Background Information on Larry Gains
Larry Gains was born in Cabbagetown, Toronto in Canada, a relatively deprived neighbourhood with an older sister and his parents. He was the descendant of African-American slaves who had bravely escaped across the Canadian border for their freedom. Larry’s paternal uncle Walter had been the amateur heavyweight champion of Canada. Larry began his own amateur career aged 20 when he joined Toronto’s Praestamus Club, an organisation for Black boxers.
After a hugely successful amateur career in Canada, Larry left his home and family in Toronto in 1923 to launch his professional boxing career in England. Larry made his passage to Britain in a cattle boat and then made his debut in London as the ‘The Toronto Terror’ against Frank Moody at The Ring on Blackfriars Road, Southwark. Larry then went on fight matches throughout France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Poland until he embarked on a tour of fights in North America in 1926.
Prior to returning to North America, Larry married Lisa, a white German woman, who he met in Cologne during 1925. Larry left Europe without Lisa, who later went on to have their first child Betty before they were reunited in Canada in 1927. The couple went on to have three more children, Harold, Anne and Jack. Despite coming from different countries and cultures as well as having to be intermittently separated due to Larry’s boxing career, the couple enjoyed a long and happy marriage and were trailblazers in challenging societal conceptions of interracial relationships.
In 1928, Larry won the Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World title in a fight against George Godfrey in Toronto. He continued to tour North America until he returned to Europe in late 1929 and settled in Leicester the following year.
While living and training in Leicester, Larry accomplished a number of spectacular victories and achievements. One of his notable fights in Leicester was against Phil Scott in front of 30,000 spectators at Leicester Tigers’ Welford Road ground in 1931. He spectacularly defeated Scott taking the British Empire title. He cemented his hold on the title with a victory over white South African Donald McCorkindale at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Larry was in fact the first Black boxer to fight at the Royal Albert Hall.
In 1934, Larry experienced the extremes of fascism and liberalism as well as racial tolerance and intolerance within Europe at the time. In this year, Larry beat Italian boxer Primo Carnera in front of 70,000 people at White City, London, a British record attendance for a boxing match. Larry’s victory was even more spectacular because Carnera had an advantage of 60 pounds in weight and four inches in height over Larry. This fight refuted fascist claims of white racial supremacy that was promoted by the National Fascist Party under Benito Mussolini who had governed Italy since 1922.
When Larry returned to Leicester after his victory over Carnera, he was met by crowds of cheering local people. He was then paraded around the city centre in an open-topped car and taken to the Prince’s Theatre where he was greeted by the Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Leicester. In his autobiography, Larry remembered it as ‘a very good way to come home’.
In 1934, Larry and his wife went on holiday away from their home in Leicester to Lisa’s hometown of Cologne in Germany. During this holiday, Larry was confronted by the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi while visiting a local pub. After he heard the men within the pub greet each other with ‘Heil Hitler’, Larry genuinely had not heard of Hitler before and asked who he was, to which one man responded by holding a revolver gun to Larry’s chest for insulting Hitler. This situation was soon defused by the intervention of one of Larry’s old German acquaintances. After this trip, Larry decided not to return to Germany for many years until he said ‘the world became a saner place’.
Larry won the Coloured Heavyweight Champion of the World title again in 1935 against Obie Walker at Welford Road Stadium, Leicester. However, his boxing career began drawing to a close with the advent of the Second War World during which Larry joined the British army as a physical training instructor and later served as a Sergeant Major in the Pioneer Corps in the Middle East.
By the end of the war, Larry had officially retired from boxing and settled back into family life in Essex and later London. He died in 1983 whilst visiting family in Cologne, Germany but his achievements in boxing were not forgotten and he was posthumously inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
Background Information on Black Presence in 1930s Britain
Prior to the docking of the SS Windrush in 1948, Britain was already home to a small population of Black migrants. The interwar years, during which Larry Gains had moved to Britain, was a particularly turbulent time for Black people in Britain as economic depression and right-wing fascist ideology swept Europe and heightened existing racial prejudices.
Black presence in Britain increased during and after the First World War with an influx of Black seamen, munitions and other workers particularly in British sea ports. This influx led to the earliest riots in modern history during 1919 in Cardiff, Liverpool and other British sea ports, as returning white soldiers blamed newly settled Black workers over the scarcity of employment opportunities. In response to the race riots and escalating racial tensions, the British Government repeatedly raised proposed repatriation schemes to appease discontented white Britons. Restrictive laws such as the Aliens’ Order 1920 and the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order 1925 was enacted to check any further influxes of Black people.
In the absence of effective efforts to tackle racial tensions between the white and the established Black migrant communities, race riots occurred again in 1935 over discriminatory employment practices and the misapplication of the Alien Acts where seamen of undisputed British nationality were classified as aliens.
These riots in part contributed to the rise of the first race relations organisation in Britain, which emerged during the 1930s. The two leading organisations of the period were the Joint Council to Promote Understanding between White and Coloured Peoples in Great Britain and the League of Coloured Peoples, which were both established in 1931. The Joint Council was founded by the Quakers and was modelled on the South African Joint Councils. The League of Coloured Peoples was founded by Dr Harold Moody, a long time Black resident in Britain and curiously had more white members than Black during the 1930s.