John Charles was born in Canning Town on 20th September 1944. His father was from Grenada and worked as a seaman. It was his mother's third marriage. He told Brian Belton, the author of Black Hammers (2006): "I was number eight of nine children, all different colours. There was Jessie, Josie, Bon, Len, Bonzo, Marge and Rita. Clive came later... The four eldest were white (there were five, Michael got killed); then there was Bonzo and Margie, they were sort of tan, their dad was black but they didn't come out that way. They were olive colour. My dad was black but we came out black."
Charles was a successful school student. One school report stated: "His work is neat, careful and intelligent. Well up to standard... Top six in the class. Honest and trustworthy. Willing."
A talented full-back he played for West Ham Boys and in 1960 they reached the English Schools Cup Final. Charles also played for Essex Boys. Charles was spotted by Ernie Gregory and joined West Ham United after leaving school. He was one of the first black players recruited by the club. Ted Fenton was the manager at the time: "When I was taken on the ground staff, Ted told me that I would get called a few names, but to keep kicking them."
John Charles won five Youth caps for England, the first black player to represent England at any level. At the age of nineteen he captained the West Ham team that beat Liverpool 6-5 in the 1963 Youth Cup. The first black player to lead a first-class side to a major trophy.
Ron Greenwood gave John Charles his first-team debut on 4th May 1963. West Ham United lost to Blackburn Rovers 1-0. He did not make the team the following season but he did get to play against Liverpool on 15th September, 1965. It was not until the 1965-66 season that Charles became a regular in the side. This included the semi-final of the European Cup winners' Cup, against Borussia Dortmund. Greenwood described Charles as "a prince of a player; he was a good, strong, straightforward competitor whose influence was significant". His colleague, Brian Dear, argued: "John Charles was a great teammate who always gave 100 per cent."
When he broke into the team there were very few black players in the Football League. John Charles recalls: "I never remember any real racism, certainly not from other players at West Ham or our crowd. Maybe some players respond to it too quickly and become a target when everyone knows it winds them up. If they'd just keep playing they would stop... The idea that West Ham fans are racist is rubbish! They didn't ask if you were black or white; they asked if you were West Ham."
Charles argues that Ron Greenwood "was a great coach". However, he added: "I was never one of Ron's boys... I think a good manager gets to know the boys who they've got. He'll mix with them. The more you mix with them the more you know... Greenwood was a bit careful, maybe sly even. For instance, he'd just leave you out and not tell you. I hardly ever spoke to him, as it happens, no one did really. People did have a go at Greenwood every now and then. I think him and Bobby had their rows."
Another problem was that Greenwood was unaware of the drinking culture at the club. John Charles, Bobby Moore, Johnny Byrne, John Cushley, John Charles, Harry Redknapp and Brian Dear were all heavy drinkers. Charles admits: "We were always on the piss. We went from the club to the pub. I was part of a hard-drinking crowd... Everyone liked a drink... You didn't even think about it. It was second nature."
Moore claimed alcohol helped him unwind but admitted that some West Ham players drank too much: "Ron Greenwood said he felt we were getting a team of nice lads together. I sat and wondered who the hell had ever won anything in football with eleven nice people. But in the next room John Cushley and John Charles, two of the nice boys, were falling off their beds drunk at three in the afternoon."
In the 1968-69 season Charles suffered a series of injuries. He was limited to just five games in 1969-70 season. At the age of 26 he decided to give up football: "I kept getting this hamstring problem." During his career he made 118 appearances for the club. His father-in-law had his own green-grocery business. "At West Ham, I was earning £65 a week. My first week as a barrow boy, I got £200. I started with Carol's dad. Once I got into that lark, I really loved it. I became my own governor."
His business eventually got into trouble: "I soon had stalls all over Kent, but then they started to open the supermarkets and we went skint... I was an alcoholic and in the end I had a breakdown. I was so bad, once, in hospital, I dreamed I was eating my sister in a sandwich!"
John Charles came out of hospital just before his 50th birthday, saying that the "idea of ever touching a drink again was frightening". He later became strong enough to get a job at a local supermarket. When a fellow worker discovered who he was he said: "Where I was born in East Ham, you're a hero amongst all the black kids."
In October 2001, Charles, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer. He died on 17th August 2002. Brian Dear said at his funeral: "Football is surely indebted to him as he undoubtedly paved the way for his black brothers who now enjoy the fame, riches and adulation, which he most certainly helped make possible."