Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Why did a Jewish Boxing champion align himself with British Fascism?
Credit - Getty Images
Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis was Born Gershon Mendelhoff in October 1893, he was the third of eight children, his Jewish parents having fled persecution in their native Russia.
Growing up poor in Victorian East London he suffered a constant torrent of Anti Semitic abuse. It’s said that it was one of these incidents that ultimately led to his boxing career.
Goaded by local children Ted fought back with his fists. Legend has it that a policeman, upon breaking up the fight was so impressed with Ted he took him personally to the local gym to have him trained as a fighter.
He then found a home fighting out of the Judean Athletic Club and began competing as 'Kid Lewis', supposedly in homage to the great welterweight champion and fellow Jewish fighter Harry Lewis.
After turning professional aged 14 in 1910 he went on to amass a stunning professional record of 191-32-14.
He became British, European and World Welterweight champion, as well as making transatlantic headlines with his epic series against Jack Britton.
He even tried his hand at heavyweight and Light Heavyweight. His 1922 Challenge of Georges Carpentier for the world light-heavyweight belt was to see a stop to these ambitions, he lost by a first round knockout.
He retired in 1929 having grown to be considered one of Britain’s best ever. Mentioned in the same breath and Fitzsimmons and Sayers, some even considered him the best since the wild bare knuckle days of Jack Broughton.
Lewis Lands a Left.
Oswald Mosley’s rise on the other hand was far less meteoric and far more aristocratic. Born three years after Lewis he was not the son of poor refugees, instead he was landed gentry. He inherited the title of 6th Baronet, which granted him the prefix ‘Sir’. His Nobel lineage and hereditary wealth can be traced all the way back to Ernald de Mosley of Bushbury, Staffordshire, in the time of King John in the 12th century.
Oswald’s political ambition started on the fields Flanders, like most aristocrats in 1914 Mosley had entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst and been sent to fight in the First World War.
In 1918 he entered parliament as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Harrow. Soon seen as a malcontent by the Tory establishment, in the same year Lewis lost to Carpentier, Mosley lost his battle with conservatism. In a fall out over Irish policy he would cross the floor to sit as an independent from 1922-1924.
In 1924 he joined the official opposition, the Labour Party but was soon deselected for being as Leader Stanley Baldwin put it "a cad and a wrong 'un".
He soon sat again in Parliament, winning the Smethwick By Election as a Labour candidate. This time he found a more friendly establishment and was eventually promoted to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position without Portfolio, but he was tasked with solving unemployment.
Mosley wins Smethwick.
He began to embrace a more radical nationalism and most of his reforms were blocked, in 1931 he was so Dissatisfied with the Labour Party, Mosley broke away and founded the ‘New Party’
This is where he found himself courting support like never before. The organisation gained support among a handful of Labour and Conservative politicians who agreed with his corporatist economic policy, most notably though he convinced the Daily Mail newspaper, headed at the time by Harold Harmsworth (later created 1st Viscount Rothermere.
It claimed amongst its ranks an eclectic support in its early days, most enraptured by Moseley electric oratory. It’s rallies were stocked with everything from career politicians to racist cranks, from members of the aristocracy to retired sportsmen.
Ted Lewis, was a member of the last category. He saw New Party as a break with old politics that had led Britain into a disastrous war and failed to look after the men who fought.
Upon finding out he had a pugilistic supporter, Mosley saw a unique opportunity to create a new organisation.
Mosley had become a great admirer of Italian Fascism and its leader Benito Mussolini. He was impressed by his Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale, better known as the ‘Blackshirts’, an army of loyal footmen who did his maniacal bidding. Determined to establish his own version, Mosley founded the less menacing sounding ‘Biff Boys’.
The ‘Biff Boys’
Alongside former England rugby Captain Peter Howard Ted was to train the quasi-military group in fitness and hand to hand combat.
Stephen Dorril, Author of Blackshirt: Sir Oswald Mosley and British Fascism, explained their Role; “They were a kind of honour guard at Mosley's meetings, Certainly, the synthesis of brain and brawn that Mosley sought to portray – he a champion fencer and handy boxer – conformed to this.” The presence of Lewis was to legitimise this image. Of masculinity, of british power.
Lurking underneath this though was the ugly reality of what the New Party would soon become, the British Union of Fascists, with all the vile anti Semitism it spewed.
The new party was already aligning itself with these views, growing ever closer with Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy.
Dorrill explains; "Whether Lewis saw that at all, I don't know. But I suspect he didn't. He liked Mosley because he was a big figure – literally. He did fencing, he'd boxed at Sandhurst, been in the military. Mosley liked to surround himself with muscular men.";
In the 1931 general election Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis actually stood as a candidate for the party in his local Whitechapel and St Georges constituency. He polled only 154 votes.
“In retrospect,” Dorrill argues; “Lewis' support of Mosley does seem extremely unlikely, but at the time he was not alone: Mosley did initially have Jewish [followers] who were genuine in their support of him,"
In 1932 though the bizarre friendship would come crashing down. On the 1st of October 1932 Mosley published ‘The Greater Britain’, Rebranding the New Party as the ‘British Union of Fascists’ and embracing the anti Semitic platform of the European Fascists.
Mosley’s BUF in full uniform.
Outraged, Lewis quit the party in spectacular fashion. Morton Lewis, Ted’s son, described how he was taken along by his father when he went to quit Mosley's movement.
The story involves Lewis violently arguing with Mosley and a pair of his henchmen at their headquarters, leaving the former reeling on the ground and the other two out cold. Then, after leaving, Lewis is described as returning to the building on a whim and knocking out two more of Mosley's guards without provocation.
True or not, this shows the strength of feeling Ted experienced when he was betrayed by Mosley. A proud Jewish man tricked into supporting a nasty anti semite, the embarrassment stung Ted more than the hatred.
The rest of the two men’s lives played out very differently but each remarkably in their own way. Mosley was an outspoken supporter of the Nazi’s and as such was imprisoned for the duration of the war at the personal insistence of his old conservative colleague, the newly elected prime minister, Winston Churchill.
Having supported the enemy and even gotten married in Joseph Goebbels front room, he became a pariah after the war. Although he continued to be a figure in racist political movements his parliamentary career was finished. He moved to France and died 3 December 1980 at Orsay outside Paris.
Ted Kid Lewis went through more trades than most after his brush with Mosley; boxing trainer and manager, bookmaker, haberdasher, a purveyor of wines and spirits, boxing referee,security officer and travel agent all filled his resume.
In the 1960s, Lewis associated, as did most big figures in east London, with Kray twins. Former boxers, they used to invite the old champion to their parties and charity evenings. They also supposedly used him as a decoy when arranging the escape of a fellow criminal from Dartmoor prison.
Lewis and the Kray’s
He spent his last years suffering from Parkinson’s disease in a retirement home for the Jewish elderly, Nightingale House. He died there in October 1970.
These two men lived two of the 20th centuries' most bizarre and interesting lives. They couldn’t have had more different beginnings or endings but yet for one year right in the middle they resided on the same small patch.
The Anti Semite and the Jew, the aristocrat and the refugee, the fascist and the fighter. Temporarily pushed to one another by the turbulent world of the 1930’s. United by the uncontrollable tides of geopolitics and the new phenomena of celebrity and identity politics.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx