Len Johnson was born in Manchester in 1902. His father was William Benker Johnson, an African seaman, and his mother was a young woman from Manchester, Margaret Maher. After leaving the merchant navy his father worked for a time on boxing booths and, after a spell in engineering, Len followed his father into the profession. He fought professionally as a middle-weight from 1922 and 1933, and beat some of the best British and foreign fighters of the day, including Roland Todd, Len Harvery, Gipsy Daniels and Leone Jaccovacci. However Len was not allowed to fight for official British titles because the British Board of Boxing Control said that only white boxers could compete for titles. After he left the ring he toured his own boxing up and down the country. During the war Len worked in civil defence in Manchester and after the war worked as a bus driver and then lorry driver. During the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and become an active member, standing 6 times in the Moss Side ward but attracting only a small vote. He attended the Pan African Congress in Manchester in October 1945 and later set up the New International Society in Moss Side which was both a social club and campaigning organisation. He had retired from active politics by the 1960s and died in Oldham in 1974
Leonard Benker Johnson was born on 22 October 1902 at 12 Barnabas Street, Clayton. His parents were William Benker Johnson and Margaret Maher. Billy (as everyone called him) was from Sierra Leone and came to England as a seaman, never returning to his native land. Marrying Billy was a brave decision for Margaret. Popular racism against black men, their partners and children was overt and sometime violent. Margaret was once attacked in the street and suffered permanent disfigurement.
The Johnsons were a part of small black community that established itself in the early years of the twentieth century in Manchester and Salford as result of the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal, which brought ships from Africa into the heart of the city. Some of the seaman, such Billy stayed put, married local women and raised families.
Len was followed by two brothers Billy and Albert, and by a sister Doris. The family moved to Leeds where Billy senior worked in a boxing booth. There was a long tradition of black boxers in Britain, stretching back to the prize fighting days of the early C19th. Boxing was one profession where a man’s skin colour might for once work in his favour, and not against him.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 the family returned to Manchester and Billy joined the British army. When he was old enough Len went to work at Crossley Engines in the foundry, later joined by his brother Albert. Len got into a fight at work with another young lad and their father took the two brothers to see some boxing matches at the Alhambra on Ashton Old Road. To Len’s great surprise (and it has to be said consternation) his father arranged for him to box in a few bouts in the hall. Totally inexperienced, Len won his two fights but then lost the next two. His boxing career seemed to be over.
A few weeks later, however, he was persuaded by friends to enter a competition at a boxing booth at Gorton fair, run by Bert Hughes. Hughes was impressed and offered Len a job. It lasted six months, during which time Len greatly improved his boxing skills and stamina. Len was to be part of the world of boxing booths for the next twenty years.
Len’s first official fight as a professional boxer was on 31 January 1922 against Eddie Pearson at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. His professional career lasted eleven years, during which he fought some 127 contests, winning 92, losing 29 and drawing 6. He fought in Europe on a number of occasions, spent 6 months in Australia in 1926 where he had 8 fights, and also visited the United States (but did not succeed in being matched). For most of his career he fought as a middle-weight.
Len came to national attention after defeating Roland Todd (a former European and British champion) twice in 1926 in front of packed houses at Belle Vue. In 1927 he defeated Len Harvey, who later to become the British middleweight champion. In January 1928 he defeated Gipsy Daniels, a recent British light-heavyweight champion. In November of that year he defeated Leone Jaccovacci, the European middleweight champion, in a non-title fight before a home crowd at Belle Vue, Manchester. In December 1929 he defeated Michele Bonaglia, the cruiserweight champion of Europe, also in Manchester. Once again the title was not at stake.
Len’s victories had brought him to forefront of British boxing and he should by rights have been entitled to a chance at the British middle-weight championship. The British Boxing Board of Control, which ran the game, refused to allow this on the grounds that Len was black, even though he had been born in Britain. This was matter of Imperial politics, pure and simple. Behind this decision was the fear that the myth of white superiority, the political principle on which the vast British Empire was based, would be undermined if white boxers were seen to lose to black boxers. Despite protest from many quarters and controversy in the boxing and Manchester press, the sporting and political establishment closed ranks against Len.
Disillusioned, Len bought his own boxing booth and toured Britain, occasionally returning to the ring. In May 1932 Len Harvey did agree to face Len in a fight which was billed as being for the British middle-weight championship but was not recognised as such by the BBBC. Len lost to Harvey after a tough fight. His last appearance in the ring was on 12 October 1933, losing to Jim Winters in Edinburgh.
For the rest of the decade Len continued to tour with his booth. He also turned his hand to writing , producing a series of short stories set in the world of boxing which were published in Topical Times. He seems to have given up his booth shortly before the war started. During the war he worked in the Civil Defence Corps and later as a Civil Defence instructor. After the war he worked as bus driver and later as a lorry driver for Jack Silverman in Oldham.
Towards the end of the war he had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain which was then at the height of its prestige after the part played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. Len seems to have to been politicised by his own experiences of prejudice and racism. He also met Paul Robeson on one of his trips to England in the early 1930s and stayed in contact with him. Len was very active in the party until the early 1960s.
In October 1945 Len attended the 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester, which was very significant event in determining the course of the post-war anti-colonial struggle. Together with two other party members – Syd Booth and Wilf Charles – Len founded the New International Society, a club in Moss Side which combined social and political activities and ran for several years. In May 1949, for instance, Paul Robeson visited the club and sang to the people in the street and Len spoke at the same platform as Paul later that evening at a big rally at the King’s Hall, Belle Vue ( the site of many of his boxing triumphs in the 1920s)
Len also stood for the council on six occasions in Moss Side between 1947 and 1962, though he never attracted more than a handful of votes. In the mid 1950s he wrote a monthly column for the Daily Worker. Len was also active in the campaign for Paul Robeson, whose passport had been withdrawn by the US government preventing him travelling abroad. On 11 March 1956 there was a public meeting in the Lesser Free Trade Hall at which a special recording from Paul Robeson was played.
In his later years Len suffered much ill-health, perhaps as a result of his many matches, far more than would be allowed nowadays. At some point in the 1950s he spent several months convalescing at a Black Sea resort in the Soviet Union.
His last years were spent in Waterloo Street, Oldham, where he lived with his partner Maria Reid. He was not forgotten though. Members of the Ex-Boxers Association in Manchester held a collection and delivered a TV and groceries . Len died on 28 September 1974 at Oldham General Hospital. The Morning Star ran an obituary written by Jim Arnison.
Len was a major figure in C20th British boxing, though he never held any titles, and he was important activist in the labour movement in Manchester in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves to be remembered.
Michael Herbert’s biography of Len Johnson, Never Counted Out! was published in 1992 and is available via the author at mossley [at] phonecoop.coop