Captain who swapped white shirt for black proves sport and politics an unhappy mix

Here's a troubling image to carry through Calcutta Cup day; that of the England rugby union captain organising the muscle, for want of a better word, at a meeting of the British National Party.

Picture, if you will, a crowded, smoke-filled room above a shabby pub in Burnley. Some of those present are plainly thugs, although others look respectably innocuous. They are all listening with rapt attention to the racist demagoguery of a tall, moustached man, a fine if occasionally histrionic orator. There are "stewards" positioned around the room, following rumours that non-sympathisers might try to infiltrate the meeting. Some are rather hoping that a spot of trouble will kick off. One of them in particular is used to physical confrontations kicking off. He is the captain of the England rugby team.

It is hard to imagine, yet it happened. The England captain in question was not Martin Corry, I should hasten to add. Nor, of course, was it Jason Robinson, the son of an English mother and Jamaican father, whose elevation to the captaincy was particularly galling for the racist right. It certainly wasn't Jonny Wilkinson, either, or Lawrence Dallaglio, or Martin Johnson.

And the meeting was not of the BNP but of one of its forerunners, Oswald Mosley's New Party. The England captain in question was Peter Howard, recruited in 1931 to organise a group charmingly known as "Mosley's Biff Boys". Their main function was to keep order at meetings, but it was also hoped that they would provide some muscle against the Communists in the revolution that was expected once the beleaguered government of Ramsay MacDonald had collapsed.

I didn't know about any of this until, on a train last week, I read a review of a new book called Hurrah For The Blackshirts! Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between The Wars. A throwaway line about Mosley's engagement of the England rugby captain brought a rather vulgar utterance of surprise to my lips and reproving glances from the two nuns sitting opposite. Once I'd apologised, I returned to the book review. Unfortunately, it didn't name Howard, so when I got home I contacted the publishers, Jonathan Cape, who in turn put me on to the author, Martin Pugh.

Professor Pugh was delighted by my interest but couldn't tell me much more.

He knew little about Howard except that he'd trained Mosley's Biff Boys. He'd got his information from Robert Skidelsky's 1975 biography of Mosley, he told me. But that book is now out of print, and none of my local libraries stock it; I phoned them all. Nor was even almighty Google able to help.

So I called Frank Keating, The Spectator's sports columnist and a human search engine in most matters pertaining to sport through the ages. Also, as a man of the West Country, a huge rugby enthusiast. But no, Frank had never heard of Howard, either, although he was as amazed as I had been to learn of an England rugby captain's nefarious political activities. He consulted one of his many reference books and filled in a few more gaps.

Howard, born in 1908, was a back-row forward who captained England just once, against Ireland in 1931. He won eight England caps, was a member of Britain's world championship-winning bobsleigh team in 1939 and died in Lima, Peru, in 1965. More significantly, he was heavily involved with the right-wing, pseudo-Christian Oxford Group which grew into Moral Rearmament and also claimed the support, Frank told me, of the tennis player Bunny Austin.

Further intrigued, I phoned the eminent thriller writer Reg Gadney, whose father Bernard - the great B C Gadney - captained England in the mid-1930s. Reg told me that the name rang faint bells, and that he thought a Peter Howard had fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a snippet of information which fitted the jigsaw perfectly. He also said that the Oxford Group had tried to recruit his father, but won only his contempt.

Reg referred me to a chap called Jed, who runs the museum at Twickenham. Jed wasn't there, but a helpful woman called Lindsay provided a few more details, notably that Howard actually stood as a New Party candidate in the October 1931 general election. He later became rugby correspondent, and then political columnist, for the Sunday Express. Whether or not he ever regretted leading Mosley's Biff Boys, who knows? Whatever, it will perhaps be worth reflecting, as Corry leads his men out at Twickenham today, that the red rose of England has not always been so fragrant.

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