Cec Thompson: The first black man to play rugby league for Great Britain

 

Cec Thompson was a man who, from unpromising beginnings, made a remarkable success of his life, on and off the rugby league field. Not content to rest on his laurels after becoming the first black player to represent Great Britain in 1951, he became a successful businessman, a highly respected economics teacher and a driving force behind the Student Rugby League. All this after leaving school at 14 and barely being able to read and write when well into his 20s.

Theodore Cecil Thompson was the son of a mother from Co Durham and a Trinidadian father, who died before he was born. He spent much of his early life in a series of orphanages, until his mother re-married and took the family to live in Leeds.

He worked in a succession of dead-end jobs until, despite his near-total ignorance of the game of rugby league, he was asked to play for Yorkshire Copperworks in a works tournament at Hunslet's ground, Parkside, in the south of the city. He showed such energy and enthusiasm that he attracted the attention of the host club, then still a major force in the professional game.

That was in 1948 and, over the next five years Thompson established himself in the Hunslet side. Primarily a second-rower, he was fast enough to fill in on the wing when required. Not only that, but in 1951 after a clamour led by Gus Risman and Eddie Waring, among others, he became the first black player to be picked for Great Britain. The Cumberbatch brothers, Jimmy of Broughton Rangers and Val of Barrow, had played for England in the 1930s, but Thompson was the trailblazer for GB when he played two Tests against the touring New Zealanders, both of which ended in British victories.

"In my first game for Great Britain, the National Anthem was played and our names were read out," he wrote in an essay he contributed to The Glory of their Times – Crossing the Colour Line in Rugby League. "I shed a tear and disciplined my body not to shake. My thoughts were with my mother. If only she could see me now, I thought, we could cry unashamedly. I was thinking: well mum, people can make fun of me all they want, but I've done something I'm proud about."

After 96 appearances and nine tries for Hunslet, he was transferred in 1953 to Workington Town, beginning a long association with the county of Cumberland and its successor, Cumbria. Over the next seven years he played 192 games for Workington, scoring the remarkably high number of 55 tries, almost entirely from the pack, and becoming one of Town's all-time favourite players. Among his achievements was becoming the only Workington player to score four tries in a match and two hat-tricks in the same season. "My forte was backing-up," he said.

His most memorable season was 1957-58, when Town reached both the Challenge Cup final and the Championship final, although he was on the losing side in both games. In the latter of them, against Hull, he badly injured his knee and was never the same force again. He later coached Barrow, playing the occasional game for them when short of numbers.

By then, however, he had turned his mind to life after rugby. Always conscious of his lack of formal schooling, he began to catch up on his education with an English "O" Level and eventually won a place to read Economics at Leeds University as a mature student, sitting German three times and Maths twice before he got the required grades. Throughout those years he supported himself through a window-cleaning business in Workington, which eventually expanded into a general cleaning firm employing 620 people.

During his time at Leeds University, he was strongly involved and highly influential in the launch of theStudent Rugby League, one of thecode's great success stories of thelast few decades. Thompson became head of the Economics departmentat Chesterfield Grammar School.He also served on the BBC's advisory committee on sport and society. For a time, he was a director of Mansfield Marksmen, an unsuccessful attempt to launch professional rugby league in the East Midlands.

His affiliation with the SRL was a long-running one, made all the more durable by how hard he himself had needed to struggle to become a student at all. Although in declining health in his latter years, he remained a wise observer of the game and an inspiring figure, who symbolised the importance of access for all in the worlds of sport and education.

Theodore Cecil Thompson, rugby league player, and teacher; born Birtley, Co Durham 12 July 1926; married Anne (one son); died Chesterfield 19 July 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
news
Environment
environment
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
film
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
film
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing