by Andy Robinson
In a letter in the Sheffield Telegraph and Independent on the 12 June 1942 a reader wrote the following;
“In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove I saw Arthur Wharton jump, take hold of the crossbar, catch the ball between his legs and cause the three onrushing forwards to fall into the net. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over 50 years”
Arthur Wharton is now recognized as England’s first professional black footballer. Born in 1865 the son of a preacher who was half West -Indian and half Scottish and with a Princess for a mother Arthur moved to England at the age of 17 to study Divinity at a Methodist College in Cannock and it was here where he began to show his talents at sport. Not only proficient in football but rugby, cricket, athletics and cycling. During his life he was to make money from three of them.
By 1885 Arthur had moved to the North East to finish his studies and was playing as an amateur for Darlington usually in goal but occasionally on the wing. At the same time Arthur was competing as a sprinter for Birchfield Harriers and in 1886 Arthur won the celebrated AAA 100 Yards Sprint championship, the first official recording of a 10 seconds time – a record which stood for thirty years. Beat that Usain!
This speed brought Arthur to the attention of the mighty Preston North End and in 1887 he was on the losing side as West Brom beat Preston 3 – 1 in the FA Cup Semi Final. With football not formally governed in a league structure at the time he made appearances for Middlesborough and Sheffield United and also set a record in a cycle race between Blackburn and Preston just because he could.
After a year trying his hand at professional running where he was paid appearance money but heavily handicapped, Arthur returned to Rotherham in the newly formed Football League where he spent six seasons. Always the eccentric he would crouch down and then use his speed to rush out at the forwards to put them off. A year at Sheffield United spent mostly as understudy to the legendary and enormous England keeper Bill ‘Fatty’ Foulke followed.
This period of the early 1890’s also saw him play professional cricket in the South Yorkshire area for a number of sides and also a new career as a pub landlord and a new hobby that was to prove his downfall. Drinking.
Arthur’s final years in the game saw him drift across the Pennines to Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End, Stalybridge again and finally to Stockport County. Sometimes he would up his money as the coach and he famously signed the legendary Herbert Chapman, arguably the greatest football manager of all time, for Rovers. His final game for Stockport was in 1902.
After leaving football Arthur drifted across the towns of Yorkshire running pubs, playing cricket and running but by now he had the drink problem. In 1915 he finally settled in Edlington, near Doncaster, and found work in the pit as a haullier. He was a member of the home guard during the War and took an active part in the General Strike of 1926. Arthur passed away penniless in 1930.
Researching this piece has left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I can fully understand the love of sport that moved him away from the calling of religion but how did his immediate family react at the time and how come with such a decent education did he fall away entirely from his upper middle class roots? One story I came across had him turned down for the diplomatic service in Africa. Was it because he was black or was it because from such a lofty background initially his attitude to sport, in particular his professionalism, seen as “just not cricket”? We have all seen the movie “Chariots of Fire”.
I could also find very little on how he was seen by his team mates with reference to his colour only coming across a couple of stories. At an athletics meet he overheard a couple of his competitors use the “N” word. Arthur replied “If you two gentlemen do not wish to race me you can always box me”. The other was that he was often referred to as “Darkie” Wharton both in the press and by the crowds but no reference is made as to if it was hostile or not. It was a completely different world remember and this is history we are talking about here.
The strangest thing I have found doing this was how little was known about him until the late nineties when “Football Unites, Racism Divides” came across the story through the work of Arthur’s grandaughter and historian Phil Vasilli. The unmarked grave was given a headstone and a generation later local businessman Shaun Campbell set up the Arthur Wharton Foundation aiming to fund a statue.
Arthur Wharton’s life was celebrated by the football world in March 2011 when England played Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) in a friendly at Wembley. Later that year “Football Unites, Racism Divides” secured funding for the Arthur Wharton foundation from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This project aims to use the work of drama and the arts to provide an educational resource for schools to ensure Arthur’s role in both the community and the football world is brought to a wider audience.
I often wonder what became of Billy Ingham, Clinks Mumford and Mickey Bennett. My Research told me that these were the three forwards who tumbled over into the net. Twenty nine years too late maybe but I knew my history degree would come in useful one day.
With ingredients including alcoholism, religion, race, royalty, sporting heroics, downward mobility, poverty and political strife all this story needs now is Hollywood. It’s a blockbuster life deserving of a blockbuster treatment.