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Preserving the History of Roy Francis in Brynmawr​

Let’s have a walk around Brynmawr, pop into a few Pubs and ask the locals if they had ever heard of Roy Francis.  The usual answers are, ‘I might do’, ‘Where does he live?’  ‘Does he drink in here?’  ‘How old is he?’ ‘What does he look like?’

Roy Francis was possibly the most important Sporting Coach in British History.  He was the first to video training sessions and games, looked after the welfare of players in the form of health and diet, and arranged travel to games for wives and families.  He personally built a running track next to Hull FC’s Stadium to improve the speed of players.  This was before José Mourinho was alive.

Born in Cardiff in 1919, he moved to Brynmawr and lived with his parents Rebecca and Albert Francis.  Roy became an accomplished athlete winning prizes at Swimming Galas in the Town’s Baths, and finishing 3rd in 120-yard sprint for Under-16's in August 1933 when he was only 14.  In September 1936 The Merthyr Express did an article on Brynmawr’s young Rugby Union Team who had a promising Wing playing for them called Roy Francis.

For most of us, being good enough to play Rugby for your National Team just isn’t going to happen, but even when you are good enough but you’re the wrong colour, it’s still not going to happen.  Rugby League in Northern England had a very close eye on South Wales and Scouts were always picking up talented players and offering contracts.  By the end of 1936 Roy went to Wigan where he started to become a success until the arrival of Harry Sunderland, an administrator from Queensland, Australia, who became Manager.  Roy mysteriously didn’t make the 1st team and was signed to play for Barrow.

Both before and after the War he played for Barrow, during the War he served as Sergeant and played 57 guest games for Dewsbury Rams, managed by Eddie Waring, and scored 57 tries.  At the end of the forties he signed for Warrington while the family lived in Wigan. 

He played five times for Wales and once for Great Britain, scoring 2 tries, and becoming the first selected black player in any British International Sporting Team. He was expected to be part of the history-making Great British Lions ‘Indomitables’ team - the only side to take the Ashes from Australia in Australia… ever!  Roy was overlooked because of the colour bar which operated down under at the time

In 1949 he signed for Hull FC and played 137 games before he became the first black Coach in British Sporting History, winning the Championship in 1956, then again in 1958. The team also made it to The Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in 1959 and 1960; both games played in front of 80,000 spectators.  Hull were runners-up on both occasions.

The family settled in Beverley, East Yorkshire and took over a pub called The Cross Keys which became very popular as fans wanted to see Roy.  Not only that, he had a juke-box fitted in which was the first in the town.  Not happy with just being a first-class Rugby League Coach and pub landlord, Roy and Irene bought a Café just across the road and named it ‘Haveasnack’, with plenty of room upstairs to build a fully functional gym where he trained Boxing.  Nobody’s quite sure how he managed to get a licence to train Boxers.

In 1963 Roy went on to Coach Leeds until 1968. It was here that he was in charge of a highly regarded Leeds team that came up against Wakefield Trinity in the famous ‘Watersplash’ Cup Final 1968.  Some people say that it wasn’t possible to see how good Roy Francis’s Leeds Team actually were because of the conditions of the pitch. However, the game was a great spectacle and is still shown on the BBC today.  Leeds only triumphed in the end by the infamous ‘last kick of the game’ missed conversion, right in front of the posts by Wakefield’s Don Fox.  Roy Managed Leeds for 219 games winning 139.

1969 saw the brave move to manage North Sydney Bears; half-way around the world.  After giving it a lot of thought, Roy and Irene got on board the SS Canberra and set off on their 6-week voyage which briefly stopped off in Capetown, South Africa, where they weren’t allowed ashore due to apartheid.

Then onto Perth and finally Sydney.  North Sydney Bears was a Club that was near the bottom of the League at the time. Although the period wasn’t a great success, Roy managed to get them about half-way up the League.  The Club Chairman looked after the couple and they had a nice house but Irene didn’t feel comfortable mixing with other women due to their racist remarks.

Australian Television used to run a weekly Rugby League Chat-show Programme and Roy was invited on as a guest. Apparently, another guest made an under-the-table comment about racism, and that was it!  Roy stood up and left the Studio… and then left Australia.

Back in the comfort of Yorkshire he had a second spell at Hull FC and a second spell at Leeds where he won the Championship in 1974/75.

In an interview with Robert Gate in 1985 Roy made it clear that Harry Sunderland obviously didn’t like the colour of his skin.  Since 1965 the ‘Player of the Match’ in Premiership Finals and now ‘Super league Grand Final’ receives the Harry Sunderland Trophy; currently there is a lot of discussion in Rugby League to change the name to the Roy Francis Trophy.

With the help of his two sons Roy was still running two Café's in Leeds, a Coffee Shop and a Pub near York, while enjoying a bit of golf when time allowed.  Roy died in 1989 when he was 70 and his funeral in Leeds was well attended.  At the funeral “The Great Redeemer” was played and his wider family in Brynmawr notified.

The patriotic Welshman that was brought up in Brynmawr certainly had a colourful life re-habilitating soldiers in the Second World War, training and getting the best out of rugby players, and the odd boxer, and employing dozens of staff in the hospitality trade.  He needs to be recognised and honoured for decades to come in Brynmawr, the Town he regarded as home.                                           

                                                                                         Ian Haywood

October 2020 - Please click on the following link to read about "Roy Francis: The black head coach who revolutionised Rugby League"

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May 2023  - In 1957, Hull FC secured victory in the first and only European Club Championship , to find out more, please click HERE

On Saturday 21st October 2023 a memorial to Roy Francis was unveiled in Brynmawr, details and images of the event can be viewed on one of the Museum pages, by clicking  HERE

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