Arthur Wharton was a remarkable 19th century sportsman who lived in Victorian Britain. Not only does he hold the title of the first black professional footballer in the world, he was also a world record holding sprinter, a professional cricketer and an all round outstanding athlete.
After retiring from playing football for several of the prestigious teams of his day, Arthur, an immigrant from Africa’s Gold Coast, spent 20 years working as a Yorkshire coal miner until his death in 1930 at the age of 65. Arthur was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the village of Edlington, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
Why does Arthur’s story matter today?
Arthur’s story is both inspiring, in terms of his incredible sporting achievements, and tragic in its ‘riches to rags’ ending. It highlights how much our sporting world and Britain itself has changed, but also, the roots of what we still see the effects of in today’s society – racism and prejudice in sport and class and status divides.
Furthermore, Arthur shows us that there was a black presence at the very beginning of professional football in the homeland where football began – the oldest football club in the world being Sheffield FC. This longevity of black players’ involvement in football is crucial in helping young people understand the wider contribution people of colour have made to the building of modern Britain.
Educational themes in Arthur’s story
Through the resources on this site and our Arthur Wharton Exhibition Package, we have endeavoured to offer both historical and contemporary perspectives on some key themes in Arthur’s story including:
- Scientific racism – its relevance then and now.
- Immigration: Myths of an all-white British heritage – Arthur is part of a continuum of positive immigration that stretches back at least to Roman times.
- Prejudice: Arthur met prejudice in relation to his skin colour and in relation to becoming a working class sportsman. In today’s Britain, and often reflected in sport as it was during Arthur’s time, we still battle many prejudices including: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism and classism.
- The concept of the pioneer- Why it’s important and what does it mean to be a pioneer and how Arthur unknowingly became one.