Cherishing rugby league’s pioneers

Theodore Cecil Thompson
Theodore Cecil Thompson
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Local historian Alf Ridyard looks back at some of the heroes of RL from yesteryear...

Today we take a look at the openness of rugby league to non-white players.

As we all know, there have been many stars from an ethnic background, too many to cover in a short piece so forgive me for not including the likes of Billy Boston, Des Drummond, Jason Robinson and others who have graced the Wigan and Leigh clubs with their pace and power.

What I intend to do is look at the ones who suffered the prejudice of racial exclusion and are not as well known as the previously mentioned stars.

First up is George Bennett a Welsh stand off/scrum-half who signed for Wigan in 1930.

George’s story isn’t unlike a lot of other ethnic people at that time – he was playing rugby union in Wales at a high level though the record of which club and his appearances seem to have been expunged.

George had been recommended for the Welsh squad but was overlooked because of his colour, the Welsh RU openly operated this along with the other form of selectivity “if you need payment for being off work it isn’t the game for you”.

The racism forced George to go north, where he signed for Wigan and had a seven-year career, playing 230 games and scoring 101 tries.

He also played a staring role in Wigan’s 1933/34 15-3

championship win over Salford at Wilderspool.

George’s real claim to fame was that he became the first black player to play international rugby league for Wales, as in 1935, he made three appearances and scored two tries.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that a black player represented Wales at rugby union.

More firsts for rugby league which show the game was more open than other sports to equality on the lines of ethnicity were Clive Sullivan, another Welshman who became the first non-white sportsman to captain a British international team, 21 years before Paul Ince captained the England soccer team.

Roy Francis was the first non-white player to represent Great Britain in 1947.

Brought up in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, he joined Wigan at age 17 in 1937 before moving on to Barrow,

He was controversially left out of the GB touring side to Australia later that year due to the Australian racial stance re non-whites.

Ironically Roy became North Sydney coach in 1969 for one season.

He was a club coach 50 years before Paul Ince did the same at football and, not to be left out, Ellery Hanley was the first ethnic national team coach of any British sporting team.

George Bennett was not the first to feel the wrath of the rugby union.

In 1906, James Peters, the son of a Jamaican father, was born in 1879 in Salford.

But tragedy struck young James before he saw light of day, his father was mauled to death training lions at the circus for whom he worked.

His mother on giving birth abandoned James who was then moved round various orphanages in the London area, yet he grew up to be an extremely athletic boy blessed with the one commodity needed for rugby, speed.

On leaving The Little Wanderers orphanage in Greenwich, he started work as a printer and his job took him to Bristol where he joined Knowle Rugby Union Club.

He then moved to Plymouth where he took a job as a joiner and gained selection for the Devon team which were to play the touring South Africans in front of a crowd of 22,000.

Behind the scenes, a diplomatic incident was being averted by the South African High Commissioner who was having to persuade the Springboks to play.

After seeing James trot out on to the field they at first objected to playing against a black man, but to avoid a riot the game was played.

The Yorkshire Post was the one who raised objections to him being selected again for England on racial grounds, but he was selected to play against the South Africans at Crystal Palace, then de-selected when the Springboks threatened not to play.

He did gain caps against France and Scotland scoring two tries but was not selected again due to “racial grounds”.

Last up is Theodore Cecil Thompson – he was the second non-white player to represent Great Britain in 1951, playing two Tests against New Zealand.

Thompson is not just a victim of prejudice, born in Birtley, County Durham, to a white miner’s daughter and a Trinidadian painter and master decorator, who, like James Peters’ father, died before he was born.

The family fell into poverty and he was fostered and spent years being moved from orphanage to orphanage, his mother eventually re married and moved to Leeds and the family were reunited in 1938.

At that time, very few black people lived very far from the seaports around the country and he was a target for racism and hatred.

During the war, he served in the Royal Navy as a stoker and on demob he wandered round many unskilled labouring jobs.

He was persuaded to play in a works competition and although he had no idea of the rules, he proved to be a natural with pace and power and after two works competition games at Parkside the Hunslet club began to take interest and eventually signed him for £250.

He played 96 times for Hunslet and gained his two GB caps before moving on to Workington where he played 192 games, scoring 55 tries.

After a short spell as coach at Barrow he retired from the game, he was, in his own words like a Martian in Cumbria but a popular one.