THE fate of the world’s first black footballer has finally been discovered. The history books will have to be rewritten about Scotland captain Andrew Watson, who led the team to an astonishing 6-1 away win over England on his international debut.
Not only is his grave ten thousand miles from where it was expected to be, he lived for almost 20 years longer than previously thought.
Rising above any prejudice against his colour, Watson blazed a trail in football in the 1880s and was considered one of the outstanding players of his generation. He was recently inducted into Scottish Football’s Hall of Fame but what happened after he hung up his boots has always been a mystery. Watson is recorded as having died in Sydney, Australia, in 1902 but no death certificate has ever been found.
Sports historians will be astonished to learn that, although he travelled the world, Watson came home and, in 1911, years after he was supposed to have died, he signed his entry in the census. Describing himself as a retired sea-going chief engineer, he was living in Liverpool with his wife and two children. Yet, these were not the same wife and two children in his family the last time he had shown up in a census, 30 years earlier in Glasgow. Following a new investigation of his story, the missing pieces have come together.
Watson was born in Georgetown, British Guiana, to a 51-year-old plantation manager and former slave owner called Peter Miller Watson, originally from Orkney, and Anna (or Hannah) Rose. He was almost certainly illegitimate and even his date of birth is open to question. Generally quoted as 18 May 1857, this does not tally with his age on later documentation such as census returns and marriage certificates, which all make him a year older. As an infant, he left the colony with his father and older sister Annetta for a life in England, apparently abandoning the mother.
When Peter Watson died in 1869, he left his children a vast fortune of £35,000, the equivalent of many millions today. It gave his son financial security for life, but it must have been a lonely childhood for the boy, who was educated at a succession of boarding schools in England. Being of mixed race would have made it even harder, but he came through the experience and, in 1875, enrolled at Glasgow University to study Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Civil Engineering. However, he left after just one year to start an engineering apprenticeship and, in 1877, married 17-year-old Jessie Armour; they soon had two children, Rupert and Agnes.
Meanwhile, he came to national prominence as a superb footballer. With his first senior club, Parkgrove, he showed enough promise to be chosen to represent Glasgow, and was invited to join the country’s premier side, Queen’s Park. He won his first medal almost immediately in the Glasgow Charity Cup final of 1880 and quickly established himself as an outstanding full back, being selected as the captain of Scotland against England and winning the Scottish Cup in his first season with Queen’s Park. He played in two further emphatic victories over England and Wales, both games ending 5-1, and would certainly have won more caps but, in the summer of 1882 having won the Scottish Cup for a second time and at the height of his footballing powers, he moved to London for work at a time when only home-based Scots were selected.
Tragedy struck that autumn as his wife Jessie died. Their two children were sent back to Glasgow to live with their grandparents, leaving Watson to continue not just with his engineering career but also as a footballer. For the next three seasons he played in the FA Cup for London side Swifts, getting as far as the quarter-finals, and turning out on occasion for other clubs, including Brentwood and Pilgrims. More significantly in terms of his social status, he was sufficiently well regarded not just as a player but as a gentleman amateur to be invited in to join the exclusive Corinthians club. He toured with them twice, the highlight being an 8-1 crushing of FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers in 1884.
As a man of independent means, Watson could afford to travel regularly to Glasgow to turn out for Queen’s Park, mostly for charity cup ties but also for the opening of the second Hampden Park. He came back for a year to take part in the club’s successful campaign which brought him his third Scottish Cup winner’s medal in 1886 and, in February 1887, married second wife Eliza Kate Tyler.
That summer they moved from Glasgow to Liverpool, where he found not just work as a maritime engineer, but also enjoyed a football swansong. He was recruited by Bootle FC, an ambitious club who were Everton’s main rivals and reached the FA Cup fifth round.
They offered wages and signing-on fees to a number of prominent players, with Watson the star attraction, and an interesting question about his involvement with Bootle is whether he was paid, having previously been an amateur. If he was, Watson would be the first black man to play football professionally, a distinction usually accorded to Englishman Arthur Wharton, who turned professional in 1889.
From his Merseyside base, Watson spent the next 20 years working on ships and sat Board of Trade exams to qualify as an engineer.
He and Eliza had two children, Henry and Phyllis but, although he was often away, there is some evidence he was not a completely absent father, as in the autumn of 1901 they all travelled from Liverpool to the USA. Meanwhile, Watson’s son and daughter from his first marriage remained in Glasgow with their grandparents and never joined his new family. It seems a sad arrangement, but it was perhaps because he was at sea for long periods of time, and did not think he could have been much of a father to them.
After Watson retired, he and the family moved to the west London suburbs at Kew, where he died of pneumonia at 88 Forest Road on 8 March 1921, aged 64. Unnoticed by the media and the football establishment, he was buried in Richmond Cemetery (as his wife and daughter also would be in later years). Andrew Watson pre-dates two other prominent black football pioneers, Arthur Wharton and Walter Tull, who have memorials to mark their lives. Now that his last resting place is finally known, it opens the door for a similar commemoration of the achievements of this gentleman Scot.
• Andy Mitchell runs the sports history website, www.scottishsporthistory.com BBC Scotland made a documentary on the Andrew Watson story in 2003, which is available on YouTube; just search “Andrew Watson footballer”.