Randolph Turpin’s life was a classic rags to riches story that should have had a happy ending. As it turned out, it ended in bankruptcy and tragedy. Born in 1928 in a rented basement flat at 6 Willes Road, Leamington he was christened Randolph Adolphus. His father Lionel came from British Guiana and was descended from West African slaves. Lionel had been badly gassed on the Western Front whilst serving with the King’s Royal Rifles during the Great War. Randolph’s mother Beatrice was a feisty woman whose father Tom Whitehead had in earlier times been one of the old bare-knuckle fighters. The Turpins were the first black family to settle in Leamington and as such were the object of much curiosity and a fair degree of prejudice. Randolph’s brother Jackie recalled how fellow Leamingtonians called his dad Sam, presumably a shortened version of Sambo. Jackie also recalled how local people would address him in pidgin English thinking that he wouldn’t understand the native tongue. The prevailing attitude of the genteel Leamington ladies was made clear when one of them suggested to Beatrice that she might like to hand over one of her three sons so that she could ‘dress him up like a little Indian, in silk pantaloons and a turban and train him to answer the door to visitors’.
Within a year of Randolph’s birth, his father died as a result of his war wounds and his mother struggled to bring up four small children on a war widow’s pension of less than thirty shillings (£1.50) a week. Unsurprisingly, each of the Turpin boys developed a keen interest in boxing. Randolph, commonly known as Randy, started going to Leamington Boys’ Club which had a boxing section run by Gerry (John) Gibbs a local Police Inspector. The young Randy soon developed into one of the finest amateur boxers in the country with a star-studded career, winning national and international honours before deciding to turn professional at the age of eighteen. His manager was George Middleton, a former tool setter from Leamington’s Lockheed factory. George had looked after the boxing interests of all the Turpin boys since their schooldays and remained Randolph’s manager and confidant throughout his career. During the post-war years, Randolph Turpin was practically invincible and in 43 professional bouts was only defeated once. In those years the British Boxing Board of Control operated a strict colour bar in the sport which meant that only men born of white parents could compete for any of the British or Empire titles. This was enforced until 1947 when for the first time talented black boxers could challenge for the major trophies on equal terms. Fight fans gave Randy the nickname the ‘Leamington Licker’. He trained in a gym over the Nelson Club in Warwick alongside his two boxing brothers Dick and Jackie and kept himself in good shape.
By 1950 he had become Britain’s most exciting prospect and was talked about in terms of challenging for a world title. So it was that on 10 July 1951 the ‘Leamington Licker’ climbed into the ring at Earls Court in London to challenge a black American, Sugar Ray Robinson, for the middle-weight championship of the world. Robinson’s birth name was Walker Smith Jr but under his adopted persona he was recognised as the best pound-for-pound boxer in history and had lost only one of his 142 professional fights. He enjoyed the trappings of success and arrived in London for the fight weigh-in with a film star’s entourage including his pink Cadillac and his personal hairdresser. By contrast ,Turpin arrived for the world title fight by tube along with George Middleton and his two brothers. Eighteen thousand fight fans crammed into Earls Court and millions tuned their wireless sets to the Home Service of the BBC to listen to Raymond Glendenning’s commentary. In spite of never having boxed beyond nine rounds, Turpin put on a great performance which went a full fifteen rounds at the end of which his arm was held aloft: the ‘Leamington Licker’ was the new world champion. He had won seven of the fifteen rounds with three even. Two days later he came home to Leamington amid scenes of great jubilation. The streets were jammed with people and an estimated twenty thousand people waited in The Parade for him to appear on the town hall balcony. A vampire jet from 65 squadron RAF Honiley performed a victory roll overhead. Now semi-blind, Randy’s elderly mother Beatrice was led on to the balcony by hi’s manager George Middleton. It was the best day in Leamington since VE day and for Randy Turpin the ‘Leamington Licker’, it was to be the highlight of his boxing career.
From fame to poverty
Randy’s days as world champion lasted less than eight weeks. In the re-match with Robinson at the Polo Grounds in New York on 12 September, he lost the title when the fight was stopped in the tenth round. He consolidated his position as one of the top British and Empire boxers and held four titles but the glory days were past. In 1952 Randolph became joint owner of a twenty-nine-bedroomed hotel in Llandudno, and still a married man, he met a pretty Welsh girl name Gwen Price whom he married the following year. Gwen was unfortunately not the only woman that Randolph Turpin became entangled with. There were countless incidents involving Turpin and various women and some of these gave rise to serious charges in the courts. It was estimated that most of the £300,000 he had ea rned in the ring had been frittered away and the Inland Revenue filed a bankruptcy petition against him for unpaid tax. He gave up professional boxing after being knocked out by Yolande Pompey, a Trinidadian, in September 1958. For a while he did the rounds as a wrestler whilst working in George Middleton’s scrapyard as a labourer. He was forced to sell the hotel at a loss of ten thousand pounds and even contemplated selling his world-title and Lonsdale belt .
A sad ending
The former world champion subsequently bought a small transport cafe´ in Russell Street in Leamington where he served up bacon and eggs for lorry drivers. On 17 May 1966 he was found dead in an upstairs room at the cafe´. Death was pronounced due to a gunshot wound to the heart although there was also a bullet wound to his head. A note in Randolph’s hand was pinned to the attic-bedroom door. An inquest was held and the jury returned the verdict that Turpin had ‘taken his own life by shooting himself with a .22 calibre revolver.’ His funeral was held at the nearby Holy Trinity church. The vicar, Rev. E J C Haselden concluded his eulogy with these words: ‘At the height of his career Randolph was surrounded by those who regarded themselves as friends and well-wishers. But he was deserted by many as he lost his position and money. The fickleness of his friends and the incompetent advice must have weighed so heavily upon him that he was forced to desperation. Randolph was a simple man, a naive man and he needed friends to protect him from the spongers. To our shame he was let down. The tragedy is not his failure alone, but the failure of our whole society’. Randolph Turpin’s story is one of the most tragic in British sporting history. He lies buried in Leamington cemetery, with a headstone showing a representation of a boxing ring and his Lonsdale belt. He was just 38 years of age.
Randolph’s father Lionel died in 1929 at the age of thirty-three and is also buried in Leamington Cemetery.
Randolph’s biography entitled ‘The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin‘ was written by Jack Birtley and published in 1975 by New English Library.
Leamington Town Council’s Blue Plaque Committee have erected a Blue Plaque at Randolph’s birthplace, 6 Willes Road, Leamington Spa
In July 2001 a bronze statue of the boxer funded by public subscriptions and sculpted by Carl Payne, was unveiled in the Market Square, Warwick.
Jackie Turpin, Randolph’s younger brother, published his autobiography Battling Jack in 2005 – ISBN 1 84596 064 5
Sugar Ray Robinson died in 1989 at the Brotman Medical Centre in Culver City, California at the age of 67, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.