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Jack Leslie – The first black man selected to play football for England
by David Maples

Added on 10 November 2021

The story of Jack’s selection for England began on the afternoon of Monday 5th October 1925 at White Hart Lane, venue of that year’s Charity Shield match which was won by the Amateurs who trounced the Professionals 6-1. Amongst the crowd were the 14 FA Committee members who had the task of selecting the FA Amateur team to play the RAF and the full England team to take on Ireland later that month. 


The Committee ended its deliberations by naming a squad of 13; 11 starters plus two travelling reserves, one of whom was Jack Leslie of Plymouth Argyle. Jack was on the verge of playing for the country of his birth.


Jack’s father, also John Francis Leslie, was born in Hope Bay, Jamaica on 17th December 1863. John became a mariner and travelled the world. While he was in London he met Anne Regler from Islington. The pair married and went on to have two daughters and, on 17th August 1901, a son, Jack. After leaving school Jack worked as a boilermaker, an occupation he was to return to after his football career was over.


Jack’s first club was London League side, Barking Town. Jack’s prolific scoring record attracted the attention of Plymouth who signed him on 21st June 1921. Jack was the only black player in the Football League at that time. It would not be until Eddie Parris arrived on the scene with Bradford Park Avenue in 1929 that he was joined by another black footballer.


Jack at last became a regular in the Plymouth side in 1924/25 playing in 40 League games. He scored 14 goals including his first ever hat trick in a 7-1 home massacre of Bristol City.


Jack returned to London in the close season to marry East-London girl Lavinia Emma Garland on 27th June 1925. 


Plymouth started the 1925/26 season like a house on fire winning ten of their first 12 games, scoring 44 goals in the process. 


However, rewinding a little, when the FA Committee met after the Charity Shield game on 5th October they were obviously conscious that the leading sides would not release players for a mid-season international. They were forced to turn to players from the lower divisions and certainly selecting three amateurs who had performed that day was a good start in filling the 13 places that were available for the upcoming match in Belfast. We will never know just how much time the Committee spent in considering the squad. Whatever, Jack was selected as a travelling reserve and the details were passed to the Press Association.


The following day manager Bob Jack called Jack into his office to tell him he’d been picked for England. Whether Bob Jack specified that Jack was named as travelling reserve is irrelevant – Jack Leslie of Plymouth Argyle had been picked for England!

The local and national press carried the story of the England squad. All showed Jack as travelling reserve. The Western Morning News of 6th October 1925 was one of many newspapers that published the squad, proudly headlining it with “Argyle Player Reserve Against Ireland.” Yet when the squad travelled to the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down on Wednesday 21st October Jack was not with them. His place as travelling reserve had been taken by Stan Earle of West Ham United.


Jack was not injured or suspended. Indeed he played at Home Park on the day of the international, scoring twice as Plymouth hammered Bournemouth 7-2, while England laboured to a goalless draw in Belfast. The only logical conclusion was that Jack had been dropped because it had been discovered he was black.


Given that football at Third Division level was regionalised it is perfectly possible that the majority of the FA Committee members may never have seen Jack or Plymouth Argyle play.


However, it seems inconceivable that the Gloucestershire FA representative, James Alfred Tayler, can have been unaware of Jack. Tayler had been elected President of the Gloucestershire FA in 1899 so was definitely no ‘new kid on the block.’ Moreover he was President of the Western League, a competition which covered the entire south-west of England. Indeed the League had been won by Plymouth Argyle in 1905. The previous summer Bert Batten of Plymouth had been selected for the FA tour of Australia. One might presume that if the FA selectors had watched Batten prior to picking him for the tour, they must have seen Jack play and be aware that he was black?


A question that doubters often raise is ‘was Jack, as a Third Division player, good enough for England?’ At the time of Jack’s selection he was in his fifth season of League football and had played almost 100 games for Plymouth who were a top notch Division Three (South) side that had only missed out on promotion by the slimmest of margins in the previous four seasons. Nor did his selection raise any eye brows at the time. The Westminster Gazette of 7th October simply remarked that his selection was “interesting.” The Gazette also referred to Jack as “a man of colour.” If a London newspaper journalist knew that Jack was black, surely at least one of the 14 Committee members must also have known? And if they didn’t know they would do after reading the Westminster Gazette!


Returning to the question of was Jack good enough, of the team that would take the field in Belfast, five players were making their debut, four of whom would never play internationally again. Of the starting 11 no fewer than seven never played for England again and two only played once more. Jack was at least the equal of most members of that, albeit weakened, England squad. On the morning of the match, the Northern Whig in providing a pen picture of each member of the squad and totally oblivious of the fact that Jack had been discarded, noted that Jack was a non-playing reserve but said “Leslie who has scored plenty of goals for the Argyle, is an inside forward of great ability and will soon work his way into representative matches.” There is no evidence whatsoever that Jack was not good enough to represent the country of his birth.


So, the story is true. Jack was selected then dropped and we can think of no other reason than it was due to the colour of his skin. The Daily Herald of 28th October 1925 quoted a letter sent by a ‘London reader’ which asked why Jack had been announced in the squad but Earle of West Ham travelled instead? The Herald took the matter up with the FA who denied that Jack had ever been chosen! The Herald then consulted the Press Association, who, if the FA was telling the truth, had misreported Jack’s selection. The Press Association was adamant the FA had indeed announced Jack as a travelling reserve.


I think we have established beyond any doubt that Jack was most definitely selected for England and also that he was in the squad on merit. What is beyond dispute is that he was not invited to join the England squad that left for Belfast later that month.

We don’t know what degree of consideration the FA Committee put in to choosing the 13-man squad but they selected Jack and were confident enough in their choice to hand the squad names to the Press Association. It seems highly unlikely they could be unaware of Jack’s heritage. So, were they over-ruled by an external body?

The FA President Charles Clegg was at White Hart Lane when the selection Committee met so the squad effectively had the seal of approval of the most senior official in the FA.


All of this raises the question of whether the FA was told by another body to quietly drop Jack from the squad. But who was more powerful and influential than the FA? The Government perhaps? The recently elected Conservative Government under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin may have had in mind the 1919 Race Riots which took place in ports across the country where white men fought in protest against the perception that black men had taken their jobs and, in some cases, their women, while they were away fighting in the Great War. Jack was never named in an England squad again. This must rank as one of the most shameful incidents in the history of the FA.


This article is an edited extract from Jack Leslie biography by Bill Hern

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