Arthur Wharton – Britain’s forgotten great?
By Will Day
Arthur Wharton led an utterly remarkable life, his achievements in an era rife with racism should see him revered with iconic status, yet his story has largely been forgotten. As it is black history month, it seems only right to acknowledge one the world’s first black professional footballers and carved a way for generations of black men in the profession after him. Although not the first black footballer as such, as he was predated by Scotsman Andrew Watson, he was likely the first black person worldwide to be paid for the sport and compete in the football league.
Born in Accra, Ghana’s capital, in 1865, Wharton was a descendant of Ghanaian royalty. Despite his opulent ancestry, Wharton’s childhood was by no means easy: six of his nine siblings died before reaching adulthood whilst his father died when Wharton was seven. Aged nine, he was sent to England to study where he stayed until he was fourteen before returning to Ghana. At Seventeen he once again travelled to England to study religious philosophy at Shaol Hill Methodist college in Staffordshire. It was expected he would become a teacher or missionary, following in his Father’s footsteps. However, he had already proved to be an exceptional sportsman, excelling in sprinting, cycling, rugby, cricket and football.
In 1886, while at Cleveland College, Arthur set the world record of ten seconds for the 100-yard sprint at the Amateur Athletic Association’s Championship (AAA) at Stamford Bridge, London. His unusual running style was noted with conflicting reports, some claim he ran leaning back with high knees whilst others say he ran bent forward with flat feet. Regarding his style, the Darlington and Stockton times claimed that he didn’t have a specific style but ran “like an express engine with full steam on from first to last with a result that makes both system and style unnecessary” (Darlington & Stockton Times, 5th June 1886).
Either way, it was certainly unconventional, but evidently effective. In 1888 he moved to Sheffield where he was a professional runner for two years before focusing solely on football. A world record sprinter, his searing pace could have left defenders petrified, unable to react as Wharton soared past them bearing down on goal. His decision to play as a goal keeper then, is somewhat bizarre, especially once considering the different goalkeeping rules in the late nineteenth century. Goalkeepers could handle the ball anywhere inside their own half however they were also free to be tackled by opposition players with or without the ball, making it the most physical position on the pitch. To combat this Wharton employed slightly eccentric tactics, as a spectator noted in the Sheffield Telegraph and Independent that he “saw Wharton jump, take hold of the crossbar, catch the ball between his legs and cause three onrushing forwards to fall into the net” (Sheffield Telegraph & Independent, 12th January 1942). It is also claimed that Wharton spent the game crouched by the goal posts, waiting until the last moment to quickly react and make spectacular saves.
Wharton signed for Rotheram in 1889 from Preston North End, in doing so, he became England’s first black professional footballer. He helped Rotheram win the Midlands league in 1892 and 1893, ensuring they were elected to the Second division for 1893/94 season. He would once again make history in 1894 when, upon signing for Sheffield United, he became Britain’s first black professional to feature in the First Division. His time at Sheffield however was not as successful as his years at Rotherham as he was unable to displace William “Fatty” Foulke as first choice goalkeeper. Wharton returned to Rotherham in 1895.
In 1902, Wharton retired aged thirty-six. Unsatisfied with being the first black professional footballer and being a world record sprinter, Wharton was a talented cricketer playing professionally for Greasbourgh in 1889. These remarkable feats were still not enough to satisfy Wharton who also set a record time for cycling between Preston and Blackburn.
Being a professional sportsman in the nineteenth century did not come with the same monetary rewards as of present, many footballers of the era were also publicans and Wharton managed several pubs in Sheffield and Rotherham throughout his career. However, after retiring, he fell into financial difficulties leading him to pursue work in the mines. Despite his age, he worked as a haulage hand, notorious for being a dangerous and physically demanding role. The advent of World War One saw Wharton serve as a Corporal in the home guard. After many toilsome years down the miners and a long struggle with illness, Wharton died in 1930 aged sixty-five. He was buried in an unmarked grave and until recently, forgotten.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s when Ray Jenkins, a history lecturer, began researching Wharton’s life. His legacy was brought into the public eye. In 1997 a headstone for Wharton was unveiled and in 2011 a short ceremony was held at Wembley honoring Wharton’s achievement before a match between England and Ghana. Let us not forget this great pioneer who, in an era of stark racial discrimation was able to set a phenomenal standard in the sporting world.