There’s nothing unusual about the Christian name of William, in fact there’s been plenty of Williams around for centuries; quite a few of them famous in their own field.
Shakespeare, the Conqueror, Shatner, Wallace, Wordsworth, Tell, Makepeace-Thackeray, even a Prince or two, and let’s not forget the mercurial South African-born British entrepreneur, Sir William Heygate Edmund Colbourne Butlin MBE.
Neither is there anything unusual about a tiny hamlet or village that goes under the banner of Blackwell, there’s even a Blackwell City in Kay County Oklahoma North America.
There’s a Blackwell in Worcestershire, and in fact there are two Blackwells in the county of Derbyshire.
One of them sits in the beautiful undulating and pastoral setting of the Derbyshire Dales, but the Blackwell in question here is one of four villages that make up the civil parish of Blackwell within the district of Bolsover, the other three being Newton, Westhouses and Hilcote.
A former industrial village where coal mining and the Blackwell Colliery Company once ruled supreme boasts several inhabitants who rose to either fame or notoriety.
Amongst them is Percy Topliss, aka the “Monacled Mutineer” who did indeed become a mutineer and conman during and after the Great War. Topliss, while on the run for the murder of a taxi driver was eventually found and fatally shot by police officers in the Scottish Borders.
Neither is the village of Blackwell devoid of famous sporting sons and daughters, indeed this small Derbyshire village can lay claim to a rich tapestry of sporting accolades.
John Chapman, and Arnold Warren, the Derbyshire County cricketers made the highest-ever ninth-wicket partnership in 1910 of 283 runs against Warwickshire which ended in a draw.
Warren hitting 123 runs and Chapman hitting 160 runs. This was a world record for first-class cricket and has remained unsurpassed to this day.
This was played out on the lush velvety playing surface that was known then and still is as Primrose Hill often used by Derbyshire County Cricket Club back in the day.
This sporting arena was also a magnet for local soccer talent and amongst them are three footballing Williams who played for Blackwell Colliery FC, their individual footballing excellence allowing them to become professionals in their own right.
Namely, William “Willy” Layton, James William Simmons, and of course the iconic goalkeeping titan that was William “Fatty” Foulke.
Willie Layton was born in Lower Gornal Staffordshire in 1875 no doubt venturing into this area at the time of “coal fever” looking for a residency and a regular wage packet, something not uncommon during these years of high coal productivity and which he eventually secured at Blackwell Colliery (A.Winnings.)
The Primrose Hill footballing facilities attracted the young Layton during his leisure time where he established himself as a notable junior footballer in this humble coal mining community.
Securing his place in the first team as full-back in the Blackwell Colliery colours was the beginning of a football career that would take him out of the coal mines for many a year; his skills on the ball eventually drawing the scouts from nearby Chesterfield Town FC who he signed forms for in 1896.
It was all thanks to Chesterfield Town FC who invited The Wednesday FC (who later became Sheffield Wednesday FC) to take a look at the promising 21-year-old footballer, thus forming a partnership between Layton and the Owls that was never broken.
While still employed underground at Blackwell Colliery Willy Layton played over 100 probational fixtures for the Wednesday reserve team before he earned the right to become a full-time professional.
Lady Luck was certainly on Layton’s side the night before he was set to play in a trial to prove himself worthy of a place in the elite Owls’ first team.
He was due for work on the Sunday night shift before the next day’s soccer examination at Attercliffe Sheffield but decided not to work that night so he would be fresh for the contest.
However, that Sunday night an underground explosion occurred killing seven of the Blackwell colliery labour force; his decision not to work that night shift indeed proved a truly life-saving experience.
In 1898 Layton’s dream came to fruition when he made his football league first-team debut against Everton and one more senior appearance followed that term.
The following season he figured in 50% of Wednesday’s fixtures but the relegation trapdoor opened for them when suffering demotion from the First Division for the very first time.
This proved a catalyst for the young man from Staffordshire who was being used as a stand-by for either Jack Earp (captain) or Ambrose Langley never allowing his own high standards drop at either of the full-back positions.
Layton never looked back when he seized his opportunity to replace his defensive rival Earp as Wednesday powered on to become Champions of the Second Division with a quick return to top-flight football guaranteed.
The Sheffield Wednesday match day programme notes of later years described Willy as a sturdy, dashing, plucky individual who boasted a powerful kick but was a scrupulously fair tackler and model professional.
As part of the famous three L’s of Layton, Langley and Lyall, Willy remained rock solid as an ever-present member at the heart of Wednesday’s defence for over ten seasons helping the Owls to two League Championships of 1902/03, & 1903/04, and a Football Association Cup semi-final appearance at Goodison Park in 1904 losing to eventual winners Manchester City.
Willy Layton was in the Sheffield Wednesday team that won the 1905 Sheriff of London Charity Shield when they overcame The Corinthians 2-1 at Crystal Palace in April of that year.
The Football Association Cup eventually became possession of The Wednesday in 1907 when they beat arch-rivals Everton 2-1 also held at the Crystal Palace with Layton playing in all seven of their cup ties en-route to the final.
His final appearance for the Owls was against Tottenham Hotspur in September 1909 after four goals over 362 appearances that covered thirteen seasons.
Although never receiving international recognition he did represent the Football League against the Irish League at the Solitude, Belfast in November 1900 winning the match by four goals to two.
Upon retirement from the game and after rejecting an offer from the Midlands League club Worksop Town, non-league Whitwell St Lawrence FC did secure his signature and was the last team Willie ever strapped his boots on for, and it was Whitwell where he became Licensed Victualler of The Butchers Arms.
His decision to stay loyal to the Wednesday made Willy an immensely popular figure in parochial circles throughout his career, never forgotten for the unique scissor kick he would often employ to clear his line.
Willy Layton died in Lithgow, NSW, Australia in 1944 aged 69 years where ironically he had returned to working in the coal mine.
James William Simmons came into the world on the 27th June 1889 to parents Isiaha and Elizabeth, the only one of our footballing trilogy of William’s that was born in Blackwell.
He was registered in Mansfield with the surname of Simmonds probably due to some literacy failing and after a brief few years of schooling a lifetime working underground in the pit beckoned which seemed the natural progression for him like most of the village lads.
Yet Jim, or Jimmy as he was known was blessed with natural footballing talents signing on the dotted line for Sheffield United on 18th November 1908 at 19 years of age; recommended to the club by an uncle for a £50.00 donation.
He swiftly became instrumental in the first team selection playing in every outfield position for the Blades in his United career and was part of their Football Association Cup winning team of 1915 when they beat Chelsea by three goals to none.
This cup final was played on the 24th April at Old Trafford Manchester becoming known as the Khaki Cup Final due to the number of uniformed servicemen in attendance; it was the last FA Cup Final to be played before competitive soccer was suspended due to the Great War.
It was reported at the time that the final was moved from its pre-war location of Crystal Palace in south London to Old Trafford “up-north” to avoid transport disruption in and around the capital city.
The official cup final programme was a special version produced and published by Manchester United presented on silk for the players and officials.
Simmons was the scorer of the opening goal minutes before halftime and was singled out for the quality of his performance by the Manchester Guardian stating that, “he was the most attractive player on the pitch and his quick attacks, which he mixed between runs down the wing and through the centre of the field left the Chelsea defence standing.”
Charging in from the right-hand side of the pitch to meet a pass from the left, he half-volleyed the ball high into the Londoners’ net over the bemused Chelsea defence who were left rooted to the spot.
James William Simmons who went on to figure in 203 games for the Blades of Sheffield netting 43 goals, was then transferred to West Ham United on 8th May 1920 for a reported fee of £1.000 rising to £1.400.
He turned out 27 times for the Hammers in two seasons scoring just the one goal before injury forced him into retirement.
During the First World War, he served time as an aircraft mechanic in the newly formed Royal Air Force, and with official football suspended during the hostilities, Simmons made a guest appearance for Blackpool FC in 1916 whilst on his honeymoon, no doubt seeking permission first from his new bride.
Shortly after quitting the game, and for a spell before his retirement, he was the Licensee at the Red Lion Inn on Matlock Green, just a goal-kick away from the cricket ground where at one time he held the record number of runs,165 not out against local rivals Bakewell Cricket Club in 1925.
Leaving the licensed trade Mablethorpe Lincolnshire became his retirement home for some time but eventually the family ties pulled strongly and he returned to his old village of Blackwell with no doubt many a tale to tell family and friends.
James William Simmons was awarded the MBE for services to politics and died in 1972 at 82 years of age.
The most famous of the three Blackwell footballing Williams and an uncle to James William Simmons, although not of the lithe athletic nimble stature of his nephew, is without doubt William “Fatty” Foulke, the goalkeeping legend so titled Colossus by author Graham Phythian in his wonderful biographical account, “The true story of William Foulke.”
Born in Dawley Shropshire on April 12th 1874, he was taken (at just one-month-old) along with his four-year-old brother Thomas to live with their Grandparents James and Jane to the developing coal mining parish of Blackwell.
Foulke and his elder brother Thomas attended the Colliery School were they remained until the age of 13 completing a few short years of conventional tuition and it was fully expected both brothers would also find employment in the local coal mine.
The two Foulke boys were often found to be playing their football for Blackwell Colliery on what was then their home turf of The Scanderlands and both showed much prowess in their whites as local cricketers too.
It was here at Scanderlands that word travelled about the Blackwell goalkeeper who it was said was destined for great things.
A tall and lanky slim teenager at the time, William reached nearer seven foot than six foot being described as strong, agile enough to drop down for the low shots, ever willing to leave his line to perform as an extra defender.
At the age of 19, William Foulke was the ever-present and consistent first team sentinel throughout the 1892/93 season were Blackwell, now playing in the Derbyshire League, triumphed over all before them with brother Thomas at the other end of the pitch shaping up as a strong, aggressive formidable centre forward.
It was a rough-house of a goalkeeping apprenticeship for William with fist fights and sending off’s a regular treat for the hardy mining supporters as the Colliery team went from strength to strength at the parochial level.
Several First Division clubs had been advised to come and see this developing goalie but it was a Sheffield United director by the name of Joseph Tomlinson, a nifty centre forward in his time who was quickest off the block.
During the year of 1893, Blackwell Colliery and a Derby County X1 were involved in a friendly match with Foulke’s in goal protecting his area against a forceful Ram’s spearhead.
John Goodall joined in the Derby attack and rising to meet a cross with his head Foulke’s was off his line at lightning speed to clear the danger.
However, the punch was missed timed and with his fist whipping through fresh air he made contact with Goodall’s cheekbone dislodging a couple of teeth from the ex-Preston and England player’s mouth.
This story of how the young Foulke’s defended his goal in the face of dogged opposition spread far and wide and it was during a Blackwell v Matlock fixture the following year when Mr Swaine, the official of that game was equally impressed with William’s defensive skills in goal.
Referee Swaine, a personal friend of Joseph Tomlinson went straight to Bramall Lane to boast of the youngster’s talent with Tomlinson insisting to the committee “We must have him.”
Sheffield United had to act fast to sign Foulke’s with interest coming from rivals Derby County and Nottingham Forest; an offer coming within the week which was too good to turn down.
Blackwell Colliery would receive £20.00 from the transfer plus a £1.00 a day retainer until the end of the season and William himself would receive £5.00, a not to shabby amount in its day.
This was William Foulke’s “Willy Wonka” golden ticket out of the coal mine.
The summer of 1900 witnessed William Henry Foulke play cricket four times for Derbyshire, that same year was also the Relief of Mafeking, Boxer Rebellion. The first flight of the Zeppelin, it was also the year that witnessed the launch of the Daily Express, the Olympic Games were held in Paris and Sheffield United finished Runners-up to Aston Villa; it was also the halfway point of Foulke’s soccer career.
Many tales abound of this legendary goalkeeping phenomenon who stood at six feet seven inches tall and in his latter sporting years weighed over twenty stone as a footballer (due it was said of a penchant for high living), some of these tales are true and some that may have gathered “expansion” down the seasons destined for the rumour mill.
One such tale is that he was the target of the soccer anthem, “Who ate all the pies,” however it is now believed this chant was developed and sung well after Foulke’s death in 1916.
Another tale was that at the end of the first match in the 1902 FA Cup Final, Foulke protested to the officials that Southampton’s equalising goal should never have been allowed. He left his dressing room completely naked and so incensed pursued Tom Kirkham, the match referee, who took refuge in a broom cupboard. Foulke had to be stopped by a group of FA officials from wrenching the cupboard from it hinges to reach the frightened official.
It was always argued that the frailty of his temperament denied him more than the one England cap he truly deserved.
Fortunately Sheffield United won the replay 2-1 with Foulke having to perform at his very best to keep the Blades in the contest.
He left Bramall Lane Sheffield in 1905 after 299 appearances and was transferred to Chelsea for £50.00 were he was made captain and became a great crowd-puller with his unusual off-ball antics.
After 34 appearances for the London club he moved to Bradford City were he turned out 22 times, all told Foulke made 355 career appearances before disappearing from professional football.
During his retirement, Foulke kept a shop in Matilda Street Sheffield and was also a keeper of a “beer house.”
Sadly Foulke, a kind and gentle man, with a hint of eccentricity died at the very young age of 42 in May 1916 and is buried in Burngreave cemetery within the city that gave him the release from a lifetime of hard graft down the coal mine.