Born on 22nd October 1902 in Manchester, the famous black boxer and life-long Communist, Len Johnson learned his craft in boxing booths. He eventually became the owner of his own booth – travelling the roads and towns of England with fairgrounds. Johnson developed into 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.
Len Johnson’s father, William, came to England in 1897 and initially earned a living as a seaman. He then took up boxing and fought both in the ring and on the fairs, working with many famous showmen. Married to Margaret Maher, they had four children. Len later said that he first went on a booth at the age of two, where he was announced by his father as "Len Johnson the Youngest Boxer in the World". Both Len and his brother Albert became successful fighters often starring on the same bill but it was Len who would become famous in the sport.
Bill Johnson managed Len’s career in the early days and when he embarked on a conventional boxing career in 1921, the young boxer seemed to win more often than he lost. But, in his first three years, Johnson was regarded largely as a journeyman performer and it is true that his real interest during his 12-year boxing career lay in his itinerant life on the travelling boxing booths. (See pic below of Len Johnson in the boxing booths.)
Even so, Len Johnson’s boxing career took a dramatic turn in early 1925 when he was matched with Roland Todd, the reigning British and former European middleweight champion, in a non-title fight. Johnson took this opportunity very seriously indeed, whilst Todd, being somewhat jaded after returning from a boxing tour in America, was below his best form. The result was a conclusive 20 rounds points verdict for Johnson, and this had a considerable positive effect on his subsequent boxing aspirations. From this point onwards, Johnson steadily began to dominate the British middleweight division, with more than a dozen significant wins over leading British and European middle and light heavyweights of the period.
British boxing operated a ‘colour bar’ in the 1920s, only repealed in 1948, which prevented black boxers from contesting championships. This rule had tacit support from politicians, and had its origins in fears that black boxers being shown to be able to beat white boxers might stimulate insurrection in the colonies of the British Empire. Although Johnson lobbied newspapers and politicians over several years to gain support for a lifting of the ban, he was met with hostility or indifference.
He spent the first half of 1926 in Australia, where he gained the British Empire middleweight championship – or thought he had – by defeating local hero Harry Collins. Johnson was popular and very successful during his six months there but returned home to get married. On arrival in England, he discovered that his well-earned Empire title was not recognised by the National Sporting Club, who controlled British boxing at that time. In fact, the NSC had installed Scotland’s Tommy Milligan as British Empire champion – openly snubbing the man now generally regarded by boxing fans everywhere as Britain’s best middleweight. Johnson’s Empire title victory and two successful defences of it – all in Australia – only entered the boxing record books many years later.
Len was a strong-enough boxer to consistently beat white contenders and holders of both the British middleweight and the World light-heavyweight titles. Between 1927 and 1928 Len Johnson was recognised as being one of the most talented boxers in his division in the world and the continuing refusal of the boxing authorities to allow him to fight for the Lonsdale belt caused anger and controversy, especially in Manchester where Len was highly regarded a local man.
There, Johnson financed the opening of the New International club – more a debating society than a music venue – at the Grafton Hotel in Manchester in the 1920s quite specifically to mark his allegiance to Communism. In the mid-30s, it was from here that many International Brigaders signed up to fight for the Spanish Republic. Later on, Len moved premises and renamed his venue The Continental Club, which was somewhere off Monton Street, before finally selling it.
In 1930 Johnson visited America on three occasions looking for fights, on trips organised by a New York promoter but the proposed contests did not materialise. In the same year, Johnson became the proprietor of his own booth – realising a long-held ambition. From this point onwards, however, eyesight problems and the onset of rheumatism caused a steady decline in his performances in the ring. In 1932 he lost a rematch in a contest that had been billed as being for the British middleweight championship, in defiance of the British Boxing Board of Control. Formed in 1929, this body took control of British professional boxing but still kept the colour bar in its constitution. Later in 1932, Johnson travelled to Paris where he was forced to retire after eight rounds against an opponent who was at peak form. By the end of 1933, Johnson had retired from boxing, concentrating thereafter on running his travelling booth. He maintained a role in fairground boxing until the early years of the Second World War, travelling with his show throughout Lancashire and the North West and Nottingham’s Goose Fair, where he regularly put on fourteen shows a day.
During the Second World War, Len Johnson sold his boxing booth and dedicated himself to the war effort by joining the Civil Defence. This marked the end of his active involvement in boxing, although, in the 1950s, he wrote a boxing column for the Daily Worker. After the war, he formally joined the Communist Party, although he had long been a supporter, and also became active in trade union matters, becoming a thorn in the side of Manchester’s establishment, especially in the fight against racism and discrimination.
Johnson stood as a Communist candidate six times in local elections in Manchester and also acted for many years as an unofficial representative of the city’s black community becoming noted for his personally interventions in disputes involving racism. He spoke at Communist Party rallies in Manchester in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is still remembered by many today as a figure who spent a lifetime in a personal battle against injustice and racism. Len Johnson died on 28th September 1974, aged 71.