Breaking the Barrier: How Dick Turpin Became Britain's First Black Boxing Champion
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Few sports are more racially diverse at the top level than boxing. When we think of the greatest fighters of all time, the names Ali, Tyson and Mayweather instantly come to mind. During the nineties, Britain experienced a modern golden era thanks to Naseem Hamed, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn. And today, despite boxing's relative decline, the likes of Anthony Joshua, Kell Brook and Amir Khan are still known to most sports fans.
But, as recently as 1948, the most prestigious titles in British boxing were off limits to non-white competitors. 68 years ago this week, Dick Turpin – a mixed-race fighter from the Midlands – broke down the colour barrier.
Dick was born in November 1920, the eldest the son of Lionel Turpin – a West Indian who had stowed away to Britain to join the army during World War I – and his wife Beatrice (née Whitehouse). Dick's father was black and his mother white during a time before significant ethnic diversity in Britain. What's more, the Turpin family did not live in a large city where racial mixing would have been more (albeit not hugely) common, but in the Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa.
Lionel died in 1929; he had fought at the Battle of the Somme, never fully recovering from the injuries he sustained in a gas attack. Beatrice was thus left to raise the children alone.
Perhaps because of these challenging circumstance, Dick and his two younger brothers, Jack and Randolph, all took up boxing during childhood. Dick and Randolph were both middleweights, while Jack fought at featherweight.
Dick made his professional debut as an 18-year-old against Jimmy Griffiths in March 1939, eventually losing on points (he subsequently won a rematch). Like his father, he would also serve in the forces, refusing an exemption in order to fight on the African, Italian and German fronts during World War II.
He returned unharmed and resumed his career in the ring. Almost a decade after his debut he would become British champion, beating Vince Hawkins on points after a 15-round bout at Villa Park stadium in Birmingham.
That saw Turpin earn a very noteworthy distinction: he was the first non-white fighter to be crowned British champion in any weight division. But this was not because of a dearth of non-white competitors, nor a lack of quality – in fact, Dick already held the Empire title. Rather, a bar existed in British boxing that prevented any fighter "of coloured skin" from competing for the belt.
Incredibly, this was not a hangover from the 18th or 19th century that survived into ostensibly more enlightened times. It was introduced relatively late, in 1911, amid anxieties over the fitness of the "white race", and concerns over how a "coloured" fighter defeating a white opponent would affect the colonies.
Of course, non-white boxers were abundant and highly skilled in the early 20th century. The most famous was American fighter Jack Johnson, who became heavyweight champion of the world in 1908 and subsequently defended his title several times.
But Johnson was unpopular with many white Americans, not least those in power, and received almost equal contempt in Britain. Johnson was very much his own man, one who refused to bow to the expectations placed on him by the white ruling classes. His success made him a global star. In 1911, he was set to fight Britain's 'Bombardier' Billy Wells in London.
But there was a considerable backlash to the prospect of a white man facing a black opponent on British soil. Home Secretary Winston Churchill was lobbied by many – including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Lonsdale – to step in and stop the fight from happening. On 26 September, Churchill bowed to this pressure and declared the bout to be illegal (Johnson would eventually fight on European soil in France and Spain, but never Britain).
Churchill's decision did not just put a stop to the Johnson–Wells fight: it set a precedent that would be used again and again to stop "coloured" fighters competing for the British title. It would be almost 37 years before it was repealed, eventually falling to mounting public and press opposition.
The repeal also owed much to the changes occurring in British society at the time. World War II was not long past and Britain had overwhelmingly rejected Churchill's Conservatives to give the Labour Party their first parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, SS Windrush brought large groups of West Indian migrants to these shores in 1948. The country was changing and boxing was forced to adjust accordingly, even if some within the sport still did not agree with white men fighting people of other races.
This opened the door for Dick Turpin, whose career was peaking at just the right time. His British title fight against Hawkins came only one month after he had knocked out Richard Bos Murphy of New Zealand to become Empire champion. Turpin's star was in the ascendancy.
And, on 28 June 1948, he out-fought Hawkins in front of 40,000 people at Villa Park. The fight took place in pouring rain, with both boxers slipping on the drenched canvas. The significance of Turpin simply competing for a British title was made evident by the BBC's decision to cover the fight on radio. The Birmingham Gazette described the event as the "Midlands' biggest boxing attraction for many years", and his achievement was even mentioned in the African-American press.
Turpin made successful defences of both titles over the following 12 months. He eventually lost the Commonwealth belt in 1949, and his landmark British title a year later. After retiring he remained in the sport, becoming a trainer for his talented younger brother Randolph. This would prove a hugely successful move, with the younger Turpin rapidly developing into a top-class boxer. In 1951, he stunned Sugar Ray Robinson to win the World Middleweight title.
For this momentous upset, Randolph is the better-remembered Turpin brother. But Dick's achievement in 1948 should not be forgotten. After an unforgivable period of racial exclusion, his win over Vince Hawkins began a new era for British boxing.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.