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.

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