17.12.1922 – 15.1.2011
The death of former Daily Mirror photographer Charles Owens marks the end of an era.
Charles was one of the most highly respected and distinguished members of that exclusive group: Liverpool national newspaper corps.
Renowned as a talented cameraman, his great eye for a story was matched by his silver tongue and dazzling knack of capturing the moment through his lens.
In an age when photography was an art with an air of mystery, Owens put his subjects at their ease with a winning smile. This easy nature helped create many thousands of eye-catching images which would then grace the pages of the Daily Mirror.
The very epitome of the phrase “hail fellow well met” Charles was a charming and likeable character. Off duty he was a devoted family man that friends and colleagues knew they could turn in time of need, confident he would help.
Universally known as “Charlie Owens” or “Chas” he was the Mirror’s staff photographer in Liverpool in the hectic days of the Merseybeat through to the challenges of industrial and political strife in the 70s and 80s.
He was born on 17th December 1922 in West Derby, Liverpool and attended Lister Drive School, leaving at the age of 14 to work at the Evening Express. After a number of menial jobs he fulfilled his ambition and landed a job as a photographer.
In the 1940 May Blitz his parent’s family home was badly damaged in an explosion and Charlie volunteered for action. Then aged 17 he had to wait several months for his call-up before he was enlisted alongside a number of others from the Evening Express, including his pal Les Poole.
Always a natty dresser he had wanted to join the Royal Navy, but Charlie was informed that, as a trained photographer his services were required in the RAF and he was sent for further training in Blackpool and Whitley Bay before being posted to RAF Coastal Command in Plymouth.
Alongside a role in reconnaissance, Charlie also trained as an air gunner, and flew several sorties in the dangerous role of rear gunner in Short Sunderland flying boats, on convoy protection patrols in the Atlantic approaches.
When his squadron was sent to the Shetland, Charlie’s main job was mounting cameras on Bristol Beaufighter reconnaissance planes that flew missions over the fjords of Norway.
A keen footballer, Charlie played for his squadron team. He also enjoyed leave visits back home to Liverpool where, with Navy pals, he would treat himself to trips to the Grafton Rooms where, dressed in uniform, they were feted by the locals.
In 1944 his squadron was transferred back to Plymouth where he was involved in various operations including reconnaissance flights over the D-day landing sites. Late in the war he gained expertise as a cine cameraman, shooting RAF film of Doodlebug V1 and V2 rockets heading over the coast towards London.
At the end of the war he was seconded to the RAF College at Cranwell where he was offered promotion to flight sergeant. Charlie instead opted for a return to ‘Civvy Street’, rejoining the staff of the Evening Express. It was during this period that he met Betty, the love of his life, at West Derby Village Hall and the couple were wed at St Mary’s Church in 1950.
He joined the staff of Daily Mirror in 1951 and it was in his role as the paper’s cameraman in Liverpool that Charlie excelled. He also became a leading light in the Liverpool Press Club serving not only as president but also as treasurer at a time of financial crisis when the club was threatened with closure in the 60s.
Charlie would tell the tale of how he went cap-in-hand to Littlewoods Pools boss John Moores begging him to bail-out the Press Club.
Ever-persuasive, Charlie cajoled the millionaire into agreement, but only on the basis that he would match, pound-for-pound, what club members could raise. Charlie relished the challenge and with the promise of a “pools win” the members rallied-round to save the day.
One of his reporter colleagues at the Daily Mirror, Frank Corless, worked alongside Charlie across three decades at the Mirror’s Liverpool office in Greek Street.
Corless said: “Saying a fond farewell to Charlie Owens is just about the saddest thing I’ve ever had to do.
“With his indomitable spirit and courage, I reckoned on him hitting a century and perhaps seeing me out.
“He had faced up to many trials and tribulations, not least of them suffering a stroke which eventually forced his early retirement in 1986, but he always bounced back as cheerful and resilient as ever.
“Even up to a few weeks ago, just before he was admitted to the Royal Liverpool Hospital, where he died on Sunday, aged 88, he was still driving his beloved BMW, though not very fast.
“Chas as I preferred to call him, wasn’t just my former colleague at the Daily Mirror, he was also a true friend, a father figure who was always around to provide help and guidance in the best, and the worst, of times. And there was a lot of both.
“From the rise of the Beatles, to seemingly endless dock strikes, the Toxteth riots, Grand National triumphs and heartaches, the political turmoil of the Derek Hatton years, and spectacular Liverpool and Everton successes, to name but a few examples, there was always something happening in the city.
“And you could bank on Charlie being there, camera in hand, ready to snap the very best moment.
“Sometimes, he couldn’t stop clicking. Not for nothing was he known as ‘Just-one-more-Charlie’. But it wasn’t through any lack of confidence or belief in his outstanding ability. It was because he always wanted more…the ultimate, most brilliant picture.
“On occasions, it had comic consequences. No more so than after Liverpool full back Chris Lawler got married on the eve of the team’s European Cup semi-final against the formidable Inter Milan.
“Sadly, Chris couldn’t spend his wedding night with his bride because manager Bill Shankly took the team off to Blackpool to be together before the big game. And you didn’t argue with Shanks.
“To add insult to injury, Chris ended up sharing a room with ‘Anfield Iron’ Tommy Smith when he should have been with his new wife. How unlucky can you get.
“The following night, in a momentous Anfield spectacular, Liverpool went on to hammer Inter 3-1, and Chris even scored a goal – though sadly, it was disallowed.
“In those enlightened days, you could actually approach players. You could knock on their doors. You could even be first-name friends. And Charlie was a friend to most.
“It helped ‘break the ice’, so to speak, when Charlie and me rushed to Chris’s home in West Derby straight after the final whistle to ask if he would mind giving us a little chat, and posing for a few pictures with his bride.
“Chris wasn’t too keen but, ever the gentleman, he finally agreed on the proviso that we ‘made it quick’.
“Quick was never a word that figured in Charlie’s dictionary. As the minutes went by, and with Chris getting more impatient, the clicks went on….and on…and on.
“In the end, the usually urbane Chris became more than a little wrestless and said: ‘For God’s sake Charlie, give over – this is my wedding night.’ ‘Oh sorry,’ Charlie replied, ‘I completely forgot.’
“Another time, when we sweltered during one of Britain’s ‘hotter-than-the-Sahara’ heat waves – yes, we did have them – the Mirror picture desk asked Charlie if he could come up with a snap to capture the mood. The idea didn’t take long coming, but taking the picture turned into a nightmare.
“It involved ‘borrowing’ a camel from Southport Zoo, and trailing it through the Ainsdale sand dunes, standing in for the Sahara, to link up with a model who Charlie had recruited to sit on the animal’s back. All went well until the camel got fed up and broke loose from its keeper.
“Even now, I can see Charlie, the camel keeper and me, racing across the sand in pursuit of the screaming beauty, and the demented ‘beast’. Lawrence of Arabia, it wasn’t. More like Laurel and Hardy.
“Charlie’s first love was his wonderful wife Betty, his son Trevor, and daughter Wendy, and his grandchildren and great grandchild.’I’ve got the best family any man could wish for,’ he once told me. Celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary last year was the greatest highlight of his life.
“Charlie’s second joint favourites were the Daily Mirror and Liverpool Press Club. His love for Liverpool FC wasn’t far behind.
“Right up until his final few days, he still read the Mirror from cover to cover.
“A lifelong member of the Press Club, he was a regular ‘star’ of its famous Christmas pantomimes. He was happy at the most sober of times, but when the drinks flowed; he was the life and soul of the party. He loved having his friends and colleagues around him, and every one of them enjoyed his company.
“Charlie was the consummate professional, one of the all-time great Mirror photographers. His fantastic pictures still stand the test of time. But it’s as a mate that I will remember him best.
“The irony is that his death might never have happened but for a twist of fate brought on by Charlie’s cheerful willingness to help with the family chores.
“He slipped on the ice outside his home, fracturing his left leg in two places. Complications later set in and the leg had to be amputated.
“Yet, again showing remarkable courage, he still talked of eventually getting behind the wheel of his car, and of returning to Anfield to see Liverpool climb out of their troubles.
“When I last saw him, only a few days before he died, he thanked me for coming, shook my hand, and asked after everyone. He was kind and caring to the very last.”
Retired Liverpool freelance journalist, Alan Jones, recounted fond memories of working with Charlie.
Alan said: “There was no greater privilege, as a reporter, than to go out on assignment with Charles Owens.
“Having him at your side, on your team, was a massive plus. Charles had a way with him. People these days call it charisma. He could win-over the most awkward of characters, or bring comfort to those struck down by tragedy, in a most sensitive way.
“His inherent good humour, common sense and kindness cast a light before him. He just loved people, and they loved him.
“These qualities were the bricks and mortar of his success, in his profession and in his wider life. God bless you, Charles. You were a friend to us all and we shall never forget.”
Liverpool Press Club President and former Daily Mirror colleague, Ian Cameron also paid tribute to Charles.
Ian said: “Chas quite rightly earned a formidable reputation as one of the best photographers on a Daily Mirror which was brimming with talent at the time.
“Such was his ability and tenacity on the toughest of assignments that he was often courted by the London picture desk to move down south.
“But Chas was an immensely proud Liverpudlian and could never envisage plying his trade anywhere else but in his home city which he did with consummate professionalism for more than 30 years.
“He was a stout heartbeat of the Mirror’s northern editions in the days when the paper sold more than five million copies daily and never ever lost his sense of loyalty to it.
“I was his colleague for several years in the 70s in the Liverpool office and was able to admire at first hand his attention to detail and his sheer determination not to be beaten on any assignment.
“Always immaculately dressed in a dark blue suit Chas was more than the Mirror photographer – it was almost as if he was the paper’s ambassador on Merseyside.
“I will always cherish him as a superb mate who you could always rely on to come up with the goods and remember with fondness the cups of tea and sandwiches we shared together in the Greek Street office.”
Charles Owens is survived by his wife Betty, daughter Wendy, son Trevor, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Details of his funeral have yet to be announced.