FOR cinemagoers of a certain age, and for anyone with an interest in the movie history, the image of the Rank Organisation’s gong man will be imprinted in their memories.

The gong man was the logo of the Rank Organisation, the largest production and distribution house in the history of British cinema and the only film company in the English-speaking world ever to rival the giant Hollywood studios in size and output.

Rank’s films always announced themselves with the same image.

A muscular, bare-torsoed man slowly strikes a vast gong, twice.

As an iconic logo, it easily stood out alongside 20th Century Fox’s searchlights or the Paramount mountain.

The half-light and deep shadow in the clip contributed to the sense of mystery and pending drama.

The gong man was a promise that something really big was about to happen – thought there were times when the gong-striking intro proved the best part of the film.

The man striking the gong was 6ft 3ins tall Bombardier Billy Wells, one of the most celebrated English boxers of the 20th century.

Rank chose him because he was a figure with high recognition factor, a man who conveyed an automatic sense of drama, even before he struck the big gong.

He was not just a sporting hero. He was someone who had also been at the centre of a news story that rocked the world.

Wells was born and raised a Cockney, and was often known as Bermondsey Billy.

But Bermondsey Billy, it turns out, was actually Billy of Leigh.

Recent research by author Bob Lonkhurst for his soon-to-bepublished book, Big Fight Banned, has unearthed a local link, never before suspected.

At the height of his fame, just before the First World War, Bombardier Billy Wells lived in Leigh.

Lonkhurst’s book covers the build-up to Billy’s most famous confrontation, one where the real battle took place outside the ring.

The uproar created by the Mills-Johnson contest, a fight that ultimately never happened, gives a shocking insight into the casual bigotry that existed at the time.

In America, black boxers had dominated in the ring since the 1870s.

For decades, the search had been on for a figure promoters habitually dubbed “the Great White Hope”, a white boxer capable of winning the World Heavyweight Championship.

In 1910, Billy Wells, a career soldier who had won the British Army of India boxing championship, was identified by newspapers as the next Great White Hope. It was the first time a British boxer had been fitted up for this role.

The reigning heavyweight champion was the black American Jack Johnson.

Johnson arrived in London for the fight in 1911, and started training, also in Essex – at pub in Chingford.

By now opposition was building. Newspapers claimed Johnson had been offered “a king’s ransom” in cash to take a fall, and allow Wells to win.

Opposition to the fight was led by Baptist church leader Frederick Meyer, who opposed the notion of “a battle between the races”.

The battle turned political when the leader of the London County Council gave his opinion: “The sight of a black man pounding a white man cannot be considered for public entertainment.”

A number of colonial governors suggested the fight could even lead to unrest in parts of the British Empire.

Eventually, the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, stepped in to officially ban the Wells-Johnson match.

After that, no contest between a white man and a black man was seen in a British ring until 1947.


All the time the debate raged, Bombardier Billy Wells was living and training in Leigh.

He had followed the welltrodden path taken by many East Enders, from Bermondsey to the Essex coast, though he also appears to have been drawn by the excellent training facilities offered by the Elms public house, in London Road, Leigh.

Southend publicans had a reputation at the time as sporting entrepreneurs at the time – the landlord at the Blue Boar, in Victoria Avenue was instrumental in creating Southend United, whose Roots Hall ground is just around the corner.

Exactly where Billy lived is unclear, but he may well have lodged with the family of his promoter, City businessman Hugh McIntosh.

He trained by running and walking around the streets of Leigh and at low tide, on the estuary mud.

Billy, the supposed embodiment of manliness, was something of a wimp, however, when it came to the weather. He would later recall: “When it was raining, I tried to persuade my trainer to let us work indoors.”

A daily hearty lunch at the Elms – still a noted eaterie, known for its generous portions – was viewed as a key part of the Wells training regime.

His would, typically, consist of a joint of beef or lamb, plenty of greens, plus “good country ale on hand to wash it all down”. The meal would rounded off with tapioca pudding and custard.

It was during his time in Leigh Billy developed a second career, as an actor.

Echo: Striking build – Billy Wells in his days in the ring

A number of leading men had begun their careers as sporting heroes. A theatrical impresario, Billy McNamara, was struck by Wells’s “good looks and manly bearing”, and thought he, too, might be a natural for the stage.

Billy Wells made his debut as Jack Bandon, described as “both a fighter and a gentleman” and hero of a three-act play called Wanted-A-Man.

Wells surprised everyone by indeed having a good deal of aptitude for acting. The play opened at the Hackney Empire, to glowing reviews.

One critic wrote: “Billy scored a singular success as an actor and was something of a surprise. As a boxer, Billy is one of the most nervous people who ever entered a ring, but on the stage, he was confidence itself.”

After this success, Billy was snapped up by film-makers.

His boxing career wound down in 1925, but he continued to perform in front of the camera until 1937.

His films, all boxing-related, have titles such as Kent – Fighting Man, and the Great Game.

Echo: Idol – Billy Wells was even portrayed on cigarette cards

So thus, his famous muscles made him a natural for the role of the gongman when Rank Studios came up with its trademark in 1936. Billy’s working life straddled silent films and the talkies, yet ironically, in his most enduring role, he remains silent...letting the gong make all the noise. Or so it seemed.

In reality, even this was an illusion.

Billy Wells was real enough, but that giant gong was actually made of plastic, the sound dubbed on afterwards.

  • Big Fight Banned by Rob Lonkhurst will be published on November 21. £16.00 ISBN 078 1 9 10603 47 6