Yaqub Ali – “Johnie the Da***e”

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This is in no way intends to be racist, but a few people have asked me about a travelling salesmen they once only knew as “Johnnie the Darkie”. Not a term I’ll be referring to again in this article, but he was a remarkable man and I hope this tells his story well. It’s a real rags to riches story.

The death of Yaqub Ali in 2003, was a great loss not only for the Asian community but also for Scottish society. He was the most generous person  seldom ignoring an appeal for donations for a good cause.

He was born on 12th December 1931 in Saddrpura in the province of Punjab, India. His was a life of rags to riches but he never forgot his rags. His father was a poor farmer. Thus Yaqub attended only the village primary school for four years where there were no fees and learned only to read and write basic Urdu. He was sent to a religious school, where education was free, to learn and memorise the Koran, perhaps to prepare him for a religious vocation. Yaqub committed to memory 17 out of the 30 parts of the Koran and then met with a serious accident, which hindered his speech for a year. That put an end to his religious education.

At the independence and partition of India in 1947, his village was ceded to India and, as Muslims, his father with the whole family migrated to Pakistan. After wandering as refugees for a couple of years, during which young Yaqub suffered from bouts of malaria, the family settled in a suburb of Pakpattan, southern Punjab. In 1949, his elder brother, Sardar Ali, came to Glasgow to join some relatives who were working as pedlars in Scotland.

By 1952, his brother had comfortably settled in Glasgow and invited Yaqub to come and join him. Yaqub arrived in Glasgow on March 29, 1952 with £4 in his pocket, and began peddling with his brother and other Asians in Scotland. Yaqub was then living at Hospital Street, Gorbals, with his brother. Yaqub was very conscious of his total lack of English. He joined the evening English language classes at the Skerry’s College in 1953 and continued until he had become reasonably good in the language by about 1956.

Yaqub was very generous, even in his early days when he was not well off. One afternoon he and a friend were resting on a grassy edge of a road in Wishaw, schoolgirls started shouting at us racist names such as ”Johnnie the darkie”. When the girls came close to us, Yaqub got up and approached them. He smiled and handed them six pence each, saying: ”This no nice, please don’t say again.” The girls, visibly embarrassed said, ”thank you Mr Darkie”, and went on their way.

On going out with friends or to restaurants, he would always offer to pay and leave a generous tip. Indeed, it was a tip that introduced him to his future wife, Nancy Botteril.

One day in the late 1950s during his frequent rounds in Blantyre he went into a cafe on Glasgow Road. A cup of tea cost him 5d but he gave the waitress 2/6d and told her to keep the change. The waitress was flabbergasted at being given a tip that in those days was just about a day’s wages of a young waitress. However, she said it was too much and, returning two shillings, told him that she was not a waitress but the owner of the place.

Over the years their friendship developed into love and they married in 1968. During their courtship, Yaqub was a frequent visitor to Blantyre during the 1960’s. In spite of vast difference in their cultures their marriage was very happy and highly successful. Nancy became a tower of strength for Yaqub at home and at work. Nancy died in 2000 after a long illness and this was an insufferable loss for him and he never recovered.

In 1956, Yaqub and his elder brother opened a wholesale warehouse to supply merchandise to the Asian peddlers. During the day Yaqub tended the warehouse and in the evening he did his peddling round. Over and above these two jobs, he also did a lot of voluntary work to help his compatriots. He was actively involved and held high positions in the Muslim Mission and the Pakistan Social and Cultural Society of Glasgow, the two organisations that looked after the religious, cultural, and social needs of the Pakistani community.

Yaqub did suffer racial abuse most places he sold in, including Blantyre. Derogatory terms were used to describe him, which he stood up against. Many people in Blantyre will remember him coming around each home in the evenings with a brown leather suitcase full of his wares and clothes to sell.

By the early 1960s most Asians had abandoned peddling, mainly for jobs in transport, and some were taking over corner shops. Yaqub and his brother closed the warehouse and opened a supermarket in Motherwell. Soon after, there was a difference of opinion and Yaqub left the partnership.

This break with his elder brother was the turning point in his life. Though uneducated, Yaqub was full of ideas, always brimming with confidence and hadhigh aspirations. In partnership with his younger brother, Taj Ali, he opened a licensed grocer’s store in Motherwell under the name AA Brothers.

He introduced the novel idea of cut-price selling and reduced the prices of spirits and beers. This was a huge success. He roped a friend into this business and opened more shops in Glasgow and Dumbarton. AA Brothers became synonymous with the lowest prices in Scotland and people began coming from as far as Inverness and Gretna to buy at their shops.

In 1973, Yaqub went into wholesale trade under the name of Castle Cash & Carry selling wines, spirits, groceries, and fancy goods. At the peak of this venture his turnover exceeded (pounds) 100m and he employed more than 250 people. He closed this business in 1995 and sold the property.

By now he had enough money to retire and enjoy a life of luxury, but he could not sit idle and in 1997 he went into property development and the investment business. By early this year his various development companies had completed a leisure/residential complex at Dundee, various other residential schemes, and a links golf course development at Southern Gailes, near Irvine.

Yaqub was a workaholic and had no notion of leisure time. Over and above his heavy business commitments and his involvement in various ethnic minority organisations, he was very active in the Conservative Party where he held many prominent positions, including council member of the Scottish Conservative Party, chairman of the One Nation Forum Scotland, and Chairman of Focus in Scotland. He raised more than (pounds) 1m for the Conservative Party. He was one of the biggest benefactors to the Conservative Party, donating hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Before his death, he spoke about his early peddling adventures saying, “Its degrading to chap doors to sell having to go out in all weather, but i was determined to do well. Thats the secret. Determination. Never give up.”

He was very passionate about the welfare and development of his motherland and its people and took many initiatives and supported many causes to that effect. His last acts of devotion to Pakistan were first to donate (pounds) 500,000 (the largest single donation) to Strathclyde University to set up a fund for the post-graduate education of deserving students from Pakistan who are bound to go back and serve their country. Secondly, he set up an education trust with (pounds) 350,000 in Pakistan to provide scholarships to poor, deserving students for higher education in Pakistan.

The interests of the local Muslim, as well as the whole black and minority ethnic communities, were close to his heart. He contributed about (pounds) 200,000 over the years for the building of the Glasgow central mosque and the adjoining Islamic cultural and community centre. He was a member of the Race Relations Advisory Council for six years, chair of the Ethnic Minority Enterprise Centre, Glasgow, for the past 10 years, and a director of the Ethnic Business Forum Ltd.

His other important appointments included: member of the Scottish Industrial Board, Scottish Police Advisory Board, director of the Licensed Trade Benevolent Committee, president UK/Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, trustee of the Strathclyde University Foundation, and member of the Court of Strathclyde University. He was awarded an OBE for services to industry in 1984.

Yaqub had a full and successful life. He was charitable beyond his means. He had deep concerns for the less fortunate. He was rich but, above all, he was a gentleman, a good human being with a kind and compassionate heart.

He was sadly missed by his son, Rafiq, daughter-in-law Fazila, and granddaughter Khadija, as well as by the countless number of people whose life he enriched simply by knowing them.

Yaqub Ali OBE, businessman, community worker, and philanthropist; born December 12, 1931, died June 7, 2003.

Source:Wikipedia and Glasgow Herald.

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On social media:

Marion Mcphee was he also known as cheap johnny
Angela Caserta Carmela Antonia Caserta show mum and dad this 😊
Rose Sporndli Story telling of my youth in Blantyre I have often told about Johnny the Darkie. He was a well known character in the 50’s peddling his goods from house to house.
Annie Bradley Auntie rose, remember my gran talking about him, xxxx
Angela Caserta Thank you for sharing this story. Mr and Mrs Ali were great friends of my gran and grandpa who owned that cafe on Glasgow Road 😊They were lovely, generous people who always stayed the same no matter how successful they became. My mum and dad will be so happy to read these memories 💜
Matthew McGuigan I went to St. Joseph’s with Lisa Caserta in the late fifties, any relation to you?
Angela Caserta Yes, she’s my auntie 😊
Liz Allan My mum worked for Nancy helping with her mother I used to walk from school and wait for her Yacub gave me lots of colourful glass bangles he was very kind
Elizabeth Dobson Grieve I’ve never heard of him
Helen Williams I remember him well, back in 50s & 60s, every one came to you, if not Johnny, the butcher, baker, fruit man, candy apples, and if you needed knives or garden shears sharpened that too. No great need for a car.
Eleanor Clark I remember Yacub very well such a shame his house on the Lanark road was pulled down but it was very dated inside.xx
Jim Botterill Mr & Mrs Ali were married on 18th March 1970
Catherine Docherty Got my 1st job in Landmark ( botterills) my dad was great friends with mr ali and nancy and i still hav my dinner service they got me for a wedding present.
Etta Morrison Remember him well he came round our way on Fri nights . His case was Amazing blouses jumpers twin sets ..
Betty McLean He had lovely colours made me want all of them. It was hard to choose and I think we were allowed to pay in installments. He would put the case on the floor and lift out the different garments for us to see.
Harry Conroy Margaret Battison, Christine thought you’d like this.
Linda Reid Yaqub and Nancy were both lovely, and Tariq his son was only a wee lad when I
Linda Reid Worked at. CW . I met him shortly after Nancy died and he was devastated.. they were together so long he just seemed to go downhill without her.😑
Helen Dunsmuir I remember him in Burnbank .
Jean Jakes He always came to our house, good to hear his family history.
Helen Mc Gowan Munday Oh, I remember him coming round the doors when I was a wee girl!😀
Helen Lawson Taylor Remember him coming weekly with his case and was exciting to see what he brought every week .
Linda Marshall He used to leave fox glacier mints and fruits 👍🏻
Ann Millar Came to Oor hoose, a wis only a wean, bit kin remember him he wis a nice kind gentle man. Put all his stuff oot on the floor n ma mam bought a lot of stuff of him.!
Aileen Hamilton Thanks for more memories!
Linda Gourlay he used to visit my gran’s house in Elm St in Blantyre… my mum and her brothers and sisters would take their school books out and help him with his english. He met my mother many years later and remembered her as the little girl who helped him read
Liz Boxall Nancy was indeed Nancy Botterill … they lived in a bungalow near the Garrion Bridge
Janette Minto He used to go to burnbank I remember him.
Hugh Waugh Great article Paul – very interesting !
Rosemary Harper Very interesting article
Helen Williams Definitely a great character and well known around Blantyre. And can I just add that his name was not used in any racist fashion at all, more a term of endearment we just said it as it was, I think he knew that.
Robert Stewart Totally agree with you, a term of endearment, and he knew it. I don’t get the use of asterisks in the title of the posts.
Helen Williams he wasn’t just any Johnny the Darkie, he was our Johnny the Darkie
Moira Lees Fabulous story Paul.
Chris Ladds This is really inspirational; coming to a country with little understanding of the language, little money, with a door to door setup , and a vast prejudice against him….. and then overcoming all barriers to become hugely successful! His story should be used for inspiration in schools! Amazing!
Linda Reid I worked in Castle wines cash and carry. Was amongst the first staff, getting it all ready to open .His brother Taj was an amazing man..he would actually come out and play skipping ropes with us on our breaks. We had great friends with all the staff, and enjoyed many a good laugh. Happy memories. 😁👍
Anne Ellis Very interesting just read it out to my hubby who is currently lying in hospital, enjoyed very much. Keep them coming Paul x
Lesley Divens Gillian Irvine Ali.x is this T uncle?x
Gillian Irvine Ali Yeah it is. Where did you see it?
Gillian Irvine Ali Tariq Ali what do you think?
Margaret Lappin Amazing story of rags to riches
Jean Jakes What an amazing man he was, and will always be remembered as cheap Johnny in my mind 😌
Laurie Gordon Now there was a man who was determined to succeed.
Margaret Duncan Did they lose their first son?
David Mcintosh Sitting in Casle cash and carry years ago Having something to eat ,who walked in but Nancy and Ali into their own canteen.Lovely people,sadly missed.

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