler, even though “colour feeling was still largely unknown in British Isles. The British liberal concept of imperial citizenship marked by civilization, rather than color, seemed inapplicable, if not naïve, in this modern context.”18
Jack Johnson, who had once said he hoped to live in Britain, was outraged: “You are funny people, you English, I cannot make you out at all. You call the black man your brother; you say he is equal with you; that we’re all one family. I must say you’ve got a queer way of showing your brotherly feelings.”19 The UK did not lift its championship color bar until 1948.
Not all boxing was like this. Indeed, the African-American Joe Louis was famous for his 1938 defeat of Max Schmeling, a German who claimed that as an Aryan he could not be defeated. Louis went on to an unparalleled streak as World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949, admired by schoolboys white and black, including this writer.
Billy Wells remained British Empire Champion through 1919. Jack Johnson held his boxing title until 1915. In 1913 he was arrested on spurious charges and sentenced to a year in jail. He broke bail and lived abroad, until voluntarily surrendering in 1920. After a year in prison, he resumed his colorful career, even became a recording star.
Flaming out with a bang in 1945, the 67-year-old Galveston Giant reentered the ring with an old rival to help sell war bonds. He’d once said the U.S. never gave him a square deal20, but he gave the U.S. a square deal when she was threatened in the Second World War. The following year Johnson died in North Carolina. Refused service at a segregated diner, he’d driven away angrily and crashed his car.
Posthumous attempts were made to pardon Jack’s 1913 conviction. In 2018, following the urgings of Mike Tyson, Harry Reid and John McCain, Donald Trump granted Johnson a presidential pardon. Some said it was the only thing they all agreed about. If so, it was a good thing.
The author thanks Madelin Evans of the Churchill Archives Centre for kind assistance in research.
1 Neil Carter, “British Boxing’s Colour Bar, 1911-1948.” Paper presented at Black History Season, “The Hidden History of Black British Sport” (Leicester: De Montfort University, 22 November 2011.) Pdf at https://bit.ly/3rYvvMQ, accessed 25 March 2021.
2 Theresa Rundstedtler, “White Anglo-Saxon Hopes and Black Americans’ Atlantic Dreams: Jack Johnson and the British Boxing Colour Bar,” Journal of World History XX1:4, December 2010, 664. Hereinafter Rundstedtler.
3 Lord Stanhope, “The Colour Question,” letter to The Times, 23 September 1911. Ennobled in 1905, James Richard Stanhope (1880-1967) enjoyed a long career. He was relieved by Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty when WSC joined the Chamberlain government in 1939.
4 Rev. Frederick Brotherton Meyer, “Johnson-Wells Fight: Strong Pulpit Denunciations,” Daily Telegraph, 18 September 1911, Rundstedtler, 665.
5 Rosey E. Pool, Beyond the Blues: New Poems by American Negroes (Aldington: Hand and Flower Press, 1962), 81.
6 Jeffery Green, “Boxing and the ‘Colour Question,’” in International Journal of the History of Sport 5, no. 1, 1988.
7 “The Police Attitude,” in The Times, 20 September 1911. “Lord Lonsdale’s Views,” letter to The Times, 23 September 1911.
8 “Johnson and the Music Halls,” in The Sporting Life, 26 September 1911, 1. “The Johnson-Wells Match,” in The Times, 26 September 1911.
9 Al Stump, “The Rowdy Reign of the Black Avenger, in True: The Men’s Magazine, January 1963.
11 Lonsdale in The Times, op. cit.
12 Churchill formally became First Lord of the Admiralty on 25 October 1911. Richard M. Langworth, ed., The Churchill Companion (Washington: Churchill Centre, 2013), 87.
13 Rundstedtler, 683-84. John Simon, “Johnson-Wells Fight, 1911,” Home Office Records 45/11880 National Archives.
14 “Home Secretary and Boxing: Contest Not Vetoed,” in The Sporting Life, 26 September 1911, 1.
15 “The Johnson-Wells Match: Summonses to be Heard Today,” in The Times, 27 September 1911, 5.
16 Rundstedtler, 683. The Times, 28 September 1911, 8.
17 “Johnson-Wells Match: Injunction Against Earl’s Court Company,” The Times, 28 September 1911, 7.
18 Rundstedtler, 678-79.
19 Rundstedtler, 684. “What the Two Men Think,” Health & Strength, November 1911.
20 “Johnson Jabs Uncle Sam,” Washington Post, 19 July 1911.