James Peters: England’s first black rugby union player

This month I want to go back into the archives and write about the first black man to play rugby union for England, James ‘Jimmy’ Peters (August 1879 – 26 March 1954).

Peters was born in Salford, Greater Manchester to a Jamaican father and white mother. His early life was a bit like Oliver Twist as after his father, who was a lion tamer, died (he was mauled to death by lions in a training cage), he was abandoned by his mother and sent to join another circus troupe as a bareback horse rider.

At the age of 11 Peters broke his arm, and was sent to stay at Fegan’s (yes Fegans, not Fagan’s!) orphanage in Southwark and subsequently Little Wanderers’ Home in Greenwich, where he discovered his sporting prowess and captained several of their sports teams.

Peters trained in printing and carpentry and eventually moved to Bristol, where he played for Bristol Rugby Club between 1900 and 1902 (apparently some players actually resigned because they didn’t want to play with a black man). In 1902, Peters moved to Plymouth where he represented Plymouth RUFC and the Dorset county side until 1909.

On March 17th 1906, Peters became the first black player to wear an England shirt when he won his debut cap against Scotland. It was a controversial decision because of his skin colour, and the issue around race was why Peters would not play many more games for England.

In October 1906 he was picked to play against South Africa but the Springboks refused to take the field when they noticed a black opposition player. Eventually the game went ahead, and Peters went on to be capped for England three more times between 1907 and 1908, but the issue around his race significantly curtailed his career.

In 1910, Peters lost three fingers in a dockyard accident, but he defied the odds and continued to play rugby union until 1912. The next year, after growing increasingly disillusioned with union, Peters returned to the north west of the country and took up rugby league and played for Barrow before transferring to St Helens in 1914, until he retired from the game.

The fact that Peters was known as “Darkie Peters” during his rugby career tells you all you need to know about the racial climate at the time. Every time he ran out onto the field, Peters must have been stared at, taunted and called names, but his love for rugby and skill at the game was enough to make him continue to play.

It would take 84 years before another black man would play for England, Chris Oti, but it is testament to the contribution of Peters and others after him that now no one bats an eyelid when a black player is chosen for the International rugby union team. In fact, one of the reasons I have always vehemently supported England’s rugby union and rugby league sides is because of the number of black players that were around in the late 80s/ early 90s when I was getting into sport.

Oti, Jeremy Guscott, Martin Offiah, Victor Ubogu, Steve Ojomoh, Adedayo Adebayo et al are players I could relate to, and I was more than happy to cheer them on when they were wearing the England shirt, and felt immense pride whenever the national side won.

Of course, I had no idea until recently that James Peters preceded them all, but I am so glad that through this blog I have learnt a little about his life and legacy.

Sources: World Rugby Museum / Black History Month / ITV News / Wikipedia