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  William Henry Meredith (1874–1958), by Francis Fielding, c.1904 William Henry Meredith (1874–1958), by Francis Fielding, c.1904
Meredith, William Henry [Billy] (1874–1958), footballer, was born on 30 July 1874 at Blackpark, Chirk, Denbighshire, the ninth of ten children of Henry Meredith (d. 1904), mining engine winder, and his wife, Jane, née Hughes (d. 1904). Both parents were Welsh, originally of farming stock, having travelled in 1873 from Trevonin to Chirk in search of work. Meredith attended the local Chirk School until the age of twelve, when he obtained work at the nearby Black Park colliery, initially as a pony driver and ‘hutcher’ before later becoming a boiler-firer. His ambition was then to become a mining engineer, but he was already a precocious footballer.

By the age of fifteen Meredith was playing for Chirk reserves; by eighteen was a first team member, and in 1894 he won a Welsh cup medal. Uncertainty in the mining industry in 1893 led him to follow the example of his brother Sam, then a professional with Stoke City, to play semi-professionally for Northwich Victoria of the second division of the Football League. In September 1894 he signed professional forms for Manchester City, also in the second division, and in January 1895 he finally gave up his job at Black Park.

Meredith was a forward, a right-winger, noted for his ‘Scottish-style’ close ball control and trickery. He was also a prolific goalscorer, and set many records for both club and country. In his first ten years with Manchester City he captained the club to promotion to the first division and, in 1904, to the club's first significant trophy, the FA cup. Meredith scored the only goal in a 1–0 victory over Bristol City at Crystal Palace.

The following season Meredith was accused by the Football Association of accepting illegal wage payments and of attempting to fix the result of a crucial league match, an accusation he always denied. He was suspended from September 1905 to January 1907 and was banned from playing for Manchester City for life. He was subsequently bought by Manchester United, and made his début for them in January 1907. He played for Manchester United for the next eight seasons, before professional football closed down in 1915 for the duration of the First World War. With Manchester United he won two league championships in 1908 and 1911 and helped the club to its first FA cup win in 1909.

Meredith also had a prolific international career for Wales. For many years he held the record for the highest number of appearances in a Welsh jersey (forty-eight) and he was, along with brother Sam, a member of the first Welsh team to win the home international championship, in the 1906–7 season.

Angered by the financial restrictions placed upon professional footballers and wanting to create more secure working conditions for professionals, Meredith was instrumental in forming the Players' Union in December 1907, and chaired its inaugural meeting at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester. The abolition of the maximum wage, the ending of restrictions on the freedom of movement of players between clubs, and the recognition by the FA that professional footballers were bona fide workers with the same rights of access to employment law as other workers—these were key aims of the union. Insurance against injury and the establishment of a pension fund were also important items on the new union's agenda.

The organization struggled for two years to establish itself before, in March 1909, the Football Association—annoyed at the union's insistence on taking clubs to court in pursuit of unpaid wages rather than addressing their complaints to the association as supreme governing body—decided to abolish it. Meredith and his Manchester United colleagues refused to resign from the union and were ‘locked out’ by their club. In September 1909, faced with a possible strike by professional players in support of Meredith and his ‘outcasts’ (as the locked-out men had become known), the FA relented and allowed the union to continue in existence. Meredith, though he never served in an official capacity in the organization, continued for the rest of his career to promote and publicize the union, principally via newspaper articles.

Meredith returned to Manchester City as a ‘guest’ player during the First World War and played in the war leagues for three years. In 1921 his registration with Manchester United was cancelled and he finished his playing career with Manchester City. His last competitive match was an FA cup semi-final in 1924 against Newcastle, when he was a couple of months short of his fiftieth birthday, an exceptional age for a full-time professional player.

Meredith was a popular subject for newspaper caricaturists during an era when sports photography was rudimentary. His toothpick, which he chewed incessantly while playing, was a readily identifiable trademark. He claimed he chewed toothpicks and matches instead of the traditional miner's tobacco twist, the latter being considered inappropriate for a footballer, since there were no convenient spittoons available at pitch-side. Fans would send him packets of toothpicks. His fitness was legendary: in a career of almost twenty years of top-class football, he hardly missed more than a dozen matches through injury. He was a strict teetotaller, a non-smoker, and a keen dietician, his spare, almost spindly frame leading to nicknames such as Old Skin, which he disliked. He was also ahead of his time where training was concerned: in an era when jogging and physical jerks were considered sufficient preparation for a game, he wrote many articles placing great emphasis on developing ball control. Until his fiftieth year he continued to polish his skills, insisting that no professional player could ever cease learning his trade.

Meredith married Ellen Negus (1879–1933), a local Chirk girl, in April 1900 at St Mark's Church, Clowes Street, Manchester, and lived for some years in Nut Street, Belle Vue, Manchester. They had two children: Lily, born in 1903, and Winifred, born in 1906. In 1904 he opened a sports goods shop in St Peter's Square, Manchester. The shop closed following a fire in 1909, however, and Meredith was declared bankrupt. In 1914 he took a public house, the Church Hotel in Longsight, Manchester, and in the 1920s and 1930s he and his wife managed a second public house, the Stretford Hotel, Stretford Road, Manchester.

In 1926 Meredith starred in a feature film, The Ball of Fortune, as well as a number of short coaching films. He would appear on stage in cinemas showing his films and answer questions from the audience. He was good friends with many music-hall stars of the pre-Second World War period, including George Robey (who designed Manchester United's cup final shirts in 1909) and Harry Weldon (who played Stiffy the Goalkeeper in a Fred Karno sketch that also featured Charlie Chaplin). The catch-phrase ‘Meredith, we're in!’ from another pre-First World War Karno sketch was said to have been inspired by Meredith.

In retirement Meredith lived in Manchester with his daughter Winifred, a champion dancer and later principal of her own dancing school. He died at his home, in Burton Road, Withington, Manchester, on 19 April 1958 from heart failure and was buried four days later in the southern cemetery, Manchester.

John Harding

Sources  

J. Harding, Football wizard: the story of Billy Meredith (1998) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · b. cert.

Archives  

Man. CL, Misc/897/1–76  

FILM

 

Northwest Film Archive, Portland, Oregon, Ball of Fortune, 1926

 

SOUND

 

priv. coll., tape recording of interview, c.1947 [BBC Radio Wales, ‘Sporting call’]


Likenesses  

F. Fielding, photograph, c.1904, TNA: PRO [see illus.] · photographs, Greater Manchester County RO, Documentary Photography Archive