Contributed by Tony Saunders
It’s a cliché to say that people overcome a hard upbringing to achieve. Yet, this was the case for James Peters, who in 1906, would become England’s first black rugby union player. In fact he was the first black person to represent England in any sport. An unlikely outcome for a boy whose father was killed by circus lions, and was put into an orphanage by the age of 11.
Jimmy was born in Salford in 1879, to a Jamaican father and a white mother, from Shropshire, the eldest of four children. Jimmy’s father George was a travelling showman in the circus, quite a common occupation for black people in late Victorian Britain. The circus was a welcoming place for ‘minorities and oddities’.
After his father’s death, mother Hannah was unable to care for Jimmy then aged around 9, and moved him to another circus, where he became a bareback horse rider. He broke his arm aged 11, and was abandoned by the circus in Dorset. It is said that Miss Daniels from Blandford Forum rescued him, and took him to James Fegan’s Christian Orphanage for Boys in Southwark, London. It’s very likely (though not documented) that this was arranged by one of England’s wealthiest families, Lord and Lady Portman, as Miss Daniels’ father was their doctor.
Although life in the orphanage was strict, the boys became well educated, paying special attention to religion and sport. Young Jimmy was a natural athlete, and became the captain of the rugby and cricket teams. Aged 13 Jimmy was moved to Fegan’s other orphanage in Greenwich. At the annual sports day in 1894 (at Stamford Bridge stadium) Jimmy won all seven events, but generously gave away one of his prizes to his nearest competitor. Jimmy was moved back to Southwark, where he trained as a printer. Later he was re-trained as a carpenter. At the age of 19 he left Fegan’s to get a job as a carpenter in Bristol. He was finally re-united with his mother, two brothers and sister, after ten years away. Also his mother’s new husband.
He continued to excel at rugby, first for Knowle, then Dings’ Crusaders, and finally Bristol RFC. There was opposition to his inclusion in the team by members of the Bristol board, some resigning in protest. However his ability and determination soon put him in the Somerset County team. Two years later in the autumn of 1902 Jimmy moved to Plymouth, where he worked as a carpenter in Devonport Dockyard, and played for Plymouth RFC. His rise continued, getting into the Devon team, one of England’s strongest sides.
It was at Plymouth that he got the nickname of ‘Darkie Peters’. However racist that seems, it was common for many top sportsmen to have cheeky nicknames, including William ‘Fatty’ Foulke or Foulkes of Chelsea.
By 1904, Jimmy was Devon’s star player, and the local papers called for ‘the cleverest half-back bar none’ to be selected for England. He was overlooked for a further two years, despite the national side having six other Devon players in the team. When Devon won the County Championships in 1906 with Peters starring he could no longer be ignored. On 17 March 1906 Jimmy played for England against Scotland: England’s first black player. A second game followed in Paris against France, with Peters scoring a try.
Back in Devon, the county team were chosen to play against the touring South African side. However on match day, realising Peters was black, the Springboks refused to play. After a lot of debate, and possible political intervention, the game went ahead with Peters, in front of an 18,000 crowd. South Africa won. For the South Africa v England game that followed, Peters was dropped. In fact he was not even selected for the trials. He’d gone from being England’s top half-back, to not being in the top six: discrimination? He was also dropped from England’s next game.
In his personal life Jimmy married Rosina Finch in Plymouth. They would remain married for 47 years, having two children.
Jimmy was soon back in favour with the England side, and played against Ireland in 1907, followed by two further international games against Scotland and Wales. The latter was in dense fog, ironically the last time he would be ‘seen’ in an England shirt. He had played five times for England, a great achievement, but it could have been so much more.
In his working life in the Dockyard, he had a terrible machining accident in 1909, losing three fingers. His Plymouth teammates duly arranged a benefit game for him. The Rugby Union authorities saw this as professionalism, and duly banned Jimmy, who had remarkably got back into the Plymouth team, despite his accident. Shortly after, Plymouth and several other teams formed a professional league, which unfortunately soon collapsed, because of travel and financial difficulties.
Jimmy then decided to move up north, to play professionally. First with Barrow, then St Helens, however he only played a few games. He was now in his thirties and missing three fingers.
On the outbreak of World War One Peters was recalled to work in Devonport Dockyard. He worked there until 1921, but also had a shop selling beer and worked as a builder’s carpenter.
Jimmy lived in Plymouth for the rest of his life. He was a fit man, walking everywhere, never catching the bus. Teetotal and religious, with a keen sense of humour. Never seen without his pipe or dog. Jimmy died in 1954, aged 74, and is buried in Plymouth.
It would be another 82 years before England had their second black player.