Jack Leslie - The east Londoner who should have been England's first black international
Imagine not being able to do the job you love and excel at, purely because of the colour of your skin.
That was exactly the situation that appeared to befall Jack Leslie.
Leslie was born in Canning Town in August 1901 to a Jamaican father, John, a boilermaker, and an English mother, Annie, a seamstress.
An outstanding young sportsman, he played football and cricket and boxed, before joining local team Barking Town as a teenager. There, Leslie began to fulfil his amazing potential, reportedly scoring 250 goals and helping the club win the Essex Senior Cup in 1920 and London League Premier Division title in 1921.
He also played representative football for London and Essex, attracting interest from professional clubs, one of whom, Division Three South Plymouth Argyle, signed him in the summer of 1921.
Leslie spent 14 happy years at Home Park, scoring 137 goals in 401 appearances for the Pilgrims, who amazingly finished as runners-up in the third tier in six consecutive seasons following his arrival, before finally winning promotion as champions in 1929/30.
He was also part of the Plymouth squad which toured South America in 1924, beating the national teams of Argentina and Uruguay, with Leslie scoring twice in a 4-0 victory over the latter!
The inside-forward earned rave reviews for his play, and his case for an international call-up was pushed by his manager, Plymouth legend Bob Jack, who had overseen the Pilgrims’ progress from the Southern League to the Football League.
It was in October 1925 that the 13-man England squad was announced in several newspapers for a Home International Championship fixture against Ireland in Belfast, and Leslie’s name was in it as a travelling reserve.
However, he was then apparently deselected from the squad, and the widely held belief is that the only reason he was excluded was because he was black.
Despite questions being asked, neither Leslie nor the public were ever told the reason why he had been left out, and the Football Association denied Leslie had ever been chosen.
It would be another 37 years until another east Londoner, West Ham United’s John Charles, became the first black player to represent England at any level, when he appeared for the U18s in Israel. And it would not be until 1978 that Viv Anderson of Nottingham Forest became England’s first senior black international.
Nearly 100 years ago, with civil rights and the understanding of different cultures in a very different place to the present day, Leslie was forced to accept his fate, despite anger around Plymouth and in some newspapers over his treatment.
He returned to Home Park and continued to do what he did best, creating and scoring goals. He finished as the Pilgrims’ leading scorer on three occasions before retiring in 1935, aged 33.
In retirement, Leslie initially remained in the South West, running a pub in the Cornish city of Truro, before returning to east London in 1938.
There, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a boilermaker, before his family contacted Ron Greenwood, who himself recognised Leslie as a fine player, in the 1960s and asked if he could find work at West Ham United.
He was appointed as boot room manager and spent many happy years looking after kit for the likes of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters, Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds. He passed away in 1988, aged 87.
In recent years, two Plymouth Argyle supporters, Greg Foxsmith and Matt Tiller, launched The Jack Leslie Campaign to promote his story and combat the issue of racism in football.
The Campaign has also raised more than £100,000 for a sculpture of the man himself to be unveiled outside Home Park, which will be created by sculptor Andy Edwards.
To mark Black History Month, an exhibition featuring Leslie and Charles entitled ‘Celebrating Newham’s Black Football Players Through the Years’ has been hosted at the Canning Gallery in Canning Town by curator Neandra Etienne.
There, a special event saw Leslie’s three granddaughters Lesley, Lyn and Jillian meet Foxsmith, Tiller and Edwards, and share their memories of their iconic grandfather.
For Foxsmith and Tiller, who has also penned a song ‘The Ballad of Jack Leslie’, which he performed at the event, the story was one that moved them deeply.
“He was an east London lad who was a huge success, he played for Barking and then signed for Plymouth and turned professional, scored loads of goals and was a massive player for Plymouth,” Tiller explained.
“In 1925, he was named in the England squad in all the papers and told by his manager he had been picked, then a few days later his name disappeared from the squad, he never travelled to Ireland to play for England and that opportunity was lost and he was never selected again.
“Even though he played in the Third Division, he was nationally famous and at the time of his selection he was pictured in the Daily Mirror and was described as a ‘genius’ by the Daily Mail.
“The story was reported back then and we are really passionate about telling that story now, especially here in east London where he was born.”
“Jack was very popular,” Foxsmith continued. “He was popular at Plymouth where they made him club captain and popular at West Ham where he had a really good rapport with all the players and the manager.
“He was one of those characters who was universally liked and he never had any bitterness about the failure to get called-up.
“It is interesting to think that had he made that team, would there have been more black players playing for England before the 1970s, when Viv Anderson got that selection.
“West Ham has got that commitment to diversity and it’s great that Jack was embraced and welcomed at the Club, so that’s something to be proud of.”
For Lesley, Lyn and Jillian, seeing their grandfather celebrated, albeit belatedly, has been hugely emotional and gratifying.
“To think his story has come to light 100 years later is incredible and it’s blown us away, but it needs to be told because it is the story of a pioneer,” Lesley explained. “If people can learn from it, then so much better.
“Grandad was upset because it would have been the pinnacle of his career, but he was proud to be playing for Plymouth Argyle and he never showed any bitterness. That’s how he was.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re just over the moon that he’s finally being recognised for the great footballer that he was and that he was a pioneer.”
The exhibition at Canning Gallery runs until 29 October and can be viewed by appointment by email [email protected].