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Jack's Story

England Came Knocking – But Then The Door Slammed Shut

by Matt Tiller

Picked to play for his country, Jack Leslie was good enough to win that place and was only deselected because of his skin colour.

We are indebted to Bill Hern, co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers; Martin Johnes, Professor of History at Swansea University, Phil Vasili, author of several books on early black footballers, the amazing Greens On Screen website and the National Football Museum for sharing their research and enthusiasm. And, of course, Jack Leslie’s family and others who have taken the time to support the campaign and talk to us about Jack.

Although there is much information online and in print, it feels right to set out the story of Jack Leslie’s selection and subsequent rejection as clearly as possible here. In fact, I’ve wanted to write this for months, but the only available mode of transport since the campaign took off was the seat of my pants. At least they’re Covid-secure. I can’t speak for Greg’s, or those of the other committee members.

When I first heard the tale during a drunken chat with a fellow Argyle fan, I couldn’t believe it. As a Plymouth Argyle supporter, it seemed incredible – a Pilgrim called up to play for England? But the more I’ve researched the story, like the authors of Football’s Black Pioneers who began their journey with similar scepticism, the firmer my belief became.

Some people question Jack’s story, their queries full of anger, disbelief and a Caps Lock key they just can’t seem to type without. They wonder how it could possibly have been racism without some cast-iron statement to that effect by the FA, as if that was likely to be recorded. That shows a misunderstanding of how to examine the historical evidence and a failure to accept that racist societal attitudes existed in the early 20th century when we know that they did. How can Jack’s rejection be a surprise to anyone? His is not the only story of its kind.

Here are some of those key questions answered briefly, before we get into the minutiae…

Was Jack Leslie selected for the England team? Yes. His name was printed in several papers on Tuesday 6th October 1925 and the following days after the FA’s International Selection Committee met on Monday 5th October to discuss the forthcoming England v Ireland game, which was to be played on Saturday 24th October.

Was he good enough? Without a doubt. He was noted as being of international class in the national press at the time of his selection and subsequently.

Even as a Third Division player? While it was rare for players at Jack’s level to be selected, it was not unheard of. In fact, one member of that October 1925 England team was playing in the same division for Charlton Athletic, who finished second from bottom, while Plymouth were runners-up as usual.

Was his rejection down to the colour of his skin? There is no footballing reason for the deselection and the evident controversy that followed in the press at the time. This can be set alongside Jack’s personal testimony, and his unimpeachable character confirms it. I believe Jack Leslie.

Surely the FA must have known he was black?  Some, but not necessarily all of the 14-strong selection committee must have known. There was either a disagreement within the committee, or external pressure was applied. This does not negate the argument. Instead, it makes it all the more intriguing and suggests that some spoke up for Jack while others were against him.

Right, let’s get into this…

Imagine being told you’ve been picked to represent your country? You’ve striven to play the sport you love professionally and established yourself in the first team. You’ve even toured South America, played and beaten the Argentina and Uruguay national teams. Achievements to be proud of, for sure, but to be so talented and to have worked so hard that the national team wants you – well, that would be something to tell the grandchildren. And you’re not some “fancy dan” playing in the First Division for Manchester United, Liverpool or Huddersfield Town (don’t scoff, they won three titles in a row in the 1920s).

You play for Plymouth Argyle in the Third Division South.

Well, that happened to Jack Leslie in October 1925. An inside left who made and scored goals, he was feared by opponents and adored by Argyle fans. Jack had many achievements as a Pilgrim; scoring 137 goals in 400 appearances, winning promotion and being appointed club captain. But he never boasted about those glories, nor the fact that he was picked for England. It happened almost one hundred years ago, was reported and garnered attention but was then quickly swept under the carpet. One thing is certain. It happened.

Jack Leslie already had a reputation when he signed for Plymouth Argyle in 1921 from Barking Town (now Barking FC) where he had been a prolific goal scorer who also represented Essex at county level and travelled with them to play in Paris. The President of Barking, Dave Blewitt, says, ‘My late father Fred, who was born in 1906 and passed away in 1986, told me Jack was the greatest player he had ever seen play for Barking in his 60-plus years of watching the Blues.’ Memories such as these of Jack as a player and a person have made the campaign all the more worthwhile and make my belief in him and his testimony all the stronger. 

It took time for Jack to establish himself in the Plymouth starting XI, but manager Bob Jack must have had faith in his young signing. In the 1924-25 season, Leslie was the top scorer with 14 goals and next season Argyle got off to a flyer. By the time the FA International Selection Committee met on 5th October 1925, the club was topping the division, having scored 31 goals in eight games with six of those notched by Jack Leslie. 

Jack Leslie scores in a 6-2 victory against Southend United – Daily Mirror – 31st August 1925

Argyle’s free-scoring play attracted national press attention and Jack’s record combined with the confidence and recommendation of Bob Jack, an Argyle playing and managing legend himself, was enough to get Jack Leslie the call-up for England.

The announcement made several papers on 6th October and in the days following too. Publications including The Birmingham Gazette, The Northern Whig, The Western Daily Press and The Liverpool Echo all listed an identical team with Leslie named as a travelling reserve, one of only 13 players selected for the England team. So, Jack Leslie was named in the England team, and the news attracted some comment, in the Western Daily Press on 7th, for example…

This was, in itself, a massive honour and one that could and should have led to greater things for such an exciting young player. On the 24th October, unaware that Leslie had not travelled to Belfast, The Northern Whig wrote, ’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.’

With two weeks until kick-off in Belfast, there was still the opportunity for Jack to make the starting XI. After the Huddersfield left-back Sam Wadsworth picked up an injury, The Western Daily Press on 12th October said, ‘A substitute, of course, will now have to be found, and it is not unlikely that Leslie, the darkie forward of Plymouth Argyle, will fill the vacancy.’  While Jack Leslie was a versatile player able to defend as well as attack, this turned out to be press speculation. The FA at first put their hope on Cope of Notts County, but when he was also ruled out, Frank Hudspeth was eventually drafted in for his first and only cap at the ripe old age of 35. 

What we can’t get away from is the fact that Jack Leslie was named in the team and seemingly given a chance to be involved. And his ability to play in a variety of positions made him a perfect travelling reserve. Perhaps this would be the start of his international career? But, no. On 19th October, The Athletic News reported on the England team, and the reserves were now listed as Nuttall and Earle. Nuttall was then injured and replaced by Baker of Arsenal. But what of Jack Leslie? He had suffered no injury, nor was he serving a suspension.

On 24th October 1925, England limped to a nil-nil draw against Ireland with its amateur captain Claude Ashton putting in a lacklustre performance in his only appearance for the national team. I’m being harsh, as were the press at the time. Ashton was a fine sportsman, but it’s fair to say that Jack Leslie couldn’t have done any worse than him. That afternoon he scored twice for Plymouth in a 7-2 victory against Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Jack Leslie never let that disappointment affect his game.

In the aftermath of the Ireland international, the controversy was reported on, both locally and nationally. In The Daily Herald on 28th October, a London reader wrote asking, ‘Leslie, of Plymouth Argyle, was down as reserve (to travel), but for some reason, not made public, Leslie played for his club on Saturday while Earle, of West Ham United, travelled to Ireland instead.’ He goes on to lament the snobbery blighting first-class football. The Herald was a left-wing paper, so was this reader a proto-woke virtue signaller? If so, I’m with them.

The paper followed up on the query by phoning the FA and the Press Association…

We have checked the FA minutes, and they note that Nuttall and Earle were ‘selected as reserves in any event’ on 5th October and then on 19th October Howard-Baker of Arsenal was chosen in place of Nuttall. This was an error, and it should have simply read Baker, as Howard-Baker was the keeper already selected. Confused? I think the committee might have been too. These minutes are printed, not handwritten and could have been entered at any point after the event. It’s ludicrous to think that the FA would keep a record of a decision that they clearly reneged on later.

The issue also attracted comment locally in the Football Herald on 31st October with a reporter saying, ‘My readers may be expecting from me a comment upon the Argyle Club’s announcement that Jack Leslie was not chosen as reserve forward for England. Unfortunately, my pen is under a ban in this matter, but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen’. This is a telling quote that backs up Jack’s own testimony. This was an unspoken, awkward, systemic racism. A far cry from the terrace chanting that blighted the modern game for so long, this had to be accepted by Jack and the local press who supported him.

It does seem unfathomable that none of the fourteen FA selectors knew Jack was black. His colour was reported in the press, and one or two of the committee had enough connections with the South West to suggest they would have seen him play. We do know that the meeting on 5th October can’t have been a long one, as it was scheduled between a game and a fancy dinner with players and they were probably all eager to get cracking into some decent food and wine. Did one of the committee members put Leslie forward, backed up by his stats and get it signed off, without mentioning his colour? He’d certainly been recommended by Bob Jack, a significant figure in the game at the time, who rated him highly.

Once named, why did the FA renege on Jack’s selection? There is no footballing reason and what other grounds could there be, other than the one Jack himself stated in such a matter-of-fact way? It’s possible that more committee members looked at Jack when Argyle faced Reading on 17th October and then they changed their mind either formally at a meeting on the 19th, or informally beforehand. It is also possible that external pressure came to bear. Although we don’t think of this as a time of racial tension, post-World War I Britain did see race riots in 1919. Might there have been a fear at a governmental level that seeing a person of colour promoted to the national football team could be destabilising?

There is no doubt that Jack Leslie was named in the England side in October 1925. It’s possible that he was considered for the starting XI, but he was definitely selected as a travelling reserve and had the ability and versatility appropriate for that role. There is no sensible footballing reason for his omission, and Jack’s testimony and character alongside the curious comments surrounding the case make it clear that his skin colour was the issue. The FA never admitted to a ‘mistake’ but simply denied that Jack had ever been chosen. The evidence is against them here, and the fact that there is no other explanation shows the real reason was being swept under the carpet.

Some people have suggested it is scandalous that we are accusing the FA of racism. We’ve not accused anyone and, of course, we don’t know if a specific committee member spoke out in that way. Conversely, we do know it’s likely that one or more actually spoke in favour of Jack. The fourteen members either changed their mind as a committee once they all became aware of Leslie’s heritage or they were pressurised to conclude that the inclusion of Jack Leslie was not appropriate. However it came to pass, whoever pushed back against his selection, it happened because of the colour of Jack’s skin and the FA allowed it to happen. But, then, so did everyone, because it was simply accepted.

When Viv Anderson finally made that breakthrough as the first black player to win a full England cap in 1978, The Daily Mail interviewed Leslie who was then working in the West Ham boot room. He told how his manager, Bob Jack, called him into his office to tell him that he’d been picked for England…

Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud — but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.’

Jack clearly had no one he could discuss this with. Who could he talk to and how could he possibly raise an objection as the only black professional in England at the time?

‘Then all of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Sort of went dead quiet. Didn’t look me in the eye. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward. But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me Daddy, and that was it. There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official-like, but that had to be the reason, me Mum was English but me Daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.

Are those the words of a boastful, deluded man? I don’t think so, and everyone I’ve spoken to tells me what a humble, gentle man he was. There is no reason not to believe Jack Leslie. He was there, he knew the score, and while he was regularly taunted by opposition supporters and players, he shrugged it off… “I used to get a lot of abuse in matches, ‘Here darkie, I’m gonna break your leg,’ they’d shout. There was nothing wicked about it — they were just trying to get under my skin.” This is a man who didn’t complain and just got on with his work on the pitch.

As a player, he was loved in Plymouth and became nationally famous, especially for his partnership with Argyle’s Scottish striker, Sammy Black. Ninety-five-year-old Bill Stephens remembers watching the pair play, ‘Whenever one of them got the ball there was a real rustle in the crowd, they knew it, there could be a goal.’ Many fans have told us how their parents and grandparents talked about Jack Leslie as a legend and Bill continues, ‘I remember my father saying he was at a game and Jack wasn’t playing, but he was just standing there watching. He thought it was a good chance to go and speak to him, so he went up to him to tell him what a great player he was. He was a real gent, he played the game the right way, he didn’t cheat, and he didn’t foul’.

We also know that players like Clyde Best, Sir Trevor Brooking, David Cross and Harry Redknapp, who had their boots cared for by an elderly Jack Leslie at West Ham, remember him fondly. They also tell of a humble, modest man who would do anything for them and, unbelievably, never spoke of his footballing achievements. Through the campaign, we’ve had so many wonderful memories of the man we are celebrating, and they only speak highly of him. The more I learn, the more I believe Jack Leslie.

It is heartening to know that he wasn’t simply a mild-mannered man who was fierce on the pitch, but quiet off it. This East London lad who made his name in Devon had a personality and charisma, and he would have needed that inner strength to deal with the ups and downs of any football career, let alone what he faced. His granddaughters tell of a charming, entertaining and engaging person who told them and their school friends creative, funny stories. They say the Argyle fans loved him and how he was apparently a terrible driver but would get away with murder because he was so well-liked. And they were proud as punch when his retirement as a boot boy at West Ham was featured on ITV’s The Big Match. But he should have been known then, and now, for so much more.

When we talk of modern racism, we often talk about equality of opportunity and levelling the playing field. The chance to be a part of the England set-up, once denied, spelt the end of opportunity and at that moment in October 1925, the gates to an international career effectively slammed shut on Jack Leslie. A consistent player for more than a decade, he would have been in the running for selection in many more games, but Jack was never spoken of in connection to the national team again. Later reports prove this. According to The Football Herald in 1930 Jack was “known throughout England for his skill and complexion,” while The Daily Mail called him a “coloured genius” in 1932 and the following year wrote, “Had he been white he would have been a certain English international.

The national press said it, and he said it. Jack Leslie should have been the first black footballer to play for England.

Jack Leslie Biography

by Bill Hern, co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers

In 2016 when David Gleave and I started writing Football’s Black Pioneers – the stories of the first black players to represent the 92 Football League Clubs – we were vaguely aware of the Plymouth player from the 1920s who, it was claimed, had been picked for England and then dropped because he was black.

That player was John (known as Jack) Francis Leslie and today, thanks largely to the efforts of the Jack Leslie Campaign, he is one of the best known figures in football history.

Yet we began our research into Jack’s life with a great deal of cynicism. Surely a long-forgotten player from lowly and geographically isolated Plymouth Argyle, then in the Third Division (South), could not have been picked for England? We could not have been more wrong. The evidence to support Jack’s story is overwhelming. Jack Leslie was picked for England and then quietly dropped. He was neither injured nor suspended. The only possible reason for his exclusion was the colour of his skin.

We tell Jack’s story in detail in Football’s Black Pioneers but, to recap, 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.

No doubt impressed and influenced by what they had just observed on the pitch they selected no less than three members of the Amateurs side. Indeed, Claude Ashton, who scored four goals that day, was named as captain. Quite remarkable for a man who was winning his first and, as it transpired, only cap. Ashton was undoubtedly a fine player but he never appeared in a single Football League game in his career.

The other amateurs selected for the England side were goalkeeper Howard Baker of Chelsea and Third Division Charlton Athletic’s centre half, George Armitage.

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.

But before we go on to look into Jack’s selection in more detail let us look at who Jack Leslie was.

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 a young lady from Islington. The pair married and went on to have two daughters, Edithe and Letitia Georgina and, on 17th August 1901, a son, Jack.

We know that John continued going to sea after his marriage. However, by April 1901 he had settled at 60, Clifton Road, Canning Town with his wife, their two daughters and Anne’s mother. John had found work as a general labourer and Anne, who was pregnant with Jack, worked as a tailoress.

By the time of the 1911 census Jack’s sister, Edithe, had died and the family, including John’s now 83-year-old mother-in-law, had moved to 12, Gerald Road, Canning Town. This would remain the family home for many years.

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. During his time there the club won the Essex Senior Cup in 1919/20 and the Premier Division of the London League and the London Senior Cup the following season.

Still in his teens, Jack represented both Essex and the London League in international competitions at home and in Paris.

Jack’s prolific scoring record attracted the attention of Plymouth who signed him on 21st June 1921. Barking Town were left rather depleted as, in addition to Jack, Plymouth signed Frank Richardson and Alf Rowe from the non-league side.

Of the three players Plymouth recruited from Barking, Frank Richardson had far the greatest and speediest impact. He could not have got off to a better start scoring a hat trick on his debut, a 3-1 win at Bristol Rovers on 27th August 1921. This was the first ever hat trick scored by a Plymouth player in the Football League. Richardson ended the season with 31 goals from 41 League appearances.

Jack made his Plymouth debut on 19th November 1921 in a goalless draw at home to Merthyr Tydfil in front of a crowd of 14,000. Jack kept his place in the first team for the next seven games until he was dropped after the home derby with Exeter City on 27th December 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.

Going into the last game of the season at Queens Park Rangers, the Pilgrims needed only a single point to guarantee promotion. They were top of the League, hadn’t lost for 16 games and had beaten Queens Park Rangers 4-0 the previous week, what could possibly go wrong? Jack regained his place for this crucial fixture after being out of first team action for over four months. Plymouth lost 2-0 and Southampton, who defeated Newport County 5-0, pipped them on goal average.

The following season was again one of disappointment for Jack. He didn’t make a first team appearance until the First Round of the FA Cup at Notts County on 17th January 1923. Plymouth won 1-0 but again Jack didn’t score, nor did he score three days later in a 1-1 home draw with Norwich City. 

Once again, he lost his place having to wait until 18th April 1923 when he was recalled for a home game against Gillingham. At last Jack broke his scoring duck hitting the second goal in a 2-0 win. This was his 12th appearance for Plymouth and came one day short of 17 months since his debut.

Jack hit a further two goals on 2nd May 1923 in a 3-0 home victory against Brentford. Once again Plymouth ended the season in second place, six points behind champions Bristol City. In seven appearances  Jack scored three goals.

Bob Jack, a Scot, was the manager who had signed Jack for Plymouth. Bob Jack was a Plymouth legend and as well as playing for them, managed the club for 29 years. It is no wonder his ashes were spread on Plymouth’s Home Park ground when he died. He could be forgiven however, if his mind wasn’t 100% on Plymouth when they played at home to Newport County on 28th April 1923. On that same day, 220 miles or so from Plymouth, Bob’s son the famous David Jack was playing for Bolton in the first ever FA Cup Final to be played at what was then the ‘new’ Wembley Stadium.

Meanwhile Jack Leslie could only dream of Wembley and hope that in 1923/24 he could simply gain a regular place in the Plymouth team.

It wasn’t to be however. Playing at inside-left, Jack scored only two goals in his first 15 games that season. Three goals in his last two games bolstered his statistics to five goals in 17 games as Plymouth once again finished runners-up, four points behind Portsmouth.

At this stage of his career there were few signs that Jack would go on to become a Plymouth legend let alone be chosen for England.

In the Summer of 1924 Plymouth went on a tour of Argentina and Uruguay. The team and officials travelled to South America by boat and played nine games between 22nd June and 20th July, beating Argentina twice and Uruguay once. Jack was a regular in the side and scored twice against Uruguay; the first in a 4-0 victory and the second, a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

The return journey on the Steam Ship Andes was lengthy and made even longer by stops in Brazil, Uruguay, Portugal and Spain. The players all travelled in Second Class (imagine that happening today!) but manager Bob Jack was housed in the luxury of First Class. The ship docked at Southampton on 11th August 1924. This was cutting things a bit fine as Argyle’s first League match at Norwich was scheduled for 30th August.

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.

There were no obvious signs of long-term fatigue from the South American trip as Plymouth played their 42nd and final League match on 29th April 1925 beating Southend 6-0. Jack was on the score sheet. This victory left Plymouth at the top of the League, three points ahead of Swansea who had two games remaining. Plymouth had a superior goal average so Swansea had to win both their remaining games (only two points for a win in those days) to pip Argyle to the title and promotion to Division Two.

The following day Swansea scraped a 1-0 win at home to Reading, the winner coming late in the game.

Everything rested on the Swansea’s final game of the season, at home to Plymouth’s Devon rivals Exeter City. Swansea raced into a two-goal lead by half-time. Exeter pulled one back but couldn’t snatch an equaliser. Swansea were promoted and Plymouth for the fourth season in succession finished runners-up. 

Jack returned to London in the close season to marry East-London girl Lavinia Emma Garland on 27th June 1925. The couple had a daughter, Evelyn, in 1927 and settled in Glendower Road, Plymouth.

While Jack’s childhood was not a bed of roses, Lavinia had an even tougher upbringing. Born on 21st November 1899, in 1901 she was living at 25, Welstead Road, East Ham along with her father William, mother Emma and five siblings.

The saddest entry on the 1901 census is the description of Lavinia’s father as a ‘lunatic.’ This is a term repeated on the 1911 census yet only four years later William was cleared as fit to serve in World War 1. It appears, judging from the 1891 census, that far from being a ‘lunatic’ William was simply deaf.

The Garland family had moved to 198, Queen’s Road, Plaistow by 1911. William senior and his son William junior although both recorded as general labourers were out of work. Eleven people were living in the house which had only five rooms.

Remarkably, given his age (43) and classification as a lunatic, William senior enlisted in the Army on 13th April 1915 and served in France.

William sailed for Le Havre from Southampton on 24th September 1915. He was very quickly in trouble with the authorities as on 24th October he was punished because of ‘drunkenness on active service.’

As might have been anticipated, William was not suited to the rigours of war and he was discharged as medically unfit on 9th August 1916. He returned to East London with its poor employment prospects, overcrowding and abject poverty.

After marrying Jack, Lavinia must have found the peace and quiet of Plymouth a total change from the hustle and bustle of East London. It certainly seemed to be a happy marriage and the couple remained together for almost 63 years until Lavinia’s death in 1988.

Plymouth started the 1925/26 season like a house on fire winning ten of their first 12 games, scoring 44 goals in the process. Married life obviously suited Jack who scored eight of those goals.

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 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 a feat that would be repeated by Argyle’s reserve side in 1928 and 1932.

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? He went on to plead “Cannot you, in the columns of Labour’s only daily newspaper make a stand against the snobbery which is like a blight on first class football.”

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.

Typically, Jack expressed no bitterness and life went on with Plymouth continuing to ride high in the League, vying with Reading for the coveted promotion slot.

On 24th April 1926 the Jack family had plenty to celebrate. David Jack had just scored the only goal of the game to win the FA Cup for Arsenal and dad Bob Jack had watched his Plymouth team beat Charlton 1-0 at home while arch promotion rivals Reading had lost 3-0 at Crystal Palace. Plymouth stood top of the League on goal average ahead of Reading. Plymouth had two games to play whereas Reading only had one to go.

On Monday 26th April Plymouth played their game in hand and got a point in a 2-2 draw at Brentford. The last games of the season on 2nd May saw Plymouth travel to Gillingham and Reading host Brentford. A point would probably be enough to see Plymouth take the title but they succumbed 2-0 to Gillingham while Reading hammered Brentford 7-1. Yet again, Plymouth were runners-up.

The following season Plymouth finished second again, two points behind Bristol City who they had beaten 4-2 in the penultimate game of the season. In 33 League games and one FA Cup game Jack scored 14 goals including the second hat trick of his career in a 7-1 home victory over Crystal Palace. 

In 1927/28 Argyle slipped to third place, 12 points behind champions Millwall. Jack scored 15 goals in 41 League games.

The following season Plymouth were drawn to play Bradford Park Avenue in the FA Cup. This brought Jack up against the only other black player in the League, Eddie Parris. Such was the novelty that the press used the headline “Coloured Cup Tie Rivals” along with large photographs of Jack and Eddie. Newspapers commentated  that, “Bradford and Plymouth meet in tomorrow’s cup ties. Each club possesses a coloured player.” In the event, Eddie missed this game.

A late surge, winning their last four League games, only lifted Argyle to fourth place although a mere two points behind champions Charlton. Jack had his best season so far and scored 22 goals in 41 League games as well as scoring once in four FA Cup ties.

Plymouth finally clinched the title in 1929/30 winning the League by seven points after amassing what was then a record for Division Three (South) of 68 points. They lost only four League games all season.

Jack had a relatively disappointing season. He scored eight goals in 32 League games but didn’t find the net in any of his last 14 games. Plymouth scored 98 League goals and Jack was only their joint fifth highest scorer.

Plymouth played their first ever Division Two game at home to Everton on 30th August 1930. Everton had just been relegated and were to win the League that season by seven points. Jack had a good start, scoring in a 3-2 loss in front of a bumper crowd of 34,236. Plymouth lost the return game to Everton 9-1 in December with the great Dixie Dean scoring four of the goals.

Plymouth finished the season in 18th place six points clear of relegation. Jack scored eight goals in 39 League and FA Cup appearances making him the club’s fourth top scorer.

1931/32 was Jack and Plymouth’s best season to date. Plymouth finished fourth in Division Two and Jack, who was now club captain, scored 21 goals in 43 League and FA Cup games. This included a hat trick in a 3-3 home draw with Bradford City and four goals in a 5-1 home rout of Nottingham Forest.

The significance of Jack being appointed club captain should not be under estimated. He was certainly the first black footballer to achieve that feat in the Football League. Put bluntly, white people were not used to taking orders from black men.

Jack’s status as captain resulted in him making his first journey by air. In October 1932 Plymouth experimented with flying to away games. The first such venture was a trip to Stoke. The journey took only just over two hours by air compared to ten hours by rail. Players were excluded from the outward journey which was limited to club officials and their friends. As captain, Jack was the only player allowed to join the return flight.

Jack now in his 30s, never again showed the form he had in 1931/32. The following season he scored only five times in 34 appearances as Plymouth finished 14th in Division Two.

His last two seasons were blighted by an injury he suffered when the lace on a ball went into his eye. The damage was so serious it was thought he would not play again.

When Plymouth announced their list of retained players at the end of the 1933/34 season Jack’s name was absent. Showing no sentiment whatsoever the club were unwilling to offer Jack a further contract until it could be shown that he had fully recovered from the injury that was now affecting both eyes. This must have been an incredibly worrying time for Jack and Lavinia, not only in respect of the danger to his sight but also financially.

Fortunately Plymouth rather belatedly offered him a new contract in June 1934 when the specialist treating him gave an optimistic report about his recovery.

1933/34 was also Jack’s benefit year and at the end of the season he was presented in person with a cheque for 10 guineas on behalf of the club at the annual supper and social of the grandly named Ladies Auxiliary Committee of the Plymouth Argyle Supporters’ Club. 

Jack played only once in 1934/35. His last game was on 29th December 1934 when, wearing the number nine shirt, he scored the second goal in a 3-1 victory at home to Fulham. He was given a free transfer at the end of the season.

Jack and Lavinia moved to Truro where they ran a pub. Jack even played a few games at centre half for Truro in the Plymouth and District League. By 1938 the Leslie family had returned to London and were living at 132, Wakefield Street, East Ham not far from Jack’s father who by then was a widower. Jack returned to his employment of boilermaker and Lavinia worked as a cardboard box maker.

In August 1938 Jack was appointed as Barking Town FC’s trainer. In reporting this, the Western News of 4th August 1938 described Jack as “one of the finest players ever to wear an Argyle jersey. He played at inside-left and was a tactician of outstanding quality.”

Jack and Lavinia lived their later years in Gravesend where Lavinia died on 10th April 1988 followed seven months later on 25th November by Jack at the age of 88. Jack’s death certificate shows him not as an ex-professional footballer but rather a retired boilermaker. He was a modest, unassuming man right up to the very end.

Football’s Black Pioneers by Bill Hern and David Gleave. Available from the publisher Conker Editions, Amazon UK or all good bookshops.

Jack’s Stats

by John Eales

Saturday, August 17th, 1901. John Francis (Jack) Leslie is born in Canning Town, London to a Jamaican father and an English mother. He goes on to play for Barking Town.

1921 Signs for Division Three South side Plymouth Argyle.

Saturday, November 19th, 1921. Makes his Football League debut in a 0-0 draw at home to Merthyr Town. His away debut came seven days later against the same opposition in a game that Argyle won 1-0 thanks to Frank Richardson’s goal.

Wednesday, January 17th, 1923. Makes his Argyle debut in the F.A. Cup in a 1-0 win at Notts County in a First Round replay. This was a giant killing as the Greens were plying their trade in Division 3 South, while the Magpies were to go on to clinch the Division 2 title that season.

Wednesday, April 18th, 1923. Scores his first goal in the Football League in his 11th appearance as Argyle beat Gillingham 2-0 at Home Park.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 1923. Scores his first brace for the club in a 3-0 home win over Brentford.

Saturday, October 11th, 1924. Scores his first away goals (a brace) in the Football League, in a 3-2 win for Argyle at Brighton and Hove Albion. He had already scored 11 League goals at Home Park by this time.

Friday, April 10th, 1925. Scores his first hat trick for the club in a 7-1 home win over Bristol City on Good Friday.

Wednesday, April 29th, 1925. Scores in the 6-0 home thrashing of Southend United to end the season as Argyle’s top scorer in the League with 14 goals.

Saturday, March 6th, 1926. Marks his 100th Football League appearance for the Greens by scoring a brace in a 2-1 win at Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic.

Saturday, May 1st, 1926. Plays in the Argyle team that lose 0-2 away at Gillingham – meanwhile Reading beat Brentford 7-1 at home to snatch the Division 3 South title, and single promotion place, from us by a solitary point. For the fifth season in succession the Pilgrims finish as runners up. The only small consolation is that they set a club record for the most goals in the league in a single season (107[1]) scored at an average of 2.55 per game. Jack finishes as third highest scorer with 17 goals in the campaign.

Saturday, February 12th, 1927. Scores his second hat trick for the club in a 7-1 home win over Crystal Palace. The third goal was Jack’s 50th in Football League games for

the Greens. He became the second Argyle player to achieve this feat, matching his teammate Jack Cock who reached the milestone in a 2-1 win over Southend United on Saturday, October 16th, 1926.

Saturday, January 28th, 1928. Scores in the 4-0 home victory over Coventry City to become the first Argyle player to score 50 goals at Home Park in the Football League.

Saturday, November 10th, 1928. Plays his 200th Football League game for Argyle in a 3-0 win at Norwich City.

Saturday, November 24th, 1928. Scores his first F.A. Cup goal in a 4-1 away win at Yeovil and Petters United in the First Round.

Saturday, January 26th, 1929. Is part of the first Argyle team to play in the Fourth Round of the F.A. Cup. Unfortunately, the Pilgrims lose 0-1 at home to Bradford Park Avenue.

Saturday, May 4th, 1929. A goal against Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic in a 2-0 win on the final day of the season ensures that Jack finishes the campaign as the Greens leading scorer in the Football League for the second time. His 21 goals puts him one ahead of Ray Bowden who also scored in the Bournemouth match.

Monday, April 21st, 1930. Plays in the match that seals Argyle’s first Football League promotion: Sammy Black scores twice as Argyle win 2-0 at Newport County.

Saturday, August 30th, 1930. Scores our second goal in our first ever match in the second tier of English football. However, Jack’s efforts are insufficient to prevent us from losing 2-3 at home to Everton.

Saturday, October 25th, 1930. Becomes the first Argyle player to net 100 Football League goals when scoring our consolation in a 1-2 home defeat to Burnley.

Friday, December 26th, 1930. Scores in the 5-1 Boxing Day thrashing of Cardiff City at Home Park, but this time Jack is upstaged as his teammate Sammy Black scores twice to become the second Argyle player to score 100 goals for the club in the Football League.

Saturday, December 27th, 1930. Plays in the team that loses 1-9 to Everton, at the time our heaviest defeat in the Football League. Toffees legend Dixie Dean scores four of their goals, as does Jimmy Stein. A ten-hour train journey following on from their efforts on Boxing Day against Cardiff City were put forward as reasons for the Greens’ comprehensive defeat.

Saturday, September 5th, 1931. Plays his 300th Football League game for the Pilgrims and scores in a 3-1 win at Millwall in Division 2.

Saturday, September 12th, 1931. Claims his third hat trick in a 3-3 home draw against Bradford City. This is one of only two occasions where an Argyle player has scored three or more goals in a League match but not been part of a winning team. The other time was when Tommy Tynan scored all of our goals in a 3-4 defeat to Bristol City on Boxing Day, 1984.

Saturday, October 17th, 1931. Scores four times in a 5-1 thrashing of Nottingham Forest in Division Two, becoming only the fifth man to achieve this feat in Football League games for Argyle. Moreover, he becomes the first player to do so for the club in the second tier.

Saturday, December 12th, 1931. Makes his 315th League appearance for Argyle to overtake his former teammate Moses Russell and become the leading outfield appearance maker for the Greens in the Football League. Argyle won the match 2-1 at home to Preston North End and, fittingly, Jack scores one of our goals.

Saturday, January 9th, 1932. Is part of the team that beats Manchester United 4-1 at Home Park in the Third Round of the F.A. Cup.

Saturday, January 16th, 1932. Plays and scores in our 8-1 victory over Millwall. This is still our record home win and joint record win overall in the Football League. It is also our record victory in the second tier of the League.

Saturday, January 23rd, 1932. Plays and scores in only the second time that Argyle play in the Fourth Round of the F.A. Cup. Over 65,000 people were squeezed into the Arsenal Stadium, Highbury, a record at that time for the ground. Jack Vidler gave the Pilgrims an early lead, turning in a shot from Jack Leslie which hit the bar. With 16 minutes to play Arsenal led 3-1, but Leslie scored to make it 3-2. Unfortunately, an own goal from Argyle’s Harry Roberts on 79 minutes killed any hopes of a fightback. The Londoners were to make it all the way to the F.A. Cup Final that season and finished as runners up to Newcastle United.

Saturday, May 7th, 1932. Plays and scores in a 4-0 win at home to Chesterfield to ensure that Argyle finish in their joint highest ever position in the Football League, fourth in the second tier. Jack made 41 League appearances that season, missing only one game – the 1-1 draw at home to Stoke City on November 28th. He finishes as Argyle’s second top scorer in the League with 20 goals (one behind Ray Bowden) and joint top scorer when the F.A. Cup is considered in addition, with 21 goals.

Twenty-one years later, Jimmy Rae’s men were to match the achievement of the 31-2 Greens, by also finishing fourth in Division Two. Interestingly, in both seasons we won 20 matches, drew 9 and lost 13, meaning that we finished with 49 points. However, there the similarities end: the team that Jack Leslie starred in scored 100 goals and conceded 66, while the 52-3 team scored just 65 times and let in 60.

January 21st, 1933. Makes his 362nd appearance for the Greens in a 4-0 home victory over Burnley. As a result, he overtakes former goalkeeper Fred Craig as Argyle’s record Football League appearance holder at the time.

Saturday, November 3rd, 1934. Sammy Black makes his 383rd Football League appearance for Argyle in a 3-1 win at home to Bradford City, overtaking Jack Leslie as Argyle’s record appearance maker.

Saturday, December 29th, 1934. Jack makes his 383rd and final Football League appearance for Argyle in a 3-1 win over Fulham at Home Park. Fittingly, he scores the second goal, his 133rd in the League for the Greens. This is also his 400th and final first team appearance for the club in all competitions.



Jack made 383 League appearances for Argyle: 192 of these came at home and 191 away. 259 were in Division 3 South, the other 124 in Division 2.

He played against 52 opponents in the Football League – a figure which rises to 59 when the F.A. Cup is taken into account. His most common opponents were:

Charlton Athletic 16

Exeter City 15

Newport County 15

Southend United 15

Brentford 14 [2]

Merthyr Town 14

Millwall 14

Gillingham 13[3]

QPR 13

Brighton and Hove Albion 12

Bristol Rovers 12

Luton Town 12

Watford 12[4]


Jack scored 133 goals in the League, including one four, three hat tricks, 19 braces and 82 singles.

He scored 102 times at home and 31 away.

97 of his goals came in Division 3 South and 36 in Division 2.

In Division 3 South, 74 were scored at home and 23 away.

In Division 2, 28 were scored at home and eight away.

3SHome: 21.57%; Away: 12.04%; Overall: 18.2%
2Home: 17.07%; Away: 10.26%; Overall: 14.88%
AnyHome: 20.12%; Away: 11.52%; Overall: 17.14%

He scored against 41 opponents in the Football League, a figure that increases to 44 when the F.A. Cup is considered in addition. The nine teams that Jack scored most League goals against are:

Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic 7

Brentford 7

Crystal Palace 6

Merthyr Town 6

Charlton Athletic 5

Coventry City 5

Norwich City 5

Nottingham Forest 5


Jack’s goals were directly responsible for 36 points over his Argyle career. Please note that this figure has been arrived at using two points for a win, as was the case when JL played, and only applies to games were his goals directly influenced the result of the game. So, if he scored twice in a 2-1 win, his goals gave us two points. If he scored once in a 1-1 draw his goal gave us one point. Whereas if he scored twice in a 3-0 win his goals contributed no points as we would have won the game anyway.

[1] This has never been beaten but was equalled by the 1951-2 team. However, this latter team played four more matches (46).

[2] In addition, he made an appearance against Brentford in the F.A. Cup.

[3] In addition, he made an appearance against Gillingham in the F.A. Cup.

[4] In addition, he made a further two appearances against Watford in the F.A. Cup.