Len Johnson collection

Scope and Content

Len Johnson collection comprising:

  • Biographical material : Correspondence between Len Johnson and Gilbert Odd regarding Len's autobiography; 6 page autobiography about his early life; Handwritten autobiographical notes; Driving licence; Photocopies of entries in the relevant registers of parents' marriage, Albert and Len's births and Len and Annie's marriage; Postcard address to Mr Lenin from the Klu Klux Klan; Signed souvenir programme and farewell supper concert of the Civil Defence Reserve (Nov 1944); Frontline Culture and Education's Len Johnson project material; Poem 'Small World' by Joe Smythe mentioning Len Johnson; Photocopy of Jim Arnison's obituary of Len Johnson in the Morning Star (30 Sep 1974); Photograph of a young Len Johnson; Photography of a cartoon by Len
  • Len Johnson's boxing career : Scrapbook with press cuttings, includes a record of his fights; Loose press cuttings; Programmes for boxing tournaments; Posters for boxing tournaments and a wresting match; Photographs and postcards; Records of Len Johnson's fights from various sources
  • Len Johnson's political career :
    • Communist Party of Great Britain involvement, including election addresses and leaflets
    • New International Society involvement, including background information and leaflets
    • Pan African Congress 1945 - including declarations and resolutions adopted by the 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester 13-21 October 1945, photographs and autographs of delegates to the congress and articles
    • Paul Robeson passport campaign - News release from the Civil Rights Congress in New York (12 Oct 1949) and a blank Paul Robeson passport petition (to be returned to Len Johnson)
  • Len Johnson's writing career - Unpublished script, Autobiographical articles, 'Battling Kid' stories
  • Michael Herbert biography - Research notes and correspondence for Michael Herbert's book on Len Johnson 'Never Counted Out'

Administrative / Biographical History

Len Johnson was born in Manchester in October 1902. His father was William Johnson, who was an African seaman from Sierra Leone, while his mother was Margaret Maher from Manchester. After leaving the merchant navy Billy Johnson had worked as a boxer on fairground boxing booths and after a spell in engineering, Len eventually followed him into the trade. His professional career lasted from 1922 to 1933. He was an outstanding middle-weight boxer and he defeated some of the best men of the day, including the British middleweight champion Roland Todd and the European middle-weight champion Leon Jaccovacci.

Despite his talent and success he was not allowed to fight for British titles because of his colour. The British Board of Boxing Control barred black boxers - even though born in Britain - for fighting for British titles. Despite controversy the rule was not changed until after the end of the Second World War.

After retiring from the ring Len devoted himself to his boxing booth, which had already been touring for a number of years, appearing at fairs up and down the country. He gave up the booth when World War Two started and worked in Civil Defence. After the war he worked as a bus driver and later a lorry driver.

Towards the end of the War Len joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). In the early 1930s Len had come to know Paul Robeson, the American singer, actor and political activist and it seems likely that it was his influence that pushed Len towards the party.

Len stood for the CPGB in the Moss Side ward six times between 1947 and 1962, though with no success, attracting only a small vote. In 1945 he attended the meeting of the Pan-African Congress in Chorlton-upon-Medlock Town Hall, an important gathering which laid the basis for anti-colonial movements in the British Empire. In the late 1940s he helped set up the New International Society, which for a few years was both a social club and also a campaigning organisation on issues such as racial discrimination and the treatment of black people in the United States, South Africa and in Britain's colonies.

In his later years Len suffered much ill-health and he died Oldham in 1974.


Series 1: Biographical material
Series 2: Boxing career
Series 3: Political involvement
Series 4: Writing career
Series 5: Michael Herbert biography
Series 6: Miscellaneous papers

Access Information

Open for consultation.

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To book an appointment, telephone: 0161 736 3601 or email: info@wcml.org.uk .

Other Finding Aids

The full catalogue is available online on the Working Class Movement Library's Web Site - www.wcml.org.uk/catalogue/adlib-catalogue

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Geographical Names