He was a sporting trailblazer in Victorian Britain – the first professional black footballer and a champion athlete.
However,former Sheffield United and Rotherham goalkeeper Arthur Wharton – who was born to a wealthy African family – died a penniless man in a workhouse sanitorium in Balby, Doncaster, and was buried in an unmarked grave in nearby Edlington.
For decades after his death, Arthur was largely forgotten by the history books.
But now efforts to bring his extraordinary story as a ‘northern working-class hero’ to life are coming to fruition – with the FootbalL Association unveiling a new statue of him and Rotherham United planning one outside their New York Stadium.
Born in Ghana, West Africa, in 1865 to an upper-middle class family, Arthur was rejected for a civil service post and decided to pursue a sporting career – pushing him to a lower social standing.
He came to England in the 1880s and was signed by Darlington at the age of 19 before going on to play as a goalkeeper for Preston North End, Rotherham, Darlington and Sheffield United.
While at Preston, his career included an appearance in an FA Cup semi-final – a match his side lost to West Bromwich Albion.
He became the first black professional player in the world when he signed for Rotherham in 1889 – with the 125th anniversary of that historic moment being celebrated by the sport this year.
The FA’s statue was unveiled at its St George’s Park football centre in Staffordeshire earlier this month, while Rotherham United announced earlier this year its own sculpture will be placed outside the New York Stadium
Arthur was also a champion athlete – setting a world record time of 10 seconds when he won the Amateur Athletics Association 100-yard dash in 1886.
In his prime, Arthur was also a professional cricketer, cycling champion and rugby player in his prime.
However, despite his successful sporting career, which ended in 1902, he had to fight against racism.
After his sporting retirement, he worked as a colliery haulage hand in the South Yorkshire pits.
He died in 1930, at the age of 65.
Howard Holmes, trustee of Football Unites, Racism Divides, the Sheffield-based organisation which has helped bring Arthur back to public attention, said he was happy to see the growing awareness of the sportsman.
Sharrow-based FURD helped raise money for a headstone for his grave in the 1990s and has been involved in getting the FA to build the statue of him.
Howard says: “A lot of people don’t know the world’s first black professional footballer played right at the beginning of the professional game.
“For sportsmen in those days, once your career was over you had to make a living.
“A lot of footballers in South Yorkshire ended up down the mines and he was no exception.”
Howard says FURD has been involved in helping tell Arthur’s story for almost 20 years, with a campaign to recognise his achievements in the 1990s resulting in a headstone for his grave in 1997.
FURD has gone on to create a website about Arthur after being awarded a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2011 to deliver the Arthur Wharton Heritage Project.
As part of the project, it worked with schools and community projects in South Yorkshire, creating artwork, poetry and drama inspired by Arthur, his sporting achievements and his life.
Author Phil Vasili, who has written a biography of Arthur, said he was enticed to join Sheffield United for the 1894/95 season by the offer of taking over the Sportsman Cottage pub on Button Lane in the city centre.
However, Arthur struggled to get many games as the club also had hefty 24st England international goalkeeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulke – who is buried in Burngreave Cemetery.
Phil says: “Arthur’s greatest football moment was playing in the FA Cup semi-final. He was lionised in the communities in which he lived. He became a northern working-class hero, despite coming from a wealthy background.
“For 67 years, he lay buried in an unmarked grave in Edlington Cemetery. FURD raised the money to fund the writing of Arthur’s biography. Enough money was raised for a gravestone – he is now visible once more.”