How Nelson cricketer overcame racism to become Britain’s first Black peer
October is Black History Month, four weeks where we uncover and celebrate the hidden and, often times, overlooked history of black citizens.
In 1928, a man from Trinidad, called Learie Constantine, visited England on his second cricket tour of the British Isles.
Learie must have impressed coaches up in the sleepy East Lancashire town of Nelson because they invited him to come and play for them on a professional basis the following year.
Had he heard of Nelson prior to this? Probably not. But thousands of miles from home, and, in a climate that couldn’t compare to the sunny climbs of the Caribbean, Learie liked it so much that he stayed.
It was early 20th century rainy Lancashire and hardly any of the townsfolk had seen a black man before when Learie decided to call the county his home.
People stared and people pointed. Learie must have felt like an alien in his new home.
But the cricketer relented, overcoming prejudice and racism to become one of the most influential black Britons in modern times, establishing himself as a prominent politician who came to change the perception of black people in the UK forever.
The dark legacy of European trading is like a stain across black history. It can’t be denied that most black people living in Europe today are the descendants of men and women who were treated as mere exports in a bloody and inhuman slave trade across the Atlantic.
Our story starts with the slave trade and Learie’s ancestors who were some of the last slaves to be trafficked half way across the world.
We only know Learie’s great grandparents by the name he adopted, Constantine, which historians believe was passed on from their owner, the French artist and landowner (which meant slave owner to wealthy 19th century noblemen) Jean Baptiste Constantin.
We know little about the early Constantines, only that they were slaves and amongst the last to make the horrific journey from their lives in Africa, to the plantations of the Caribbean.
The early Constantines, who presumably lived out their lives in British occupied Trinidad, enduring misery and suffering, would establish a family on the island.
Their grandson, Lebrun Samuel Constantine was born on May 25, 1874, in Maraval, the northern suburb of Trinidad’s capital city; Port of Spain.
Slavery was dead throughout the British Empire by the time Lebrun was born but it seems that employment for black workers in the colonies remained the same because he grew up to work on a plantation.
He must have enjoyed some success as he rose to the rank of overseer at a cocoa plantation in Diego Martin, just west of the island’s capital city.
Lebrun married a woman named Anaise Anna Pascall.
She was also a descendent of African slaves.
Anna, her father Ali, and her brother Victor, had been shipped illegally to South America from their West African homes.
Rumours circulated that Ali escaped his life of torment in South Africa and fled to Trinidad. Some say he lived past the age of 100.
Despite working as an overseer, Lebrun developed into a talented and well liked cricketer. In fact he was a regular international who represented Trinidad from 1893 (when he was 19) to 1923.
Primarily a batsman who could also act as a wicket keeper, Lebrun was part of a famous West Indies sides who would come to tour England in 1900 and 1906.
Lebrun’s first trips to the shores of Britain would have a big effect on his career and his legacy.
He was second in the West Indies batting averages in 1900 and third in 1906 and became the first Caribbean to score a century in England during the 1900 tour when he put 113 points on the board.
Even English cricket commentators of the day couldn’t undermine his quality and newspapers reported that his 1900 performance in the UK was “faultless.”
On September 1, 1901, in the village of Petit Valley near Diego Martin, Trinidad, Lebrun’s wife Anna gave birth to a baby boy. According to a biography later written about Lebrun, he named his son after a drunken Irishman he had met during his 1900 tour of England.
The boy was named Learie Nicholas Constatine.
Fielder on the sands of Trinidad
Learie was destined to be a talented cricket star.
His father was a famous player while his uncle, Victor Pascal, had also played cricket for the Trinidad and the West Indies, featuring alongside Lebrun in several Caribbean based tournaments.
The young Learie was always going to be influenced by the two greatest male role models in his life and, the eldest of three brothers, he would even rub off on his younger sibling Elias who would also take up the sport.
Learie’s childhood was by no means wealthy, cricket only turned professional in Britain during the 1960s and even players selected for tours in England were poorly paid so Lebrun relied on his plantation work
Being a black man who worked on a white run establishment, he was unlikely to earn much money.
But, despite his family’s impoverished beginnings, Learie often reflected that he enjoyed a happy childhood. Although his parents were both strict disciplinarians. Learie was once thrashed by his mother because he picked up an egg lying in a ditch which didn’t belong to him.
As a boy Learie spent a lot of time playing in the hills near his home or on the estates where his father and grandfather worked.
He enjoyed cricket and would often practise his bowling under the supervision of his talented father and uncle.
Learie first went to the St Ann’s Government School in Trinidad’s capital city; Port of Spain, then attended St Ann’s Roman Catholic School until 1917.
Like most talented sportsmen, Learie’s mind was focused solely on cricket and he showed little enthusiasm for academia. He played for the school cricket team, which he captained in his last two years at St Ann’s Roman Catholic School.
By this time, even though he was still only 15, Learie was building a reputation as a talented attacking batsmen, a good fast paced bowler and an unparalleled fielder.
But Lebrun put a cap on his son’s talent, banning him from playing competitive cricket until he was 19.
Learie’s father feared that early exposure to top flight cricket might damage his son and he also wanted Learie to get a job before he launched himself into the sport.
Possibly irked by his father’s discipline, and itching to take to the green, Learie became a clerk and joined the solicitor’s firm Jonathan Ryan, based in Port of Spain.
It was a possible route into the legal profession for Learie, although, being black and lower class, he was not expected to progress far.
Learie resumed his cricketing exploits in 1920 (following his father’s ban) at Shannon Cricket Club. At the time clubs in the Caribbean were divided amongst racial lines with Shannon serving black, lower class residents, while other clubs were white dominanted.
It was Learie’s experiences here that would later develop into his political drive for equality.
By 1923, Learie’s quality as a fielder had earned him a spot in the West Indies team heading for England, with his dad Leburn also featuring in the team. Learie gave up his solicitors job to embark on the tour.
While Learie’s statistics didn’t stand out to cricket fans, his impact as a fielder earned him widespread adoration from many players in England.
The 1923 version of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, a cricketing bible published annually, recorded that Learie’s batting, while highly unorthodox in technique, could be very effective when he was in form.
He was also presented as a medium paced bowler while several England players, including Jack Hobbs, once described as the greatest batsman of all time, singled out Learie as an unusually talented cricketer.
But the greatest plaudits Learie received came from one Pelham Warner, a former England cricket captain and journalist.
He described the Trinidad cricketer as one of the best fielders in the world.
Blighty and Nelson
The 1923 tour set a fire under Learie.
He wanted to do what his father and uncle could not, even in their illustrious sporting careers; to play professional cricket in England.
He no longer had a job and was relying on his family to financially support him. He had been paid just 30 shillings a week on his 1923 tour, something like £50 in today’s money.
His prospects were low and he became very aware that cricket was fast becoming his best chance of escaping a life of poverty and mediocrity in the Carribean.
The next six years were full of ups and down for Learie. His cricket form dropped off after the 1923 tour and he came to realise that his inconsistencies needed to be improved on if he were to make it in England.
He was a great fielder but his bowling was still too slow while his batting was mediocre at times.
Learie found another permanent job at a Leaseholds which gave him the time and financial freedom to train in 1926. It had been a tough year for his career as he was dropped from the West Indies team due to face the Marylebone Cricket Club in England.
But in 1927 he rose like a phoenix from the ashes, both in his professional and personal life. Learie got fitter and trained to become a slip fielder, allowing him to conserve his energy for fast and affective bowling.
That same year he married his sweetheart Norma Cox who would later give birth to his first, and only, child Gloria.
In 1928, Learie was picked to play for the West Indies as they once again prepared to tour England. It was to be a tour that changed Learie’s life.
Learie excelled, taking seven wickets and then scoring 103 runs against Middlesex at Lords in just one hour.
The Caribbean peaked the interest of several onlookers and he was later invited to play for Nelson in the Lancashire League.
The lad from Trinidad, who had been jobless for so long, was now on £500 ( more than £31,000 today) per season plus performance bonuses and travel expenses.
Learie had made it. He was a professional cricketer, living in England and earning more than most sportsmen at the time, let alone ordinary working class residents, could have dreamed of.
Nelson won the league seven times with Learie who scored 1,000 runs in the 1933 season. He was a top player and is still revered as a club legend, but it is the social impact of his presence in East Lancashire that makes him one of the greatest British black men to ever live.
Learie once wrote of the town: “If I had not come, I could not have been the person I am today. I am a better citizen for the time I have spent in Nelson.”
His first season at Nelson was challenging. Black people were a rarity in the town; in fact there were none to speak of before Learie came along. The former Pendle Mayor once recounted that: “School children came out in their droves to see him because the only black face they’d seen before was a coal miner.”
The town of 40,000 inhabitants, was working class to its core, full of weavers and cotton workers who had come to the newly established township from Yorkshire.
Learie accepted jokes about his skin colour but would quash any incidents of outright racism. Several abusive letters were sent to him, some began Dear n***** and he was often called a “black b*gger” by opponents trying to sledge him on the pitch.
He would later recount that the games against local rivals Colne were the worst, describing the matches as less like a game of cricket and more like a “bloody war.”
Learie was incandescent with rage when, before a game against Blackburn, the white South African cricketer Jim Blanckenberg refused to shake his hand.
There was another incident where Learie shook hands with two boys after a game, assuming they were fans, after which one boy loudly asked: “Has it come off on you?” referring to Learie’s skin colour.
According to biographers, the cricketer seriously considered leaving Lancashire and returning to Trinidad but was persuaded by Norma to stick it out until the end of his initial three year contract.
From 1930 things improved. Learie began to develop friendships and to engage in the social life of Nelson which became his family’s permanent home for almost 20 years.
Learie developed into a local celebrity in Nelson. He played cricket with children in the street and endeared himself to the local community.
In 1931, with his family settled into the upper class areas of Nelson, Learie took in a former West Indian cricketer by the name of Cyril James who was at the forefront of a growing West Indian nationalist movement.
James would make Learie realise that he had an opportunity to use his newfound platform to further the cause of racial equality.
Learie later joined the League of Coloured Peoples which was striving to achieve racial equality for British black citizens. James would end up working as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian and helped Learie publish his first book: Cricket and I which was released in 1933.
His book is still viewed as an important influence on black nationalism and racial equality movements in Britain today.
But race problems remained. Learie was approached by Lancashire County Cricket to play for them on several occasions during his Nelson career but it was widely believed that the white dominated board at LCC were not keen to have a black man on their team.
However, in Nelson, Learie was revered. He was invited to take part in many social events and made chairman of the young film goers club, the town wanted to show him off.
By 1935, Learie was earning £750 per year, more than double the annual income of the top professional footballers in England at the time. It is likely that Learie was the highest paid sportsmen in England at the time.
In 1938 Learie moved to Rochdale Cricket Club to play in the Central Lancashire League but still lived in Nelson. More racial incidents in the the league caused Learie to move away from pro cricket but he did return to play as an amateur for Nelson during the Second World War.
Sir Learie Constantine
Learie stayed in his beloved Nelson into 1949 when he moved to Earls Court in London.
His influence there can not be over stated. He had introduced working class English people to the possibility that black people did not deserve to be treated as second class citizens. For many he was first black man they had ever met and his work as a cricketer and growing social commentator changed the perceptions of many people in East Lancashre.
During the 1940s Learie embarked on legal studies at Middle Temple in London, building on his experience as a clerk in Trinidad. His political musings were growing by the year and in 1947 he was made chair of the League of Coloured Peoples.
In 1943 Learie changed British legal history when he successfully sued the Imperial Hotel in Russel Square, London. He had stayed there with his family while playing a game at Lords and had been told his colour would not be a problem.
That changed when the manager called him a “n*****” and threatened to kick him out of the hotel, for fear that American guests would not approve of Learie’s presence. Learie, who was by now a British citizen, won the case in a well publicised legal battle that paved the way for changes to be instilled in British law.
In the 1950s Learie actually returned to his native land and was elected party chairman of the People s National Movement (PNM) in 1956.
His political strides earned him the role of Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner to Great Britain in 1961 and he moved back to London where he would live out the rest of his days.
By 1962 Queen Elizabeth I had knighted Learie in the New years Honours List. That same year Sir Learie was awarded something that was perhaps much closer to his heart than knighthood, he was awarded the freedom of the town of Nelson.
In April 1963, when a Bristol bus company was refusing to employ black staff, Constantine visited the city and spoke to the press about the issue.
Sir Learie was able to assist in a resolution to the problem. It also set British politics down a path that would result in the introduction of the 1965 Race Relations Act.
In 1969 he was made Britain’s first black peer, able to Sit in the House of Lords and stamp his authority, directly on British law.
In 1971 Learie passed away and his body was flown back to his homeland to be buried. He was honoured on both sides of the globe, with a 19 gun salute in Trinidad and with a special memorial service at Westminster Abbey.
During his life Sir Learie wrote seven books, his most prominent publication; The Colour Bar, described his belief about British racial inequality.
“Almost the entire population in Britain really expect the coloured man to live in an inferior area…devoted to coloured people…Most British people would be quite unwilling for a black man to enter their homes, nor would they wish to work with one as a colleague, nor stand shoulder to shoulder with one at a factory bench.”
Over the course of his life Sir Learie would change those ignorant attitudes for the better.