Epitaph for a hero we forgot

Arthur Wharton, sporting superstar, died in an unmarked grave in 1930. Only now is he gaining enough respect.
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The Independent Online
At a cost of $2m, and for the delectation of a live television audience in 53 countries, the 150m race in the Toronto SkyDome tonight will determine whether Waco, Texas, or Oakville, Ontario, can claim to be the home of the world's fastest man. When America proclaimed in favour of Waco, after Michael Johnson's scorching 200m run in Atlanta last summer, the slighted citizens of Oakville paid for an advertisement in USA Today to stake the counter claim of their man, Donovan Bailey, the 100m Olympic champion and world record holder. Hence the 15 seconds of score-settling in Toronto.

Had it not been for a letter published in the Rotherham Advertiser 18 months ago, the people of Edlington, a former mining village near Doncaster, would be unaware that a man who was once the world's fastest happens to be buried in their midst. Arthur Wharton was the first sprinter to make "even time" in authentic championship conditions: to run 100 yards in 10 seconds. He was also the first black Amateur Athletic Association champion and Britain's first black professional footballer. Yet his fame faded long before his death, at the age of 65 in 1930. Until three weeks ago his remains lay in an unmarked grave in Edlington cemetery.

The tale of the remarkable figure known to his contemporaries as "Darkie" Wharton might have remained buried too if Phil Vasili had not been so assiduous in researching a history of black footballers in Britain. An Open University lecturer and football historian from Cambridge, Vasili appealed for information about Wharton through the letters column of Rotherham's weekly newspaper. Eighteen months later, his original project has been ditched in favour of The Arthur Wharton Story, the most conspicuously absent volume from the library of British sport and, surely, another Chariots of Fire celluloid success waiting to happen.

"The more research I did," Vasili said, "the more this one, larger than life, character stood out. I never imagined I would write anything other than the history of black footballers I intended to. It just snowballed. It's a fascinating tale that deserves to be told."

It was unlocked from the grave by the letter in the Rotherham Advertiser. Sheila Leeson read it and realised that the Arthur Wharton mentioned was the same Arthur Wharton depicted in various sporting poses in a box of family photographs under her bed. She knew that Wharton was her great- uncle. But, as she put it, "I never knew he was a great sportsman. No one in the family ever mentioned him."

One of the sepia snaps pictured Wharton proudly clutching the Prince Hassan Cup, the trophy presented to the winner of the 100 metres - or, in pre-metrication days, the 100 yards - at the AAA Championships. Wharton first received it in 1886 after his particularly significant 10 seconds of fame.

As the Darlington and Stockton Times of 10 July that year reflected: "In the world of athleticism no laurel has been more coveted and striven for so keenly as the even-time record for the 100 yards. Scores of men have set themselves to do this, and though several have come within a fifth-of-a-second no one in England has attained his purpose. Several Americans claim to have made even time in a 100, but we look with some suspicion on American records. It has been left to a Darlington youth to perform the feat for the first time in England, at the London Athletic Grounds, Stamford Bridge, last Saturday."

Wharton was that youth, or 20-year-old in fact. He stopped the watches at 10 seconds "dead" in both his heat and in the final. Nine months later, when the AAA became the first governing body to publish a list of records, his name appeared at the top of what, in effect, was the first world record roll. In the 37 years that followed only one man beat Wharton's time in the AAA Championships. George Patching of South Africa, who clocked 9.8 sec in 1912, held that unique distinction until the advent of British sprinting's blazing chariot. Eric Liddell ran 9.7 sec in 1923 and Harold Abrahams recorded 9.9 sec in 1924, the year he won the Olympic 100m title in Paris.

Wharton blazed his glorious trail not, as Abrahams and Liddell did, under the Union Jack. He is listed as representing Darlington Football Club in the AAA Championships for 1886. He was, however, not a native Darlingtonian. He was born in 1865 in Africa, at Accra in what was the Gold Coast but is now Ghana.

He came to Darlington, via schools in London and Cannock, because his father - a Wesleyan missionary from Grenada - wanted him to become a Methodist teacher. He started his studies at Cleveland College, Darlington, as an 18-year-old in 1884. Instead of discovering spiritual enlightenment in the Quaker town, however, Wharton discovered that he could run.

In his first race, a handicap event at Darlington cricket club's annual sports meeting, he ducked under the tape instead of breaking it and would have been disqualified had the second-placed runner not refused first prize. Wharton's striking appearance attracted as much attention as his winning debut. As the Darlington and Stockton Times felt obliged to note: "The brown shoes he wore blended so closely with the colour of his skin that spectators had the impression he was running in bare feet."

In the closeted world of Victorian sport, Darlington's emerging champion came to be known, even in print, as "Darkie" Wharton. It was for much more than the colour of his skin, however, that Wharton stood out from his peers. His speed earned him a second AAA 100 yards title in 1887 and a professional sprinting career which yielded a famous victory in the prestigious Sheffield Handicap and another even time clocking - 12.6 sec for 126 yards - in the New Year Sprint at Powderhall, Edinburgh. He gained equal renown as a footballer, though as one of exceptional agility rather than pace.

Perhaps only a club with Darlington's capacity for underachievement on a grand scale could have chosen to utilise the world's fastest man as a goalkeeper. But Wharton became a pioneer in the custodian's eccentric art; he was known to swing on the crossbar and catch the ball between his legs. He appeared in an FA Cup semi-final for Preston North End in 1887 and played for Sheffield United in the First Division. He was also a professional cricketer in South Yorkshire and won the the Blackburn to Preston cycle race in record time.

Even Wilson of The Wizard would have been hard pushed to match such deeds. There was no comic book ending to the Arthur Wharton story, however. Quite the opposite.

As his sporting powers waned, so did his fame and earning power. He always hoped to return to his wealthy family in the Gold Coast. Instead, he lived in poverty in South Yorkshire, pushing coal trucks as a haulage hand at Yorkshire Main Colliery in Edlington. He ended his days at Springwell Sanitorium, near Doncaster, suffering from syphilis and a facial tumour. He was buried, in 1930, in a grave that would have remained unmarked had Vasili's research not prompted the launch of an appeal fund by the organisers of Football Unites, Racism Divides, a Sheffield-based community scheme. Since 8 May, when a headstone was unveiled at Edlington cemetery, Arthur Wharton has been unknown no more.

"In writing the book I've tried to work out why he was not remembered," Vasili said, "by comparing him with Ranjitsinhji, who played cricket for Sussex and England and was never forgotten. Arthur was up in the working- class North and became a professional sportsman. There was a lot of snobbery in the South about the North and about professionalism. Obviously there was Arthur's colour too.

"I think the combination of colour and class worked against him. But it's fantastic that he has a gravestone at last. There is now something which physically recognises Arthur and his achievements. Before, there was only a mound of earth."

There was the box of family photos too. But now Sheila Leeson knows her obscure great-uncle was one of the sporting greats. At 65, she has become as passionate as Vasili about piecing together the fragments of the Arthur Wharton Story, spending countless hours trawling through registry books and digging in local newspaper archives.

"We found where he was buried in Edlington," she said, "in a third-rate, unmarked grave. It was a thrill to see the headstone unveiled. The only disappointment was that there was not much of a response from the athletics world, because Arthur really was such a great athlete. He ran those times on cinder tracks in a pair of pumps, and from a standing start. He really was the forerunner of the Linford Christies."

Lest it be forgotten in a 15-second flash in Toronto tonight, Arthur Wharton was a forerunner of the million dollar men from Waco and Oakville too. A gravestone may not be enough respect for the fastest man who was long forgotten but it is a belated start at least.

Milestones in the sporting life of Arthur Wharton

1865: Born at Accra, in the Gold Coast, now Ghana. Father, Henry Wharton, is a Wesleyan missionary from Grenada. His mother, Florence Grant, is the daughter of a Scottish trader.

1884-88: Studies at Cleveland College, Darlington, a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school.

1886: Plays in goal as an amateur footballer for Darlington.

1886: Wins 100 yards title at AAA Championships, Stamford Bridge - the first man to run 10.0sec in a championship event.

1887: Keeps goal for Preston North End in FA Cup semi-final against West Bromwich Albion.

1887: Retains AAA 100 yards title, clocking 10.1sec at Stourbridge.

1887: Sets a record time in the Blackburn to Preston bicycle race.

1888: Moves to Sheffield to train as a professional sprinter, coached by Spank Smith and backed by Tom Botts.

1889: Becomes a professional footballer with Rotherham Town.

1890: Marries Rotherham girl Emma Lister.

1894: Plays in First Division for Sheffield United but is unable to dislodge Billy "Fatty" Foulke as first-choice goalkeeper.

1902: Finishes football career with Stockport County.

1911-1913: Starts work as a haulage hand at Yorkshire Main Colliery, Edlington.

1930: Dies of cancer at Springwell Sanitorium, near Doncaster.