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Historical Discrimination in Boxing

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered historical discrimination in boxing.

It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I would like to take the Chamber through the story of a boxer from Merthyr Tydfil. For some people in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Cuthbert Taylor is a local sporting legend. An amateur and then a professional boxer, he had over 500 bouts in a career lasting almost 20 years between 1928 and 1947, many in his native Merthyr Tydfil and across south Wales but also across the UK and Europe. He was knocked out only once in his entire career. During my research, I discovered that during his career he had bouts in the 1930s with two of my great uncles, Jack and Terrence Morgan of Trefil near Tredegar, who were from a family of boxers.

Cuthbert Taylor was once described as “the best in Europe”. In 1927, he won the flyweight championship title. He defended the title in 1928, when he also became British amateur flyweight champion. The same year, he represented Great Britain at the Amsterdam summer Olympics, reaching the quarter-final stage in the flyweight category. He was the first black boxer to represent Britain at the Olympics. Although well known by some in his home town of Merthyr Tydfil and despite a very successful and exciting career, Cuthbert Taylor never got the same recognition on a national or international scale as other boxers. That was because of one simple thing: the colour of his skin.

Cuthbert Taylor was born in 1909 in Georgetown, Merthyr Tydfil, to parents of different ethnic backgrounds: his father, also named Cuthbert and formerly a notable amateur boxer in Liverpool, was of Caribbean descent, and his mother, Margaret, was white Welsh. Cuthbert Taylor was judged at the time to be

“not white enough to be British”

by the British Boxing Board of Control, and he was prevented from ever challenging for a British title or a world title professionally by the body’s colour bar rule, which was in place between 1911 and 1948 and which stated that fighters had to have two white parents in order to compete for professional titles. Due simply to the fact that his parents were of different ethnic backgrounds, Cuthbert Taylor would never have the recognition and success at professional level that his remarkable talent deserved. That was all because of a rule that left a stain on the history of one of our country’s most popular and traditional sports, one that has otherwise been known for bringing people from many different backgrounds and communities together.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this matter. I was just talking to him outside the Chamber and I was saying that that is one of the great things about sport, and Northern Ireland is an example of it, especially in boxing. We have people of different religions, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and nationalist and Unionist, coming together and uniting in the sport. Sport should be a uniting factor. It should enable people to see one another as they are and not as some would perhaps like them to be.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I agree entirely: sport is a unifier. It is a real shame, and it brings shame on the sport, that such a rule existed at that point in time. It is now more important than ever to right that historical wrong and ensure that Cuthbert Taylor and so many other black British athletes across a range of sports are not forgotten or cheated out of deserved recognition by a cruel past injustice.

The colour bar rule serves as an uncomfortable reminder of a very different time. Although we cannot go back and give Cuthbert Taylor the professional titles and success that his career deserved, we can ensure that he has true and just recognition for his talent and abilities and that his name is not forgotten from boxing history merely because of the colour of his skin. It is a sad fact, but there is no doubt that had Cuthbert Taylor had two white parents instead of one, he would have gone on to challenge for British and world boxing titles—and he may very well have had success in those, too. His is by no means an isolated case in British boxing, let alone in other sports. Many black or mixed race British fighters in that period were held back by the same racism of the colour bar rule.

My hon. Friend has raised a really important issue. Roy Francis, from Brynmawr, was the first black professional rugby league coach, and he was a code breaker. In 1946, when the Great Britain rugby league squad travelled to Australia, the in-form Francis was not selected for the tour, simply because of the colour of his skin. It was a period in Australia when it operated something that was called a colour bar for non-white people. It is a disgrace, is it not?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that case. It is yet another example of an injustice that stained sport. It is something that we do need to recognise and try to address and put right.

There are other examples. We know of Len Johnson, a black boxer from Manchester who had a highly successful career as a middleweight fighter both in the UK and abroad, and who won the British Empire title in Australia in 1926, only to return to Britain and see his victory neglected by the boxing authorities, and to be prevented from competing for the British championship, simply because his father was from west Africa. As it did Cuthbert Taylor, the colour bar rule prevented Len Johnson from ever winning a professional championship or entering the boxing hall of fame.

That unjust rule, passed into law by the Government at the time, consigned Cuthbert Taylor and many other talented fighters to obscurity and robbed them of the fame and success that they undoubtedly would have achieved had both their parents been white. That is simply unbelievable to us in this generation. I believe that we have an opportunity to right that shameful wrong and make the case to the British Boxing Board of Control to recognise him as the fighter he truly was and apologise for having robbed him, through racism and prejudice, of the chance to forge a fantastic professional boxing career.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour on securing a debate on a really important issue, not least to all the people in south Wales. Unfortunately, boxing is not alone in its issues with discrimination. These are systemic problems across many sports, including wrestling and gymnastics, which we know have been rocked by claims of misogyny and sexism. Ultimately, in order to tackle that, leadership needs to come from the top. Does he therefore agree that the Government urgently need to take more control and responsibility to stamp out discrimination from the industry?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The historical discrimination we are talking about is now illegal, but we still experience such issues and they are still present in sport. Much has been done since the time of Cuthbert Taylor, but there is a lot more to do, and a lot more we can do, to stamp out discrimination.

In 1947, merely one year before the British Nationality Act 1948 was passed and HMS Windrush docked in the UK, the British Boxing Board of Control went on record to defend its colour bar rule, arguing that since the UK was a small country, its championships should be restricted to boxers of white parents only and that black or mixed-race fighters were not penalised by the rule as they could compete for the British Empire titles instead, which the board argued were much more important. Such an argument is an insult to fighters such as Cuthbert Taylor, who represented his country proudly at the Olympic games, becoming the first black boxer to do so. He was a local hero for many in his home town, but he could not go on to challenge for British or world titles as many other British boxers did after turning professional.

The repeal of the colour bar rule just one year later in 1948 came too late for Cuthbert Taylor, who had retired from boxing the year before. However, that very year, Dick Turpin became the first ever black British fighter to win the domestic championship, breaking down the colour barrier to win in front of tens of thousands of people. His victory, which was even featured in the African-American press, marked the start of a new era in boxing in Britain.

As many know, Merthyr Tydfil has a proud boxing tradition and a rich history in the sport, boasting world, European and British champions as well as Cuthbert Taylor. Jimmy Wilde, from Quakers Yard in Merthyr Tydfil is known all over the world and considered by some to be the best fighter of all time. As a professional boxer, he had world, European and British titles as well as the longest running unbeaten streak. Howard Winstone was a world and European champion and Commonwealth games gold medallist once coached by Cuthbert Taylor himself. Johnny Owen was a Commonwealth, European and British champion who also represented Wales on many occasions. Both Howard Winstone and Johnny Owen have commemorative statues in Merthyr Tydfil town centre, and Jimmy Wilde’s name features on various plaques and commemorations such as the Welsh sports hall of fame and the international boxing hall of fame. All three feature in the Welsh boxing and Merthyr Tydfil boxing halls of fame and have had their legacies immortalised in many other ways.

Cuthbert Taylor was as British as any of those fighters. he had remarkable ability, too, and no doubt he would have gone on to challenge for British, European and world titles had it not been for the discrimination he suffered under the divisive system of that time. It is a sad reality that a boxer who was once billed as the best in Europe, who fought in the Olympics and against some who would go on to be world champions, who won numerous amateur titles and who competed in many prestigious venues, has nothing to recognise him or preserve his legacy either in his home town or elsewhere. He will be fondly remembered and recognised by some in both the Welsh boxing world and his hometown, including his family, and especially his grandson, Alun Taylor, who came to my surgery some months ago and who I know is watching the debate.

I am currently in contact with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council about the possibility of a plaque or local commemoration for Cuthbert Taylor, but there is more we can do to ensure that he is recognised in the way his career and ability deserved. It is perhaps a coincidence that at this moment colleagues are debating Black History Month in the other Chamber. The story of Cuthbert Taylor illustrates why Black History Month is important as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and contributions of black Britons and reflect on the struggle for inclusion and equality that so many, including Cuthbert, have faced. We have the chance to take action and get justice for him, and to set the record straight the way it should be. Cuthbert Taylor was fighting all his life, not only in the ring but against a shameful rule and an unjust system, with the colour bar of the early 20th century the only opponent he could not overcome. I ask the Minister to make the case to the British Boxing Board of Control for a formal apology and recognition for Cuthbert Taylor. Although we cannot give him the success that he would have gone on to challenge for—that most likely he would have achieved—we can take action to ensure that he is recognised for his ability in the ring, not just the colour of his skin.

I was actually going to intervene on the Minister, but I would like to say that as my hon. Friend from Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned the Cardiff Bay Rugby Codebreakers, I was hoping that the Minister would join me in remembering the memory of the Codebreakers, and join me in congratulating the “One Team – One Race” project, immortalising some of Wales’s greatest rugby players in a permanent artwork. The statues will celebrate Wales’s proud and vibrant multicultural community, honour players who battled prejudice and racism, and be a fitting tribute to everything they did to improve race relations through sport.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing this important debate, as well as all those who have participated. In answer to the immediate question from the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), we need far more permanent memorials to our sporting heroes, especially those who are under-recognised, under-acknowledged and under-represented. The “One Team – One Race” proposal sounds like a laudable idea.

It is appropriate that we have this debate today, because it is, of course, Black History Month. Stories like Cuthbert Taylor’s shine a light on the rich social history of boxing and of society as a whole. It is jarring to think that a sport that, today, is one of the most diverse around had such a history of discrimination. It reminds us that sport does not operate in a vacuum, it is an integral part of everyday lives. As such, it often reflects the values of the time. Cuthbert’s story reminds us of the social norms and inequalities that were present in society and in sport in the first part of the 20th century. From 1911, boxing rules stated that, for a British title, both contestants needed to have been “born of white parents”. That rule was in place until, remarkably, 1948. During that time, non-white boxers were barred from competing for a British boxing title.

Obviously, that did not just affect Cuthbert Taylor. Many other talented boxers over the years were denied the right to compete for British titles due to the colour of their skin, including boxers like Len Johnson, also mentioned by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Len was born in Manchester in 1902 to a father from Sierra Leone and a mother from Ireland. He won 36 of his 93 wins by knockout, and defeated the reigning British middleweight champion Roland Todd twice in seven months in 1925. That same year, he also beat Ted “Kid” Lewis, widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers this country has ever seen. As with Cuthbert Taylor, there was no prospect of a British title for Len and many others like them. Although it does not excuse what was happening in Britain, boxing in other countries was also the focus of discrimination. Thankfully, progress has been made. It started in 1948 with the lifting of the ban on non-white competitors. A few months after the ban was lifted, Dick Turpin became Britain’s first black boxing champion in front of 40,000 people at Villa Park, as mentioned by the hon. Member.

Today, British boxing is one of our most diverse sports. Indeed, many of our of our highest profile sporting stars are boxers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Great strides have been taken in other aspects of diversity too, with the nurturing of female boxing talent. As I am sure hon. Members will recall, the first woman to win an Olympic boxing medal was our very own Nicola Adams at London 2012. Of course, boxing is a sport that is accessible to people from all economic backgrounds. We continue to invest in community boxing clubs through Sport England and funding through the National Lottery Community Fund. Of course, we support our elite boxers through UK Sport. But no sport should rest on its laurels, and we must take steps to ensure that discrimination and inequality are identified and addressed.

Will the Minister please support my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), whose fantastic reference to his borough’s brilliant boxing record came over really well? My hon. Friend will write to the British Boxing Board of Control on behalf of Cuthbert Taylor. Will the Minister also write to in support of Cuthbert Taylor, so that the board will put things right?

Indeed, I would be happy to do so, but I should make hon. Members aware that I have already notified the BBBC that the debate would be taking place and asked that it pay attention. I am sure its representatives will listen and take appropriate action; I am sure the matter is already on its radar. Of course, there are certain challenges. Governing bodies today are not necessarily the same structures that they were a while ago, but I am sure that the importance of the issue is on everyone’s mind.

Like many other sports, boxing continues to look at what more it can do to promote inclusion and diversity. England Boxing has been conducting a review of its operations from board level to grassroots to increase diversity at all levels. So far the work has resulted in additional training for coaches and support staff, and anti-racism workshops. I understand that more activity is in train, such as work to encourage more competitors from BAME backgrounds to remain in the sport once they have retired, and to become coaches and officials. I applaud that work. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of every successful organisation, but they do not happen automatically. Effort and openness from all involved are required.

The Government have also been alive to the need for ongoing review. Earlier in the summer I called for a review of the code of sports governance, the set of standards that all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding. The code has proved successful in setting clear expectations on good governance and diversity. Four years on from its launch it is right that the code should be reviewed, to see how it can be strengthened. UK Sport and Sport England are leading the work, which has a particular focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. All five UK Sports Councils are also working together to review racial inequalities in sport. Their work will bring together existing data on race and ethnicity in sport, to identify gaps and make recommendations. A second strand of work will hear experiences of racial inequalities and racism in sport.

The aim of all this activity is to keep pushing for greater inclusion and diversity in sport and to stamp out racism. It should go without saying that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of discrimination in sport. We continue to work with our sports councils, national governing bodies of sport, and organisations such as Kick It Out and Stonewall to tackle discrimination in local, national and international sport. Our aim is to increase diversity among sporting organisations and to help the sport sector to be more inclusive and welcoming to spectators, participants and the workforce.

Sport often reflects wider society—often for good and sometimes for bad. At its best, sport unites people and at its worst it can highlight divisions. Fighters such as Cuthbert Taylor and Len Johnson suffered from that. A lot has changed since the early part of the 20th century, but we must not get complacent. Sport does not have to be just a passive reflection of society. It can also be a proactive force and lead the way for others to follow. It can show what can be achieved. We should remember Cuthbert Taylor, Len Johnson and others like them and keep their stories alive with memorials, as the hon. Member for Swansea East mentioned, and in many other ways. We should think about what we can learn from the past, and look forward to ensure that we build a stronger, more inclusive society.

I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, who raised this important issue today. As I have said, I have already notified the British Boxing Board of Control that the debate is taking place, and I am confident that the board will have listened to what he and others had to say. I encourage it to give due regard to his comments and requests.

Question put and agreed to.