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


Stepping stones and milestones

Since November 29th 1978 through to the match against Scotland on November 18th 2014, 76 black players of either African or Caribbean descent have pulled on a white shirt and played for England’s international football side.

Below is a timeline of some of the major football highlights achieved in the UK by players who were either born in the Caribbean or are of Caribbean descent between 1881 and 2013.

1881 – Andrew Watson (born in British Guiana / Guyanese mother) won three international caps for Scotland


1909Walter Tull (Barbadian father) signed professionally for Tottenham Hotspur for a signing fee of £10 (pictured above)


1921 – Jack Leslie (Jamaican father) was the only professional black player in England during his time with Plymouth Argyle (pictured above)

1937 – Alfred Charles (born in Trinidad) was the first black player to sign for Southampton but only made one appearance

1948 – Lloyd Lindbergh “Lindy” Delapenha (born in Jamaica) joined Portsmouth


1951 – Giles Heron (born in Jamaica) became the first Afro-Caribbean player to play first team football for Celtic (pictured above)

1960 – Tony Collins (black father – origin unknown but likely Barbadian) was the first black manager in the English Football League, taking charge at Rochdale A.F.C. from June 1960 until September 1967

1968 – Clyde Best (born in Bermuda) one of the first black players in First Division football and was awarded a MBE in 2006 for services to football and Bermuda


1971 – Brendon Batson (born in Grenada) was the first black player to play for Arsenal’s first team and was awarded a MBE in 2000 and OBE in 2015 for services to football (pictured above)

1977 – Laurie Cunnigham (Jamaican parents) became one of the first black Caribbean players to play for England at any level when he turned out for the U21s v Scotland


Nov 29th 1978 – Viv Anderson (Jamaican parents) became the first Black footballer to play as a full international for England and was awarded a MBE in 1999 for services to football (pictured above)


1981 – Justin Fashanu (Guyanese mother) was the first black footballer to command a £1 million transfer fee with his move from Norwich City to Nottingham Forest (pictured above)


May 1981 – Garth Crooks (Jamaican parents) became the first Black Caribbean player to score in an FA Cup final (pictured above)

1982 – Luther Blissett (born in Jamaica) was the first black player ever to score a hat-trick for England

1988 – Garth Crooks (Jamaican parents) became the first black chairman of the Professonal Footballers’ Association (picture see above)

1990 – 2010 Dwight York (born in Tobago) jointly holds the record number of participations in different World Cup competitions, including qualifying stages – six in total

1991 – Aslie Pitter (Jamaican parents) founded Britain’s first and most successful gay football club Stonewall FC (in 2010 he was appointed a MBE for his work against homophobia


June 1993 – Paul Ince (Barbadian parents) became England’s first black captain (pictured above)

1997 – Uriah Rennie (Jamaican parents) became the first Black referee in the Premier League


May 1998 – Sol Campbell (Jamaican parents) captained England at international level (pictured above)

1998 – Robbie Earle (Jamaican parents) scored Jamaica’s first ever World Cup finals goal in a 3–1 defeat by Croatia


1998 – John Barnes (born in Jamaica / Trinidadian father / Jamaican mother) was awarded a MBE and in 2006 he was voted by Liverpool fans at number five in their poll of 100 players who shook the Kop (pictured above)


2000 – Ian Wright (Jamaican parents) who was one of England’s most capped players was awarded a MBE for services to football (pictured above)

2006 – Shaka Hislop (Trinidadian parents) took part in Trinidad’s first ever World Cup finals appearance in 2006

Mar 2008 – Rio Ferdinand (St Lucian father) captained England at international level

June 2008 – Paul Ince (Barbadian parents) became the first black British manager in England’s Premier League

May 2013 – Ashley Cole (Barbadian father) captained England for one night only to mark his 100th England appearance


2013 – Paul Elliott (Jamaican parents) became the first Black footballer to be awarded a CBE. The honour was for services to equality and diversity in football (pictured above)

A 19th century black footballer

When it comes to the contribution of black Caribbean people to Britain I think most people would agree that sport seems to be where we have been most successful in making our mark, and this is especially evident in terms of the national game – football.

If you asked any fan who follows English football to name three inspirational players with Caribbean roots, past or present, I don’t think they would find it too difficult.

It certainly doesn’t take too much research to find footballers of Caribbean origin playing now at the very highest levels of the game which is why I think we take it for granted that this was always the case. But the fact is there had to be someone who was first, and that person undoubtedly suffered some discrimination and prejudice to get the chance, and then finally the recognition, they deserved.

I was amazed to find that the first black Caribbean footballer who is believed to have played professionally in the UK actually started his career in Scotland and his name was Andrew Watson.

Copyright: Scottish Football museum

Copyright: Scottish Football museum

Watson actually had a Scottish father, Peter Miller Watson, and a black mother, Hannah or Anna Rose, who was from Guyana (or British Guiana as it was known before 1966) which is where Watson was born in May 1856.

According to research Watson left Guyana with his wealthy father when he was quite young and moved to Britain where he was schooled at Kings College in London. He is said to have excelled at his studies, but nothing matched his skills on the football pitch, and he soon made a name for himself as a strong, dependable full back.

When his father died in 1869 Watson was left a small fortune and moved to Scotland sometime around 1875 where he joined his first amateur football club Maxwell FC. In 1876 he played for Parkgrove FC where he also became the club’s administrator organising their fixtures among other duties.

Copyright: Scottish Sporting History

Copyright: Scottish Sporting History

In about 1880 he joined what was the biggest club in Britain at the time, Queens Park FC, and also became the club secretary.

A year later he gained his first International cap for Scotland and played on winning teams against England and Wales. He moved back to England to find work, which made him ineligible to be picked for Scotland, and became the first black player to play in the English Cup when he turned out for a side called Swifts. He would later play for another English team called Corinthians and also return to Queen’s Park for a brief period.

In 1887 Watson played for Bootle, who were based in Liverpool, and as they were known to pay their players wages and a signing fee it is believed that this is when he became the first black professional football player although unfortunately there are no records to prove it.

Watson was married twice and had four children and despite the belief that he died after moving to Sydney in Australia, he is actually buried in Richmond cemetery in Surrey.

There is no doubt that Watson would’ve suffered racism during his life and career but it is testament to his spirit and skill that he has a place in the history books. His story shows how far people of Caribbean ancestry have come in Britain, especially in the world of sport, and how much they have had to endure to earn a place on the field.

References / further reading: