As a child growing up on the White City Estate in the 1960’s, life had a familiar rhythm: football matches on the back lawns against neighbouring blocks on Sundays, which would last all day long and were played in deadly earnest, with kids taking turns to go up and have their dinner before re-joining the battle with the enemy; occasional trips to ‘the pictures’ – Shepherds Bush Odeon and the adjoining ‘Bughole’ (we never called it ‘The Essoldo’) – with one designated ‘Herbert ‘paying to go in and, thenceforth, letting all the rest of the gang in via the emergency side door; and, in the summer, we might venture out on a Red Rover, or go ‘scrumping’ in Horsenden Hill (Perivale seemed like the countryside to us).
Pocket money was minimal – the tally men had to be settled up with every Friday evening – so other means of getting a few bob had to be found. In the first half of the 60’s, you could collect bundles of newspapers and sell to ‘Greasy George’s’ predecessor at the chip shop on the South Africa Road; but the guaranteed way of procuring some extra cash was to obtain the deposits on the ‘pop’ bottles, by returning them to the off-license at the front of the ‘General Smuts’ pub, where one would encounter the gnomish Sean, a diminutive and irascible bald man, late of the Emerald Isle, and a doppelganger for Little Jackie Wright (from ‘The Benny Hill Show’), who was possessed of a misanthropic hatred of kids, perhaps born out of years of bitter experience.
How the scowling Sean begrudged handing over those deposits to us! He would always try to diddle us out of the change from our habitual purchases of Penny Arrow Bars, Black Jacks and Fruit Salads; now and then we would have the sweet satisfaction of turning the tables and besting him.
Then we ran the risk of being ‘headed off at the pass’ at any moment by poor, tormented Johnny Bang-Bang, who might suddenly emerge, imaginary guns blazing, to shoot us up. (I think us kids were always the ‘injuns’, as far as he was concerned). We would have to duck Johnny’s phantom bullets, which would be signalled by his always-innovative sound effects.
Another money-making enterprise for the local kids was the ‘Mind your car, sir?’ racket which operated on the streets of the Estate on Thursdays and Saturdays (and later, Tuesdays, too), when greyhound racing took place at the White City Stadium.
Gangs of kids were organised by some of the older lads (including the late, lamented former QPR Box Office steward, Bill Goggin), and the takings were pooled at the end of the evening. Sometimes you would strike lucky especially if a punter was feeling flush with the successes of the evening.
Some of the bolder lads were bunking into Rangers as we got towards the mid-60’s usually via the hole that was freshly burrowed every week underneath the corrugated iron fencing on the South Africa Road. Being of a rather timid nature, I could only take a vicarious pleasure in the derring-do exploits of the other boys.
My understanding is that we had a pretty ropy team at that time (circa 1964), before all the youth players had usurped the old sweats in the first team and matured. Least ways, the main attraction seemed to be the rather steep grass bank (at times just sheer mud) backing onto the South Africa Road terrace, where boys would cavort and join battle with each other.
In those days the club used to open the exit gates about 20 minutes from the end, and those of us not emboldened enough to have bunked in earlier were able to make our way in.
Reserve matches would later become the perfect backdrop for juvenile shenanigans, and every kid seemed to be aware of the eccentric Goochie, who appeared to almost revel in the considerable amount of teasing that he was subjected to; funny now to look back and realise just what a young man he was.
In my first year or two at Christopher Wren School, Goochie would occasionally pop in to see his old teachers, whom I recollect would always humour him in a good-natured way.
As that great team of the mid to late 60’s emerged, soon there would be no more fools on the hill, as everybody was enraptured by their wonderful football and stirring deeds.
A constant amongst the characters on the White City Estate throughout the 60’s was Charlie Ferris. Charlie was a sporting man; a ducker and diver. Charlie looked like a faded wartime spiv whose halcyon days were long behind him; those beetling black eyebrows visible beneath a battered trilby, he was perpetually clad in a shabby football manager’s sheepskin coat.
Charlie, indeed, managed a football team on the Estate in his time. As to what they were called, and how they fared, I have no knowledge, but how I would have relished seeing the inimitable Charlie running his team. Charlie Ferris was, essentially, a benign Walter Mitty character, who had grandiose notions of himself as a big shot entrepreneur.
We local kids found Charlie simply irresistible, although I suspect that, deep down, even at our tender age we knew that there was nothing behind all his big talk and hare-brained schemes.
He would periodically materialise on the Estate, and all the kids soon knew when Charlie Boy was around; the word would rapidly spread and a sizeable gathering would instantaneously emerge, knowing that another daft episode was in store, as we listened intently to his every utterance.
These always issued forth, in a conspiratorial fashion, from the side of Charlie’s mouth, accompanied by the habitual wary look over his shoulder, as if anticipating being apprehended by the local rozzers at any moment.
There were never any other adults involved in Charlie’s initiatives; just him and the kids. Nowadays, somebody would call in the Social Services, but it just wasn’t like that. As somebody (Dougie Gray) who was a teenager on the White City Estate in the 60′, recently remarked of him: “He was a harmless old sod, wasn’t he?”
Impromptu football matches and dog racing were Charlie Ferris’s particular specialities, with either participants or spectators soon rustled up. Charlie was a showman who liked nothing better than playing to his audience.
He would sometimes bring along his mangy mongrels, Mitzi and Mutzi, and proceed to race them down the slope of the (now-disused) subway on the corner of the Westway adjoining Bloemfontein Road, enquiring of the youthful gathering, “Who’s yer tanner on?” I seem to remember that he used to run a book on it, too.
Charlie Ferris kept body and soul together, and secured the means of feeding his faithful mutts, by working in a number of casual jobs in the local area. His main source of income would have been his beat as a sweeper in Shepherds Bush Market, but he was also famously a purveyor of monkey nuts at the QPR ground and the White City Stadium.
At the QPR ground he was a practitioner of that ritual of throwing the bags of nuts up to the customer, who would, in turn, throw the coins down to him – although sometimes they would be intercepted along the way, bouncing off someone’s bonce and vice versa, with the occasional errant trajectory of Charlie’s finest comestibles. It all added to the fun of the occasion.
On one memorable Sunday in the Spring of 1969 – a time when Rangers were about to be relegated from their first ever season in the First Division – Charlie Ferris surpassed himself by organising a football tournament of gargantuan proportions. It was the usual spur of the moment stuff, Charlie appearing on the Estate, spreading the word, in that habitually furtive way of his, about the mega-event that he had planned to take place on the old Red Ash, just along from Rangers, that afternoon.
I was one of those kids, waylaid by Charlie in the vicinity of the Estate’s Catholic Church, whom he informed me that: “there will be a trophy and medals for the winners.”
Later that afternoon, it seemed as every boy on the Estate had excitedly made his way to the Red Ash, to participate in one of the profusion of hastily-assembled teams. The tournament went on for hours until an eventual winner prevailed.
However, it soon became apparent that the promised trophy and medals were conspicuous by their absence. It dawned on us that we had all been duped!
Charlie, thus rumbled, beat a hasty retreat out of the Red Ash in the direction of White City Station, with a posse of irate youngsters following on, hurling abuse at him, reminiscent of the scene in ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, whereby the two old conmen, the Duke and the King, were run out of town by the angry townsfolk.
At least Charlie didn’t suffer their ignominious fate of being tarred and feathered! It was the funniest thing that I had seen since Goochie volunteered to referee a youth team game at Rangers in the preceding summer when the referee didn’t show up, and managed to incense the opposition so much that they were waiting for him outside afterwards.
Thankfully, our resident eccentric was somehow smuggled out of the ground unharmed. There was a reasonable crowd to witness all of this, as the match was staged on a Sunday when the tickets for the first-ever league game against Chelsea went on sale.
The ‘Incident of the Red Ash’ was the last time that I ever saw Charlie Ferris. As a new decade dawned, Charlie was never again to be seen on his old stomping ground. I never did know where he lived, but I’m almost certain that it wasn’t on the White City Estate. No one ever knew from whence he came or whither he went.
Charlie Ferris was reminiscent of that old ne’er-do-well comic character from the 60’s, Charlie Peace in ‘The Buster’, in the manner in which he would suddenly materialise and then, later on, just melt away. As with Peace, there was an almost ghost-like aspect about Charlie Ferris. We all knew him but, in a sense, he was unknowable; a mystery man, the very stuff of myths and legends.
I am further intrigued when I reflect on my mum’s memories of living in Paddington in the 1950’s, and her recollection of dear old Charlie getting up to precisely the same antics for which he became renowned on the White City Estate of the 1960’s.
Reminiscing with friends about our shared childhood on the White City, Charlie Ferris’s name would always be fondly evoked, and much amusement would be had recounting the old rascal’s exploits. Yet, he remained tantalisingly elusive.
In recent years I noticed a poster on the ‘We Are the Rangers Boys’ forum, had ‘Football the Charlie Ferris Way’ appended to all his posts, and I fruitlessly searched the site to see if he had elucidated or elaborated upon his guiding philosophy elsewhere.
Recently, a light-hearted thread was posted up on ‘You’re Probably From W12’, a local history and memories Facebook page, stating that ‘Charlie Ferris would have sorted out the NHS’ One particular contributor, prompted by this, enquired, ‘Where’s me medal, Charlie?’
He must have been there at the ‘Incident of the Red Ash’, or even another occasion when Charlie had pulled that stroke. I’m sure Charlie must have done that number on impressionable kids many times.
However, the poster never elaborated. Trying to piece together a full picture of Charlie Ferris from collective memories is difficult because they always seem to be random, one-off fragments.
In December 2012, I thought that I would see if I could shed some light on the mysterious Mr Ferris by raising a query about him on the ‘Notes and Queries’ feature which runs every Wednesday on Rangers’ supporter, Robert Elms, fantastic BBC London show.
I was sure that the tales of Charlie Boy would be right up Robert’s street, and that his listeners would find them entertaining, but it was also a quest to elicit more memories and to discover more about him. Did anyone remember him, have any tales to relate, and, moreover, where did he live and what became of him?
Having raised the query in the first half hour of the show I eagerly awaited the half hour slot at 2pm, when the listeners come on air with their responses and answers to the questions. My query prompted one caller to share his memories. He confirmed Charlie’s working life as a market sweeper and as a vendor of monkey nuts at sporting events.
However, he placed Charlie at so many different sporting venues hawking his monkey nuts – Millwall, was one of them, I recall – that I think that there would have needed to have been ten Charlie Ferris’s to have been able to get around to them all!
It seemed as if he was describing a generic breed, rather than specifically Charlie. Mr Ferris was certainly ubiquitous, but I don’t think that even he could be in two places at once and to have had the time to get around to all the places that the caller ascribed to him.
One little quirk in the caller’s memory was his recollection of Charlie wearing a full-length, dark overcoat, which, he stated he wore all the year around, whatever the weather.
That didn’t tally with my memory, although – and this is true even in families – we all remember things differently. I don’t know if I felt any more enlightened about Charlie Ferris after the show, but it had been a highly enjoyable, and most diverting, afternoon.
I wonder how kids and adults would respond to a Charlie Ferris-type character nowadays? It was a different social climate back then and the likes of Charlie were a product of their times. Such characters were regarded as innocuous
eccentrics by adults in those days, and perhaps we children of the 60’s were more gullible and impressionable than our latter day counterparts.
However, unlike children today, ensconced away indoors with their various gadgets, we spent much of our time outdoors, and encountering these characters greatly added to the enjoyment of our adventures.
Charlie Ferris was an unforgettable, colourful character who brought much merriment to life on the White City Estate in the 1960’s. Perhaps I will never discover where he came from and what became of him – which, of course, serves to enhance the legend.