With his second contribution to our site, Jimmy Weeks talks about a significant player in the history of Welsh and British footballing history: Eddie Parris.
When John Edward Parris turned out for Wales against Northern Ireland in December 1931 the Monmouthshire-born winger wrote a piece of national footballing history. It wasn’t thanks to anything special he did on the pitch; none of the team covered themselves in glory that day, with Wales going down to a 4-0 defeat at Windsor Park. But 20-year-old Parris – who was better known as Eddie – had broken a significant barrier: he was the first black representative of the Welsh side.
Though racism can still blight the British game today, there are few countries in which football has so successfully combatted its presence. But both the sport and the society it existed in were very different in Parris’ youth. The inter-war years were a time of great upheaval in Britain, with tensions running high thanks to increased immigration and the presence of several racially motivated political movements. Anxieties were at their greatest in areas of high immigration, and Wales possessed one of Britain’s largest black communities in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay.
Despite their growing numbers in everyday life, there were only a handful of non-white players in British football. Arthur Wharton had played for the Preston North End side that went undefeated during the 1888–1889 season, but representation remained small even five decades later when Parris made his name.
Indeed, colour was keeping deserving talent from England’s national side. Plymouth Argyle goal-machine Jack Leslie was rewarded for his form with a national call-up during the 1920s, only to have it quickly withdrawn without explanation. FA officials had discovered that Leslie was, as they put it, “a man of colour.” Incredibly, it would be another half-century before Viv Anderson finally became England’s first black representative.
For whatever reason, the Welsh football association did not view Parris’ skin colour as relevant to his selection. A pacy, goal-scoring left-winger (or outside-left as the position was known in his day), Parris was turning out for Bradford Park Avenue at the time of his call-up, and was nicknamed the Welsh Wizard – probably the first (but certainly not the last) player to earn this moniker.
There is some uncertainty over the exact details of Parris’ parentage, though it is generally agreed that his father was of West Indian origin while his mother was white and born in either Canada or Wales. Eddie himself was born in the village of Pwllmeyric near Chepstow on January 31st, 1911.
Joining his local team as a youngster, he earned a trial at Park Avenue aged 17. Now a non-league outfit, the Bradford side had played top-tier football in the early 20th century, and had just won promotion back to the old Second Division when Parris signed for them in August 1928.
Eddie made his debut for Park Avenue in an FA Cup tie against Hull City during January 1929 and had an instant impact, scoring the team’s only goal in a 1-1 draw (they won the replay four days later 3-1). He went on to make eight appearances that year, netting four times, and over the following two campaigns became a semi-regular in a team that consistently finished among the top six.
The 1931-32 season would be his best to date. Now a first-team regular at Park Avenue, the Welshman made 36 appearances and scored 13 goals as the West Yorkshire side secured a sixth-place finish, topped off by his solitary Wales outing that December. 1932-33 saw Parris improve still further, bagging 15 goals in 39 appearances. He remained a starter into the following campaign, before a serious injury resulted in a long spell on the sidelines. Having lost his place in the starting 11, he would never play for Park Avenue again.
During the summer of 1934 he dropped down a division to play for Bournemouth & Boscombe (now known simply as AFC Bournemouth), spending two and a half seasons at Dean Court. His 100 appearances for the south-coast club yielded 23 goals – a handsome enough return for an outside-left.
Parris’ next move saw him back on an upward trajectory when he joined Luton Town in February 1937, helping the club secure that season’s Division 3 South title and thus returning to the second tier. His stay at Kenilworth Road would be brief however, with a move to Northampton following in November of that year. Now 30 and increasingly gaining journeyman status, Parris then had short stints with Bath City and Cheltenham Town
In 1939 he moved closer to home by signing with Gloucester City, the club with whom he would remain for almost a decade. Though football was effectively brought to a halt by World War 2 Parris continued to turn out for Gloucester, and was made club captain in 1941. He would also serve in the army and work in the local munitions factory.
Little is know about his later life; like most footballers of his time, Parris made no real money from the game and settled into a normal existence after hanging up his boots. Following the war he remained in the aviation industry and eventually settled in the Gloucestershire village of Sedbury, just a few miles from his native Pwllmeyric, where he lived until his death in 1971.
Today the ethnicity of players is irrelevant to all but an unwanted minority of Welsh football fans, but when Eddie Parris made his international debut race was a significant issue in British society. The original wing wizard should thus be remembered with pride for becoming the first of many black Welshmen to represent their country; it is because of people like him that today we can refer to them simply as Welshmen.