The sad thing is you’ve probably never heard of Arthur Wharton. Not many people have. For the final part of his life he was fairly unremarkable, working in the coal pits of South Yorkshire, before dying of cancer and being buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Yet there was something very remarkable about his earlier career: in 19th-century Yorkshire he became the first black professional footballer in the world, an accomplishment which has now been acknowledged by the Football Association (slightly belatedly) with the unveiling of a statue at the National Football Centre in Staffordshire.
Arthur was born in 1865 in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast in West Africa, which has since become Ghana. His father was a Methodist Minister who had arrived from Grenada as a missionary, and Arthur’s mother was Ghanaian royalty – the family was far from poor and Arthur grew up among the powerful and rich members of colonial society.
These were turbulent times on the Gold Coast though, with several uprisings taking place against the country’s colonial intruders – the British. In 1875 Arthur escaped the violence by being sent to a school in London (his brothers and sisters were also expensively educated). He returned to Ghana for a short while to attend a top Wesleyan local school, but in 1881 returned to England to study theology at a school in the Midlands.
Arthur was expected to become a missionary, but it was sport that he loved. Throughout school he played football, cricket and rugby, and when he moved to Cleveland College in County Durham he ended up playing in goal for Darlington. He also excelled at running and incredibly equalled the 100-yard dash world record in 1886 with a time of 10 seconds.
A commentator for the Darlington & Stockton Times wrote, ‘He has neither system nor style, but he runs like an express engine with full steam on from first to last with a result that makes both system and style unnecessary.’
His athleticism became legendary in the North and in 1887 he was recruited as a goalkeeper by Preston North End. It might seem odd that Arthur played in goal (he did actually play outfield sometimes), considering his pace, but at the time goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere in their own half, which meant a fast ‘keeper could rapidly move the ball safely to an attacking position. Arthur was very fast. He was also a bit naughty.
In a book called The First Black Footballer which was published in 1997, author Phil Vasili describes Arthur as having a ‘prodigious punch’ that he always connected with one of two targets: the ball or the opponent’s head. Some forwards didn’t like that. Almost everyone recognised Arthur’s goalkeeping talent though, and a journalist at the Northern Echo said he was ‘without doubt one of the most capable goal custodians in the country.
In 1888 Arthur moved to Sheffield and became a professional runner – at the time Sheffield was a hub of athletics – and among his achievements was winning the Sheffield Handicap at the Queen’s Ground in Hillsborough in front of a crowd of thousands. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph described him as ‘travelling like a racehorse’. Despite never earning a huge amount through athletics he was also a man of integrity.
‘I recollect a man once offering me £20 to lose a race,’ Arthur once told a newspaper reporter. ‘I asked him if he knew who he was speaking to, and he said, of course he did, but I told him I would run and if he ever made an offer like that again, I would report him to the Athletics Association.'
Throughout this time Arthur continued competing in cricket, rugby and cycling, but in 1889 he decided to concentrate on football. The Football League had been founded the year before and Rotherham Town had offered Arthur a professional contract.
The crowds loved him. In 1942 one fan belatedly wrote a small note to the Sheffield Telegraph & Independent, recalling, ‘In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove I saw Wharton jump, take hold of the cross bar, catch the ball between his legs, and cause three onrushing forwards – Billy Ingham, Clinks Mumford and Micky Bennett – to fall into the net. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over 50 years.
Unsurprisingly some people didn’t appreciate his showboating, and his skin colour would often be used as a way to undermine him. When he played for Preston one newspaper columnist wrote, ‘Good judges say that if Wharton keeps goal for the North End in their English Cup Tie the odds will be lengthened against them. I am of the same opinion. Is this darkie’s pate too thick for it to dawn upon him that between the posts is no place for a skylark?’
He had great success at Rotherham though, helping them win the Midland League and promotion to the second division. In 1894 he signed for Sheffield United, tempted by the offer of also taking over the Sportsman Cottage pub – a typical sweetener job offered by football clubs at the time in lieu of a decent wage.
Unfortunately for Arthur, Sheffield United had also signed a younger goalkeeper, William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, and for the first time in his career Arthur was second choice. He played just three games. In his last appearance for the club Sheffield lost 2-0. Arthur was at fault for one of the goals – he tried using his prodigious punch but missed the ball completely.
After playing for a string of other clubs, his last Football League appearance came in 1902. He ran a pub in Rotherham for a bit, before finding work in the coal mines of South Yorkshire. It’s believed that he worked at the seam for a few years, before ending up at Edlington near Doncaster, working at Yorkshire Main Colliery, where he worked as a haulage hand, manhandling coal trucks, which was a dangerous and exhausting job.
He spent the final 15 years of his life in that job, probably living in poverty, before he died at the age of 65 from cancer of the upper lip. He was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, but the Doncaster Gazette reported ‘a fairly large attendance which was representative of all the sports and organisations he had been connected with.’
Arthur was largely forgotten by the nation for a long while after that, until author Phil Vasili wrote his book about him in the 1990s. At the same time there was also a successful campaign to raise money for a gravestone for Arthur, which was led by Sheffied-based organisation ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’. Six years later Arthur was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in Manchester.
Now the Football Association has unveiled a 16ft statue of Arthur at the National Football Centre in Staffordshire. It was unveiled towards the end of 2014, and among those who attended were Darlington-based artist Shaun Campbell, who campaigned for the statue and founded the Arthur Wharton Foundation, along with former players Les Ferdinand and Viv Anderson. Arthur may have died a forgotten man, but he’s remembered now.
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