From The Vaults

11 January 2024
The Jimmy Peters Story


James 'Jimmy' Peters was the first black man to play rugby union for England. He had a difficult start in life but, showing great strength of character, he overcame hardships, setbacks and intolerance to represent his country with distinction.

Childhood in the circus

Jimmy was born in Salford in 1879 to a Jamaican father, George, and an English mother, Hannah. On Jimmy's birth certificate, his father's occupation is given as 'show man' - it is believed that he worked in a travelling circus. The family moved frequently - from Salford to Liverpool to Bristol - and at times, they were living intriguingly close to the stopping places of a famous travelling show called Wombwell's Menagerie.

According to an account of Jimmy's childhood written in the 1890s, George met with 'a shocking death in a lion's cage' - though an incident matching these details has not been found in contemporary newspapers. Whatever the circumstances of George's untimely death, Hannah transferred Jimmy to another circus troupe, where he performed as a bareback horse rider. Shortly afterwards, when a broken arm had left him unable to perform, a kind lady found him tied up outside a circus caravan. Miss Daniels, a doctor's daughter from Blandford in Dorset, made arrangements for him to be cared for at a children's home in London. It is thought that she was acting on behalf of local landowners Lord and Lady Portman, who maintained an interest in Jimmy's welfare throughout his time at the home.

Jimmy was a half-back on the rugby team. In the days before the scrum half and fly half positions became distinct, the half-back was one of two players who organised the game on the field. It was the same position he would later play at club, county and international level.

Jimmy's aptitude for sport was clear from an early age. The Rescue, a newsletter distributed by the Home, stated: 'Jimmy Peters is the champion athlete. He seems constructed differently to other humans - all joints and springs inside…' At sports day, he had swept the board, outperforming his peers in the 100 yards race, mile race, long jump, high jump, walking race, football and cricket. The article also commented on his exemplary sportsmanship: '… Jimmy's best performance that day we all felt was when he gallantly gave up one of his prizes to another fellow who had been his close rival'.


Jimmy left the Fegans Home in 1898 and moved to Bristol, where his mother and siblings were living in one of the most deprived parts of the city. The Dings was a large slum where a Christian mission - the Shaftesbury Crusade - was promoting sport as a way to improve the health of the urban poor. In 1897 they had founded a rugby club called Dings Crusaders, where Jimmy played in the 1900-01 season.

Jimmy became a professional carpenter, playing rugby in his spare time for Knowle and later Bristol RFC. His selection for Bristol was not without controversy, however. Jimmy was subject to racial intolerance at various times during his playing career and some of Bristol's committee members are said to have resigned in response to his selection. His performance for the club was harshly criticised by one local newspaper which complained that he was keeping a white man out of the side.

Despite the objections to his selection, Jimmy developed into a highly skilled and intelligent half-back. He made 35 appearances for Bristol from 1900 to 1902 and was also called up to represent Somerset County. At Bristol, Jimmy's teammates knew him as 'Darkie' Peters. While unacceptable today, the nickname does not seem to have been used with malicious intent.


This Somerset County cap was awarded to Jimmy in 1902. The authorities at Somerset were unable to supply him with a cap due to a lack of funds when he first played for the team. The President of Knowle RFC offered to supply the cap himself. Having obtained permission from the county authorities, he presented it to Jimmy at the club's annual meeting and wished him every success in his football career.

England Call-Up

Jimmy's talent had not gone unnoticed by the England selection committee, however. He had become a dominant player within the Devon team and following their victory over Durham in the County Championship final, he was invited to play for England in March 1906.

Although newspapers in the southwest had repeatedly called for his selection, Jimmy's inclusion in the England line up was not universally well-received:

'Peters, by the way, is of West Indian extraction, and his selection is by no means popular on racial grounds, though this should not prevail in sport.'

Yorkshire Post, 17/03/1906

South Africa tour, 1906-07

England's next match was against the touring South Africa team in December 1906. Jimmy was not selected for the trial matches nor for the international Test. The reason for this is much debated.

Earlier in the tour, South Africa had played a match against Devon, the County Champions. On arriving at the Plymouth County Ground and realising that the opposition were planning to field a black man in their team, the Springboks allegedly refused to play. It is said that their High Commissioner had to come down from the stands to persuade the tourists to take the field.

Inevitably, it was speculated that Jimmy had been dropped from the England team in response to objections from the touring side. Although there is no documentary evidence for this, it is possible that Jimmy's omission was politically motivated, to avoid disagreement with the tourists. However, he was not reinstated for England's next game, as might be expected if the decision had been made solely on the basis of South Africa's disapproval. He was absent from the teams which played France and Wales too.

Contemporary press reports also suggest that Jimmy's form had dipped since his last England appearance. Competing for a place against the in-form Harlequins star, Adrian Stoop, he may have struggled to make the side. England's half-back selection was also very inconsistent at this time. In the years 1906 to 1908, the England selectors tried ten different half-back partnerships without committing to one pairing in particular.

Jimmy played for England on three further occasions. The match against Ireland in 1907 was the only time he lined up for the national team alongside county teammate Raphael Jago. When England lost to Scotland at Blackheath in their next match, Jimmy scored England's only points and his last-minute try was the only one conceded by the Scots that season. He made his final international appearance against Wales the following year. The match was played in Bristol, where his club career had begun eight years earlier.

Professionalism and Rugby League

Jimmy continued playing for Plymouth and Devon, but his rugby-playing days appeared to be over when he lost three fingers in a workplace accident in February 1910. Plymouth arranged a testimonial match to support Jimmy while the debilitating injury left him unable to work. With the RFU viewing the benefit payment as an act of professionalism contrary to the sport's strict amateur regulations, he was banned from further participation in rugby union.

Keen to continue playing, he was involved in an attempt by several south-western clubs to form their own Western League. It was a short-lived experiment. In 1912, following an enquiry into allegations of professionalism in Devon, the RFU expelled or suspended 38 players and officials. Jimmy was among them. Plymouth RFC was closed down.

Undeterred, he moved to the north of England to play rugby league professionally. In 1913, aged 34, he signed for Barrow and in 1914, he made two appearances for St Helens before retiring from rugby.

'James Peters was the favourite of the crowd and right well he deserved their favouritism ... His side-step is bewildering, and his passes are so swift … his place kicking is inclined towards the phenomenal.'

Barrow Herald, 15/11/1913

After his brief rugby league career, Jimmy moved back to Plymouth and was employed at the Royal Naval Dockyard during the First World War. Initially, he was based at the victualling yard, where he might have been producing crates and barrels to store supplies.

From his childhood in the circus to his England call-up, Jimmy's achievement is both remarkable and inspiring. Although some contemporaries opposed his involvement in the game, others gave him the recognition and opportunities he deserved. He overcame obstacles and won the support of teammates and fans alike. Much-admired as a player and a person, he is remembered today as a trailblazer. It would be 82 years after Jimmy's first England appearance before another black man was called up to play for the national team.


Plymouth Albion RFC plan to build a life-sized statue for display at the club during their 150th anniversary in 2026, before donating it to the Plymouth community for display in a prominent location within the Ocean City.

This is a 'not-for-profit' venture and all money raised will go towards the costs of building the statue with any excess funds donated to the Diversity Business Incubator, based in Devonport. This will help them fund further initiatives to support minority ethnicity entrepreneurs in the city where Jimmy Peters blazed a trail over 100 years ago.

Visit the Exhibition at Twickenham

Come and see The Jimmy Peters Story in situ at the World Rugby Museum, and combine your visit with a tour of the Home of England Rugby, Twickenham Stadium.