James ‘Jimmy’ Peters was the first black rugby player in England, but chances are that you’ve never heard of him – and no one can blame you for that!
The British rugby association and many other stakeholders at that time were guilty of perpetuating one of the worst cases of racial injustice against a talented James Peters. Once again, the story of Peters shows how much a person can suffer and be deprived of the right opportunities they qualify for due to the colour of their skin.
The story of James Peters is tragic, turbulent, disappointing, surprising, and heartbreaking.
James Peters endured a challenging lifetime; he experienced family death and exile at a young age. He then moved from a circus to an orphanage, but despite all these, he would go on to represent the English national team in 1906. However, racial discrimination saw him play out his later career in rugby league despite his unmistakable talent.
One fact that further goes to expose the high level of racial discrimination in England at that time is the fact that not only was Peters the very first black man to represent England at rugby in 1906. He remained the only black England player to do so for another 82 years until Chris Oti represented England in 1988. For 82 years after James Peters represented the English National Rugby Team, no other black player was selected to represent the country.
Born in Salford, Lancashire, on August 7, 1879, as the eldest of four, Peters’ Jamaican father George died when Peters was just nine, having been mauled to death by lions in a training cage as part of circus preparations – or so it was reported!
After the death of his father, Peters’ English mother – Hannah Gough, from Shropshire – became unable to look after him and agreed for him to go and join a different circus troupe as a bareback horse rider.
He broke his arm at the age of 11 and was abandoned by the circus, ending up at Fegan’s orphanage in Southwark and then the Little Wanderers’ Home in Greenwich.
As fate would have it, Peter became interested in sports and participated actively, going on to captain many teams, including cricket, athletics, and rugby. At an 1894 sports day held at Stamford Bridge, Peters is said to have won the 100-yard sprint, one-mile race, long jump, high jump, and walking race.
Peters trained as a carpenter and as a printer, moving to Bristol at the age of 19. Here, he had the chance to showcase his talent in sports and featured as an out-half for clubs, including Bristol, while also representing the Somerset County team between 1900 and 1903.
This was where the trouble started for Peters as he began to face the harsh realities of being a black man. The black population of England at the time is estimated to have been as low as 50,000, while the population estimate for the UK at the time is 42 million. After he participated for clubs clubs, local newspapers printed he was “keeping a white man out of the side.”
By 1902, Peters moved further south to Plymouth, where he played for Plymouth RUFC and the Devon county side. In 1906, he was the star player as Devon picked up a County Championship, and his performances were so impressive that he gained a call to represent England internationally.
However, in January 1906, he was overlooked for an England Test vs Wales, with the Plymouth Herald commenting: “It would appear [Peters’] form so commended itself to the selectors that only racial convention prevented his securing due recognition.”
A month later, he was again overlooked for a Test vs. Ireland, with the Western Times saying: “Peters is sacrificed. Colour is the difficulty…Pity for the chances of the English success.”
However, on March 17, 1906, one of the stars of the team, Dai Gent, underwent an operation for appendicitis. This allowed James Peters to feature for the team, and he made his debut in a historic England Test game against Scotland in Edinburgh – a game in which he claimed two try assists. A further Test against France in Paris saw him score a try, as England picked up wins in both.
Both these victories were highly significant, too, with the win over Scotland being England’s first vs. the Scots for four years, while the victory vs. France came in England’s first-ever meeting against the nation.
But the racial injustice would resurface again as teams refused to play against his club because of the colour of his skin, with a game almost being abandoned by an opponent because he was on the team sheet to play.
The South Africa’s High Commissioner (a White man) had to come down from the stands and persuade the team to participate in the match as spectators were already seated. As a result, the visitors would play in the match, but the players avoided any contact with James Peters. At the end of the game, the teams did not take the customary group photo as players from the visiting team refused to be in the same photograph with a black man.
Racial discrimination would win again as Peters was not selected for England’s Test against South Africa despite his impressive form. As the Yorkshire Post said at the time: “It is quite possible that for sentimental reasons which need not be detailed, the selection committee have preferred not to select Peters, especially as the opponents of the England team will be South Africans.”
Peters would only pick up three other England caps in his career between 1907 and 1908, against Ireland in Belfast, Scotland in London (both 1907) and Wales in Bristol (1908), scoring one further try.
In 1910, he lost three fingers in a terrible dockyard accident but, after a brief retirement, continued to play, including featuring in a testimonial for which he was forced out of rugby union in 1912 after a suspension for accepting payment from Devon Rugby Club – illegal due to the codes of the sport in amateurism.
Disillusioned with the politics of the sport, Peters was accepted into rugby league at the age of 34, returning to the north-west and featuring for Barrow and St Helens before retirement in 1914. Away from sport, Peters married Rosina Finch – his wife of 47 years – and had two children, Rowena and James.
On March 26, 1954, Peters passed away at the age of 74, with evidence suggesting the rest of his career was spent working as a carpenter and as a teetotal publican.
According to reports, in 2021, Peters’ granddaughter, Barbara Dunbar, aged 92 shared her fond memories of James Peters with the RFU: “I have always been proud of him, he was a lovely man, so kind. I knew him well because he died when I was 23. He spoiled me rotten…He had a very tough start in life, but he overcame it and was a friend of anyone and everyone.”
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Credit: Quotes from an article by Michael Cantillon , published on Sky Sports