Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised rugby league

“Roy was the first person to come and see me after I had my daughter,” says Anne Francis. “He snuck into the hospital about an hour after she was born. I think he wanted to see what colour she was. It was quite touching, I thought.

“He didn’t say that of course, but I know why he came. I could see him looking at her in the cot, and he went home and told his wife Rene he was so relieved she was white. He didn’t want his granddaughter to have any hassle, and he adored her.”

The story Anne recalls of her father-in-law Roy Francis is far removed from his public profile and great sporting successes, but it gives a poignant insight into the mind of a loving and private man who achieved plenty in the public sphere.

Francis was a brilliant rugby league player, becoming the first black man to play for Great Britain in 1947, and one of the country’s greatest coaches. At Hull FC in 1955, he became the first black head coach of a British top-tier professional team.

But why did he want his granddaughter to be white?

As a coach, he had become a leader with authority over white men in Britain at a time when that would have been unthinkable in all other areas of society. Colour bars in the 1950s prevented many black people from getting jobs. It would be 23 more years before Viv Anderson became the first black man to play football for England, and 32 more years before Bernie Grant became the UK’s first black MP.

Francis’ story has been largely forgotten. He died in 1989, aged 70. He is not in Britain’s wider sporting consciousness, and he is not on the list of 100 Great Black Britons. Yet he was a great innovator who revolutionised sport in the country.

Growing up in south Wales in the 1920s and 30s, Francis fell in love with rugby union.

But the Welsh had followed England’s Rugby Football Union in 1895 in splitting from rugby league. Northern England’s working classes sought payment for their on-pitch efforts, while the union men wanted to keep rugby amateur for ‘gentlemen’.

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A working class man needing to earn money, Francis had only one path to take. Welsh rugby union’s loss would be English rugby league’s gain.

He had been born in 1919 in Brynmawr. His birth mother, a married white woman, had an affair with a West Indian man. Her family were unimpressed when baby Roy was born, and she gave him away. It is not clear if he ever knew who his birth parents were.

A black woman – Rebecca Francis – took Roy in and raised him. School reports show he was a brilliant all-round pupil who excelled at a multitude of sports.

He initially played rugby union for Brynmawr before becoming one of the first black rugby league players when he switched codes and made the journey north to Wigan as a 17-year.

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