248 : Boxing and the ‘Colour Question’, 1911

Boxing was being accepted by schools and the army as the Edwardians modified the rules of the Marquess of Queensberry of the 1860s, which had introduced gloves to what had been bare-knuckle boxing. The sport was part of the 1904 Olympics (in St Louis, USA) and the London weekly Boxing was established in 1909. Gambling and support among the demi-monde continued, and opposition was widespread. When the world heavyweight champion was scheduled to face British soldier champion ‘Bombardier Billy’ Wells in London on 2 October 1911 opponents played ‘the race card’ for the world champion was an African American from Texas, Arthur John ‘Jack’ Johnson (sometimes John Arthur Johnson).

Financier Jimmy White put up prize money of £8,000 (you could purchase a house in London for £350) and posters drew attention to the contest scheduled for Earls Court. Six thousand tickets had been sold. The poster caught the eye of the Revd Frederick Brotherton Meyer, who initiated a campaign against the event. The London County Council was responsible for the hall’s licence and Meyer contacted the chairman of the LCC. The Sportsman of 15 September 1911 noted that the hall had seen boxing matches before adding that the LCC had been silent until provoked by Meyer.

The opposition was based on two considerations : that boxing was brutal and demoralizing, and that ‘racial trouble’ might result (the defeat of the white American champion by Johnson had led to black-white animosity, reported on the front page of London’s Daily Mirror of 18 July 1910). Showing a film of that fight was said by the LCC to be undesirable, The Times reminded its readers on 14 September 1911.

Prebendary Wilson Carlile of the Church Army, socialist Ramsay MacDonald, the heads of Downing College, Cambridge and Dulwich College, London, and Bishop Alfred Tucker of Uganda were supporting Meyer, who went to the Home Office to seek a ban ‘on the grounds of public order’: which the Sporting Life decided ‘what is contemplated is illegal’. Boxing of 30 September noted the racial angle and that some believed that ‘our coloured fellow-subject throughout the Empire might be incited to rebellion by the possible victory of a black man over a white rival’ although no ‘terrible uprising’ had taken place when blacks had met whites in the ring.

Meyer objected to the substantial purse money yet was reported as saying ‘when white opposes black it is not a game of skill, for the black nature has more fire in the blood’ (Boxing, 30 September 1911, p 527; see also Sportsman, 22 September 1911, front page). The Church Times noted it was ‘deplorable’ that colour prejudice had been imported into the discussion. Oddly, perhaps, Meyer had never seen a boxing match and refused to see the film Johnson winning the championship because it had been edited. Those leaders in public affairs who supported the ban included the Bishop of London, Field Marshall Lord Roberts, and Scouting founder General Baden Powell. Jack Johnson continued to train in Chingford.

He went to Bow Street magistrates’ court on 27 September in response to a summons, and both sides put their case. The only witness was a police superintendent who admitted that he had never seen a boxing match. The boxers and promoters were bound over to keep the peace, and Wells promised never to meet Johnson in the ring anywhere in the United Kingdom.

British welterweight champion Johnny Summers met Aaron ‘Dixie Kid’ Brown, an African American in Liverpool on 17 November. A scheduled bout in Sparkbrook, Birmingham between Jim Driscoll and Owen Moran (both white) attracted ten thousand but local disquiet led to a similar challenge to that faced by Johnson and Wells, The National Sporting Club employed fine legal minds to defend them and the promoter, but they were bound over to keep the peace and the fight was cancelled (The Times, 6 November 1911).

The Meyer-Johnson-Wells squabble reveals that the uncertain status of boxing in Edwardian times could put the promoters’ investment at risk for who could guarantee there would be no trouble? Boxing was excluded from the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm as Swedish laws banned boxing. The 1920 games in Antwerp included the black British (of West African parentage) Frank Dove, an Oxford graduate. Other black boxers fought in Britain, but not Jack Johnson. Wells had a respected career and was known to millions as he banged the giant gong for films made by Rank.

This article uses information published in The International Journal of the History of Sport, Vol 5 No 1, May 1988, pp 115-119 as Jeffrey Green, ‘Boxing and the ‘”Colour Question” in Edwardian Britain – the “White Problem” of 1911’. In error, it also repeats much of what was written way back, on page 042.

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