The Story of Jewish Boxing in London by Jeff Jones
Almost a century ago, two men walked out of the Pitfield Street public baths, in Hoxton on the northern edge of London’s East End. It was December 1929. A raw winter’s night. Bleak it was, like the surroundings. They pulled up their collars against the biting wind and stepped into the late evening’s freezing air. An hour or so earlier they had been in the warm confines of the baths but these two men had not been swimming. Any water they experienced was that which was splashed into their faces between the rounds of boxing they had fought against each other.
By the late 1920’s it was common for London public baths to host boxing matches. During the mid-winter period, baths would be boarded over and rings set up to stage some quite decent quality boxing matches. There were around fifteen baths in the London area that were used to stage boxing matches from the beginning of the twentieth century. That is an awful lot of venues and boxing could be seen at these places throughout each week. Between the two world wars, London boxing was a huge attraction and by far and away the most watched sport by London audiences. Pitfield Street Baths was just one of many venues that helped satisfy the demand for the sport.
On the pavement outside of baths, the two men turned to face each other, a few words were politely exchanged and there was a brief shaking of hands before they walked towards the two cars that were waiting for them. Climbing into the cars they drove away through the London streets leaving both the baths and their boxing careers behind them.
The slightly elder of the two boxers, Johnny Basham, was off home to enjoy his retirement in South Wales. A veteran of 84 fights, he was one of Britain’s finest welterweight and middleweight boxers around during that decade. His opponent that night was making the short journey to his London home. Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, had just fought the last of his 299 fights at a venue less than a couple of miles away from where it all began twenty years previously.
Lewis and Basham were old adversaries having fought each other four times over the previous nine years. One of their fights being regarded by many as the greatest British and European welterweight title fights of the century at that time. They were made for each other. Lewis the powerhouse fighter, all grit, guile, and aggression, pitted against the skilful arts and sublime ringcraft of the classic boxer that was Basham. Lewis won all four. It was no surprise. Lewis tended to beat any British boxer that stepped into the ring to face him. Lewis was another class. World class. His record is there for all to see and was written at a time when boxers started to ply their trade both nationwide and further afield.
The top fighters in those days could, and often did, fight as many as twenty or thirty fights a year. Today’s top professionals perhaps fight just two or three. Lewis’ record of 299 recorded fights over a twenty -year career would be unthinkable today. Even more impressive is that he competed at six different weight levels and held the British crown at four of them. It was though, at welterweight that the ‘the Kid’ truly excelled. Two of the four wins against Johnny Basham were at welterweight.
As good as Basham was, his four defeats emphasised the point that he never reached the same heights as Ted. In this country Lewis was as good as a boxer could be. At an early stage in Ted’s career, he knew that he could only be regarded as a world great if he could repeat his exploits abroad. Fifteen years earlier, back in May 1914, Lewis left these shores to pursue this ambition by fighting in Australia before going on to America. He was not to return for over five years. When he did it was as a World star.
In his early career, as an up-and-coming boxer In Britain, Lewis was used to fighting in places not too far from each other. As a young teenage professional, the vast majority of his fights were a tram-ride or even just a short walk from his childhood home in Aldgate, Whitechapel. In fact, he never travelled outside the capital until his 29th fight. He then travelled, for him, the huge distance to Liverpool and duly lost. It was though, still early days for Ted. Over the next eighteen months, Lewis fought sixty-five times, losing only three matches.
Lewis was heading up and onto pastures new. His rapid rise started to catch the eye of boxing promoters from much further afield than London.
One can only wonder what went through the twenty-one-year-old Lewis’ mind when he arrived in Australia. Brought up in the crowded slums in the predominantly Jewish quarter of London’s East End he had left a heavily industrialised country for the huge open expanses of Australia. Although the automobile had made its arrival on the London streets a few years earlier, in Australia you could go weeks, even months, before seeing one. Even when he moved on to America, horses far outnumbered cars on their roads. It meant long distances could be slow and uncomfortable so it made it all the more remarkable when you look at the ‘Kids’ record when taking this into account.
This is a transcript from Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis American records book. It covers two months from early 1916:
As you can see, a few thousand miles travelled there and almost 100 rounds of boxing. You will also see the name of Jack Britton. His name is down there twice. Lewis often fought the same boxer a lot more than just the once. Johnny Basham faced him four times. A few men boxed five or six times against him. Jack Britton outdid them all. In six years of intense rivalry that included several changes of the World welterweight crown between the two of them, they faced off against each other an incredible twenty times.
It is generally acknowledged that this series of fights was the greatest ever seen, surpassing the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson’s series of six fights against The Raging Bull, Jake Le Motta. It is universally acknowledged that nothing like this Lewis v Britton series of contests will ever be seen again.
During his American adventure where he fought and mainly defeated the best welter and middleweights around, ‘The Kid’ also rubbed shoulders with some of the stars of stage and screen. Charlie Chaplin was godfather to one of Ted’s kids. The great charismatic Jack Dempsey, one of America’s great heavyweights was a close friend of Lewis. He enjoyed the status he acquired stateside and the lifestyle that went with it.
Arriving back in Britain in November 1919, he had nothing more to prove to the British public. Like Britain’s other boxing superstar of the times, the diminutive but quite brilliant Jimmy Wilde, Ted’s place in boxing’s hall of fame was assured. His first fight back in this country was, appropriately enough, a Boxing Day match against another great Jewish middleweight, Matt Wells. Yet again another British challenger was duly dispatched.
As a new decade dawned, Lewis was at the peak of his powers. Back in Great Britain, he dominated the middleweight ranges. He had the unnerving ability of increasing and decreasing his weight to fit into a specific weight range at any one time. First relinquishing a championship belt, to win another one at another weight. A few months or a year would go by before he would again relinquish one belt to reclaim another.
During this period, he fought at any weight range from welterweight to light-heavyweight. His light-heavyweight title was gained at the expense of Hugh “Boy” McCormick in 1922. McCormack was a big strong opponent but no match for Lewis. The contest was simply a means to an end for Lewis, as he had already set up a championship fight at that weight against probably France’s greatest ever fighter, the supremely talented boxer and War hero, Georges Carpentier for the European championship. It proved to be a weight too far and the Frenchman caught ‘The Kid’ cold in the first round.
Ted slipped down the weights again and continued winning some impressive fights at middleweight. In July 1924, Lewis again went for the British welterweight title and took on the tough Scottish fighter, Hamilton Brown. One of Ted’s last great matches saw him regain the British welterweight title for the third time in a real humdinger of a fight at a packed Royal Albert Hall. Lewis had little to prove but fought on for a further five years. Gone were the thirty plus matches a year but Ted racked up another twenty fights in that time. The end of the decade approached, as did his retirement.
I don’t know if Johnny Basham and Ted arranged to meet again to retire together. Unlikely I suspect. They surely would have picked a more prestigious venue than some baths in Hoxton. Perhaps they both had it in mind. They were professional to the end and maybe it was fate that they met. I would like to think so. Neither boxer had pre-announced it. In reality, and in common with fighters of this era, it was probably just another payday and not a big one at that.
The Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis’ journey had been a long and prolific one. An exemplary career for someone who, as a young teenage Jewish lad from deepest East London, was once told by a friendly copper who admonished him for street fighting, ‘Get off the Street and into a gym, it will do you a world of good’
Ted took his advice, Joined the Judean Boxing Club and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jeff Jones's book Stars and Scars: The Story of Jewish Boxing in London is available for purchase now.