Black Lives Matter: Council was ‘racist’ for trying to rename Plymouth square


A council has been accused of being ‘racist’ for trying to rename a Plymouth square honouring slave trader and naval commander Sir John Hawkins after the city’s black football legend Jack Leslie.

During the summer Plymouth City Council proposed renaming Sir John Hawkins Square after the Plymouth Argyle player who is the club’s fourth highest goal scorer.

Leslie, who played for the club in the 1920s and 1930s, was the only black professional footballer at the time and is believed to have missed out on a place in the England squad because of discrimination.

The decision to replace the name of an Elizabethan slave trader on the square beside the city’s magistrates’ court followed the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in the United States in May.

But there were a number of objections, and Plymouth businessman Danny Bamping submitted an appeal against the decision which was heard at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on Friday morning.

During the summer Plymouth City Council proposed renaming Sir John Hawkins Square after the Plymouth Argyle player Jack Leslie (pictured), who is the club’s fourth highest goal scorer

The council denies the claims from Mr Bamping, and the court heard evidence setting out its case that it had properly followed its policies, national guidelines and the law governing street naming as laid out in the 1925 Public Health Act.

Mr Bamping, who once appeared on Dragons’ Den, argued the decision breached national guidelines as it was ‘racist’ because it was based on the colour of the player’s skin in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

He claimed the council had failed to comply with its policy by not consulting about the change with people connected with the square, and he argued it had not properly consulted with Jack Leslie’s family.

He said the council should have considered other locations to name after the player, and proposed an unnamed road leading to the Home Park stadium of Plymouth Argyle, where a statue of the player will be placed.

The square was originally named after Sir John Hawkins (pictured), who sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold

The square was originally named after Sir John Hawkins (pictured), who sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold

Mr Bamping claimed the renaming decision was wrong and illogical because it did not take into account the full history of Sir John Hawkins, who was a Plymouth MP and played a leading role as a naval commander in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, at a time in history when slave trading was legal.

He argued that many people did not want the name changed, including 54 who had written to the court objecting to the decision, although their letters did not qualify as notices of appeal under the legal process.

Mr Bamping also argued that the 1925 Act used the word ‘alter’ rather than ‘change’ or ‘rename’, which he claimed meant councils could only make alterations to an existing name, rather than rename a street.

The council’s case is that it has the power to carry out the renaming under the Act and it has fully met with the requirements of the law, national guidance and its own policies on street renaming. 

It says a notice of the proposal was properly posted on the square, there are no residents of the square to consult, the council obtained permission from Jack Leslie’s family, and it explained the decision and carried out the necessary consultation.

Jane Hirons, the council’s property team leader, told the hearing that she considered the authority had followed the correct procedure as set out in national guidelines and its own policy on street naming.

She said she had seen an email from Jack Leslie’s granddaughter giving the family’s consent to a street being named after him. She said she was satisfied it represented the views of the family, which met the council’s policy.

The court heard the council had been keen to protect the identity of the relative who sent the email, because of the concerns from members of Jack Leslie’s family who felt they were being ‘harassed’ by Mr Bamping, which he denied.

Sir John Franklin Square in the Barbican district of Plymouth commemorates the slave traders first sailing out to Africa with three ships, which he used to take 400 Africans into slavery

Sir John Franklin Square in the Barbican district of Plymouth commemorates the slave traders first sailing out to Africa with three ships, which he used to take 400 Africans into slavery 

A street sign marking Sir John Hawkins Square was removed in June, following protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd

A street sign marking Sir John Hawkins Square was removed in June, following protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd

Danny Bamping says England's first slave trader Sir John Hawkins 'did a huge amount for Plymouth,' and is fighting Plymouth council's plan to rename his town square after black footballer Jack Leslie

Danny Bamping says England’s first slave trader Sir John Hawkins ‘did a huge amount for Plymouth,’ and is fighting Plymouth council’s plan to rename his town square after black footballer Jack Leslie

Mr Bamping claimed the council was ‘over-reaching their power’ to rename the square under the 1925 law, but Ms Hirons, responding to a question, said it did give the council powers to rename.

Sir John Hawkins: The slave trader who played a key role in English navy’s Battle of Trafalgar victory 

Sir John Hawkins was an English naval administrator and commander

Sir John Hawkins was an English naval administrator and commander

Sir John Hawkins was an English naval administrator and commander and the chief architect of the Elizabethan navy.

Born in 1532 in Plymouth, he was a merchant in African trade before becoming the first English slave trader.

He sparked conflict with the Spaniards by transporting slaves from Guinea, West Africa, to the Spanish West Indies. Spaniards did not allow unauthorised foreigners to trade with their colonies. 

Hawkins’ first slave-trading voyage, in 1562–63, on behalf of a syndicate of London merchants, was so profitable that a more prestigious group, including Queen Elizabeth I, provided the money for a second expedition between 1564 and 1565. His third voyage, with Sir Francis Drake in 1567–69, however, ended in disaster. 

After selling the slaves in the Caribbean, Hawkins was forced by needed repairs and lack of water to take refuge at San Juan de Ulua, near Veracruz, Mexico. A Spanish fleet attacked him in the harbour, and, of the six ships, only the two commanded by Hawkins and Drake were able to escape. This episode marked the beginning of the long quarrel between England and Spain that eventually led to open war in 1585.

By later gaining the confidence of Spain’s ambassador to England, he was able to notify the government of a plot by the English Roman Catholics, with help from Spain, to depose Queen Elizabeth and seat Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the throne. The English plotters involved were arrested.

He took over from his father-in-law as treasurer of the navy in 1577 and played a part in designing ships that were used to fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588, during which he was third in command.

Sir Hawkins died the night before an unsuccessful attack on the Spanish West Indies – on November 12, 1595, at sea off Puerto Rico.

Source: Britannica 

She also denied a suggestion from Mr Bamping that the proposal to rename the square after Jack Leslie was ‘because of the colour of his skin’, but said the Black Lives Matter movement was the ‘instigation’ for the change.

Ms Hirons said she considered the renaming of the square complied with a policy requirement that names should not be considered racist.

She gave evidence that the proper procedure had been followed by issuing a legal notice about the renaming proposal and fixing three copies of it around the square for 21 days.

The officer, responding to a question from Mr Bamping, said the suggestion of renaming a road near Home Park had not been put to Jack Leslie’s family, as it would not have been appropriate until the outcome of the appeal was known.

City councillor Chris Penberthy, the ward member for St Peter and the Waterfront, which includes the square, said he put forward Jack Leslie’s name from one of several which had been suggested to him.

The councillor said he had received complaints about the name of Sir John Hawkins Square before the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer, and the council had been considering how to deal with the issues it raised. 

But the protests ‘brought things to a head’, not only in Plymouth but across the country and the world.

Cllr Penberthy disagreed with a suggestion from Mr Bamping that the renaming decision ‘set a dangerous precedent’. The councillor said it was ‘inflammatory’ to suggest other action would follow and added: ‘We are not going to be removing statues.’

Mr Bamping, summing up his case, told the court: ‘It is my position that no local authority in this country since 1925 has got the power to change or rename a road, because you need certainty on that issue.’

He argued Jack Leslie’s family should have been told that the renaming was a ‘contentious issue’, and claimed the council had ‘clearly not complied’ with the policy that a street name must not be considered racist.

He said the player’s name was being used to ‘appease a small minority who recognised Sir John Hawkins to be the first slave trader, which he was not, although he was involved in the slave trade.’

Mr Bamping said: ‘We cannot judge yesterday’s actions by today’s morals.’ He previously said: ‘The council has taken it on to rename the square purely on the colour of Jack Leslie’s skin.

‘He has nothing to do with the area – Sir John Hawkins did a huge amount for Plymouth. Jack Leslie kicked a football 80 years ago.’

Charlotte Davies, representing the city council, said the court had heard evidence that the authority had obtained the permission of Jack Leslie’s family.

The barrister said the national guidelines on street renaming had only had to be taken into account by the council. They advised not naming roads after a living person, and names should not be considered racist.

Ms Davies told the hearing that the council had considered the national guidelines and acted in accordance with its own policy in obtaining the permission for the renaming from Jack Leslie’s family.

In June council leader Tudor Evans said the council stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and it had already started the process of renaming Sir John Hawkins Square on the Barbican.

Cllr Evans said the city was proud of its naval heritage but the role of Elizabethan figures such as Sir John in the slave trade had perhaps been downplayed, and he understood the feelings of those who found the name offensive. 

The square is in the Barbican district of Plymouth, where Sir John sailed from in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold.

Mr Bamping has raised £60 in fees after mounting the legal challenge against the council to replace Sir John’s name.

Leslie, left, who played for Plymouth Argyle from 1922 to 1934, was set to become the first black player to represent England until selectors were told withdrew his invitation

Leslie, left, who played for Plymouth Argyle from 1922 to 1934, was set to become the first black player to represent England until selectors were told withdrew his invitation

Kelly Greenaway, Jack Leslie’s great-great niece, was stunned anyone would oppose renaming the square.

‘Why would you want a square named after a slave trader? Imagine how some people feel walking past knowing their ancestors were involved with that person,’ she said.

‘The square could be renamed after a lot of people.

‘It just so happens someone started a petition for Jack Leslie and a lot of people signed it.

‘People who are against that are entitled to their opinion. They can start a campaign for another name if they want.’

District judge Jo Matson who heard the case said she would give her judgement on Friday, December 4.

Jack Leslie: The 1920s Argyle goal-scorer who was destined to become England’s first non-white player… until coaches realised he was black 

Jack Leslie (pictured) played for the Plymouth Argyle between 1921 and 1934

Jack Leslie (pictured) played for the Plymouth Argyle between 1921 and 1934

Jack Leslie was the only professional black player in England between 1921 and 1934 while he played for Plymouth Argyle.

He formed a legendary partnership with outside left player Sammy Black.

In 1925 the talented Leslie was poised to become the first ever black player to pull on the England shirt, only for the decision to call him up to the national side to be reversed.   

Bob Jack, his manager, told him he had been selected but the invitation was later removed.

At the time, he told a journalist: ‘They must have forgot I was a coloured boy.’

After showcasing his remarkable talent in the old third division with Plymouth, Leslie was selected to play for England against Ireland in Dublin. He would never attend the match.

In the days following Leslie’s selection, the national newspapers published the team which instead included Billy Walker, of Aston Villa.

Walker was in the starting line-up whereas Leslie was named as a travelling reserve before being dropped, after selectors became aware of the colour of his skin. He did not travel to the match, instead remaining in Plymouth and scoring two goals in a 7-2 victory over Bournemouth.

It was not until 1978 that England would field their first black footballer, following the selection of Viv Anderson.

Born to a Jamaican father and English mother Leslie (seen bottom, second from right) became a vital player for Plymouth Argyle and carved a strong reputation for himself

Born to a Jamaican father and English mother Leslie (seen bottom, second from right) became a vital player for Plymouth Argyle and carved a strong reputation for himself

Leslie (third from right) pictured warming up with his Plymouth team-mates. In 1925 his England call-up was reversed after selectors realised the colour of his skin

Leslie (third from right) pictured warming up with his Plymouth team-mates. In 1925 his England call-up was reversed after selectors realised the colour of his skin

Leslie was born in Canning Town, in London’s docklands, in 1900, to an English mother and a Jamaican father.

A gifted athlete, he played for Barking Town, where his prolific scoring record attracted the attention of Plymouth Argyle, then a third-division club.

He joined Argyle in the 1921-22 season and stayed for 14 years, making 401 appearances and scoring 137 goals, a feat made all the more impressive because of the racial abuse he experienced at the hands of both crowds and opponents.

Leslie became club captain, leading his team to a cup victory against Manchester United 

He is remembered as a great attacking inside left but also a utility player who could fill in as a central defender. 

Leslie in action for Plymouth - the team for which he made 401 appearances and scored 137 goals in the positions of inside left or central defender

Leslie in action for Plymouth – the team for which he made 401 appearances and scored 137 goals in the positions of inside left or central defender

Leslie’s football career came to an end in 1934 after he sustained an injury when a lace from a leather ball flew into his eye. He and his family then returned to east London thereafter and he resumed his trade as a boilermaker.  

Following his retirement and with time on his hands, his wife Lavinia urged him to go to West Ham United and ask the club if there was any work he could do.

He met manager Ron Greenwood, who immediately recognised and remembered him as a great player.

Greenwood offered him a job in the boot room where, poignantly, he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters, and Trevor Brooking.

Viv Anderson went on to become the first black player to play for England, making his debut in 1978 - some 53 years after Leslie should have received a national cap for the Three Lions

Viv Anderson went on to become the first black player to play for England, making his debut in 1978 – some 53 years after Leslie should have received a national cap for the Three Lions

In a further ironic twist to his story, Leslie also cleaned the boots of West Ham’s black striker Clyde Best, who, in the late 1960s and 1970s, was still one of only a small minority of black players in top-flight English football.

Leslie died in 1988 at the age of 88. 

Bill Hern co-author of the book Football’s Black Pioneers said: ‘Jack Leslie should have been a major figure in the history of British football and society.

‘Everyone needs a role model and young black footballers didn’t have that major role model in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

‘Had he played for England as he should have he would have fired the aspirations of generations of young black players.’

Speaking of Leslie’s initial selection for the national team his granddaughter, Lesley Hiscott, told the BBC: ‘I believe that the manager sent in his request, saying: “I’ve got a brilliant player here, he should play for England,’” 

‘So then someone came down to watch him. They weren’t watching his football, they were looking at the colour of his skin.

In his retirement Leslie asked West Ham United for work, ending up in the boot room where he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars including Bobby Moore

In his retirement Leslie asked West Ham United for work, ending up in the boot room where he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars including Bobby Moore

‘And because of that he was denied the chance of playing for his country.’ 

Following his career Leslie later suggested that finding out he was black, for the selectors, must have been ‘like finding out I was foreign’.

But he accepted what had happened and according to his granddaughters never expressed any bitterness. They remember him as a kind and loving grandfather.

He had married their grandmother, Lavinia, in 1925, at a time when it was unusual for a black man to marry a white woman.

And as a consequence, some of the family, and Lavinia in particular, experienced racial abuse.

Lyn Davies, Leslie’s other granddaughter, said: ‘If I walked down the street with my friends and he was coming the other way, he would cross to the other side of the road so I could pretend that I didn’t know him, so I didn’t suffer.

‘But I’d run across and say, “Hello Granddad.”‘

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