Since its origins in 1895 the often, turbulent history of rugby league football has been well chronicled. Rugby league historians have written a substantial collection of books covering the great split of 1895, the Challenge Cup Competition, international games, various club histories and even two volumes featuring Welsh rugby union players who traveled north to switch codes and receive honest payment for their skills. The fiercely competitive nature of the thirteen a side code has created a vast amount of statistics which are also recorded in great detail.
However, one important occasion in the games has been sadly under-researched and misrepresented for far too long, the first black player to play professional rugby league football. For a sport that prides itself on its multi cultural participation this is quite a glaring omission.
The current incumbent is James Peters who was born in Salford in 1879. Peters had a hard life his Jamaican father, George, had been mauled to death in a lions training cage when he was working at a circus His mother was Hannah Gough from Wem in Shropshire. Hannah abandoned young james and he found himself in Fegan’s orphanage in Southwark and later the Little Wanderers’ Home in Greenwich. Peters worked in printing and his job took him to Bristol where he played rugby union for the local club. He later moved to Plymouth where he once again played rugby union for the Plymouth club. Peters made two successful appearances for England
James Peters in his English Rugby Union shirt
But his brief international career was cut short in a cruel fashion when he was dropped by England who gave in to the South African Springboks objection to playing against a black man. His rugby union career at club was also cut short by the games politics when he was suspended for accepting payment for playing for Devon. It was to be the final insult in Peter’s involvement with the Rugby football Union and its arcane amateur doctrine, very bitter at his treatment he moved to the north west and at 34 years old was accepted by the Barrow Northern Union club, thus creating the first black rugby league player myth, Peters played in the 1913/14 season on the Cumberland coast during which he kicked 9 goals in consecutive matches He moved from Barrow to St Helens for the 1914 season and it was their that he retired from the handling code.
It’s a fascinating story but, unfortunately Peters was in fact the second black man to play Rugby League. A recent find of bound Hunslet Northern Union programmes from the 1911/12 season have unearthed a new black player. The old brittle programmes are fascinating prime source documents that give a unique insight into the life of an Edwardian Northern Union Rugby Football club. The match-day programme notes for the game against York on the 27th January 1912 proudly announce the signing of Lucius banks, a black American cavalryman , who was spotted playing football by a Hunslet committee man on business in New York. The club bought Banks out of the U.S. Cavalry and paid for his voyage to England to play Northern Union Football.
Lucius Banks introduced to the Hunslet followers in the Parkside Echo for the game against York on January 27th 1912
Banks in the Hunslet line up 1912
Banks had a successful début in first eighty minutes of Northern Union Rugby Football and scored a try thanks to a superb pass from the experienced Billy Batten. The Parkside Echo issued for the next home against Wakefield Trinity, in which Banks once again made an appearance on the wing, commented; ‘L Banks gave every satisfaction to our supporters in his first attempt to play Northern Union football, and showed plainly that as soon as he gets thoroughly conversant with the game, he will be strong in both attack and defence.’
The programme also commented It was amusing to see the bit of cheap sarcasm in the Monday morning papers, but suppose they can’t help it
The Leeds newspapers had criticised the Hunslet club for signing what they described as ‘a coloured coon’ and commented that the club should give more opportunity’s to local junior players and not sign novelty players to a merely create publicity. It is interesting to note that Hunslet thought the word ‘coon’ was merely sarcasm. Banks played a handful of first team games at Parkside, Hunslet’s home ground, but spent most of his brief career in the second team.
Banks in a team photo for the 1912/13 season
a very rare photograph of Lucius Banks with some of his Hunslet team mates
Eventually Lucius Banks’s great Hunslet adventure simply ground to a halt.
The harsh Yorkshire winter and the bleak industrial surroundings became too much for the young American to cope with and he severed his connection with Hunslet and sailed home. The Parkside Echo recorded his departure with the following paragraph in the match day programme for the 26th December 1912
And so ended the brief Northern Union career of Lucius Banks the first black man to play Northern Union Rugby Football.