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:   19h century  |   Industrial Revolution  |   migration

Do you wanna know more?



Browse our collection of stories about football history and inclusion. With the history of football being made up of millions of stories, of individuals and communities, of movements and processes, we offer stories that can inspire our cultural conversations today.


Get to know untold stories where individuals are making history with football. When faced with insurmountable challenges, individuals past and present can use football as a cultural force to foster positive change in society. We honour these individuals and tell their ‘untold’ stories in short videos.

Educational Resources

Explore our innovative educational resources that use football’s history, heritage and legacy to engage young people. The resources include ready-made lesson plans and historical source collections for school history education as well as toolkit with activities for non-formal settings.

Trending Stories

The Climb to Equality

The Climb to Equality

Football Makes History spoke with Laura Youngson, co-founder of Equal Playing Field and co-owner of the world record for highest altitude official football match ever played. This is the story of why we wanted to retell this story, and how we did it....

LATEST POST  You may also be interested in

Football: A People’s History of Europe?

Football: A People’s History of Europe?

In cooperation with the festival “Forum on European Culture”, we spoke with author David Goldblatt about the value of football for Europe, taking historical perspectives.

Playing the game for peace

Playing the game for peace

On this day, 21 September, we look at how playing a game of football can contribute to peace by looking at the work of the NGO Childrens Football Alliance.

September in Football

September in Football

As the UEFA 2020 European Championships got pushed ahead one year, we provide you with a 365-day #onthisday series of posts to help all fans out there to go back in time, think, and reflect.

Football speaking out in perspective

Football speaking out in perspective

Football represents a large cultural space in society. It is not isolated from political developments. How have football players used this space to achieve their social goals?

Share This