Pioneer who broke through all-white barrier

Twickenham exhibition celebrates remarkable life of Jimmy Peters, the first black England international
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The Independent Online

Who was the first black England rugby player? Jeremy Guscott? Not even close. Andrew Harriman, the first black captain in England and leader of the 1993 Sevens World Cup champions? No, nor was it Chris Oti, the winger who scored a hat-trick of tries on his Twickenham debut in 1988. The first black England international, Jimmy Peters, debuted in 1906 against Scotland and played in the pivotal stand-off position.

His story, which is being told by a special exhibition at the Museum of Rugby in Twickenham, would be considered extraordinary as fiction, but "Darkie", as he was known, led a fantastic life, despite humble beginnings and a very difficult childhood.

He was born in Manchester in 1879 to a West Indian father and English mother. It seems that they worked in a circus and, such was the custom of the time, the children worked as part of the acts as well. Peters became a bare-back rider and his brother a clown acrobat, but when their father died in the lion's cage Jimmy was sent to another troupe by his mother. They, in turn, abandoned him, aged 11, in southern England when he broke his arm and probably became more of a liability than a use.

A Dorset lady arranged for him to go to Fegan's orphanage in London and it was there that he spent most of the 1880s learning carpentry and discovering rugby by watching Blackheath play free of charge. He was athletic and by 15 was captain of the orphanage's own team, but four years later he moved to Bristol, where his mother lived having remarried.

Between 1900 and 1902 Peters made 35 appearances in a strong Bristol side. His selection did not meet with universal approval, however, as some Bristol committee men resigned and one local newspaper wrote that "Peters was keeping a white man out of the side".

Work then took him further west to Plymouth and the Royal Naval Dockyard, where he played for Plymouth RFC and, in 1903, received his first county cap for Devon. His long association with the county brought great success, as they won the 1906 and 1907 county championships, and the Plymouth Football Herald awarded him "Man of the Year" for 1907-08, but there was also controversy during this period.

The South African rugby team toured the British Isles for the first time in 1906, but initially refused to play against Devon at Plymouth because Peters was black. Devon refused to deselect Peters and the match started only after the South African High Commissioner left the 18,000-strong crowd and persuaded his countrymen to play.

Peters already had two England caps when this happened, both victories, and he had scored a try against the French, but was subsequently overlooked for the match against South Africa and, indeed, for the selection trial match before.

He returned to the national side in February 1907 for matches against Ireland and Scotland, then for his final cap in 1908, against Wales in Bristol, the town where he started his rugby career.

Further controversy dogged Peters when he lost three fingers in an accident at work and Plymouth gave him a cash benefit as a retirement gift.

This made him a professional player in a staunchly amateur era and, after a Western professional league was launched and aborted, Peters moved to the Northern League, the forerunner of today's rugby league structure.

He played in Cumbria and worked at the Vickers shipyard in 1913-14 and then transferred to his final club, St Helens, for whom he played twice. His rugby career over, Peters moved back to Plymouth, where he worked as a carpenter, and remained there until his death of bronchial pneumonia in 1954.

"It is a phenomenal story," said Jed Smith, the museum curator, at the exhibition's launch this week. "We wanted to do something special for the World Cup, something different, and Jimmy is certainly that. By all accounts, he was a very pleasant man, well liked wherever he lived and, considering his start in life, it is a wonder that he didn't become a vagrant or drunk on the streets. The orphanage and rugby gave him stability, and he represented his country because of it."

Harriman, who spoke at the opening, agreed. "Undoubtedly it is an amazing story," he said. "I never experienced racism in rugby and this suggests that, although elements of it were present, it was not really an issue for Jimmy.

" The question is: why did it take 80 years for the next black player [Oti]? I think that is because of the class and social divide. Rugby is a game dominated by class, and I think the RFU and the game must realise that there are thousands of talented youngsters who do not think of rugby as part of their leisure. They play football and athletics, but they must have the opportunity to learn and play rugby."

Rugby has been considered a middle-class sport for many years and the successful and well-known black players of recent times have either learned the game at public school like Harriman or Oti, or through mini-rugby at the major clubs.

Some of the first children at the exhibition, though, were from the Southwark Tigers, a club based in an inner-city area of south London. Black or white, they were all enthralled by the history of the life of the first black man to play rugby for England, Jimmy "Darkie" Peters.