February 04, 2012


James Peters in his England Rugby Team Uniform

Today marks the start of the Six Nations Rugby Tournament, which is an annual, international Rugby Union competition involving six European sides: England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. England is the current title holder and will kick off its first match this evening, against Scotland, in Edinburgh.

On March 17, 1907, England and Scotland also played against each other, which marked a groundbreaking milestone: England player, James Peters, became the first Black man to play rugby in an international game. Amazingly, the media, at the time, made no reference at all to this landmark occasion.

1907 England Team against Scotland - James is front row right

James Peters was born in August 1879, in Salford, England. He was the son of circus performers – his father was Black Jamaican, and his mother was White English. As a young boy, James learned some circus performing and quickly proved to be quite athletic.

His parents died, when he was young; and he found himself in Fegan's Orphanage in Southwark and the Little Wanderers' Home in Greenwich.  At school, he immersed himself in sports. James played cricket and rugby, but he was also an outstanding all-round athlete, winning the 100-yard dash, mile, long jump, high jump and walking races in 1894.

After leaving school, James became a printer. He moved to Bristol in 1898; and in 1900 joined Knowle Rugby Club. Some White members objected to the inclusion of a Black man and resigned.

In 1902, James moved to Plymouth, England, which is in Devon – a lovely county in Southwestern England, which borders Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset and abuts the English Channel, Bristol Channel and Celtic Sea. It is also well-known for its lovely food, such as Cream Teas, cakes and delicious beef, pork and lamb dishes; but more on that later.

Plymouth, Devon

James worked in the Devonport Dockyards as a carpenter. He also played Rugby Union for Devon. In 1906, the team was scheduled to play South Africa in front of 20,000 fans at the Plymouth County ground. However, the South African Springboks team had belatedly noticed that Devon had a Black player and initially, refused to play the match. Eventually, the South African High Commissioner, fearing a riot if the game were cancelled, persuaded the team to play.

Continuing to play for Devon, where he had also become known as, ‘Darkie Peters’, James helped the team to win the County Championship. At this point, the fans began to campaign for James to play for the England team – the highest honor by playing for your country. They eventually succeeded, and in March 1907, James played in the match against Scotland. England lost; but The Sportsman commented that the "dusky Plymouth man did many good things, especially in passing [the ball]." The Yorkshire Post praised his performance, but pointed out that "his selection is by no means popular, on racial grounds." In his next game against France he scored a try in England's 35-8 victory. Ironically, despite his abilities, he was not chosen to play, on racial grounds, for the next game against South Africa

James returned to the team for the next two games against Scotland and Wales.  He did not play for England again, after that.

In 1910, James lost three fingers in a dockyard accident; but he continued to play rugby until 1912 when he was suspended, along with several other players, after it was discovered he had been paid by Devon Rugby Club, which was illegal at that time, according to the codes of Rugby Union. James then became a professional playing Rugby League games for Barrow and St. Helen's until he retired from rugby, in 1914. James died on March 26, 1954; and Greenwich Admirals Rugby League Club now celebrates James’s life with an annual challenge game.

If you’re watching the matches today, you’ll probably be drinking pints of beer and eating salty snacks; but if you fancy a little something sweet to serve, try something lovely from James's home: Devonshire Apple Cake.

Devonshire Apple Cake
By Margaret Wilson, Tinhay Mill Guest House and Restaurant, Lifton, Devon.
Adapted by Kate Flour, A Merrier World

·          225 g (8 oz) plain flour
·          1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
·          ½ tsp cinnamon
·          ½ tsp ground ginger
·          ½ tsp mixed spice
·          275 g (10 oz) mixed sultanas, raisins and currants (or just raisins, if you can’t source the others)
·          2 eggs
·          450 g (1 lb) cooking apples, peeled and chopped
·          150 g (5 oz) unsalted butter
·          175 g (6 oz) light muscovado (or light brown) sugar
·          pinch of salt
·          caster sugar for sprinkling
·          grated rind of 1 lemon
·          2 tbsp Devon cider (there is no substitute, but you could try an equivalent mixture of dry white wine and fresh apple juice)

Grease and line an 8 or 9 inch round cake pan with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F/170 degrees C.
Soak the dried fruit in hot water (plus a tbsp of whisky or apple brandy) for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the apples in the cider until they are soft and mushy. Mash any remaining lumps with a fork. Leave to cool.
Cream the butter, sugar and lemon rind in a large bowl. Gradually beat in the eggs.
Sift together the flour, spices, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Fold in alternately with 225 ml (8 fl oz) of the apple sauce.
Strain the dried fruit and stir into the mixture until evenly incorporated.
Place the mixture in the prepared cake tin (until no more than 3/4 full – use any remaining mixture to make cupcakes). Sprinkle the top with caster sugar.
Bake in the centre of the oven for 50-60 minutes (perhaps a bit longer, so keep testing the centre - the cupcakes bake in approx. 10-15 minutes). Cool in the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack.
Sources: Wikipedia, Google, Bing, African-American Registry, Museum of Rugby, A Merrier World

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