Wartime Mills’ bombs put him in the headlines
“Colourful” could only be used euphemistically when applied to the life and death of boxing champion and one of the first Sportsmen of the Year chosen by the Association. ANTON RIPPON profiles Freddie Mills
When I was a small boy, it was a family legend. Somewhere in the dim and distant we were related to Freddie Mills.
Alas, despite subsequently establishing ancestors as varied as an MP who represented Great Britain at rifle shooting in the 1908 London Olympics, a man who taught Josiah Spode how to throw a pot, and a 97-year-old Gloucestershire rat catcher, I’ve never found the remotest connection to a world light-heavyweight champion.
Which is a pity, since I’d love to be related to one of the first winners of an SJA sports award. Because back in 1949, Mills, along with cyclist Reg Harris, speedway rider Tommy Price, table tennis player Johnny Leach and racquets champion Jim Dear, was honoured at what was then the Sports Writers’ Association’s first annual sports dinner.
Then again, being related to Mills might have its dark side, considering that the boxer in question was accused, posthumously, of being a modern-day Jack the Ripper.
Was he or wasn’t he? Whichever way you slice it, Frederick Percival Mills was quite a lad.
Plenty of fighters had their grounding in London’s East End, the docklands of Liverpool or the grim Gorbals in Glasgow. But Poole? The genteel English seaside resort hardly seems the place to breed a boy tough enough to reach the very top of professional boxing.
Yet such a boy was born there, and 70 years ago he rose to fame in wartime London, when 40,000 fight fans crammed into White Hart Lane to see him defeat one of Britain’s greatest ever boxers.
That night heralded the arrival of former milkman, 23-year-old Freddie Mills, and brought down the curtain on the great career of Len Harvey, who was fighting the last of more than 400 professional fights.
Mills had made his name fighting on local bills before becoming a full-time professional who battled his way around the halls and fairgrounds of the south coast. But as his career was taking shape, so the world was sliding into war. And after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Mills joined thousands of other young men in the armed forces.
It was a year before he obtained more fights, but in one of them Mills outpointed the British middleweight champion, Jock McAvoy. In normal times his feat would have created headlines, but in August 1940 the nation stood on the brink of invasion, the Battle of Britain just days away. Freddie Mills’ finest hour was not going to make any headlines in the paper-rationed newspapers of the day.
Mills did not box again for eight months, although boxing was obviously on his mind because he wrote to the editor of a boxing newspaper, asking if he could set up a fight in London. The editor passed Mills’s letter to an almost unknown Irishman, John Muldoon, who, despite serving in the RAF as a leading aircraftsman, was still finding time to promote boxing shows at the Royal Albert Hall. In due course, the former Dorset milkman made his London debut, beating Tommy Martin in five rounds.
It was enough for Ted Broadribb, a well-known manager, to take Mills under his wing (Broadribb eventually became Mills’s father-in-law). He moved Mills up a division in a bid to set up a fight with Len Harvey for the British light-heavyweight crown. In a rematch with McAvoy, billed as a final eliminator for Harvey’s titles, Mills scored a first-round knockout.
And so in June 1942, RAF sergeant Freddie Mills faced RAF pilot officer Len Harvey for the British and Empire light-heavyweight titles and, in many people’s eyes, for the world championship as well: the British had never recognised the man whom the Americans had put up for the vacant title.
Both men had little more than a week to prepare: Mills trained in the garden of a pub at Feltham, Middlesex; Harvey at Taplow, near Maidenhead.
Muldoon’s greatest fear was that the weather would be unkind for his first world title fight, but when Mills and Harvey climbed into the ring at just after 7pm on June 20, 1942, the skies were blue, the sun still evident on the kind of English midsummer’s day about which Captain Mainwaring might have said: “It’s what we are fighting for.”
The ring was erected in the centre of the pitch where generations of Tottenham footballers had entertained their fans. Seats were set on the grass, and then spread away to the more conventional accommodation of a football stadium. They held a crowd the size of which would have pleased the Spurs’ directors any Saturday afternoon.
The swarthy, snub-nosed Mills was first to enter the ring, to be greeted by a wall of sound from tens of thousands of sports-starved spectators. The champion received a similar welcome as he strode over to Mills and gave him a pat on the back and a gentle smile. Harvey, who was within a week of his 35th birthday, had not had a serious fight for three years. But he was infinitely more experienced that his opponent.
The first round passed uneventfully enough as the boxers measured up each other, but within a minute of the second round, Mills had the crowd on their feet and Harvey on his knees after exploding a tremendous left hook on the champion’s jaw.
Referee Eugene Henderson was within a fraction of a second of counting Harvey out when the champion made a final, seemingly superhuman, effort to climb to his feet. Mills went in again, arms working like piston rods. Harvey could not defend himself and when Mills landed a right-hander on his opponent’s cheekbone, Harvey leaned back on the ropes for support, sitting on the middle hemp that he flattened against the bottom rope to make an unsteady seat.
Suddenly, the champion of Britain and its empire, and possibly of the world, disappeared from view. As Henderson took up the count again, an almighty drama was being played out down below. Some spectators were wondering whether to help Harvey to his feet; others pointed out that to do so would see him disqualified.
It didn’t really matter. By the time Harvey’s dazed features eventually reappeared above the canvas, Henderson had reached “nine… 10”. Freddie Mills was the champion.
It took Harvey six months to announce that his boxing career was over. After the war, Mills would become the undisputed world champion after an epic battle with the American, Gus Lesnevitch. And he became the first fighter to earn more than £60,000 in the British ring.
After retiring from the ring, Mills remained in the public eye, with walk-on parts in films and TV programmes.
But in July 1965, Freddie Mills was found shot dead in his car outside his London nightclub. Always on the sports pages, in death Mills had finally made front-page news.
Some said it was suicide, others than he was murdered. Dozens of theories sprang up. One was that Mills, married with children, was secretly bisexual, had been arrested in a public lavatory frequented by homosexuals and was facing court on an indecency charge.
It should be said that Ronnie Kray (inevitably, for a London nightclub scandal in the 1960s, there had to be a Kray connection) denied that he and Mills were anything but just good friends. Ronnie’s then wife, Kate Kray, told a reporter: “He said that Freddie was a real man’s man and that he wasn’t that way inclined.”
Another version was that his suicide was staged by Chinese gangsters who wanted to take over his Soho nightclub.
Reformed south London gangster Jimmy Tippet claimed some years ago that his research had shown that Mills was a vicious serial killer, responsible for the brutal deaths of at least eight young women whose naked bodies were found in or around the River Thames between 1959 and his own death.
“Nipper” Read, the detective who would bring the Kray twins to justice, was convinced that Mills committed suicide, but not that he was responsible for the murders. So I might just re-examine that family tree and maybe enlist an SJA winner after all.
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