CONSTANTINE, Sir Learie (1901-1971)
Plaque erected in 2013 by English Heritage at 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, London, W8 6JN, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Cricketer and politician
Politics and Administration, Sport
Sir LEARIE CONSTANTINE 1901-1971 West Indian Cricketer and Statesman lived here 1949-1954
Britain’s first black peer, Sir Learie Constantine, was a cricketer, statesman and advocate of racial equality. It was while living at 101 Lexham Gardens in Earls Court that he wrote his most important work, Colour Bar (1954).
Born in Trinidad, Learie Nicholas Constantine was first selected to represent his country at cricket in 1921. Touring England with the West Indian side in 1928, he played a notable all-round innings at Lord’s against Middlesex, taking seven wickets and hitting 103 runs in just one hour. In 1929, he accepted an offer to become a professional player for Nelson, in the Lancashire League. The club went on to win the league eight times during Constantine’s ten seasons there.
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 were it not for the racial prejudice of some leading members.
Constantine moved from Nelson to 101 Lexham Gardens, Earls Court, in 1949. The four-storey house was also – much earlier – the childhood home of Leonard Woolf, later husband to Virginia. Constantine – at the time an aspiring barrister – occupied a self-contained flat within the building with his wife and daughter.
By this point Constantine had long been a strong voice for racial equality in Britain. He had joined Harold Moody’s League of Coloured People in the early 1930s, and during the Second World War he worked for the Ministry of Labour looking after the welfare of West Indian immigrant workers.
Still, the vehemence with which he tackled the prevalence of racial discrimination in his 1954 publication, Colour Bar, surprised many. He criticised the Queen – who had recently held a banquet in Bermuda without a single black guest – and declared that the UK was ‘only a little less intolerant’ than the USA or South Africa.
He had been a victim of discrimination himself in 1943, when he and his family were refused pre-booked accommodation at the Imperial Hotel in Russell Square. Constantine won damages from the hotel’s management – a judgment that marked an important step on the road to equality legislation.
Constantine returned to Trinidad in 1954, becoming chairman of a new political party, the People’s National Movement, and later taking up the position of Minister of Works and Transport. In 1961, he returned to London as High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago, and played a significant role in securing the country’s independence a year later.
He was made a life peer in 1969, taking the title Lord Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, and so becoming the first person of African descent to sit in the House of Lords. He was in poor health, however, and died at his London home on 1 July 1971. Constantine was given a state funeral in Trinidad, and a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey.