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Charlie Williams

Charlie Williams, MBE, was one of Britain's first post-war black professional footballers who later found even greater fame as a popular comedian and entertainer.

Early Life


The prejudice Charlie found as an adult seems to have been at odds with his early life in West Yorkshire. His mother was a white English woman. 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, and was subsequently debilitated by, World War I. He had served in the Royal Engineers and became permanently injured with trench foot during the war.

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. On working in a coal mine from the age of fourteen he said, "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".

Football


Spotted playing for Upton Colliery, Charlie signed for Doncaster Rovers at the age of 19 and remained there for over a decade. Although not particularly tall for a central defender he was athletic, good in the air, quick and a good reader of the game.

The 50's saw a marked shift in attitude towards immigration and the black community already present in the UK and 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 said 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 a long time and played alongside Harry Gregg, Len Graham, and Alick Jeffrey in the second tier of English football. 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". Another team mate lauded his ability to turn the other cheek, "He never took the bait and kept his dignity on and off the pitch."

None of these experiences seem 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".

After a spell at non-league Skegness Town, 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."

Showbusiness

After his football career ended he began working as a semi-professional singer but found his humorous patter between songs was going down even better in the working men's clubs. He found the blueprint that was to make him a huge star, telling jokes at his own expense in his broad Yorkshire accent.

He became the first black British stand-up comedian to experience mainstream success. In the seventies he was a fixture on television. He became a household name on The Comedians, had his own ITV show, It's Charlie Williams, the Charlie Williams Show on the BBC and hosted ATV's game show The Golden Shot.

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 material he used that drew criticism from some quarters at the time, 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."

Charlie was given a lifetime achievement award at the Black Comedy Awards in 2000.

The article above was contributed by Nick O'Donnell.

~ Charlie Williams was born in Royston, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire on 23rd December 1927.

~ He signed for Doncaster Rovers as a part-time professional in 1948, and for the next five years continued to work down the pit whilst playing for Doncaster's reserve team.

~ He became a full-time footballer in 1953, although this meant a drop in wages, and by 1959 had made over 150 first-team appearances for Rovers.

~ In 1999, he was awarded an MBE for his charity work.

~ Williams was voted Doncaster Rovers' all-time cult-hero by viewers of BBC's Football Focus.

~ He died in Barnsley on 2nd September 2006 at the age of 78.

References

'Ee-I've Had Some Laughs' by Charlie Williams 'Colouring Over the White Line' by Phil Vasili
Charlie Williams (Click for full size pop-up)
Charlie Williams. Photo courtesy of Doncaster Rovers photo archives.
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