James Peters: England's first black rugby player
James 'Jimmy' Peters features in our Hidden Figures series, bringing to life the stories of under-the-radar sporting pioneers throughout Black History Month
By Michael Cantillon @mike_cantillon
Last Updated: 18/10/20 1:37pm
In the latest instalment of our Hidden Figures series this Black History Month, we look into the tragic and turbulent story of James 'Jimmy' Peters, England's first black rugby player.
In fact, not only was Peters the very first black man to represent England at rugby in 1906, he quite remarkably, remained the only black England player for another 82 years until Chris Oti represented England in 1988.
Peters was a true sporting pioneer.
But before that, his beginnings were both unusual and tragic. Born in Salford, Lancashire on August 7 1879, Peters' Jamaican father George died before he was born, having been mauled to death by lions in a training cage as part of circus preparations.
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Thereafter, Peters' mother, named 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.
Having broken his arm at the age of 11, Peters was abandoned by the circus as his hellish beginning to life continued, ending up at Fegan's orphanage in Southwark, and then the Little Wanderers' Home in Greenwich.
It was at the latter that Peters became engrossed in sport, going on to captain many teams. Indeed, Greenwich Admirals Rugby League Club continue to celebrate Peters' life to this day with an annual challenge game.
Into adulthood, Peters trained as a carpenter and as a printer, moving to Bristol. Here, he featured as an out-half for clubs including Bristol, while also representing the Somerset County team between 1900 and 1903.
In Bristol, Peters experienced racial backlash as a committee member at Bristol rugby club resigned in protest due to him being picked to represent the side.
Local newspapers printed he was "keeping a white man out of the side". The black population of England at the time is estimated to have been as low as 50,000.
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 at 10 as Devon picked up a County Championship, and his performances were so impressive, calls for him to represent England internationally came - and from the press too.
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."
Finally by March 17 1906, appendicitis suffered by Dai Gent saw Peters in for a historic England Test debut against Scotland - a game in which he claimed two try assists. A further Test against France saw him score a try.
Despite his positive showings, The Yorkshire Post stated: "His selection is by no means popular on racial grounds".
Later the same year, Peters' presence became a major theme of controversy, when the South African Springboks toured England.
Firstly, several Bok players refused to face him against Devon due to the colour of his skin, with the game almost abandoned.
As Anne Pallant writes in A Sporting Century, South Africa's High Commissioner, who had to come down from the stand, at last persuaded the visitors to take the field.
Even still, there was no joint photograph between the Springboks and Devon - a custom of South African touring sides, as they did with Oxford University and Ireland in the same year.
Peters was then not selected for England's Test against South Africa. 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 further England caps in his career between 1907 and 1908, against Ireland, Scotland and Wales, scoring one further try.
In 1910, he lost three fingers in a 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.
On March 26 1954, Peters passed away at the age 74, with evidence suggesting the rest of his career was spent working as a carpenter.