Tribute to Sheila Leeson

03 Nov 2021 / News

Sheila and Charlie Leeson with FURD's Arthur Wharton exhibition - Sheila and Charlie Leeson with FURD's Arthur Wharton exhibition at the AW Heritage Project resources launch, U-Mix Centre, 28th November 2013.
Charlie and Sheila Leeson with FURD's Arthur Wharton exhibition (Image: Rory Gault/FURD)
Following  the sad news we reported last week of the death of Sheila Leeson, the following tribute to Sheila has been written by Phil Vasili. Phil was supported by FURD to research and write the biography of Arthur Wharton - "The First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930".

As much as we know death is inevitable the loss of a loved one, whether friend or family, hits us with shock, sadness and grief.

Learning of the passing of Arthur Wharton's granddaughter Sheila Leeson evoked these feelings. I send my condolences and heartfelt sympathies to her family, many of whom I've had the privilege to come to know over the last three decades.

I first met Sheila in the mid-nineties while researching the world's first Black professional footballer Arthur Wharton. (Fittingly, she lived opposite Rotherham United's Millmoor ground. It was signing as a professional for the town's footballing predecessor, Rotherham Town, in the 1880s that Arthur staked his unique place in the history of professional football.)

Sheila Leeson with Jessica Ennis' parents at U-Mix Centre opening ceremony, 2013 - Sheila Leeson with Jessica Ennis' Dad Vinnie and Mum at U-Mix Centre opening ceremony, 2013.
Sheila Leeson with Jessica Ennis-Hill's parents Vinnie and Alison at U-Mix Centre opening ceremony, 2013 (Image: FURD)
She and I believed she was related by marriage to the Ghana-born Victorian sporting superstar. However, due to Sheila's subsequent excavation of her family history and dogged pursuit of material in the public domain relating to it, she pieced together a new montage representing her lineage. This configuration revealed Arthur as her grandfather. It was a genealogical development she embraced with passion, visiting schools, talking at events organised by Football Unites - Racism Divides and doing numerous media interviews celebrating the achievements of her grandfather.

Sheila was at the heart of Howard Holmes and FURD's initiative to ensure Arthur's anonymous resting place in Edlington cemetery was dignified with a gravestone. This was laid in 1997 in a moving and long-overdue ceremony figure-headed by Sheila's extended family. The reception afterwards was held, appropriately, in the social centre of the Yorkshire Main Colliery where Arthur worked in the last years of his momentous life. Incredibly, Sheila met residents who remembered her grandfather as children.

Personally, she always went out of her way to help my research and make me feel I was more friend than intruder. I'm forever grateful because without her support, encouragement and welcome the biography of Arthur would be a substantially lesser piece of work.

She absorbed the national and international spotlight upon her family, taking in her stride the intense public interest. It did not change her. She remained the same Sheila: humble, warm and welcoming. Rest in peace my dear friend.