2627NE Edit Wharton Loddon 1 CUTOUT

Arthur Wharton football card sold for £26,800 at Loddon Auctions.

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Published by J Briggs of Somerby Street, Leeds, the card issued in the 1880s - sold in packets - took the form of a shield and includes the words 100 Yards Amateur Champion, Play Up Darlington and Wharton.

The Wharton depicted was Arthur Wharton who, as the card suggests, was a multi-talented sportsman: a world record-breaking athlete (the first runner in the world to run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat at a championship) and excellent cricketer as well as footballer who would have probably played for England had it not been for the colour of his skin, it is believed.

His clubs included Darlington, Rotherham, Stockport County and Preston North End. He was probably not the first black player – amateurs preceded him it is thought – but the first professional and first to play in the Football League.

Estimated at £5000-10,000, the card was sold to a US private bidder by Loddon Auctions (19% buyer’s premium) of Reading after a 13-minute phone and online bidding battle on January 17 as part of the McGregor Bonner Collection. The determined phone buyer proved successful against an online underbidder via thesaleroom.com.

An understandably delighted auctioneer Gary Arkell said just after the hammer fell: "It goes without saying that if any of you have got any more of those at home, we'd be quite happy to receive a few in the post or drop them off next week."

The price is believed to be a record for a single card sale in the UK - beating the £25,900 for a card also sold by Loddon, in November 2022 (see ATG No 2571). That example, a cigarette card, portrayed footballer Steve Bloomer (1874-1938) and was bought by an American collector.

Regarding the provenance of the Wharton card, Arkell added: "This collection has been handed down through a family and was started by the great grandfather of the current vendor and then carried on by his grandfather.

"The great grandfather, Arthur Bonner, was President of Wakefield Trinity Rugby League Club and chairman of the Rugby League Council between 1936 and 1938. The grandfather was William Gordon McGregor Bonner, a rugby union international who toured as a full-back with the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand and Australia in 1930. On his return he swapped codes to rugby league playing his remaining career with Wakefield Trinity."

The collection consists of over 300 cards and the last part will be offered in Loddon's next auction in February.   

Back in the spotlight

Wharton’s story was forgotten for many years but his talent and significance have now been recognised.

In 2014, the FA unveiled a statue at the National Football Centre at Burton. That same year an appearance by his great-granddaughter Dorothy Rooney on BBC Antiques Roadshow at Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham with a box of photographs and documents relating to his career - and his inscribed bible from 1882 - helped to bring his tale into the spotlight.

Last year it was revealed that The Arthur Wharton Foundation has been given a £7700 grant by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to create a film about Wharton, A Light That Never Fades.

The missionary’s son came to England from Gold Coast, Africa, in the 1880s to follow a career related to his father's, but turned to sport instead.

Despite his football success (and well-paid athletic endeavours) he ended up working at a South Yorkshire coal mine and died in poverty.

League debut 

In 2017 one of his former clubs, Rotherham, put on display a teamsheet from a Division Two game in 1893 between Rotherham Town and Walsall FC, which confirmed Wharton as having played in goal and marked his first ever outing in a league competition. It had been bought by the club at Sheffield Auction Gallery.