Arthur Wharton – the world’s first black professional footballer

Celebrating Yorkshire’s Black History

To mark Black History Month, we’re featuring the stories of some of the most influential Black people to have lived in Yorkshire. First, we’re taking a brief look at the life of Arthur Wharton – the world’s first Black professional football player.

Who was Arthur Wharton?

Born in Ghana in 1865; Arthur Wharton’s father was half Grenadian and half Scottish, and his mother was Ghanaian royalty.

Although he started his life in England in 1882 by beginning his training as a missionary, it wasn’t long until his sporting prowess was revealed and he left the religious life behind.

In 1886 he had his first taste of sporting success by setting a new world record for running the 100 yard dash in just 10 seconds. It was after this that he gained the opportunity to compete in professional athletics tournaments, and made a living through appearance fees. Not long after his initial success, he caught the attention of a number of professional football clubs.

Wharton as an Amateur for Darlington

His first signing was as a semi-professional player for Preston North End in the same year, where he took the position of goalkeeper. It was during his time there, where he played in the 1887 FA Cup semi-finals losing 3-1 to West Bromwich Albion. It’s documented that he was good enough to play for England, although due to the racial prejudice of the time, was never considered for the position.

Just two years later in 1889, Wharton turned professional, and subsequently became the world’s first professional black football player – signing for Rotherham United.

During a successful career at Rotherham, Wharton became known for his eccentricities, where he would hang upside down from the goal post and would crouch at the side of the goal before springing into action to make the save.

After 5 years at Rotherham, he was poached by nearby Sheffield United, although due to his progressing years, he was often overlooked for a younger goalkeeper known as Bill “Fatty Foulke.

After this, Arthurs career became more sporadic, and he drifted from various clubs. This continued until 1902, when he retired from football. Unfortunately, at this point, his life became more turbulant and he turned to alcohol, spending the last 15 years of his life as a cilliery haulage hand.

Statue of Wharton at the National Football Centre in Burton

Since his death in 1930, and up until the 1980s, his status as the worlds first black football was relatively unknown. However, during a Sheffield United based project named “Football Unites, Racism Divides,” his story was brought into the limelight and his unmarked grave in Edlington was given a headstone. His picture was featured in an exhibition of British Sporting Heroes at the National Portrait Gallery.

Some years later, in 2014, following an extensive campaign by a Darlington-based artist named Shaun Campbell, the FA erected a 16ft statue of Wharton at the National Football Centre in Burton.

Get deals, content & news from across Yorkshire

Join our mailing list for the latest & greatest from across the region, direct into your email box.

More To Explore

Want to connect with more than a million Yorkshire people?

Whether you're looking to boost your online presence or connect with potential customers, there are plenty of effective ways we can get your message out there. So why wait? Let's start making waves and taking your brand to the masses today!