Despite being the world’s first black professional footballer and an amazing athlete Arthur Wharton died a forgotten man. As part of our coverage of Black History Month Phil Turner tells his story, and celebrates a great athlete
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine September-October 2016, issue 17. Email UAF to ask for printed firstname.lastname@example.org
Arthur Wharton became the first black fully professional footballer when he signed for Rotherham Town 127 years ago in August 1889. But he ended up down the pit—and on the picket line with other miners at the time of the 1926 General Strike.
Possessed of astonishing skills in more than one area of sporting life, Arthur was not only a talented goalkeeper for the likes of Preston North End, Sheffield United and Rotherham Town, but an amazing athlete and fighter against racism. He was the first 100 yards world record holder, covering the distance in ten seconds in 1886 wearing pigskin shoes on a shingle track.
But after battling against racism all his life he died in poverty in 1930 aged 65 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Family and drink problems seem to have contributed to his retirement from sport aged 36. He then worked as a haulage worker at Yorkshire Main Colliery in Edlington near Rotherham where he was a member of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, forerunner to the National Union of Mineworkers.
Arthur, who played in charity matches long before the PR machine proffered newspaper headlines in exchange, never shied away from a fight. Phil Vasili, his biographer, said, “At an athletics meet he was lying down in a marquee on a rolled up carpet out of view when he overheard a couple of his competitors complaining about having to run against a n….r. Arthur jumped up and said: ‘If you two gentlemen do not wish to race me you can always box me.”
The two declined the offer.
But Arthur also faced racism at football matches. As Vasili notes, “Often at football matches he was singled out for special treatment and came in for a lot of abuse from the crowd more than others on the field, and you get an impression that was due to his colour.
“It is recorded at one match that he was beaten with umbrellas when he left the field. It was a rough game and there was more violence on the field than today but it does seem he came in for hard treatment. …[and he] was often referred to as ‘Darkie’ Wharton both in the press and by the crowds.”
Arthur would almost certainly have been on strike in 1926.
Vasili went on, “What is known is that he was a member of the miners’ federation, and although there is nothing to establish he took part, there is no evidence that he was a scab, which would have been documented in such a strong mining area.
“He was also involved in a pay dispute while at Stockport and Rotherham and he was always quite active in standing up for his rights and it can be assumed that continued in his working life outside of football. He had definitely had a sense of his own worth.”
Wharton was clearly a showman, popular with team-mates and loved by fans, as this letter to the Sheffield Telegraph and Independent, 12th January 1942, shows, “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 on-rushing forwards…to fall into the net. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over 50 years.”
But for a long time Arthur’s story was never told. Former Manchester United and Nottingham Forest star Viv Anderson said of him, “When I saw the exhibition on him at the National Football Museum I was totally flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe he’s barely heard of today after achieving so much. And you’d think I’d be one of the first to know about him.
“There’s a connection between us that will never be broken. He was the first black professional and I was the first to win a full cap. I’m honoured to be associated with him. Arthur’s story is an important part of that English football culture, and he should be more celebrated.”
Arthur’s career lasted about 16 years and also included spells at Sheffield United and Stockport County, during which period he won the unofficial title as “the best goalkeeper in the north”.
Mind you such were the wages that to supplement his club income Arthur ran two Rotherham pubs.
Shaun Campbell, who set up the Arthur Wharton Foundation, said about him:
“The man was a phenomenon. The ironic thing is, back then you needed to be tough and of strong character of mind to be in goal. You could be harassed, harangued, bullied, hustled off the ball. Often the on-rushing forwards would barge into the goalkeeper so team-mates could score, and that was legal in the day. But because no-one could catch him, Arthur would run up the pitch and get two or three goals himself.”
Arthur was born on 28th October 1865 in Jamestown on the Gold Coast, West Africa, which is now known as Accra, Ghana. His father was Henry Wharton, a Methodist Minister who was half-Grenadian and half-Scottish while his mother, Annie Florence Egyriba, was a Ghanaian princess. Arthur was sent to England by his father to be trained as a missionary teacher. But his talent between the posts and speed on the athletics track were first spotted when he was at college near Darlington. He also went on to play professional cricket, both codes of rugby and cycle.
Shocking as it seems today, newspaper coverage casually referred to him as “nigger” or “darkie”. Though many called for Arthur to play football for England, racism in the sport meant it would be another 100 years before Anderson became the first black player to do so.
Arthur became a working class hero in northern England. Though he had every intention of following in his father’s footsteps when he arrived, aged just 19, in 1882 at Cleveland College, Durham, studying soon came second to his sporting prowess. Arthur‘s football skills came to the notice of Darlington Football Club. As a result he was selected to play as goalkeeper in a professional capacity—the first step to becoming the first black professional football player.
He was also a brilliant professional cricketer, playing for teams in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In cycling he set a record time in 1887 for riding between Preston and Blackburn and he also enjoyed rugby.
Selected to play for Newcastle and District Team in 1885-86 Arthur soon became a favourite with the North-East fans. He often entertained the crowds by crouching in the corner of the goal area, only saving the ball at the last minute, or doing pull-ups on the cross-bars and catching the ball between his knees.
In 1886 Arthur moved to Preston North End—then the giants of football—where he played in the FA Cup semi-final of 1887. Arthur went on to play for Rotherham Town, Sheffield United, Stalybridge Rovers and Ashton Northend. His career came to an end at Stockport County in the Second Division in 1901-02.
In a BBC television feature about Arthur on the magazine programme Inside Out in 2013 Lisa Sultanti of Football Unites, Racism Divides gave examples where Arthur is described as having “monkey-type” features and the racism he faced in his sporting life is at the heart of explaining why Arthur was airbrushed out of history. Quite simply he has been written out of football’s history because he was black.
But Arthur was also a victim of society’s hypocrisy over its moral values when a relationship while married to his first wife contributed to his fall from grace. His Rotherham-born grand-daughter Sheila Leeson discovered through research that Arthur had been married to the sister of her grandmother. Arthur had a relationship with Sheila’s grandmother and she had borne him three children, one of whom was Sheila’s mother.
Arthur retired from his prestigious footballing career in 1902 after a downward spiral and drinking. Sheila’s grandmother was also banished by her family.
Sixty-seven years after his death, Arthur’s unmarked grave in Edlington has been fully restored thanks to the Sheffield United-based project Football Unites Racism Divides and author Vasili. Sheila went to Ghana and discovered Arthur’s huge family and she visited her great grandfather’s church and Arthur’s school.
In 2003 Arthur Wharton was inducted into The National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame.
The First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton, 1865-1930 —An Absence of Memory by Phil Vasili, published by Frank Cass. ISBN paperback: 978-0714644592 hardback: 978-0714649030.
Read more at Football Unites, Racism Divides’ (FURD) dedicated website at