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Friday Feature: James Peters - England's first black rugby player

The eyes of the world are on the South West this week– in particular on the rugby players who have descended on local stadiums for one of the biggest sporting tournaments on the planet.

But as Black History Month gets underway, here at ITV West Country we’re looking back to a man whose reception on the international rugby scene was far less welcoming.

James Peters 1879 - 1954
1879
born

James Peters was the first black man to play rugby for England - but he was also a man of the South West with many appearances for Bristol and Plymouth to his name.

He had a difficult and violent start in life – his Jamaican father was mauled to death taming lions for a British circus. That circus then abandoned the young boy James and he ended up in an orphanage in London.

1900
played for Bristol

After training as a printer James moved to Knowle in Bristol and joined Bristol Rugby Club - some members of the team objected to his joining because of the colour of his skin, a few even resigned from the squad.

James was an outside half, and made 35 appearances for Bristol between 1900-1902, scoring twelve tries.

1902
played for Devon

After four years playing for Bristol, James moved down to Plymouth and worked in the Devonport Dockyards as a carpenter. He played for Plymouth RUFC and the Dorset countyside –where he made a noteable impact.

Peters gave such an admirable exposition of half back play against Durham that he could not well have been left out of the side

– The Sportsman, 14 March 1907
1906
racist incident at the Plymouth County Ground

On 17 October 1906, James and the team lined up for a game against the South African Springboks, playing in front of 20,000 fans at the Plymouth County Ground. But the South African team was nowhere to be seen…they were still in the changing room - refusing to come out and play after the visitors belatedly noticed a black player on the pitch.

The furious Springboks were eventually persuaded to start the game by the South African High Commissioner, who feared a riot if the match was cancelled.

But the controversy dogged James Peters’ career – he was not picked for the international game against South Africa a few months later, with a number of newspapers citing racial grounds.

1907
played for England

After Devon won the County Championship the public began to campaign for James to be picked to play for England, and on March 17 1907 he won his debut cap for England against Scotland - running out as the first black man to represent the country in international rugby.

It was a turning point which went unmentioned in the press, although his performance did draw notice:

For a first international the dusky Plymouth man did many good things, especially in passing

– The Sportsman

The Yorkshire Post also praised his ability, but pointed out that “his selection is by no means popular on racial grounds"

England won the game, despite being the underdogs.

James went on to be capped for England three more times, scoring a try in England's 35-8 victory against France and playing against Scotland and Wales.

His last appearance for the country was at Ashton Gate – where thick fog prevented the crowd from seeing this final performance.

1910
injury and controversy

In 1910 James lost three fingers in a dockyard accident in Plymouth and it was feared his rugby playing days were over. However, he continued to play for another two years until he was accused of contravening the amateur laws.

He left the Rugby Union and was accepted into Rugby League, where he played until his retirement in 1914.

The next black player to appear for England was wing Chris Oti, 82 years later.

Friday features during Black History Month

Each week we’ll be profiling someone new. Do you know of someone who you think should feature? Email us at livestreamwestcountry@itv.com or tweet us @itvwestcountry using the #WCBlackHistoryMonth.

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