My Grandfather and Islington's Champ Len Harvey (Nominee for Islingtons people Plaque)
By glynrobbo68 | Monday, March 11, 2013, 16:45
Len Harvey with Trainer Wally May
Grandfather and the famous boxer of the 30's Len Harvey
My name is Anthony May and unfortunately I have no living
memory of my grandfather, Walter Henry May, as he died when I was only
2-years-old. But thanks to his notoriety at the time, his story appeared in
numerous newspapers, books and magazines, and I owe a special thanks to Glyn
Roberts for his recent research into Len Harvey and my grandfather.
Wally May knew Len Harvey throughout Len's professional
boxing career. They met when Len was a young man, after he moved with his
family from Cornwall to Chalk Farm, which was very close to where my
grandfather lived in Camden Town, London.
As Wally was a trainer, lived close and followed the boxing
circuits, he crossed paths with Harvey many times. But since Len already had a trainer Wally
wasn't involved in his early career – though I believe he knew instinctively
that the young man had promise and was destined to become a champion.
When Len reached boxing heights and was becoming a
household name it was decided he should venture to America. But this was the 1930s, when those involved with
organised crime called the shots. Harvey was odds-on favourite to win the contests he was entered
for, but with only three fights in the USA, dubious point decisions were soon given against him. It
didn't help that Len always respected the other fighter and would never
demoralise or knock out early in a fight to an angry, paying crowd. But he
wanted to entertain them, showing off his pugilistic skills, in defence especially,
he seemed to give his opponent a second chance – a rarity at a time when boxers
where commonly known as sluggers and brutes. Len's unique style and ring behaviour were noted by Gilbert
Odd, at the time a famous boxing correspondent. He called Len "The Prince of
Boxers" and later wrote a book with the same title.
Len had to make a dramatic exit from America – a story,
and, indeed, an adventure in its own right. Gilbert Odd wrote that Len had been
well and truly taken for a ride by the gangster influence that appeared to hold
New York boxing in its grip.
With the drama and fight losses in America, Len realised the odds were stacked against him. But still
under contract he decided to do a "moonlight flit" on a ship bound for England, or so the story goes…
After losing his third fight following another dubious
decision, with the help of its staff Len slipped away from the hotel by way of
the goods lift, hiding in luggage trolleys and strolling past the Hoodlums in
As part of the getaway plan, he managed to board the
American boat The Leviathan which was docked in the New York, being American the thugs would first search the British
and French boats, with the Captain agreeing to help, stowing him in the Captains
Bridge, making it impossible for unwanted guests to search.
Like the best motion picture thriller the boat left the
dock slowly, as others nearby were being searched. Gilbert Odd has written
about this in more detail. I've heard snippets that cannot be verified, of the
flashing of guns and car chasing through New York – all classic elements of a cheap pulp fiction novel.
While escaping back to England Gilbert wrote that Len turned to his wife and,
going pass the Statue of Liberty, remarked: "for me this is the best part of
the trip – going home."
Back at home, however, he was a nearly forgotten fighter –
cue Wally May's return into what would be Len's second coming. Who approached
who is not quite clear but with Wally's new, revolutionary methods away from
sweaty gyms Len entered a career renaissance, training outdoors in the fresh
air and taking cold water dips and ice baths for muscle recovery. At a time
when the majority of people, including the British Press, had written him off
as a has been, a flash in the pan, Len reminded people of his pugilistic
greatness, reaching heights because of Wally that even he didn't think
With his new training regime, innate boxing talent and
great determination Len won three Lonsdale belts outright, becoming
British-middle, light-heavy and heavy-weight champion. The only other boxer to
achieve this feat was Bob Fitzsimmons, also from Cornwall, in the 1890s. Under Wally's training Len also became the
record holder for the world's strongest grip.
The relationship between Len and Wally remained close until
my grandfather's final days. One of Len's biggest complements to his dominative
friend was, "If only I had a punch like you, Wally." In a further recognition
of his influence, the champion said:
"All the credit for my fighting fitness in the ring must go
to my trainer, Wally May."