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Jimmy Peters: race pioneer of English rugby who emerged from the circus

Until 1988 Peters, whose father died in a lion’s cage, was the only black man to play rugby union for England. The sport’s historians are now starting to piece together his story

A century later the truth of exactly what happened to Jimmy Peters is just out of reach. One can find little scraps of it, titbits, facts and hints. In the last few years different writers, historians and academics have tried to stitch it all together but the story is thin and full of holes no one thought to fill in until it was too late. We know Peters was good, as any man who plays for England must be, and we can guess that he was better than that, because of what he had to overcome. For 117 years, right up until 1988, Peters, who played in 1906, 1907 and 1908, was the only black man who ever played rugby union for England.

The census records show Peters had a West Indian father and an English mother and that he was born in Salford in 1879. But most of what is known about his early years comes from a newsletter published by the orphanage where he spent his teenage years. The story, as it is set down there, is that his parents worked in a travelling circus, where his father met with what is described as “a shocking death in a lion’s cage”. This is a line one cannot read without wanting to know more. But nobody does because there are no precise dates and circus performers seldom used their real names.

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