Robert Whitehead: Spreading the Game

Aug 28, 2020

Life Stories

Robert Whitehead


Born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1823, Robert Whitehead was the son of a cotton mill worker. Robert trained as an engineer in Manchester. His work took him to Toulon in France, then to Milan, and to Trieste, the naval base of Austria-Hungary. In 1856, Robert was hired to manage a factory at the nearby port of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia). The factory gained contracts from the Austrian Navy. Whitehead’s biggest success was in developing a self-propelled torpedo for warships.

Football Missionary

In the 1870s, English workers were employed at Robert Whitehead’s factory. They played football games, sometimes involving local people. Whitehead encouraged them. This led to the first-ever organised game of football in Croatia. A memorial plaque marks the place.


Robert Whitehead’s factory continued to grow. In 1875 it became Whitehead & Co. In 1890, he added a new factory in England, at Portland in Dorset. When Robert Whitehead retired, he sold his business to a large British armaments manufacturer. He died in 1905.

Thinking points

Educators could look at the life story of Robert Whitehead and work with young people to consider these questions:

  1. Why did football spread so far and so quickly in the late 19th century?
  2. How important for the spread of the game were English businessmen and workers who travelled around Europe?
  3. How important were the social and economic changes brought by the Industrial Revolution?

Find out more

Find out more about his life in this reference biography at the University of Melbourne, or explore the coming of football to Croatia and the wider region, for example in Tin Mudražija’s dissertation (University of Maribor, 2016, with English summary).


It reads: At the initiative of English engineer Robert Whitehead and his Associates, the 1873 Football Match (Photo: Roberta F., 7 June 2010)

It reads: At the initiative of English engineer Robert Whitehead and his Associates, the 1873 Football Match (Photo: Roberta F., 7 June 2010).

Life Story

Spreading football at the Adriatic coast.


Article Tags:   19th century  |   Industrial Revolution  |   migration

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