Thursday, 03 September 2015

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Promising Carlisle football star's career ended by the war

Being born in the 20th century had to be done with extreme care to avoid hostilities.” William Smith knows very well that circumstances beyond our control can make us who we are.

William Smith photo
William Smith at Brunton Park

His father is a prime example. Jack Smith was born in Carlisle in 1894 and brought up in Denton Holme.

By the age of 20, red-haired, feisty, opinionated Jack was a printer at Stead McAlpin’s Cummersdale factory and a promising forward with Carlisle United.

The Cumberland News of March 21, 1914, reported Jack playing “capital football”.

He was regarded as an exceptional talent, tipped to play for a bigger club, perhaps even for England.

But Jack Smith was a slave to circumstance. That August, the Great War altered his path. During the next four years Gunner Smith of the Cumberland Artillery served in Egypt and Turkey, where he fought with bravery and guile.

He survived the infamous Gallipoli campaign and turned down the chance to train as an officer, preferring to see the war through with his mates.

By autumn 1918, Jack and his brothers in arms were pushing the Germans out of France. No one knew it, but the conflict had only weeks to run.

One October morning German fire smashed into Jack’s gun, hurling it skyward. It landed on Jack’s right leg, shattering bones, crushing the limb to a pulp. Jack Smith’s war was over. So was his football career.

Jack spent nine years convalescing before reluctantly agreeing to have the leg amputated.

“I belonged to a lucky generation,” says William Smith, sipping a pint of bitter in the Howard Arms, Carlisle, peering back 91 years to his father’s misfortune. “I’m glad to say I never got involved in a war. The upswing in people’s fortunes after World War Two corresponded with me growing up. I had the best of times.”

This is William’s first visit to Cumbria for eight years. He has spent most of his adult life in New Zealand and has just published a book which tells his father’s story and his own.

Footballers Don’t Cry describes life for the Smith family from the arrival in Carlisle of William’s Scottish grandfather in 1892 until Jack Smith’s death in 1975.

Exhaustively researched and beautifully written, it is a social history as much as a family one. Working class poverty and community. The birth of trade unions. The rebirth of Britain after the Second World War.

Born in 1934, William had a happy childhood in Waldegrave Road, Longsowerby. This was a boy mesmerised by ice-cream, comics and Disney’s Snow White. Between 1939 and 1945 his war was a game, played out with model aeroplanes under the kitchen table.


William was the only child of Jack Smith and Jenny Allen; the theatre sister in Newcastle when Jack’s leg was amputated.

Jack began his second world war as a clerk at Carlisle’s new 14MU RAF base. Midway through the conflict he joined Hudson Scott & Sons – later Metal Box – on James Street and stayed until retirement.

His disability and long absence from the workforce had left Jack at the mercy of superiors he often regarded as anything but.

In Footballers Don’t Cry, his son reflects: “He had to be satisfied, as so many of his generation were, with what he had got. Unfortunately, he never really accepted that, and the habit of bringing his grumbles and dissatisfaction back home seemed to get worse as the years passed.”

The changing world may have struggled to accommodate Jack Smith but it gave his son a generous helping hand. William was among the first students to take the 11-plus exam.

He passed, and won a place at Carlisle Grammar School. Despite sailing through his O-levels he saw no point in continuing his education and instead joined his father in the office at Metal Box.

In 1955 William eagerly joined the army for his two years’ National Service. The only enemy by this time was his own immaturity.

William describes his life up to that point as like “watching a show I was never really part of”.

It was time for his “age of innocence and Walter Mittyish fantasies to end”.

He signed up to grow up and that mission was accomplished, with an occasional intervention from his father.

One weekend William was confined to barracks at Carlisle Castle, unable to get word to his parents that he would not be coming home. While he was shovelling coal in the courtyard, a figure on crutches hobbled towards his sergeant, demanding to know his son’s whereabouts. In his book William recalls his father’s words:

“‘We’re off for a holiday next weekend,’ he said. ‘but you go to your aunt Agnes’s instead’.”

“Okay Dad, if I get out.”

“You will, or Agnes’ll come in.”

‘That would sort the Border Regiment out, I thought; worse than facing the Japanese Imperial Guard, if Agnes turned up.’

After his National Service, William moved to London with Metal Box. He married Marie, a New Zealander, in 1961 and they emigrated there the following year, having three children.

William ran a business, did some TV and radio acting, took a history degree and became a teacher.

For more than 25 years he was also a volunteer with Amnesty International, setting up a reception centre for refugees from Africa and Sri Lanka. In 2002 this earned him the New Zealand Order of Merit.

After Jenny’s death Jack Smith also left his beloved Carlisle, moving to an ex-servicemen’s home in Blackpool.

He died there aged 81.

At the other side of the world, before Jack’s death and after it, his son has heard dad’s voice, in broad Carlisle dialect, guiding, chastising, inspiring.

Men of William’s generation were bound to look at their fathers and draw comparisons, to wonder how they might have fared in the furnace of battle.

“When you’ve had a character like that in your background, you feel it’s something to live up to,” says William, a 75-year-old with piercing blue eyes and a New Zealand lilt.

“He influenced me and my attitudes. And, through me, my children as well. Through his courage mostly. He probably had a future football career with a top team. Then he must have felt utter despair. Inwardly, he knew what he’d lost. But I never heard him moan about it.

“I just think he was a tough character. A tremendous amount of people were traumatised by the war but I never saw that in dad. Maybe he was insensitive a little bit.” William laughs. “Or maybe he was just down to earth and solidly based.

“I don’t know whether I could have survived something like that. I didn’t have the challenges that he had.”

But his book reveals similar traits, if not on the battlefield then in standing up to authority and speaking his mind. “I suppose,” he says, “but I’ve had an easier run.”

Footballers Don’t Cry took William six years to research and write. “I got to thinking, I’ve got grandchildren now. They need to know where they came from. It’s important to record it because so much has changed.

“I guess it’s an anti-celebrity book. You’ve got all these magazines devoted to people who are famous for being famous. A lot of ordinary people’s stories are more worthwhile.

“Young people should look at their own family and be impressed by that. They should ask their old people to tell them this stuff. I hope this book might have something to say about those times.

“ They deserve to be remembered.”

To those who have grown up in the age of celebrity, the Carlisle of William’s book might seem like not just a different century but a different planet.

Jack Smith lives on in its pages: the passionate Liberal who canvassing Tory candidates would duck under hedges to avoid. The man who insisted that to be a Smith was to be a member of the most special and exclusive of clubs, seemingly oblivious to having the most common name in England.

“What he meant,” says William, “was you had to have that sense of ‘never put yourself down’. Respect others but don’t grovel to anybody. It’s good advice.”

Footballers Don’t Cry, William Smith, Gadfly Books, available from Bookends, Castle Street, Carlisle



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