When Muhammad Ali graced the North East

Muhammad Ali in South Shields
Muhammad Ali in South Shields

It was the Queen's Silver Jubilee - but many were more elated to have a visit from the King.

In July 1977, Ali was still heavyweight champion of the world and just about at the top of his game.

He had agreed to a four-day visit to Tyneside to raise funds for boys’ clubs on the suggestion of ex-South Shields boxer Johnny walker. But the trip didn’t start that well when he and his entourage missed their flight from Heathrow to Newcastle.

That led to chaotic scenes at Newcastle airport, where thousands had gathered to catch a glimpse of the champion.

Thankfully, it was all smiles a couple of days later when yet more thousands packed the streets of Jarrow and South Shields to see Ali pass by in an open-topped bus on his way to have his marriage blessed in the town’s mosque.

By the time he got to Stanhope Road, South Shields, the pavements were lined with thousands of fans. Chichester was jammed, and at Laygate, the “centre of the Arab community” at the time, he was treated like a Prodigal son.

Muhammad Ali came to South Shields

Muhammad Ali came to South Shields

Elsewhere in the North East, a cocktail party organised by the Variety Club of Great Britain took place the Gosforth Park Hotel.

He also visited the then Pendower School for Handicapped Children, and went to some of the local boys’ clubs where he sparred with some of the young boxers.

An invitation to Alnwick Castle to meet the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, a reception at the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House in Newcastle, and a banquet at the Mayfair Ballroom were part of events honouring Ali and his wife Veronica.

Jack Clark, 76, of Gowanburn, Fatfield, met Ali at a reception at the Gosforth Park Hotel:

Muhammad Ali in South Shields

Muhammad Ali in South Shields

"I shook hands with him - it was like putting my hand into a bucket."

Jack was given the tickets by a neighbour, who was unable to attend: "We were on a table with Bob Moncur and Freddy Shepherd," he said.

What was it like meeting Ali?

"You can't describe him - it was absolutely wonderful," he said.

"He was so quiet - he just came in and walked down the aisle, shaking hands with everybody on both sides.

"He was just a nice man."