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The Inspirational Life of Black Rugby Star Cec Thompson

The Inspirational Life of Black Rugby Star Cec Thompson

Cec Thompson, who died on July 19th aged 85, rose from childhood poverty to become one of the first black men to play rugby league for Great Britain. Such was his determination to succeed that he overcame racism, prejudice and illiteracy to build successful careers both as a teacher and a businessman.

Theodore Cecil Thompson was born in County Durham in 1926, to a white miner’s daughter. His Trinidadian father died before his son was born. One of four children, Cec spent much of his childhood in orphanages after his family fell into poverty and his mother was made homeless.

In 1938 the family was reunited in Leeds and in a world where black people were a rarity, Cec was a target for racism. He later said, “In those days there were very few black people away from the seaports. Leeds is about as far from the sea as you can get, and I felt as if I had walked out of a freak show.” He described how people would refuse to sit next to him at the cinema or on the bus but his memories of being treated as a second-class citizen later spurred him on to succeed.

Leaving school at 14, barely literate and with limited opportunities, Cec began work as a labourer in a factory. He went on to serve with the Royal Navy during World War II and returned home to a series of dead-end manual jobs.

While working at the Yorkshire Copperworks in Leeds he tried rugby league for the first time and discovered a natural talent. His running and tackling skills were so outstanding that within just a few games he had signed as a professional for Hunslet, his local team, for £250.

In 1951 Cec was called up to play internationally against New Zealand, becoming only the second black man to play rugby league for Great Britain. One newspaper ran the story under the headline, "Hunslet's darkie one of Britain's heroes". Twice he played for Great Britain and was on the winning team on both occasions.

Cec further enhanced his reputation as a formidable player when he transferred to Workington Town in Cumbria in 1953 and spent seven years playing for the club, once again as one of few black faces in the area. After a devastating knee injury at the age of 32, Cec’s career as a player was over but he continued in the game for two years as a coach at Barrow.

Throughout his rugby career, Cec had felt inadequate due to his lack of education and dreaded being asked for his autograph by fans as he could only slowly print his name. He gradually taught himself to read write and on coach journeys to away games would try to improve his vocabulary using the Reader's Digest.

Cec supplemented his wages as a rugby star by cleaning windows and it was while on his round that he caught a glimpse of inspiration for the next stage of his life. He recalled, "I used to go to schools to clean their windows and I would see teachers at work and imagine how pleasant it would be if I could do their job.”

Self-financed by his window cleaning business, he began night-school in his mid 30s taking a course for 14-year-olds who had failed their 11 plus. At 39 he won a place at Leeds University, graduating four years later with an honours degree in Economics and a teaching diploma.

He taught Economics first at Dinnington Comprehensive School in South Yorkshire and later at Chesterfield Grammar School, where he ended his career as Head of Economics, after more than 20 years in the classroom. Alongside this, he continued to grow his cleaning company into a highly successful business which at its peak employed 620 people.

In 2002, Cec was sadly diagnosed with dementia with Lewy bodies, which slowly took its toll and left the once-athletic 14 stone sportsman frail and in need of constant care. Cec passed away in July this year, survived by Anne, his wife of 47 years and their son, Mark and leaving behind a legacy of achievement against the odds.

Cec published his inspirational story in his autobiography, Born on the Wrong Side, in 1995. In it, he described his life in a simple sentence, “My journey has taken me from the gutter to the stars.”

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