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John Williams (Burton Bank 45-49)

John Edward Williams was born in Leeds on the 31st January 1932 and went to Belmont Preparatory School in 1941, then evacuated to Cockermouth in Cumberland. John had a beautiful soprano voice and there was talk of a music scholarship, but he also had another remarkable talent, that of a rugby player.

Even at that age he showed himself to be an elusive scrum-half with an exceptionally long pass. In 1944 he teamed up at fly half with a new boy to the school, Ronnie Aye Maung and formed not only a formidable partnership, but a friendship which would last for the rest of his life. John enjoyed his time at Belmont and in addition to rugby and cricket, being a keen cyclist spent many hours cycling around the whole of the Lake District during the summer months.

John came to Mill Hill in September 1945 as the school returned from its evacuation to St Bees and entered Burton Bank. He immediately demonstrated his rugby talent at the senior school in playing for the Under 15s in his first year and for both the Colts and the Under 15s in his second year. As John rose through the years at the GC his expertise at scrum-half was honed under the tutelage of Alan Bush and he became one of the best players, if not the best in the exceptional fifteens of 1948 and 1949. In the school holidays he played in the Yorkshire Schools XV and for his beloved Headingley. John also played cricket for the 1st XI and represented the school at Fives.

John left Mill Hill in December 1949 and shortly afterwards started his National Service in the Royal Corps of Signals based at Catterick. Fortunately for John the Corps had an exceptional rugby team and during the next couple of seasons John became the outstanding player in a side which contained two current rugby league internationals, five future Union internationals, three trialists and numerous county players. He not only played for the Corps but for the Northern Command and the Army. When not playing for these he was turning out regularly for Headingley.

After his military service John entered the paper trade in London and much to the anguish of his friends at Headingley but to the joy of his Mill Hill friends he started to play for the Old Millhillians. His exceptional talent immediately caught the eyes of the Middlesex selectors and he was soon playing regularly for the county, a position he held for himself for twelve seasons until business took him to Manchester. In addition to playing regularly for London Counties and the Barbarians John gained the first of his nine England Caps in April 1954 against France. In 1955 he was selected for the British Lions tour to South Africa. John captained the Old Millhillians in 1960/61 but in 1963 with the total goodwill of the club joined the Harlequins.

However in 1964 Johnny, as he had then been called for several years, moved to Manchester, joined Sale and was immediately selected for Cheshire. So well was he playing that after a gap of nine years he was recalled to the England XV in 1965 at the age of 34. Unfortunately, the match was against Wales at the Arms Park, played on a quagmire and in a continual deluge. John was playing behind a heavily defeated England pack and as he sometimes dryly remarked afterwards “It was not my day”.

John’s outstanding rugby career has tended to mask some of his other talents. When his rugby career finished he took up skiing. He was a man of enormous modesty who would never talk easily about his athletic prowess. He was totally honest and sincere and would never utter a bad word about anyone. He was extraordinarily attractive to the opposite sex, a factor which was the envy of many of his rugby and skiing friends of whom he had hundreds, but none of whom resented him for it. He was literally everybody’s friend.

John always felt that his greatest achievement was in marrying Mary whom he met after moving to Manchester. They set up home in Prestbury in 1969 and both there and at their holiday home in Abersoch John and Mary were wonderful hosts before another business move brought them both south where they settled in West Byfleet, Surrey. They were both enormously proud of their two children, James and Kate as indeed were they of Mary’s three children by a previous marriage. The family unit became of prime importance to John but he managed this without ever losing touch with his wide circle of friends or his interest in other people. As with his rugby John became an expert skier, as did his whole family, particularly Kate. The Après Ski was always a delight and they made good use of their ski lodge in Chamonix where there was always a welcome to both friends and strangers. In John’s company you were never a stranger for long.

Sadly, as far back as 1998 Mary noticed that John was becoming very forgetful, an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease which slowly took hold of John until it became impossible for Mary to look after him at home and she reluctantly had to agree for him to go into a care home. He died peacefully on the 5th October 2009

And so departed one of the most talented men ever to grace a rugby pitch. His speed and length of service were exceptional, his break from the base of the scrum explosive and his dummy and side-step quite devastating. There are many who believe that he was the greatest British player since the war. However, Johnny will not be remembered just for his rugby, he will equally be remembered for his generous spirit, his integrity and honesty, his warmth and friendship and for his pride in his family. The world had lost a great man and his friend Ronnie Aye Maung’s eulogy at his memorial service was a fitting tribute to a great Old Millhillian.

Johnny is survived by Mary, his son James, daughter Kate Mann and four grandchildren, as well as two stepsons and their families

Jim Roberts (Collinson 45-50)

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