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Randolph Turpin

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 13 July 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Tom Pursglove.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this significant debate. It may seem that to talk about Randolph Turpin is to talk about a parochial sporting hero, but I hope to demonstrate just how much he helped to transform British sport.

Seventy years ago this week, Randolph Turpin took the world of boxing by storm as more than 18,000 spectators packed into Earls Court in London to witness the great—the legendary—Sugar Ray Robinson end his European tour. The scene was set for Turpin to show the world what he was made of. After a pummelling 15 rounds, Turpin triumphed. He was the world middleweight champion—the first British fighter to hold the title since Bob Fitzsimmons some 60 years earlier in 1891, and the first ever black British boxer do so.

More colloquially known as the Leamington Licker—a title that many in the constituency are proud to recall—the local Leamington lad shot to international fame overnight. But Turpin’s 1951 victory was not just a flash-in-the-pan event; his entire career was based on breaking records. He was the first and only man ever to win both the junior and senior British amateur boxing titles in one year, and his record stretched to a stunning 66 wins out of 75 fights. For some of that time, he boxed while serving in the Royal Navy at the end of the second world war.

Our knowledge of his achievements and their recognition owes much to the work of the Randolph Turpin Trust. I pay special thanks to its chair, Adrian Bush, whose dedicated work helped to lead to the erection of the statue of Randy that stands proudly in Warwick town centre. It took five long years to raise the money for the statue, and I commend the trust members for their perseverance. It was they who organised for proper recognition by those who understood his true achievement.

The fact that the statue was unveiled by some of boxing’s greats—including Our ’Enry, the late, great Sir Henry Cooper—and attended by Earnie Shavers, Richie Woodhall, Alan Minter, Neil Simpson and Danny McAlinden, tells us everything we need to know about Randy Turpin, a sporting legend among sporting legends. It is the only statue that stands in the centre of Warwick, which is why I believe this Chamber is a fitting place to remind ourselves of and recognise and continue to remember Randy’s legacy on the 70th anniversary of that momentous fight. I do not believe this country has fully appreciated what he or his brother achieved.

Behind every great sportsman is, of course, a dedicated, loving and supportive family, and Randy’s was no exception. Born in Leamington Spa in 1928, Randy was the youngest of five siblings. He was the son of Lionel Turpin, who came to these shores from what was then British Guiana to fight in the first world war.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to the House. Whenever anybody mentions the Somme, I am always reminded that it is a very special place for us in Northern Ireland. To know that Randy’s father fought at the Somme tells us a lot about the person he was and the person his father was as well. I want to say how pleased we are that the hon. Gentleman has brought this debate to the House to recognise not just Randy’s sporting heroics but the bravery of his dad at the Somme.

Lionel was indeed courageous fighting in the battle of the Somme, but sadly he died some years later having sustained permanent damage to his lungs. Together with hundreds of others, he had been the victim of a gas attack. As is so often the case, his sacrifice is barely recognised, together with those of so many other nationals who served the British empire.

It was left to Randy’s mother Beatrice to raise him and his four siblings, taking on part-time domestic work to provide for them. Beatrice was the daughter of a former bare- knuckle fighter and was by all accounts a feisty woman who would tell her children to stand up for themselves when they were subjected to racial abuse.

Sporting success in the Turpin family did not stop at Randy; indeed, his elder brother Dick Turpin, the first black British and Commonwealth middleweight champion in 1948, paved the way for black Britons throughout the country to compete on the same stage as white Britons for the first time. If we accept that Randy and Dick broke the colour bar in the boxing arena—as it was described at that time—the current success of British boxing owes a lot to their work.

When I talk of the successes of British boxing, I only need to mention Anthony Joshua, Chris Eubank, Lennox Lewis and others. None of those great athletes would have had the chance to reach the heights they did were it not for Dick and Randy Turpin breaking through the glass ceiling of race.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing Randy’s history to Parliament. Does he agree that that history shows the need to have more funding for sporting activities for young people, so that we can get more diverse and more ethnic minority participation?

I totally agree; I will come to that shortly.

Despite Randy’s momentous accomplishments during his sporting career, his troubled personal life and at times flawed character would lead to violence against some of those closest to him and others. He was financially cheated by those he trusted, his debts mounted up and he was declared bankrupt. Ultimately, alcohol would get the better of him. Most sadly, he took his own life; he was 38.

But it is for his sporting success that we and many people in my constituency remember Randy today. His extraordinary reputation, recognised more in the United States than here, led many to visit Warwick and Leamington to pay homage to the great man. In fact, even Muhammad Ali came to Warwick in 1983 as part of a visit to the midlands to pay his own homage and respects.

Randy’s legacy in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington is clear. Only last week, I had the great pleasure to meet three talented young Asian boxers in Warwick, Serena Mali, Jaya Kalsi and Aman Kumar—to demonstrate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi). We stood by the statue and chatted briefly with their coaches. The reputation of local boxing clubs is still inspired by Randy, Dick and Jack Turpin. Seventy years after that great fight, the legacy of boxing in Leamington lives on. There are six other clubs in Leamington that are powerful and important in our sporting community. Another fine boxer, Lewis Williams, who won gold in the 2018 GB elite three nations championships, may soon be the heir to the Turpin legacy. It is an exciting prospect that the future of heavyweight boxing may indeed reside in Leamington.

The successes of Randy and his brother as the first black world middleweight champion and the first black British and Commonwealth middleweight champion respectively spelt the beginning for inclusion in sport. With them, the tide turned, although—let us be honest—not completely. It took more than 25 years after Randy Turpin’s victory over Sugar Ray Robinson for Viv Anderson, the first black man to play football for England, to put on a white shirt and proudly sport three lions on his chest. It is unimaginable now to think that it should have taken that long for a black man to represent his country in our national game, but therein lies another piece of history. In truth, a black player would have represented his country as far back as 1924, but was denied the opportunity—not on talent, but by the colour of his skin, for it was only when Football Association officials learnt that Jack Leslie was black that he was deselected from the England squad. Leslie is the fourth highest all-time goal scorer for Plymouth Argyle football club, but racial stigma spelt the end for his international career. As we know, sadly, even today that undercurrent of racism persists in sport. I hardly need to remind Members of the abhorrent racist abuse endured by some members of the England team following the final on Sunday. The national team and their manager brought about great pride and unity across our country, and the racism that continues to haunt those who represent England on the field or in the ring should be called out for what it is and condemned as totally unacceptable in 2021.

Alongside the new-found recognition, we need to invest in our local communities for the next generation of English sportspeople. In writing and researching this speech, I was reminded of some brilliant and talented sportspeople, in particular boxers: Cooper, Bruno, Khan, Benn, McGuigan, Minter, Ahmed, Hatton, Lewis, Calzaghe, Eubank, Honeyghan, Buchanan, John Conteh—all names I knew, even though I was not a major fan of the sport. I also remember Nicola Adams and her great success, and now Joshua and Fury.

When I was growing up, of course, I knew about Our ’Enry, but I was captivated by the great bouts between Ali and Frazier, and then Norton. One of the things I remember most is how Henry Cooper and others were described as “the great white hope”, an expression dating back to the early 1900s when heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was black, seemed invincible. The term would be used for any white opponent who might defeat him. When he decisively beat James Jeffries, put up against him and nicknamed the great white hope, Johnson’s triumph ignited confrontation and violence between blacks and whites throughout the United States, leaving around two dozen people dead, almost all of them black, and hundreds injured.

Thankfully, today we do not think in those terms—or rather, I hope we do not. I would like to think that we consider only a sportsperson’s ability and who can better another opponent rather than their race and colour of their skin. Everyone loved Henry Cooper. I did. He was knighted in recognition of his boxing and wider contribution to sport and British life, but he was never a world champion, let alone undisputed world champion. Randy Turpin was an undisputed world champion. To repeat: he beat Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the all-time greats, to claim that particular pinnacle of sport. I hope that he will one day get the national recognition he deserves for boxing, but arguably more importantly, for what he and his brothers did in punching through the glass ceiling of being barred through their race; for breaking down the racial barriers that ultimately led to the Anthony Joshuas, the Nicola Adamses, the Naseem Hameds, the Viv Andersons, the John Barneses, the Raheem Sterlings, the Marcus Rashfords, the Jadon Sanchos, the Bukayo Sakas and so many others being among the best of British sport. For that reason, I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss how this country can rightly honour Randolph Turpin.

Given recent events surrounding the England football team, I suggest that recognition of our first black British world champion is long overdue.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) on securing the debate to highlight the noteworthy anniversary of Randolph Turpin’s middleweight title 70 years ago.

Anyone who reflects on the important moments in British boxing history, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, will no doubt cite Randolph Turpin’s stunning win over the great Sugar Ray Robinson for the world middleweight title those 70 years ago. As the hon. Gentleman said, he was widely known through his nickname of the Leamington Licker. He was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, in June 1928 after his father moved to England from Guyana during the first world war, as we have heard. His amateur boxing career began at Leamington boys club alongside his three brothers, where he showed so much promise and became the first black boxer to win a senior Amateur Boxing Association championship. After making his professional debut in 1946, Turpin went on to win the British middleweight belt in 1950 before that momentous title win on 10 July 1951. That was a truly outstanding achievement given Robinson’s fame, prestige and competitive record. He had previously amassed 129 victories, just two draws and one loss, which is incredible.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Turpin’s story is not only significant because of his outstanding achievement—and it was an outstanding, world-class sporting achievement. It also shines a light on some of the key issues that we are still battling today. In fact, the anniversary could not be more timely. How we promote diversity and inclusion in sport; how we tackle the abhorrent racism we have seen in recent days; the long-term impact of concussion and head injury on our sportsmen and women; how we support people who are struggling with mental ill health and depression, and indeed, how we prevent domestic violence are all topics that come of Randolph Turpin’s story.

Today, British boxing is one of our most diverse sports. Most of our high-profile sporting stars are boxers from ethnically diverse backgrounds. The hon. Gentleman named a few of our great heroes. However, for the first part of the 20th century, the social inequalities in society were reflected in that sport. It is hard to believe that from 1911, boxing rules stated that, for a British title, both contestants needed to have been “born of white parents”. That rule remained in place until 1948. During this time, non-white boxers were barred from competing for a British boxing title. It seems impossible to believe it today, and it means that so many talented boxers were denied the right to compete for British titles purely due to the colour of their skin. Thankfully, progress was made with the lifting of that ban, and great strides have also been taken in other aspects of diversity through the nurturing of female boxing talent. I am sure that hon. Members will recall, as I do, their great pride in the first woman to win an Olympic boxing medal being our own Nicola Adams, back in London in 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, and we support our elite boxers through UK Sport. However, no sport can afford to rest on its laurels: we must take steps to ensure that discrimination and inequality are identified and addressed. Like many other sports, boxing continues to look at what more it can do to promote inclusion and diversity, and England Boxing has been conducting a review of its operations from board level to grassroots in order to increase diversity at all levels. So far, that work has resulted in additional training for coaches and support staff and in anti-racism workshops, but I understand that more activity is in train.

This comes against the backdrop of the code for sports governance, which UK Sport and Sport England launched four years ago. That code sets out the standards that all sporting organisations must meet in return for public funding. It has proved very successful in setting clear expectations around good governance and diversity, but UK Sport and Sport England have just announced that the code will be updated later this year to ensure that sporting bodies in receipt of substantial public funding have a detailed and ambitious diversity and inclusion action plan for diversity right across their organisations, which is another positive step forward.

Of course, there is another part of Randolph’s life that we should reflect on, which is the impact that concussion sustained in the ring may have had. Today, we know a lot more about brain injury, but there is still much more to know, to understand, and to do. The important issue of concussion in sport is a priority for my colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), the Minister for sport, who is working with the national governing bodies that are responsible for the regulation of their sport and putting in place appropriate measures to protect participants. We continue to consult very widely with various stakeholders, including representatives from boxing with whom the Minister for sport met very recently, and are assessing what role Government can usefully play in convening research and improving education around concussion and supporting technological advances.

However great Turpin’s achievements were in the ring, it is also worth reflecting that throughout the 1940s and 1950s, multiple women accused him of significant violence and domestic abuse. The Government are determined to tackle crimes that affect women and girls, but in fact domestic abuse impacts men as well. That is why, earlier this year, we achieved a historic milestone when the Domestic Abuse Bill received Royal Assent and became law. For the first time in history, there will be a general purpose legal definition of domestic abuse that incorporates a range of abuses beyond physical violence, including emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse. That will help the millions affected by these crimes by strengthening the response of all agencies, from the police and courts to local authorities and service providers.

Another key concern for the Government as we navigate our recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is grassroots sports participation. It is truly vital for the preservation of our national sporting excellence that we help feed the elite level with the grassroots base, which is why the Government’s strategy, “Sporting Future”, puts increased participation at the very heart of the long-term direction of sport in this country. Since 2017, Sport England has provided a range of grassroots funding to boxing totalling more than £8.2 million, and this significant funding includes £3.2 million to grassroots boxing projects, £4.25 million to England Boxing across the 2017 to 2021 cycle, plus an additional £999,000, to be precise, in covid roll-over funding from 2020-21. Grassroots facilities in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency have also benefited from the Government’s £100 million national leisure recovery fund for local authorities, with Warwick District Council awarded £277,851. This emergency funding package has supported public sector leisure centres to reopen to the public, giving the sport and physical activity sector the very best chance of recovering from this pandemic.

In conclusion, I am really grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing to the attention of the House the story of his prestigious and incredibly memorable constituent. It is always refreshing to reflect on how constituency matters have a wider impact on the world of sport and on the global impact of one of his constituents. I thank him for securing the debate. He asked whether I would be prepared to meet him. I am not the Minister for sport but I will certainly pass on his request to my colleague who is. I am sure he would be very happy to accept that request.

I understand and appreciate that. I just want to stress the point that Randolph Turpin had many battles, as the Minister has mentioned, but he was the first British world champion of the 20th century, he fought through the bar on colour and he beat one of the finest boxers ever, but there is no national recognition for this person. It would do a great deal for social justice in this country if he had some recognition at long last, so I hope that that invitation will be taken up by the Minister.

Yes, I absolutely agree. I have to admit that until this week I had no previous knowledge of this story and it is a shame that such a significant figure in the history of British boxing is unknown and is not a household name in the way that Henry Cooper is. I am sure that the Minister for sport will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how that can be rectified.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.