When he died in 1930, Wharton was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Other than the 'fairly large attendance' at his funeral, as reported by the Doncaster Gazette, there was little fanfare for a man who had worked as a coal miner for the previous 20 years or so.
Wharton had been a professional cricketer. He had been a sprinter – a world record holder at that. He had also been a global footballing pioneer because, when he signed for Rotherham Town in 1889, Wharton became the world’s first black professional footballer.
As well as Rotherham, Wharton played for numerous clubs across the north of England in a career spanning some 20 years.
A talented goalkeeper, he appeared for Preston North End in the 1887 FA Cup Semi-Final, and became the first black player to star in the First Division of the Football League after signing for Sheffield United in 1894.
Born in Ghana, he moved to England to train as a missionary. But studies took second place to sport and Wharton seemed to excel at any sport he tried. As well as cricket, rugby and football, he took up sprinting. He was quick too – seriously quick.
In 1886, at the Amateur Athletics Championships, Wharton broke the 100 yards world record, becoming the first person to run it in 10 seconds.
Arthur Wharton statue
A statue of Arthur Wharton is now in place at St. George's Park, the footballing hub of the Football Association.
If it was somewhat remarkable that the world’s fastest man played in goal, Wharton was no ordinary 'keeper. Athletic and flamboyant, he was one of the original eccentric shot-stoppers. One fan even claimed he’d once seen Wharton catch the ball between his legs.
But criticism and condescension followed him at all points. Wharton’s skin colour was the constant lens through which he and his exploits were viewed. These were the attitudes that he faced and, wherever he could, he confronted them.
Wharton lived a remarkable sporting life. He died aged 65 with cancer. Others like him were heralded as national heroes, but Wharton was from Ghana and was paid to play his sports in working-class northern England. He was not a pure amateur, as the Victorians liked.
He did not fit the model of a Victorian sporting hero. Thanks to the work of historians and campaigners, he has now received the recognition he deserves. He holds a place in the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame, and a statue of him artfully tipping a shot over the bar stands proudly at St. George’s Park.
The unmarked grave, too, is no more, replaced by a much more fitting tribute to a remarkable man: ‘To the memory of Arthur Wharton – world record sprinter and first black professional footballer’.
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