In the latest issue of the print fanzine we were delighted to include a fascinating article by Jack the Miner on the late great Charlie Williams. So great was it that we felt it deserved a much wider audience than our issue 59 circulation, and so we’re delighted to reproduce it here on the website for the enjoyment of all.
“Yes, I have got coloured blood – it’s red”
Five young men head for Blackpool for a short summer break. Four of them knock at the door of a boarding house with a ‘Vacancies’ sign in the window. Their friend waits at the gate with their luggage. The door opens.
“Hello, do you have room for us all for two nights?”
“Yes” says the owner and beckons them in before looking up and noticing the lone friend by the gate.
“Is that gentleman part of your party?” asks the owner.
“Yes, he is” they reply.
The owner scratches his head and says “I’m sorry. I was mistaken. We don’t have any rooms. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
The friends turn on their heels and troop down the path. It’s been a long day. It’s a scene that’s been played out again and again. The friends are crestfallen but are determined to continue with their search. As they approach their solitary associate he tells them,
“This’ll keep ‘appenin every time they see me. You lads sort yourselves out. I’ll look after meself. I’ll be allrate.”
It’s the 1950’s. The tired, disconsolate bunch of mates are a bunch of footballers from Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday. The young chap standing over the suitcases is Charlie Williams. There was no question of leaving Charlie to his own devices and they gave up their search and the party returned home.
On a later trip to Blackpool they were faced with a long day of similar responses. Faced with a boarding house landlady who was dithering over her decision… “it’s not me it’s the reaction of the other guests”… Charlie stepped into the kitchen, slipped on an apron and put on a comic turn whilst doing the washing up and had the old girl in stitches. She let them stay and they were regular visitors thereafter.
This prejudice Charlie found as an adult seems to have been at odds with his early life in West Yorkshire. His father was the only black man for miles and was welcomed into the community. He worked hard and had the respect due to a man who had come from Barbados to fight in World War II. As a child, Charlie was well treated in school by the staff and by adults in general, something he later put down to being a ‘lovable rarity’. Moving to Upton to live with family, after his father’s death, Charlie was still largely free of the racism evident in other parts of the country. “My colour didn’t matter down the pit. We had no time for daft things like that… Colliers are a breed of their own. They’ve a wonderful sense of humour – they have to have.”
The 50’s saw a marked shift in attitude towards immigration and the black community already present in the UK. Charlie was increasingly aware of this, especially when he started dating Audrey, a white girl who later became his wife, but reckoned he had an ability to sniff trouble coming and avoid it. But there was no means of escape on the football pitch.
He reckoned in the early days with Rovers, the away crowd would let out a huge gasp every time he walked onto the playing field, a sign of the huge shock it was to see a player of colour on the field. “I’ll kill you, you black b*****d.” said one Number 9. Opposition supporters were predictably and equally vicious but Charlie reckoned it spurred him on, noting that “if I’d played for their side I’d have been a grand lad.” One of his team mates told me that these days there’d be stewards, police and the FA taking action on the abuse thrown Charlie’s way… “He used to say it didn’t bother him but it did. It had to. Some of the lads might have put the odd naughty challenge in to any player who’d said too much by way of revenge but by and large he got his own back by his performance. I think people forget he was on the books at Rovers for twelve years and played alongside Harry Gregg Len Graham, Bert Tindall and Alick Jeffrey. He got up the opposition’s noses by doing his job well. It annoys me that people think of him as a famous comedian who happened to play for Doncaster Rovers. He was a good player in what might be the best side Rovers ever had”.
In 1962 he was offered a well paid, player-coach job in Sydney but when the Australian immigration office realised he was black they blocked his application. A national press campaign resulted in a change of heart from the Australians. Charlie said no… “to hell with that….you refused me and that’s it”.
None of these footballing experiences seems to have made him bitter. He recalled that “we’d call each other names during the match but afterwards you would shake hands and be friends. Some fans would even come up and say sorry”. And he remained phlegmatic about prejudice in general, noting that black Africans and West Indians would look down their noses at him because he was mixed race… “The whole colour prejudice thing is so mixed up, so daft, that you’ve got to laugh at it.” That absence of anger, refusal to politicise the colour issue and some of his colour related comedy material drew criticism from some quarters but time seems to have mellowed the way he is viewed.
Lenny Henry – who Charlie said he’d like to play him if a film was ever made about his life story – said “Charlie Williams was perfect for the time he appeared. It was a brilliant thing, this black Yorkshireman who played football with Doncaster Rovers, who’d had the wartime experience of white Yorkshire people, who talked like them, who thought like them, but who just happened to be black… and Charlie exploited this to the full.” And referring to the sometimes un-PC material he used, Henry said: “I went through a period of thinking it was all bad, but I just think it was the times and you did what you had to do to get by. I think you did what you had to do to survive in a predominantly white world.’”
The last time I saw Charlie he was a white haired old gentleman struggling to take his seat at Belle Vue but finding enough strength to rise to his feet to acknowledge the ovation from those around him and on the terrace below where everyone had turned to applaud him. Having taken the abuse in his early life, risen above it and handled it with dignity and humour it was nice to see him received so warmly, and quite poignant that he was able look out onto the pitch and see that the many black players on both sides were treated with the respect denied him in his own playing days.