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‘Radical but peaceful’: former Southwark Mayor Bill Skelly dies aged 89

A former Southwark Mayor, trade unionist, and film set decorator whom friends and former colleagues described as “radical and innovative” but also “serene and peaceful” has died aged 89.

William ‘Bill’ Skelly, who was Mayor of Southwark from 1997-1998, died on October 12 after a short illness. His friend and former colleague Ian Wingfield, a Labour councillor for the St Giles ward in Camberwell, called Mr Skelly “the perfect role model for a mayor”, which is an important but ceremonial role.

“He was a lovely man,” said Cllr Wingfield. “He had a warm, engaging personality. He knew how to speak to everyone, no matter what background they came from.”

Bill Skelly

Mr Skelly was born in Newcastle as the youngest of eleven children. He was a talented painter as a boy, and when he left school he became an apprentice decorator. He practised sign writing and graining every night when he got home.

He did his National Service in the army aged 18 and moved to London in his late twenties, where he gained work on film sets as a decorator. Cllr Wingfield said that Mr Skelly was employed to paint set furniture to make it look more expensive or impressive than it really was – an important skill in a time of lower production budgets.

Perhaps the best-known production Mr Skelly worked on was the 1968 war film Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. He got to know famous actors like Burton and his sometime-wife Elizabeth Taylor, as well as Michael Caine.

Bill Skelly

When Rotherhithe-born Caine was given the freedom of Southwark in 2012, Mr Skelly was in the audience – and the Italian Job star “made a beeline” for him, Cllr Wingfield said, as he recognised him from film work.

Mr Skelly was an active trade unionist with the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) and once blocked the construction of the National Theatre until the union secured better rights for builders, according to Cllr Wingfield.

He also pushed to get apprenticeships for women and BAME people in the building industry, Cllr Wingfield added, which was much rarer in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr Skelly became a Labour councillor for the Camberwell Green ward, before moving slightly east to Peckham four years later, and retired from the council in 2002.

As mayor, he met the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Anne for various events. On one occasion, he greeted the Princess Royal with the words “hello bunny” as she stepped out of her car, according to Sonia Sutton, the mayor’s private secretary. Anne is said to have laughed in response.

He also accompanied the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, among other events he led as mayor.

“That was just what he was like,” Ms Sutton said. “He made everyone feel at ease. He was a lovely, gentle man.”

And despite Mr Skelly’s “radical” background, he would get on with anyone, Cllr Wingfield, said – including various aristocrats with whom he spent time.

“He had this lyrical Geordie accent,” Cllr Wingfield said. “He could always captivate his audience.”

Mr Skelly took a keen interest in veterans’ affairs and was a fixture at Remembrance events. “He was proud to wear his father’s medals from the First World War,” Ms Sutton said. He was also a member of a wide range of community groups, including the Mayor’s Common Good Trust, Camberwell Consolidated Charities, Southwark Pensioners, Southwark Young Pilgrims and The Soviet Memorial Trust.

Mr Skelly’s funeral took place earlier this month in Newcastle, where many family members still live. There will be a remembrance service at St George’s Cathedral on Lambeth Road on Thursday, November 25 at 3pm. Guests are asked to be seated by 2.50pm.

Mr Skelly is survived by his partner, who was by his side for the past 30 years.


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