On 24 July 1965, a car parked in Goslett Yard in Soho was discovered with the body of a man who lay dying from a rifle wound to the right eye. The body was identified to be that of British light-heavyweight legend Freddie Mills, and he was declared dead later that night at Middlesex Hospital.
Born in Dorset, Mills took the hard route to boxing stardom by becoming a professional fighter in a fairground booth, taking on all-comers. It was here he met former British lightweight champion Gipsy Daniels, who passed on hard earned ring experience to Mills.
Crowned light-heavyweight champion in 1948 after defeating American Gus Lesnevich over fifteen rounds at London’s White City Stadium, Mills was of the most popular sportsmen in Britain for twenty years owing to his colourful character outside of the ring and aggressive courage inside it. I’d encourage anyone to look up Fearless Freddie’s fights on YouTube and you’ll see that the term ‘windmilling’ could not be more apt.
Mills amassed a record of seventy-seven wins, eighteen defeats and six draws from a career that spanned from 1937 to 1950, and included victories over Jock McAvoy, Jack London, Len Harvey. He won the British and Commonwealth titles by knocking out Len Harvey at White Hart Lane inside two rounds in 1942 and won his world title four years later at the Haringay Arena, having previously lost his first attempt in 1946.
Mills also made a couple of attempts to move up to the heavyweight division, once against Joe Baksi, (where he gave away 25lb), and later against Bruce Woodcock for the vacant British and Commonwealth titles in 1949. Mills, as brave and tenacious as he was, did not have the physical stature to move up to the heavyweight division being only 5’10½” tall and having a reach of only 72”, statistics that are outdone by most current boxers from middleweight upwards.
Upon his retirement Mills invested heavily in a restaurant in Soho, which later became a club, and it was behind this club that he was found. After his funeral Mills was buried in Camberwell New Cemetery in South London. The coroner ruled that the former world champion had committed suicide, but the mystery surrounding how Freddie Mills met his end is as hazy now as it was back in the 1960s.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that Freddie Mills’ family have always disputed that the former world champion took his own life. Reporter James Hogg made a documentary in 1985 in which the boxer's widow Chrissie Mills said that his behaviour on the day of his death was not conducive of man contemplating suicide. His step-son, Donnie McCorkindale described the coroner’s inqest as a ‘bad detective story’ and was convinced that Mills was shot by an assailant through the open window of his car and the scene was staged to make it look like a suicide.
Professor David Wingate, resident medical officer at Middlesex Hospital the night Mills’s corpse was brought in, concluded from his medical examination that someone had taken the gun off Mills and shot him with it. Interestingly, Professor Wingate was not called to give evidence at the coroner’s inquest. As a result, several theories as to the circumstances of his death sprang up, some plausible and some less so, but all pointed to various degrees of foul play. Of these theories there are four that are often repeated, but to this day, remain unsubstantiated.
The first relates to the Kray twins, rulers of the London underworld during the 1950s and 1960s. According to various sources, the club Mills owned in Soho was suffering financially and he became heavily indebted to the Krays. Chrissie Mills was convinced that her husband fell victim of gangsters who were extorting money from West End club owners at the time – although she does not specifically mention the Krays. James Morton, in his book Fighters: The Sad Lives and Deaths of Freddie Mills and Randolph Turpin (2004) writes that the boxer did indeed take his own life, but it was provoked by the stress caused of being convinced that the Krays were going to kill him. Legend has it that a former wrestler who owned a club in the West End at the same time was also approached and protection money demanded of him, and serious consequences would follow if he refused. But Morton also makes reference to the fact that Mills was suffering from severe headaches and depression, possibly as a result of too many blows to the head, and this made a significant contribution to his adjusted mental state at the time.
A second theory, very similar to the first one, specifies that it was Chinese gangsters that killed Mills and staged it as a suicide. Tony Van Den Bergh claimed in his book, Who Killed Freddie Mills?: A Full-scale Investigation of British Sport’s Most Baffling Crime (1993), that members of London’s Chinese underworld wanted to take Freddie's Soho club and turn it back into a restaurant. This was at a time when London’s Chinatown was just beginning to relocate itself from Limehouse in East London to Soho, but the fact was, Chinese people didn’t inhabit or have any real business links in this part of London, so to resort to murder does seem extreme. Apart Van Den Bergh no one else that I know of has pointed the finger at the London's Chinese underworld.
Moving on to the final two wildly contrasting theories: one claims that Mills was a homosexual and the other a deadly heterosexual. The claim that Mills, a married man with two daughters was secretly a homosexual and had been engaged in a love affair cabaret singer Michael Holliday, was refuted by Ronnie Kray’s then wife Kate. Rumours also spread that Mills and Ronnie Kray were lovers, a rumour that was fiercely denied by the openly bisexual Ronnie Kray. Connected with this was the suggestion that Mills had been arrested in a public toilet, charged with homosexual indecency and killed himself rather than face the consequences of this knowledge entering the public domain. This may seem like an extreme measure, but bear in mind that homosexuality was not decriminalised in the UK until 1967 and attitudes were very different then to now.
The most spectacular theory suggests that Freddie Mills was the unidentified serial killer known simply as ‘Jack the Stripper’. This name was bestowed upon the serial killer who murdered at least eight young prostitutes between 1959 and 1965, removed their clothes (hence the name) and left their naked bodies in and around the River Thames. Mills, believing himself to be close to being identified and apprehended, took the decision to take his own life. Former London crime figure Jimmy Tippett Jr was reportedly writing a book that would shed light on the theory and present evidence that Mills was this night terror, but the work remains unpublished. David Seabrook, in his 2006 book Jack of Jumps, reiterates the fact that any claims made against Mills related to these crimes remains unsubstantiated.
All of these theories make for interesting reading, and it’s frankly surprising that Hollywood hasn’t gotten involved to cash in on the mystery that surrounds Freddie Mills’s death. We will probably never fully know whether there were contributing factors or foul play that caused Freddie Mills to prematurely pass, but, with the lack of any evidence that isn’t merely circumstantial or hearsay, we have to make the same conclusion as Scotland Yard’s Nipper Read. Read, when pressed on the issue, was very content in his conclusion that Freddie Mills borrowed a fairground rifle from a friend who worked in Battersea Park, went into his car having told his colleagues at the club he was going to sleep (as he often did) and killed himself.
Whether or not the coroner’s inquest is a true representation of the events that took place, Freddie Mills should be remembered for the excitement and joy he gave thousands of people every time he stepped into the ring as Britain’s biggest boxing idol of the post-war period.