20/10/2019

Jimmy Peters: England’s first black rugby union international


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From his dad had been mauled to death with a guy, to his jealousy and being banned by his sport, the entire life of Jimmy Peters was nothing short of outstanding.
He had been a pioneer, as the first black man to play rugby union between 1906 and 1908.
But Peters – known as”Darkie” by members of the sport in what were less enlightened days – was a trailblazer. Prior to a black player could wear the crimson rose 14, it was 80 years.
How did the child of a circus showman overcome tragedy tragedy and prejudice to eventually become the sole black player in the first 117 years of England’s global union history?
Born in Salford in 1879, the first child of a black father and a white mother, Peters’ ancient life saw the household moving around using a husband, but by the time his next sibling was born in 1886, his dad George – a lion tamer with Cedric’s Menagerie – had been murdered by a lion when performing.
Peters was moved to another circus to entertain as a bareback riders, but was abandoned when he was able to carry out and broke his arm.
Left tied to an area, he had been discovered and cared for by Lady and Lord Portman, that arrived from a few of the families in Britain from the 19th Century.
He was sent by the Portmans in London at November 1890, at which boys have been taught printing, printing, shoemaking, tailoring and – crucially – sports.
It had been there prior to leaving the orphanage that Peters will understand the game of rugby and play games at the nearby Blackheath FC.
Peters took a job in Bristol back as a carpenter, residing in St Phillip’s Marsh and he soon began playing rugby for the club of the city.
“He was an athletic participant, with a sharp, speedy pass. He had been a really good ball-handler,” Bristol Rugby historian Mark Hoskins told BBC Radio Bristol.
Peters moved to Plymouth and left the town, after representing Bristol 35 days over fourteen days.
“He was a half-back so nowadays we would explain him as a fly-half or a scrum-half, but these positions hadn’t been ascribed yet,” rugby historian Tom Weir explained. “He had been among those smaller players around the pitch.”
Author and historian Tony Collins added:”He had been viewed as the fulcrum around which the teams he played revolved. He had been the organiser, the general.”
County Championship victory followed in 1906, and he left his England debut against Scotland.
Many commentators felt his call-up should have come sooner, together with all the Western Times stating on 5 February that year it was a”pity” he was overlooked for a meeting with Wales and “colour was the issue” in the issue and he’d been”sacrificed”.
Four caps would follow before his final England game at Ashton Gate at Bristol in 1908, against Wales, but perhaps not before reports of racism throughout the trip of a touring South Africa side, who were stated to be unhappy to play with a black guy when they confronted Devon.
Peters was dropped by the Rugby Football Union for England’s match against the tourists and not selected among the top six half-backs for its national trials months later.
He did finally make two additional England appearances after that tour, and continue playing for Devon and Plymouth till he injured his hands in a workplace injury.
Plymouth then gave him a statement, but this was seen as a act of professionalism which was against the amateur regulations of the RFU therefore he had been banned from the game.
Peters’ accidents would prove not to be as bad as feared, but his ban supposed he was not able to return to rugby union, so that he accepted an offer from rugby team team Barrow for 18 months.
But the outbreak of World War One supposed since he was recalled to work in Plymouth’s naval dockyard, Peters couldn’t play Saints. He’d finally marry and start a family in Plymouth, being described as a”gentleman” teetotal publican who would often quote Bible passages. He died in 1954 aged 74.
It was 80 years following Peters’ closing cap before another black man played for England, when Chris Oti appeared at a 9-6 triumph over Scotland in 1988 (he also scored a hat-trick against Ireland in his next game) – something that’s been called a”lost opportunity” for English rugby.
England fans will expect 31’s current squad – that features 10 BAME gamers – may take inspiration from Peters at the World Cup in Japan.
Listen on BBC Sounds, and for up to 30 days afterwards to the full documentary with John Inverdale on BBC Radio Bristol from 18:00 BST on Tuesday, 24 September.
Researched and created by the Tom Ryan of BBC Radio Bristol.
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