William Thomas Wells (1889 – 1967), was an English heavyweight boxer. Fighting under the name “Bombardier Billy Wells“, he was British and British Empire Champion from 1911 until 1919, defending his title fourteen times. Wells was also famous for being the person to fill the role of the “Gongman” – the figure seen striking the gong in the introduction to J. Arthur Rank films.
Wells was born in the East End of London. He attended elementary school, until about the age of twelve, when he began to box as an amateur during this period.
In 1906, Wells joined the Royal Artillery as a gunner. He was posted to Rawalpindi where he boxed in divisional and all-India championships, with great success. He was promoted to a bombardier, and began training full-time with the help of a civilian coach. It became apparent that Wells was good enough to make a living from boxing, so in 1910, he bought himself out of the army and returned to Britain.
This was at a time when boxing was becoming very popular as a spectator sport, in Britain and elsewhere. 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, 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 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.
Wells fought for the British Heavyweight Title, in April 1911 against Iron (William) Hague, the holder, and Wells won by a knockout in the sixth round of twenty. In December 1911, Wells fought Fred Storbeck at Covent Garden for the British Empire Heavyweight Title, scoring a knockout in the eleventh round to gain his second title in one year. Wells continued to box and successfully defend his British heavyweight title, even after the start of World War I.
His boxing career wound down in 1925, but he continued to perform in front of the camera. 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. A number of leading men had begun their careers as sporting heroes.
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. He was obviously a big movie fan as well. He had uncredited bit parts in Hitchcock’s The Ring (1927), King Vidor’s The Citadel (1938), George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1941), Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). His films, all boxing-related, have titles such as Kent – Fighting Man, and the Great Game. His apotheosis in the movies, was playing the hangman in Peter Brooks’ The Beggar’s Opera (1953) with Laurence Olivier.
So thus, his famous muscles made him a natural for the role of the gongman, from 1936 until 1947. The gongman was the logo of the Rank Organisation, the largest production and distribution house in the history of British cinema. The gongman film logo sequence depicts a muscular, bare-torsoed man slowly strikes a vast gong, with a deep resonant sound, twice. It was used as the introduction to all Rank films.
Bombardier Billy Wells, lived in Ealing, London and died there on 11 June 1967, aged 77. His ashes were laid to rest in the crypt of St. Mary’s parish church in Hanwell, west London.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Bombardier Billy Wells
“Southend Standard”: Leigh pub’s famous boxer became Rank’s gong man
“Requited” Issue 14: The Gong Show
Wikipedia: Rank Organisation
Library of Congress