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Learie Constantine - was a cricketer, statesman, and Britain's first Black peer

Black History Month UK 2023 'Before Windrush' - exploring the lives and stories of Black Britons who were living in the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.

Learie Constantine is the epitome of Black Excellence and a truly modern renaissance man. A gifted sportsperson, civil rights activist, and politician whose life was crammed to the brim with Black Firsts. He was born in the small village of Petit Valley in north-west Trinidad on 21 September 1901, and was the second child of the family and the eldest of three brothers.


His father, Lebrun Constantine, was a plantation foreman on a cocoa estate and a famous cricketer who had represented Trinidad and Tobago in the first-class cricket and toured England twice with the West Indian team. All his family loved cricket. His Uncle Victor was also a first-class cricketer who played for both the national and West Indian teams, and a third family member, Constantine’s brother Elias, also played for the national cricket team.


Constantine wrote that although his family was not wealthy, his childhood was happy. He 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 from an early age, and his family regularly practised together under the supervision of father Lebrun and maternal Uncle Victor Pascall.


At school, Constantine showed prowess in several sports and was respected for his cricketing lineage. He played for the school cricket team, which he captained for two years. He developed a reputation as a brilliant all-rounder player but didn’t start playing competitive club cricket until 1920 because his father wanted him to have a professional career.


After graduating from school, Constantine joined a firm of solicitors in the Trinidad and Tobago capital city of Port of Spain as a clerk. His father saw this as a possible route into the legal profession for his son. But as a member of the Black lower-middle class, it was unlikely that Constantine would progress far. Since few Black Trinidadians at the that time became solicitors because of the social restrictions they faced due to their ethnicity.


The Caribbean (or West Indies as it was known at the time) at the turn of the 20th century was still defined by the racial politics of the plantation slave system. For the millions of people emancipated under the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act their freedom didn’t extend to their political and economic freedom. They were still seen and treated by the state as ‘dependents’ rather than citizens. Restricted from moving up society’s social ladder and forced to eke out a living for themselves. With some even being forced to become wage labourers for former owners.


For Constantine, this meant that a possible route into the legal profession didn’t exist. He was destined to be a solicitor’s clerk because he was a member of the Black lower-middle class. Because at the time, few if any Black Trinidadians could become solicitors.


Unhappy with the lack of opportunities opened to him because of his colour, Constantine decided to pursue a career in professional cricket and use it as a means of securing a contract with an English cricket team. A talented all-rounder he secured a place on the West Indies Cricket team. And in 1928 he was selected for the team’s tour of England and wowed the crowds with his bowling and batting skills. In one notable all-round innings at the Lord’s Cricket Ground against Middlesex, he took seven wickets and hit 103 runs in just one hour. In fact, he was the first West Indian to take a wicket in a test match and the first person to ever take five wickets in one inning.


In his memoirs, Cricket in the Sun (1947), Constantine highlighted the problems of racism in cricket. At that time, West Indies teams were almost invariably captained by a white man and whites-only dances were held after matches with England. It was also widely believed that Lancashire Cricket Club would have offered Constantine a contract was it not for the racial prejudice of some leading members.


Constantine’s star performance caught the eyes of several English cricket clubs and whilst still touring he was offered a contract with Nelson in the Lancashire League. He signed an initial three-year contract with Nelson worth £500 per season, plus performance bonuses and travelling expenses. His cricket appearances boosted attendances and gate receipts for all Nelson’s matches and was of great financial benefit to both the club and the League as a whole. In Constantine’s eight seasons at the club, Nelson never finished lower than second, won the league competition six times and the knockout cup twice.


“When the Constantine family first came to Nelson in 1929, the rag-and-bone was the only other Black man living in the town. Upon their arrival, they received some welcoming letters from the local people alongside racist and abusive ones. Little kids from the school over the road used to peep in through the windows of Constantine’s house, trying to steal glimpses of their local cricket club’s new pro. They pointed at him in the street, asked him if he’d been working down a mine, whether he could wash it off with soap. While his wife Norma was started at whenever she went shopping.”


Constantine rationalised that the main reason for the racism his family experienced was out of ignorance rather than spite. Most, but not all. As he found out when he met Jim Blanckenberg, the South African all-rounder he had replaced.


Constantine met Blanckenberg in his first year of playing for Nelson. Thousands of locals had come to watch the talented West Indian play his inaugural match against the East Lancashire side. With everyone looking on, Constantine offered the South African his hand and Blanckenberg turned his back on him. A justifiably furious Constantine then proceeded to take out the entire East Lancashire team in a flurry of deadly spin bowls with Nelson winning the match by four wickets. It was reported that after the game, Blanckenberg stormed into the Nelson’s changing room to complain about the bruises he’d received during the match. Constantine never apologised.


By the end of their first summer in Lancashire, Learie was ready to return to the Caribbean, but it was his wife Norma who persuaded him to stay and make a home there. They settled in a prosperous and middle-class area of Nelson, No. 3 Meredith Street, and stayed there for over 20 years, making life-long friends, and becoming part of the community. Constantine went on to play with distinction between 1929 and 1938, while continuing as a member of the West Indies in tours of England and Australia.


Sometime in 1933 Constantine published his first of many books, ‘Cricket and I’, with the help of his lodger, the prolific writer and political theorist, fellow Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) national C.L.R. James. James was at the forefront of a growing Caribbean nationalist movement, though Constantine had until then consciously avoided politics. Through James' influence, Constantine realised that his position gave him opportunities to further the cause of racial equality and independence for Trinidad and Tobago. He joined the League of Coloured Peoples, an organisation aiming to achieve racial equality for Black people in Britain. He helped James to get a job with the Manchester Guardian, and in return, James helped Constantine to write his first book. In later years, commentators identified Constantine's book as an important step in Caribbean nationalism, and an encouragement to future authors.

Constantine demonstrating his bowling technique/National Library of Australia

For the 1938 cricket season, Constantine played for Rochdale in the Central Lancashire Cricket League, although he continued to live in Nelson. He didn’t enjoy the experience despite performing successfully. The pitches were different from his old league and some of the players were resentful of his earnings. Constantine was paid £812 for a season considerably more than other cricket players at the time. But Constantine was the box office draw who was pulling in the crowds and generating thousands in ticket sales. There was also an incident of racial abuse which Constantine believed the Central Lancashire League committee effectively covered up. This season ended Constantine’s career in the Lancashire Leagues, although during the war he returned to play for Nelson as an amateur.


Learie didn’t give up his dream of becoming a solicitor and started studying law by correspondence course while still a professional cricketer. In 1939, he was taken into the family solicitor’s office of Alec Birtwell, a fellow Nelson cricketer. Had the war not intervened he would have become articled to this firm and started his new career in the law.


When war broke out in 1939, Constantine choose to stay in Nelson rather than take his family back to the safety of Trinidad. He said: ‘I couldn’t run away. I had got a standard of life in England that I could never have achieved in my country. I had made a lot of friends. England to me stood for something and now that war had started, I would have felt like a little dog to have run away from England.’


At almost 40, he was too old for active service and initially worked as an Air Raid Precautions equipment officer, and a billeting officer for incoming evacuees. Although the war had affectively ended his career in top-class cricket, he continued to play league cricket and appeared in many wartime charity games.


In 1941, he was offered the role of Welfare Officer with the Ministry of Labour and National Service, in conjunction with the Colonial Office. He was responsible for looking after the interests of West African seamen in Liverpool, and munitions workers and trainees from the West Indies in the north-west. He was initially based in Liverpool’s famous royal Liver Building and was helped by an assistant, Sam Morris, who was active in the League of Coloured Peoples.


During Second World War large numbers of servicemen and women from across the Commonwealth were recruited to help Britain’s war effort. They included RAF pilots from the Caribbean, lumberjacks from Honduras working in terrible, bleak conditions in Scottish forests, and Jamaican technicians who worked in munition factories in and around Merseyside. These new arrivals needed support. Learie Constantine’s long experience of living in England, and his understanding of the prejudices and difficulties they would face, made him the ideal person to help them.


Constantine worked closely with trade unions in an attempt to ease the fears and suspicions of white workers. He used his influence with the Ministry of Labour to pressurise companies who refused to employ West Indians, but generally preferred negotiation to confrontation, an approach that was often successful.


In a newspaper interview with the Liverpool Echo in August 1954, he recalled how he had to resolve a housing issue between Black and white workers in a gunpowder factory. All the workers at the factory, including the Black workers, were put up in hostels. But some of the white workers ‘objected’ to the Black workers being housed. So, Constantine actually stayed in a hostel to promote understanding between the workers. The ruse worked and the Black workers were ‘permitted’ to stay in the hostels.


He also went on to remember a racist incident in which he was accosted in a dance hall of one of the hostels by ‘a man in an American Air Force officers’ uniform. The American officer, who had ‘aggressively shouldered the whole length of the hall’ towards Constantine, yelled at him to ‘get out,’ shouting that ‘where we are’ they did not allow Black people to mix with white. However, it was ‘the aggressor who had to get out.’


Sadly, Constantine was to experience another American fuelled racial incident again in August 1943 when he was booked to play a charity cricket match at Lords. Ahead of the game he booked a four-night stay at Imperial Hotel, London for him and his family. He was reassured in advance that his colour wouldn’t be an issue. Upon arrival, he was denied accommodation for the full stay because management insisted his presence would offend the white American servicemen who were staying in the hotel. The case Constantine v Imperial London Hotels ruled in favour of Constantine and set a precedent on challenging racial discrimination in the court and providing Black people with the legal recourse against some forms of racism.


Ironically, the British government had asked Constantine to produce radio broadcasts to West Indies, reporting on the involvement of West Indians in the war effort. As a result, he was often asked to speak on BBC radio about his life in England. His radio performances met with critical acclaim, and he became a frequent guest on radio panel shows; he also took part in a film documentary West Indies Calling in 1943 with Una Marson and Ulric Cross.


His wartime experiences caused him to increase his involvement in the League of Coloured Peoples, sometimes referring cases to them. He particularly took up the cause of the children of white women and Black overseas servicemen; these children were often abandoned by their parents. However, plans to create a children's home for them came to nothing, leaving Constantine frustrated. He remained in his post until the summer of 1946, latterly concerned with the repatriation of the West Indian workers at the end of the war. He was awarded an MBE in 1947 for his ‘welfare work’ during wartime.

Blue plaque, 101 Lexham Gardens, Kensington, London, his home from 1949 to 1954/Edwarrdx

After the second World War, Constantine moved his family to London where he worked as a journalist and broadcaster for the BBC whilst he studied law. To supplement his income and finance his studies, he took a few coaching jobs and wrote several books on cricket including Cricket in the Sun (1947) which covered his career and the racism he had encountered. He qualified as a barrister and was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1954.


Having turned down an offer in 1947 to return to his old employer, Trinidad Leaseholds, in 1954 Constantine agreed to join the same company as an assistant legal advisor. Before leaving England, he published Colour Bar, a book that criticised not only racial inequality, but also British colonialism and empire. Although not viewed as radical by black audiences, it was aimed at white British readers. The British press gave it mixed reviews and criticised him for unfairness in parts of the book; other critics accused him of communist sympathies.


Constantine returned to a country that was clamouring for independence from Britain. Feeling isolated in his job from his largely white colleagues. He gravitated towards the political movement for independence and accepted Eric Williams, leader of the newly founded People’s National Movement (PNM), invitation to become a party chairman and member of executive committee.


In 1956, Constantine stood for election and narrowly won the constituency of Tunapuna. The PNM formed a government and Constantine became the Minister of Communications, Works and Utilities. He was a popular and successful politician and played a significant role in securing the country’s independence in 1962. After deciding not to stand for re-election in 1961 he accepted the role of Trinidad and Tobago’s first High Commissioner in London.


Constantine returned to England with his wife in 1962. He was knighted the same year becoming Sir Learie Constantine and was given the freedom of the town of Nelson. However, his tenure as High Commissioner ended when he got involved in the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963. Politicians in both Trinidad and Tobago and Britain felt a senior diplomat shouldn’t be so closely involved in British domestic affairs, particularly as he acted without consulting his government. Williams effectively withdrew his support from Constantine, who decided not to continue as High Commissioner when his term expired in February 1964.


For the remainder of his life, Constantine lived in London. He returned to legal practice and was elected an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple in 1963. He also resumed work in journalism: he wrote and broadcast on cricket, race and the Commonwealth, and produced two more books: a coaching book The Young Cricketers Companion (1964), and The Changing Face of Cricket (1966) which included his thoughts on modern cricket.

(c) National Library of Australia

By the 1960s, Learie was firmly part of the UK establishment. He was founding member of the Sports Council, sat on the first Race Relations Board constituted under the 1965 Act, was appointed to the BBC's General Advisory Committee in 1966 and became a BBC Governor two years later, and in 1967 was elected Lord Rector of St Andrew’s University.


However, he remained a vocal campaigner of racial equality and justice. Whilst on the Race Relations Board, he spoke out against the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, a stance that led to an offer from the Liberal Party, which he declined, to stand as parliamentary candidate for Nelson. Later, he was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate the release, after a military coup, of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the overthrown Prime Minister of Nigeria.


In 1969, Learie Constantine became the UK’s first Black peer taking the title ‘Baron Constantine, of Maraval in Trinidad and of Nelson in the County Palatine of Lancaster’. Cementing his place as part of the UK establishment. His life peerage attracted widespread media attention, with Constantine stating:

"I think it must have been for what I have endeavoured to do to make it possible for people of different colour to know each other better and live well together."

In his last years, Constantine was criticised for becoming part of the Establishment. The new generation of Caribbean immigrants believed he was out of touch and the more radical Black activists disapproved of his conciliatory approach to racist incidents. Even the Private Eye mocked him.


Reflecting on Learie Constantine’s impact on British society depends on where you stand; on the cricket field, in a broadcasting studio or in the House of Lords, where Learie was able to sit after becoming a life peer in 1969.

Learie Constantine is a towering figure in British Black history. A man of many accolades and achievements. But perhaps CLR James described him best when he wrote of him: "Many doors in England were open to him. That doors were closed to other West Indians seemed more important to him.”

Baron Constantine died aged 69 at his home in Hampstead, London on July 1, 1971. He was honoured on both sides of the Atlantic with a state funeral in Trinidad and a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. He was posthumously awarded Trinidad and Tobago's highest honour, the Trinity Cross. Several books have been written about him and he has two Blue Plaques, one erected on his former home in Nelson and an English Heritage Blue Plaque on his former address in Earls Court, London.




Sources:

Cricket and I by Learie Constantine and CLR James

Connie: The Life of Learie Constantine by Henry Pearson

Learie Constantine by Gerald Howat

Learie Constantine by Peter Mason






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