British boxing lost one of its finest bantam title-holders in the tragic Bethnal Green tube disaster of 1943
ASTRIKING new memorial has been unveiled at Bethnal Green tube station in London’s East End. It consists of an inverted full-size replica of the station’s staircase made from teak. Carved into the wood is a list of surnames and 173 small holes to allow light through. Each hole signifies a life lost in the worst civilian disaster of World War II. The event took place in 1943, when 173 men, women and children were crushed to death on the station’s stairs. Among them was the ex-british bantamweight champion Dick Corbett.
Recently, Boxing News included Corbett in its 100 Greatest British Boxers publication, but he is not well known among modern fans. So who was this champion the boxing world lost that day?
Corbett was born Richard Coleman in Bethnal Green on September 28, 1908. As an amateur he boxed for Bethnal Green’s famous Repton club, but turned pro in 1926, aged 17. His elder brother, British featherweight titlist Harry Corbett, used the Corbett pseudonym as a nod to the famous world heavyweight champ “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, so Dick followed suit.
Corbett had at least 66 bouts in his first three years as a pro, winning the majority. Then in the summer of 1929, he secured a string of fights in Australia. These, he recalled, were what really made his name. There Dick outpointed two Americans, Pinky Silverberg and the highly rated Johnnie Green, along with three top Australians. Even more impressively, Corbett drew with future world featherweight champ (and Hall of Fame inductee) Petey Sarron.
Back in Britain, the wins kept on coming. Dick beat former world flyweight champ Emile Pladner, ex-british bantam title-holder Kid Pattenden, future European king Petit Biquet and the brilliant Newcastle fighter, Benny Sharkey. He also captured the vacant Empire bantam crown with a points win over Willie Smith of South Africa.
But the fight Corbett longed for was a title showdown with British bantamweight ruler (and fellow East Ender) Teddy Baldock of Poplar. By September 1931, Baldock had relinquished his crown because of weight issues. But he and Dick met in a featherweight bout that drew over 30,000 to Clapton’s greyhound track. By then Teddy was past his best and Corbett had little trouble outpointing him.
Two months later, Dick met Manchester’s Johnny King for the vacant British bantamweight title at Belle Vue, Manchester. Corbett boxed brilliantly to claim the belt with a 15-round decision, but lost it along with his Empire strap in a return with King 10 months later. In a third battle, in February ’34, Dick took back his titles. He defended against King again that August (a draw), winning a Lonsdale Belt outright, before vacating and moving up to feather.
In 1936, Corbett beat the world-class Dave Crowley of Clerkenwell for the Southern Area featherweight crown, but never challenged for national 126lb honours.
Fast-forward to March 3, 1943 and Dick was still boxing professionally. Hearing an air-raid siren that evening, he’d gone to Bethnal Green tube air-raid shelter to look for his wife and children. He arrived to find hundreds of people filing in through the station entrance. To this day, the details of exactly what happened that night are unclear, but it seems the noise of new anti-aircraft rockets being tested nearby sparked panic. People stampeded through the station entrance, causing a landslide of bodies to tumble down the stairs, forming a tangled mass. Near the bottom of the steps, they found Dick Corbett’s body. Like many others, he had died of asphyxiation. He was just 34.
Writer-historian Gilbert Odd called Dick “one of the greatest bantam titleholders we ever had... a superlative exponent of the Noble Art.” In 186 recorded pro bouts (132-37-17), Corbett was never knocked out.