Forgotten grave of football's first black star

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A campaign has been launched to honour the memory of the world's first professional black footballer, who is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.

Arthur Wharton was spotted in 1886 by Preston North End when the club was gathering pace as a force in British football. He impressed the club with his astonishing speed - he became the first man officially to run 100 yards in 10 seconds - but was actually signed to play in goal for the FA Cup.

The team, which was the first to pay its players against the strict amateur laws of the day, reached the semi-finals of the competition though Wharton did not play for them again. He went on to play for Sheffield United and Rotherham Town in the late 1880s and 1890s.

Despite his achievements he sank into obscurity and was buried in the unmarked grave in a cemetery at Edlington, in South Yorkshire, in 1930. The exact plot was recently located by relatives. Sheila Leeson, his great-grand niece, who lives beside Rotherham United'sground, said: "It saddens me that he had a pauper's grave because knowing what a great sportsman he was, I feel there should be some recognition. It would be marvellous if we could manage to raise the money."

The campaign has been set up by Football Unites Racism Divides and Sheffield Youth Services, who hope to raise pounds 1,000 from supporters of the game to honour his memory.

Phil Vasili, a social science lecturer researching black footballers in Britain, said: "Like so many other black footballers and athletes, he has just been forgotten. He got picked because of his ability, but once his career was over he lost out on the recognition a white player of the same achievements would have received."

It emerged that Wharton came to England from a wealthy family of missionaries in West Africa, to study at a Methodist college. His athletic talents emerged while he was studying and he became the first man officially to run 100 yards in 10 seconds at the Amateur Athletics Association championships in 1886.

Although he was known nationally for his athletic talents, Wharton made his living playing football until 1915 when he played his last game. He then became a haulage worker for a Yorkshire colliery before his death from cancer.

Mr Vasili added: "His story was also one of downward social mobility. His family were wealthy and he was sent here to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a missionary. He intended to return to the Gold Coast but he never made it back. Instead he became a forgotten black man in Britain."