Northern Voices: The legacy of Len Johnson and radical activism at The Old Abbey Taphouse

Breaking Barz has the most electric atmosphere of any gig I have been to in Manchester in the past few years. It started life as a series of workshops and talks by local historians celebrating the life of boxer and activist Len Johnson, before evolving into one of the most exciting nights in the city. The lineups are a mix of hip-hop, RnB, and rap and attract some of the biggest names in Manchester’s music scene.

Born in Clayton in Manchester, Len Johnson was a boxer who competed between 1920 and 1933. Considered to be one of the best middleweights of his era, he was a strategic, highly intelligent sportsman. But Johnson’s titles and achievements were not recognised by boxing authorities at the time due to a colour bar in the sport – implemented by Churchill with the support of the British Boxing Board of Control.

Boxer and Activist Len Johnson | Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library

As a Black man in Britain, Johnson faced outright racism in and out of the ring. At the time pubs and clubs throughout the country used to operate a ‘colour bar’, physically barring customers based on their race or country of birth.

As well as a boxer, Johnson was also an activist and a leading figure in the Manchester Communist Party. One evening in 1953, Johnson and friend Wilf Charles went to The OId Abbey Taphouse and after attempting to order two pints at the bar, they were refused service and thrown out.

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In the days following the two friends launched a campaign to overturn the ban, enlisting the help of the Lord Mayor of Manchester and the Bishop of Manchester. Over the next three days, more than two hundred people took part in demonstrations outside the bar. The ban was overturned and Johnson – who was teetotal – was invited inside for a drink. Their protest fuelled the momentum to end the colour bar policies of the era.

Boxer and Activist Len Johnson | Image courtesy of Working Class Movement Library

Local historians rediscovered the story of how Johnson broke the colour bar in Manchester through collective action and found an oral history placing the location of the event at The Old Abbey Taphouse in Hulme.

Dr Shirin Hirsch, a historian based jointly a Manchester Metropolitan University and People’s History Museum, knew that The Old Abbey Taphouse was run by radical people who may be open to learning about its past.

Hirsch had previously tried to speak to owners of buildings where colour bar policies had been implemented but she had been ignored, and in one case owners had pretended not to hear her down the phone.

“They have totally embraced and acknowledged that dark history and celebrated the activism of Len Johnson and Wilf Charles and others,” Hirsch says of the owners of The Old Abbey Taphouse.

Poet Cherrelle Anne at Breaking Barz | Photo: Jess Coulson

By being open to exploring the darker sides of their building’s past, the pub has been able to proactively celebrate and share stories of the activism that took place around it. This willingness to uncover their own uncomfortable history has created a space where activists, musicians and poets can come together and celebrate the power of the collective.

The pub held talks and workshops about the protest, including an event titled ‘A drink for Len Johnson’. This drew local activists to the pub, such as Nahella Ashraf, co-chair of Greater Manchester Stand Up to Racism. At the time, Ashraf was involved in organising protests after the murder of George Floyd.

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“That movement generated the space for us to talk about stuff but also […] those talks should be creative and I think that’s what today is about: taking that activism and those politics into the space of art and culture,” Ashraf says. The events became a space for activists to come and be together in a creative environment.

Celebrating Len Johnson’s victory happened at a pivotal time for Lamin Touray, an actor and activist who was instrumental in the creation of Breaking Barz.

Freequency3 and Tilly Tilz at Breaking Barz | Photo: Jess Coulson

“Protest works, but this is a different way of doing that: through art, music and free creative expression. It’s a different way of sending a message and having fun – it’s a celebration,” Touray says. He arranged for performers, including actor Channique Sterling-Brown to come down for ‘A Drink for Len Johnson’.

“The key thing was we had a party. I just remember going home being on such a high”. The event evolved into Breaking Barz following a discussion with Rachele Evaroa who runs the Taphouse.

Breaking Barz line-ups so far have included Chunky, Yemi Bolatiwa, Rago Loco, Kenya Muratz, Abnormal Sleepz, SHOA and Medulla. Artists are often Mancunian members of the African diaspora with a mix of well-established performers and new talent.

Yemi Bolatiwa at Breaking Barz | Photo: Jess Coulson

The energy of the crowd feels like nowhere else in Manchester right now. The radical inclusivity that characterises the event manifests itself in an audience that fully embraces and lifts up the artists.

With music venues across the country reporting plummeting ticket sales and artists even cancelling tour dates, it is refreshing to be in a space that feels organically sustained by the community built around it.

“Friendship and doing things together are at the heart of Hulme and at the heart of what we do,” Evaroa says. “When I saw these young people have these amazing responses to Len I thought they need their own night, so we’ve given them space, time and energy but it is led by them.”

The Old Abbey Tap House was recently named Community Pub of the Year by Campaign for Real Ale in recognition of the work they do for different communities, including pay-as-you-can meals delivered to vulnerable residents and preserving stories from past communities.

The story of Len Johnson and Wilf Charles is inspiring a new generation of activists and is a radical bedrock for Breaking Barz to build a new community of activists in Manchester.

This article is part of our Northern Voices series, commissioned in collaboration with Manchester Collective. Selected from an open call, the writer’s brief was to report on an exciting part of the city’s music scene as it stands today.

Launched in 2021 the initiative has seen more than 14 local artists, writers and creative freelancers respond imaginatively to Manchester Collective’s work. Supported by The Granada Foundation and Arts Council England.

You can keep up to date with Breaking Barz and their latest events via Instagram here.