One of the great all-round sportsmen of his day, a member of the first great football team, World Champion and football eccentric. Even though this was over 100 years ago, his name was forgotten until author, Phil Vasili wrote a book about him in the 1990’s. This is the story of the first black professional footballer in the world. A pioneer whose should have been recorded and celebrated. A man written out of history until the 1990’s. I give you… Arthur Wharton.

Football history is littered with names of the great and the good of all clubs. Every fan will have an unofficial list of their favourite players some will even include some players from other teams. Some will look back, far beyond when they started watching their team to the greats of yesteryear.

As a young boy growing up, like many, I was obsessed with football. If not playing, I would read about the greats. Regularly taking in ‘Scorcher’ and ‘Score’ comics (later to combine as Scorcher & Score) and as I grew up, Shoot. They took place alongside football annuals and an old set of encyclopaedias. I was always intrigued by the old stories of footballers that were often described in the yearly annuals. The tale of William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, the legendary Sheffield United goalkeeper whose antics transcended his football prowess was one of the original ‘characters’ to grace the game. The story of Everton vacating Anfield only a year after winning the League Championship in a dispute over rent before setting up home at Goodison Park all happened within a mile of where I was born. The truce on Christmas Day 1914, when British and German soldiers were said to have played football in no man’s land is well documented, if not entirely accurate. The first invincibles of Preston North End and the first Wembley final all fascinated me, but none of them ever mentioned the top sportsman of his day, Arthur Wharton.

Early life

Born on 28/10/1865 in Accra on the Gold Coast, now known as Ghana, he was born into a well-off family. His mother, a Ghanian princess, his father a famous Methodist minister and missionary from Grenada, West Indies. The times, however, were very turbulent and was the time of the ‘scramble for Africa’, which was the occupation, division, and colonisation of African territory by European powers. With uprisings against the countries (the British in Ghana’s case) colonial intruders making life very unstable for the population. For perspective, European control of Africa increased from 10% in 1870 to around 90% by the time of the First World War. Turbulent times indeed. It wasn’t a safe place and in 1875 Arthur was sent to London with his brothers and sisters for schooling. After travelling to Grenada, West Indies to stay with his family for a short while he returned to Britain in 1881 to study theology in the Midlands. In the family tradition it was expected that he would follow in his fathers’ footsteps and become a missionary and aged 19 he moved to Cleveland College, County Durham to train as a Methodist preacher.

A life of sport

Studies didn’t go to plan and Arthur’s head was turned by his love of sport. Particularly Football, Cricket, Rugby and Athletics. In 1884 he signed and played in goal for Darlington and in doing so, became the first black professional footballer in the world. In his 32 games, he made such an impression that the local press didn’t hold back and labelled him ‘invincible’, ‘Magnificent’ and ‘superb’. In a game against the most successful team of that period, Preston North End, he impressed them so much, they convinced him to join them. At one stage he turned out for both Darlington and Preston. He was part of the Preston team that reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1887 but due to his athletic exploits decided to leave in 1888. This meant he missed Preston’s ‘invincible’ season of 1888/89 when they won the league title and FA Cup without losing a game.

Competing at such a level in two sports proved difficult although Arthur had been able to combine football and athletics. In 1886 as a member of Birchfield Harriers, he competed in the AAA Championships at Stamford Bridge becoming the first northerner to win, setting a world record of 10 seconds. A title he retained the following year. In 1887 he even set cycling records, in particular, a record tricycle time between Preston and Blackburn.

It may seem strange to many reading this that Arthur Wharton chose to play in goal where he may be better suited elsewhere on the pitch with his searing pace. He did occasionally appear as a winger although the rules of the day ensured that his pace would be useful as a keeper. In those days, the keeper could handle the ball anywhere in his own half and could bounce the ball until challenged as well as play the ball out of defence. Goalkeepers had to be tough and Arthur was no soft touch. He had a fearsome punch and could punch the ball further than most. The story goes, that in order to protect himself, he would come out to punch the ball and made sure he got contact with something, even if it wasn’t the ball. The one thing you didn’t do in those days was catch the ball unless there was no one around you. Keepers were often barged when they had hold of the ball, it was perfectly legal so his pace helped to keep him out of trouble and launch attacks.

Victorian times

Consideration needs to be taken of the Victorian period where these events took place. Although segregation along racial lines wasn’t written into law like, for example, the USA, the time period would have been difficult for a black man in Victorian Britain. There was a significant black population though generally situated around the ports, a legacy to the slave trade. There was very little work around for working class white people, never mind black people and no welfare state. There would be a mighty scramble for any jobs that came available. It was the time of scientific racism and its racist conclusions where the myth of ‘race’ meant that different so-called ‘races’ were graded in a hierarchy with the black person graded at the bottom of a scale. These have been discredited now but in those days it was alive and in the public domain. It’s documented that he was a victim of racism but being a proud man, he fought his corner. It’s thought that he may have been a target because of his ‘showboating’ and eccentric style. He was commonly called ‘darkie Wharton’. One way or another, he stood his ground.

Given the time, however, Arthur was a popular figure amongst his own supporters and a man of principle. In 1888 he moved to Sheffield, one of the top centres for athletics. It’s been reported that when he was competing in an event, he was approached with an offer of £20 to lose the race. He refused, threatening to report the man if he ever did it again. This was despite the fact that he earned very little as a professional sportsman.

The eccentric

He returned to running in 1888 before returning to football a year later with Rotherham, where he spent the next five years. During his career, he had earned himself the reputation as a bit of an eccentric. He was nicknamed a ‘Skylark’, a bit of a showman. These days he would be a ‘character’, one of those people of whom there are sadly now, very few of around, not like the 60’s and 70’s, but I digress. On one occasion against Sheffield United, with the ball approaching, he jumped and hung from the crossbar before catching the ball between his legs. This was much to the shock of the three forwards who were bearing down on him, who promptly fell into the net. (Rene Higuita, eat your heart out!) His trademark was to crouch by the goalpost until the ball came towards him when he would pounce to save. He was often seen taking the ball to the halfway line in a bid to launch attacks.

Rotherham and Sheffield United

After six years with Rotherham where he concentrated more on his football, he was part of the team that won the Midland League and gained promotion to the second division. Whilst at Rotherham he married a local girl, Emma Lister in 1893 and later had two daughters, Minnie and Nora. In 1894 he signed for first division Sheffield United, with the temptation of being the landlord of the Sportsman Cottage pub as an inducement. This was a common offer to footballers of the time, in lieu of a decent wage and may have contributed to an alcohol problem in later life. Timing in life though can count for a lot. He happened to sign at the same time as one of the most famous footballers of the day, William ‘Fatty’ Foulke. For those who don’t know of him, he was a goalkeeper of considerable size. At his peak was a colossal 6’4″ (at a time when the average man was much shorter than today) and his estimated weight was around 24 stone. It’s believed he was on the receiving end of the first rendition of “Who ate all the pies” from the terraces back in 1894. This imposing figure meant that Arthur Wharton only played three games for United. One of those games was against (soon to be League champions) Sunderland which made him the first black footballer to play in the English First Division.

Towards the end of his career and beyond

For the next few years, he moved quite a bit, turning out for Stalybridge (two spells), Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockport County. He retired from football in 1902 (aged 36) and ran a pub in Rotherham for a while. He then concentrated on his cricket career and was offered a coaching role for County Durham. Unfortunately, he had to turn it down due to lack of work to supplement his income.

He ended up working in the coal mines of South Yorkshire ending up as a haulage hand at Yorkshire Main Colliery, Edlington, near Doncaster. He was a member of the Home Guard in the First World War but continued to run and play cricket into his 50’s.

Following the war, he continued as a miner and he took part in the General strike of 1926, which for miners lasted the best part of seven months in total. Mining was a very dangerous and exhausting job and took its toll on his physical health. It was very poorly paid and he lived in poverty until he was admitted to Springhill House Sanitorium, Doncaster. It was here he died, penniless and an alcoholic on 12th December 1930. The causes of death on his death certificate were epithelioma (cancer of his upper lip) and syphilis. He was buried in an unmarked paupers grave.

His legacy

In the 1990’s, Darlington businessman Shaun Campbell and Wharton’s granddaughter Sheila Leeson together with Author, Phil Vasili resurrected Arthurs career. Leeson finding an old photo of Arthur holding his record-breaking sprint trophy over 100 years earlier, led her to investigate further. Campbell set up the Arthur Wharton Foundation and campaigned for a memorial to him. This was a bronze statue of Wharton tipping a shot over the bar in Darlington. Vasili writing a book about his life called ‘The first black footballer, Arthur Wharton 1865-1930: An absence of memory’.

There was also a campaign by ‘football unites, racism divides’ which enabled a headstone to be placed on his grave at a special ceremony in 1997. He was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003 and in 2014 a 16ft statue was erected at the National Football Centre in Staffordshire.

His gravestone reads…

AN ATHLETE HE RAN

“like an express train with full steam on from first to last”

AS A FOOTBALLER HE WAS

“The goalkeeper with the prodigious punch who would crouch in the corner of his goal until the last moment, then spring into action to make fantastic saves”

THE DUST OF HIS TOIL LAID TRACES THAT WILL NEVER BE COVERED

LAID MAY 1997

Phil Vasili, Wharton’s biographer added

“He (Arthur) ended his days sadly, but he was not a sad figure, he did things his own way, despite obstacles put in his way.”