He was a trailblazer in athletics, football, cricket and every other sport he turned his feet to... and all he did was at a scorching place

A CENTURY and a half ago, Jamestown was the colonial capital, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, of what the British regarded as their Gold Coast in west Africa. Today, it is a fading suburb of Accra, the main city of Ghana, and its grand Victorian architecture is lost behind the tumbledown tin shanties that line its streets.

Exactly 150 years ago on Wednesday in Jamestown, Arthur Wharton was born, although it was nearly 5,000 miles away that he found fame as the Usain Bolt of his day. Running for Darlington FC, he became the fastest person in the country, perhaps the speediest sprinter on the planet.

He was also the greatest goalkeeper of his day, starting his career at Feethams and becoming the world’s first professional black footballer.

Sadly, fame did not bring fortune, and he died a forgotten, penniless alcoholic in 1930. Today, though, a campaign to keep his name alive has ensured that his place in the football hall of fame is known around the world.

In Jamestown on October 28, 1865, Arthur was born to Annie and Henry Wharton, one of ten children. Henry came from Grenada in the West Indies and was the son of a wealthy Scottish sea captain and an African mother. He was sent to the Gold Coast as a Methodist missionary, and met Annie, a hotelkeeper from the large and powerful Fante people.

Their son, Arthur, went to Mfantsipim school, a Wesleyan Methodist establishment, until, aged 17, he was sent to a Methodist school in Cannock, Staffordshire, with a view to him becoming a missionary or, at least, a teacher. After two years, the school closed, and Arthur was transferred to Cleveland College in Milbank Road, Darlington, where the principal, Henry Brooks, promised to “impart a thoroughly good commercial and classical education, to cultivate gentlemanly habits, and to combine these advantages with the comforts of a Christian home”.

One day in May 1885, Arthur turned up at Feethams ground for the annual sports day. In the 100 yards, he was “competing against athletes who had gained conspicuous success in many a fast and thrilling race”, and stunned them all – and not just by winning.

He was wearing brown shoes which matched his brown skin – “Wharton is a brunette of pronounced complexion”, said the Darlington and Stockton Times – so the spectators thought he was running in bare feet.

And: “When he reached the tape – a comparatively easy winner – he ducked underneath instead of breaking it,” said the D&S Times.

He’d never seen a tape stretched across a track before and so, understandably, took evasive action. He could have been disqualified but Tom Mountford in second place sportingly declined to claim the crown.

A legend was begun – and so was a nickname. A very un-politically correct nickname. They called him “Darkey”, both from the stands and in the papers.

In those days “pedestrianism” – or running – was extremely popular, and the colour of Arthur’s skin allied to his sensational speed across the ground made him a big draw.

Pedestrianism went hand-in-hand with gambling, and was often bent. The following month in Middlesbrough, Arthur won a race by a clear three yards. When he was handed the second place salad bowl prize, he angrily smashed it on the floor and colourfully told the organisers to make a new trophy out of the pieces.

Arthur was an all-round sportsman. As well as athletics, he was good at all aspects of cricket and would have been a natural at rugby, if he'd grasped the rules. He once cycled from Blackburn to Preston in a record two hours, which would have been quicker if he hadn’t regularly overturned his tricycle.

And he was quite brilliant in goal at football.

In those days, goalkeepers could be brutally barged into the net by “rushers”, but Arthur used his athletic prowess to good effect. He would crouch at the foot of the posts, away from the melee of flying boots, until the very last second when he would spring to save the day. Or he would sprint from his line to clear the danger, or he would fist the ball so far – he was nicknamed “the goalkeeper with the prodigious punch” – that defence turned into attack.

The Northern Echo:
CLEVELAND CHAMPIONS: The Darlington FC side which beat Darlington St Augustine’s in front of a crowd of 6,000 paying spectators (women and children were admitted free) to win the Cleveland Cup 4-1. Pictured in front of the pavilion at Feethams are: Back row (left to right): G Miller, W Brooks, F Davison, F Waites, M Hops. Front row: HN Hops (standing), R Stabler, A Wharton, JH Smeddle (capt), JF Hutchinson (front), RB Buckton, CS Craven (standing)

Or, he would swing from the crossbar and catch the ball between his knees. He was a showman. He played 20 games for Darlington FC in the 1885-86 season, but because of his crowd-attracting attributes, he was soon in demand by teams across the North-East – in April 1886, he excelled playing for Newcastle against Preston North End, the best and most professional team in the country.

At the end of the football season, he returned to athletics, and on July 3, 1886, entered the 100 yard sprint at the Amateur Athletics Association championships at Stamford Bridge in Fulham.

“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,” said the D&S Times the following week. “Scores of men have set themselves to do this, and though several have come within a fifth second, no one in England has attained his purpose. It has been left for a Darlington youth to perform the feat for the first time in England.”

In both his heat and the final, Arthur finished his sprint in exactly ten seconds. In those days of rudimentary time-keeping devices and nobbled races, this was hailed “a genuine record”. It was as much of a landmark as Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.

A national athletics commentator who signed himself "Referee" said that Arthur had "placed himself on the pedestal so long standing in want of a show figure". Referee said it was “a little hard” that Arthur was not “a home-bred pedestrian”, but continued: “Wharton is a gentleman from very sunny climes, and by no means a representative Englishman in appearance. If not a champion all over to look at, he is an extremely good one to go, and his colonial exhibition is very fine.”

So Arthur brought home to his lodgings in Cleveland College the Prince Hassan Cup, worth £50.

The Northern Echo: CLEVELAND COLLEGE: During his three years in Darlington, Arthur stayed in the purpose-built college in Milbank Road. Principal Henry Brooks is in the big chair on the left. After the college closed, the building became the St Joseph's Roman Catholic Orpha
CLEVELAND COLLEGE: During his three years in Darlington, Arthur stayed in the purpose-built college in Milbank Road. Principal Henry Brooks is in the big chair on the left. After the college closed, the building became the St Joseph's Roman Catholic Orphanage until it was demolished in 1972 

After a summer of sprinting, in September 1886, Arthur signed a contract to represent Preston North End in the FA Cup. Unbeaten all the previous season, North End were the Invincibles, and the FA Cup was the only national football competition.

Arthur was now a superstar, at the top of the game. The D&S Times’ report of Darlington Cricket Club’s Christmas dinner, held in a hotel in Skinnergate, said: “Toasts of a personal character were drunk, and a number of songs were sung in capital style. One original song, Wharton of Darlington, by the composer, Emanuel Harbron, created great enthusiasm. It is not often that a tribute of such thorough heartiness, an outburst of such proud enthusiasm, is witnessed or enjoyed by any athlete as that which nearly raised the rafters of the Cleaver Hotel.”

Preston’s cup run took them to the semi-final, and inbetween fixtures, Arthur turned out for any team he fancied. He helped the Quakers beat Darlington St Augustine’s (see last week’s Memories) in the semi-final of the Durham Cup, but he missed the final against Sunderland. He could have been exhausted after games up and down the country, but the rumour was that he had scarlet fever – perhaps the first manifestation of the drink problem that would contribute to his downfall.

His time at Cleveland College ended in autumn 1887, and his family, who had paid for his studies, expected him to go out into the world and spread the Methodist word. Instead, he went to Sheffield, the capital of pedestrianism, and became a professional pedestrian – a career choice that seems to have so alienated his parents that he was never able to return to Africa.

The Northern Echo: GREAT GOALKEEPER: Arthur in his Rotherham kit in the early 1890s
GREAT GOALKEEPER: Arthur in his Rotherham kit in the early 1890s

Through running Arthur made a living, supplementing his income with football exhibition matches across the country – there were even calls for him to be selected as England’s amateur keeper. When his speed lost its scorch, in 1889, he signed as professional goalkeeper for Rotherham Town – probably because his new wife, Emma, came from there (he didn’t have any children with her although, curiously, he had two daughters with her sister, Martha).

He spent five seasons at Rotherham before, aged 29, he got one last shot at the big time with First Division Sheffield United, but he was unable to dislodge their first choice goalkeeper, William “Fatty” Foulke, from the first team, and so returned to Rotherham (at 28 stone, incidentally, Fatty Foulkes is the fattest person ever to play First Division football).

So Britain’s first black professional footballer played his last football league match for Stockport County in 1902. He stayed in south Yorkshire, working as a colliery haulage hand and running pubs and earning extra in the local football and cricket leagues.

There’s an air of sadness to his life. His career never reached the dazzling heights that his early years at Feethams suggested were within his reach, and in later life, like many footballers, he struggled to find a post-sporting career. His unusual ménage a trio left him detached from his wife and daughters. He was unable to return to Africa; he was unable to beat illness, be it syphilis, cancer or alcoholism, and he was buried in 1930 in a pauper’s grave in Edlington, near Doncaster.

In 1997, the campaign group Football Unites – Racism Divides raised money to mark his resting place, and since then, Darlington businessman Shaun Campbell has formed the Arthur Wharton Foundation, energetically ensuring that his name lives on. Shaun has involved everyone from Stevie Wonder to Sepp Blatter to Rio Ferdinand and Viv Anderson in his campaign, and a year ago, a 16ft bronze statue of Arthur was unveiled at St George’s Park, the England football teams’ headquarters in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire.

The belated recognition is appropriate. Arthur, as the first black professional footballer, was a trailblazer, a century ahead of his time. But the colour of his skin undoubtedly held him back – Preston North End were the Manchester City of their day, hoovering up the greatest talent with their chequebook, yet “Darkie” never got near to pulling on an England shirt.

Arthur is, though, one of Britain’s all-time sporting greats. Dedicated and naturally talented, he was also a gifted showman, which made him a Beckhamesque box office draw – he would have been a shoo-in for Sports Personality of the Year had it existed in the late 19th Century. Just like Usain Bolt lights up an Olympics with his speed and charisma, so Arthur sparkled in his day, and he flashed to his world record in a Darlington shirt.