James’s father, George Peters, was born sometime around 1855 in the West Indies. In the mid-1870s, George travelled as a sailor to England, where he met and married Hannah Gough. James, the couple’s first child, was born on 7th August 1879 at No.38 Queen Street, Salford, Manchester, which at the time was a slum area.
The family were members of the circus, performing all over the country. George was a lion tamer, and his occupation was listed as ‘showman’ on James’ birth certificate. James trained at a very early age as a bareback horse rider in the circus.
When George was mauled to death by a performing lion, James’s mother was forced to place him with another circus troupe, only for them to abandon him after he broke his arm in an accident aged 11. He was found chained to a wagon wheel at the circus by a Miss Daniels of St Leonard’s, Blandford, Dorset. Miss Daniels befriended Jimmy, and it was arranged that he go to Fegan’s Orphanage on Southwark Street in London. He was admitted in November 1890, and his education and training for future employment was allegedly paid for by Lord and Lady Portman of Blandford.
During his time at the orphanages in Southwark and Greenwich, James proved to be an outstanding athlete. He became captain of the cricket and rugby teams, and was allowed to watch Blackheath’s teams for free. He also excelled at athletics, and it is recorded that on the orphanage sports day in 1894 he won the 100 yards, one mile race, the high jump, walking race and long jump. He finally left the orphanage aged 19, and returned to his mother and siblings in Bristol where he worked as a carpenter and was a strict teetotaler. He was eventually selected to play rugby union for Devon, becoming the first black man in England to play the sport professionally.
In 1906 Devon played a South African team in front of 20,000 fans at the Plymouth County ground. The opposition were furious when they noticed James’ colour, and refused to share the pitch with a black man. Eventually the South African High Commissioner, who feared a riot if the game was cancelled, persuaded them to continue. James later became the first black man to be capped for England, playing in matches against Scotland and France. He was forced to battle against the prejudices of the Rugby Union establishment throughout his career. When James was picked to play for Bristol RFC many committee men resigned, and local papers complained that he was taking the place of a white man.
James overcame these obstacles to became a popular player in Plymouth RFC, then one of the country’s strongest clubs. He went on to win five England caps between 1906 and 1908, despite constant opposition to his selection. During his time with Bristol RFC, the team won 35 of the 37 matches James played in.
In 1910 James lost three fingers in a dockyard accident, but continued to play until 1912. He moved north to play on in rugby league, appearing for Barrow and St Helens in 1914. Later, James returned to Plymouth and continued his trade as a carpenter until retirement. He died at the age of 74 in Plymouth on March 26, 1954, a rugby legend, and a much respected man..