Canning Town in the early 20th century was a cultural melting pot; a black community had grown from African and Caribbean trade links as sailors settled in the area. The adjacent Victoria Dock and shipbuilding works on Bow Creek worked a rich seam of industry. Most famously the town powered Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.
On 17 August 1901, Jack Leslie was born in the shadow of a foundry that built the world’s greatest warships. Jack senior came from Jamaica and worked as a gas-fitter labourer, his mother Annie was a seamstress from Islington. By 1912, the Ironworks had closed and slum dwellings played host to grinding poverty. The area could at least boast a thriving local football league.
West Ham United originated at the Ironworks and used to play at the Memorial Grounds in Canning Town. Relocated to Upton Park the club was elected to the Football League in 1919. Young Jack cut his teeth with Barking Town and scored 250 goals, helping them to victory in the Essex Senior Cup and the London League Premier title.
Leslie signed for Plymouth Argyle in 1921, just as they were corralled into the newly launched League Division 3 (South). Argyle were founder members of Division 3 the previous season and finished eleventh. The north and south approach would have implications for the club; it meant that only the champions of each division would be promoted to Division 2.
They finished second in 1921/22 which began an agonising run of six consecutive seasons in the runner-up spot. There was, however, the consolation of schadenfreude; local rivals Exeter City were relegated at the end of that first season. For Leslie it was a period of consolidation and made only 16 appearances in his first two seasons for the club. Towards the end of 1922/23, Leslie briefly nailed a spot at inside left and scored his first goals for Argyle.
His duck was broken in the 2-0 home win against Gillingham, and followed up with a brace in another home win against Brentford. He battled for the inside left berth in 1923/24 and managed five goals in 17 appearances. However, the fuse was lit when Sammy Black was signed from Kirkintilloch in 1924.
The diminutive Scot played outside left and was the perfect foil for Leslie as they shared 27 goals in their first season together. The winger who played with a cigarette butt behind his ear enabled Leslie to flourish. He was top scorer with 14 goals in 1924-25 as Argyle were pipped for the title by Swansea Town.
A 1-1 draw in the penultimate game had cost them dearly. The Swans stole a draw at Home Park which edged them out by a single point. A 6-0 win against Southend in the final game of the season was cold comfort. Manager Bob Jack had been fully vindicated in the signing of Leslie. The Plymouth Herald glowed with praise describing him as ‘a versatile player’ who was ‘known throughout England for his skill and complexion’.
Bob Jack opened the cheque book again as England centre forward Jack Cock was signed from Everton in 1925. The native Cornishman was a perfect target man for the burgeoning partnership between Leslie and Black. Alongside inside right Fred Forbes they now had a potent strike force. Argyle were on fire at the beginning of 1925/26 season as they won eight out of their first 10 games. They rattled in 34 goals with Leslie as the creative fulcrum.
In October 1925, Bob Jack had exciting news for the kid from Canning Town. Leslie had been selected to play for England against Ireland in Belfast. Accounts vary as to what happened next but the invitation was apparently withdrawn. In an interview with Ian Wooldridge of the Daily Mail Leslie recalled: ‘The FA had come to have another look at me. Not at my football but my face. I suppose they thought that was like finding out I was foreign’.
Newspapers subsequently reported that Billy Walker of Aston Villa had been selected instead. Typically, it was the first Leslie heard of the snub. Sadly, no documentary evidence exists of the affair either at the club or the FA. It’s been suggested that Leslie was selected before they saw him play. For all their antiquated ways even the FA wouldn’t have been quite so naïve.
There was no team manager at the time; trainers would be appointed on an ad hoc basis. The all-powerful FA International Selection Committee (FAISC) were responsible for the selection of teams. Club chairmen would often recommend a player for the national team via various committees at the FA Council. At this point Leslie would surely have been watched by a representative of the FA.
One can easily imagine the blazers trembling at Lancaster Gate when they discovered Leslie’s ethnic origin. Push eventually came to shove and was out voted in favour of Billy Walker. Leslie took the snub with good grace and contributed to an exhilarating if disappointing season for Argyle. They finished second to Reading who pipped them by one point; but scored a massive 107 goals, thirty more than the eventual champions. Inexplicably, promotion was blown on the final day when they lost 2-0 at home to mid-table Gillingham.
Argyle missed out on promotion for the next three seasons until in 1929/30, when they finally won the championship and promotion to Division 2. After a bumpy first season in the second tier, Argyle really hit their stride in the 1931/32 season. They finished 4th and scored 100 goals, but three defeats in their last five games ultimately killed off their hopes of promotion. Leslie scored 20 goals including 4 in a 5-1 defeat of Nottingham Forest.
As his career began to wind down he could reflect on that elusive England cap and a transfer to Everton that never materialised. Leslie undoubtedly fell victim to a narrow minded and bigoted Football Association but was an early trailblazer for race relations in Britain. He was the first black footballer to play regularly at senior level. He played 401 games and scored 137 goals in a fourteen year career for Argyle. Leslie acted as club captain, toured Argentina and helped them to 4th position in the second division.
This level of acceptance is something his predecessors could only dream about. Arthur Wharton, a goalkeeper of some repute played in the early days of the Football League, but only managed 50 appearances in 17 years. Walter Tull made 10 appearances for Spurs before drifting into non-league with Northampton before the Great War.
Eddie Parris made 142 league appearances for Bradford Park Avenue, but played for seven other clubs and never enjoyed a settled career as Leslie did. Bob Jack took a risk signing Leslie but not because he was black; more that he played non-league football at junior level and was an unknown quantity. But the manager recognised his ability regardless of skin colour.
After retiring in 1935 he scouted for Argyle and took an obligatory stint as publican. Coming full circle, he later returned to his old trade as a boilermaker at the East India Docks. And in the sweetest twist of fate Leslie became boot room manager at West Ham just as the glory days kicked in.
Pictures taken at the time suggested a wizened, kindly gentleman who treasured boots as tools of the trade. He worked with World Cup heroes Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters. Most tellingly, he tended the boots of Clyde Best, one of the greatest players to emerge from the Caribbean. He retired as boot room manager in the early 80s and died in 1988.
The succeeding years have been much kinder to Jack Leslie’s memory. Plymouth Argyle has rightly embraced him as a club legend. A statue now stands outside Home Park and the club board room has been named in his honour. Long overdue international recognition has also been received from the FA, who awarded a posthumous cap in recognition of his England selection. The tributes continued to flow as a blue plaque was unveiled outside his former home in Canning Town and a street was named after him in Plymouth.
In recent seasons West Ham has honoured Leslie’s association with the club. Curiously the tributes came in the home games against Everton. Prior to last season’s fixture, a formal presentation announced his induction into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. This season the author Matt Tiller was interviewed pitchside. His book entitled ‘The Lion Who Never Roared’ has just been published and tells the story of a remarkable life.
It must be tinged with sadness when the accolades have arrived over30 years after he died. It’s a fact of life that someone is only really appreciated after they’ve gone but it’s never too late to right a wrong.
What continues to puzzle is how West Ham failed to sign a player of Leslie’s quality when he played on their doorstep. It can only be wondered how potent a strike force he might have formed with Vic Watson and Jimmy Ruffell in the Hammers’ forward line of the 1920s.
Perhaps he was the finest player never to play for West Ham?