Calls for Plymouth Albion’s first Black rugby player Jimmy Peters to be honoured like Jack Leslie

Jimmy Peters was playing for Plymouth Albion RFC and Devon County in 1906

Following the decision to honour black footballer Jack Leslie with a statue at Home Park, Herald and PlymouthLive reader Bill Nicholson wants to see Jimmy Peters, the first black man to play for England, honoured in a similar way.

Here he looks at the incredible story of the Plymouth Albion player and issues a rallying call to rugby fans to join his campaign.

Jimmy Peters was born in 1879, the first child of a black father and a white mother, in Salford. His early life saw him moving around with a zoo where his father George was a lion tamer with Cedric’s Menagerie. Tragically George was mauled to death by a lion.

Jimmy is said to have become a bareback horse rider with another circus but after breaking his arm and being unable to perform he was abandoned and left tied to a wagon where he was found by Lord and Lady Portman.

They came from one of the richest families in Britain in the late 19th Century and, in 1890, they sent him to Fegan’s Orphanage in London where, among other things, the boys were introduced to sport. Jimmy was luckily introduced to the game of Rugby Union and played against Blackheath FC before leaving the orphanage in September 1898.

He moved to Bristol and took up employment as a carpenter and was reunited with his family in the area of St Phillip’s Marsh, and soon began playing rugby for the city’s club.

Mark Hoskins, a Bristol rugby historian, said that Jimmy “was a quite athletic player, with a sharp, fast pass. He was a very good ball-handler”. Jimmy went on to represent Bristol no less than 35 times over two seasons but left the city for Plymouth in 1902.

County Championship success followed with Devon in 1906 and he made his historic England debut for England RFU in an international against Scotland in March 1907. On the team sheet Jimmy was shown as “Darkie Peters”. England won 8-3 of course!

Jimmy was playing for Plymouth Albion RFC and Devon County but racism reared its ugly head when the touring South Africans were said to be unhappy to play against a black man when playing Devon County in October 1906 at Devonport.

It was the first overseas trip for the ‘Springboks’ and Devon beat them 22-6 in wet weather making the conditions a mud bath and the ball slippery. By then Jimmy had played four times more for England but was dropped for the England match against South Africa. No doubt because he was black.

In spite of that he played a further two matches for England and continued with Plymouth and Devon until he lost three fingers in a workplace accident in Devonport Dockyard. A testimonial match arranged by Plymouth was considered an act of professionalism and against the RFU’s amateur regulations and consequently he was banned from playing rugby. Was this a way of stopping a black man from participating in the sport of rugby?

We shall never know. It would be more than 80 years before another black man would play for England RFU and that was Chris Oti in 1988.

It is of interest to note that the wonderful Welsh winger WJ (Billy) Boston from Tiger Bay was the first black rugby league player to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1954 and in the middle of Wigan can be found a statue of him that was paid for by public donations amounting to £90,000.

There is another of him outside Wembley Stadium. ‘Billy’ had been overlooked by Wales RFU and reluctantly switched to league. Was racism at work again here as other black players of the time had similarly given up their Union aspirations to follow a career in League?

The writings of Peter Jackson, the Rugby Paper columnist, came to the attention of philanthropist and businessman Sir Stanley Thomas in 2020 who has donated a substantial amount of money towards an estimated £300,000 needed to erect statues in Cardiff of three of the ‘Cardiff Bay Rugby Codebreakers’ and Billy Boston is sure to figure.

For Jimmy Peters, persistence paid off and in spite of his injures he went on to play rugby league for Barrow before joining St Helen’s. It then appears he settled once more in Plymouth and ran a public house with his family. He is said to have been teetotal and would often quote passages from the bible.

He died in Plymouth in 1954 aged 74 years and is buried in Ford Park Cemetery where in 2015 his grave was restored following representations to the World Rugby Museum.

There is a Museum of Rugby at Twickenham and in 2003 an exhibition was set up in memory of Jimmy Peters but it can only be viewed on two days of the week. How many of us have had or will have the luxury of travelling to ‘Twickers’ and so the exploits of Jimmy Peters remain largely hidden.

There has been much publicity on television and in The Herald regarding the black footballer Jack Leslie who played for Plymouth Argyle. His name is to replace that of Sir John Hawkins in a square in Plymouth and a statue is to be erected at Plymouth Argyle’s ground at Home Park.

Over many months in 2020 I contacted England RFU, Devon County RFU, Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion with a view to publicising the fact that Jimmy Peters has been ‘forgotten’ and urging a way forward to perhaps find funding to erect a statue of Jimmy somewhere in Devon or at least Plymouth being an appropriate location.

England RFU wanted nothing to do with this suggestion but pointed me towards the Museum of Rugby at Twickenham.

Exeter Chiefs said the matter would be considered but further emails and telephone calls fell on deaf ears.

There was some interest from Devon County RFU and it may be that they contacted Plymouth City Council with regard to the issue I had raised. Whether that is the case or indeed whether a reply was received I do not know.