Curator's Choice: Legendary goalkeeper Robert 'Pom Pom' Whiting's World War I story

By Ben Miller | 11 July 2014

Curator’s Choice: Historian Tim Carder on Robert ‘Pom Pom’ Whiting, a cult goalkeeper and Brighton & Hove Albion hero who died in the First World War

A black and white photo of a footballer at the start of the 20th century
Bob Whiting, the goalkeeper for Brighton & Hove Albion, photographed in 1908© Courtesy Trevor Cox,
“Bob Whiting was our goalkeeper from 1908 to 1915. He played more games in goal than anyone for Albion except Brian Powney.

He won the Southern League title, the FA Charity Shield, and then, of course, in August 1914 the First World War broke out.

A photo of a man standing inside a museum display
Tim Carder takes a look at one of the longest-serving goalkeepers for his beloved Albion
The football season started a month later. There was a massive outcry: should professional footballers be running around on the football pitch or they should be running around on the fields of Flanders, chasing the Germans?

The counter-argument was that football provided an entertainment for the masses who were working in the munitions factories – keeping morale up, giving them a little bit of a release from their work.

There were moves to have football abolished, but in the end what happened was a special battalion of footballers was raised – the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. A lot of the Albion players joined that battalion.

Bob Whiting was one of them. They trained at White City, which had been the home of the 1908 Olympics, and at the weekend a lot of them were released to play their football until the end of the season, when professional football stopped.

A black and white photo of a footballer at the start of the 20th century
Keeping the ball safe in 1912© Ebenezer Pannell,
They went off to France in November 1915. Bob Whiting was given leave in May 1916. He came home, found that he had scabies – a disease transmitted by lice in the trenches – and was admitted to hospital in Brighton.

At the same sort of time he made his wife pregnant with their third baby. So when the time came for him to return to the front he was torn between loyalties to his pregnant wife and his country.

He went Absent Without Leave between June and October 1916. He was eventually arrested and given a court-martial in France, imprisoned for nine months with hard labour.

In 1917 the army needed all the men it could get. His sentence was suspended so he was posted back to the Front.

A black and white photo of the members of a football team in 1913 and 1914
The club's players for the 1914-1915 season, as seen by official photographer Ebenezer Pannell. Whiting is in the middle of the top row© Courtesy David Ticehurst,
He was fighting on the line near Arras, in France, in April 1917, tending some wounded soldiers in Oppy Wood when a shell landed and he was never seen again.

He never saw the son that was born on the day that he was sentenced. It got a little bit worse than that: because of what had happened to him, going absent, there were rumours that he’d been shot as a deserter.

His wife had to release letters from his Commanding Officer showing that he was, in fact, killed in the line of duty while tending to wounded soldiers. There’s a lot of interest in him to this day.”

  • Bob Whiting's is one of 14 stories told in War Stories: Voices from the First World War. Exhibition opens at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery on July 12 2014, continues until March 1 2015. Visit and find out more about Whiting at Photohistory-Sussex.

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More on the World War I Centenary:

Grief, grit and humour: British Library marks centenary of the First World War

Mid Devon at War: Tiverton Museum recalls the home front in the First World War

Statue of Unknown Soldier receives over 4,000 letters in First World War Centenary project
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A apt time to remember our heroes. I am particularly proud to say this is my great grandfather, my son is names after his son, Joseph.
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