RETRO: Bill’s memories of peace and Picasso

Pablo Picasso, left with Tommy Jones (right - in glasses)'arrival at Sheffield L.M.S. Station for the "Peace" Congress at the City Hall.  1950
Pablo Picasso, left with Tommy Jones (right - in glasses)'arrival at Sheffield L.M.S. Station for the "Peace" Congress at the City Hall. 1950
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It is a visit which has gone down in Sheffield folklore: the day Pablo Picasso came to the city.

The legendary Spanish artist attended an international peace conference at the City Hall in November 1950. He spoke in front of hundreds of delegates and drew a dove to auction. One of the people there was Bill Ronksley. He was the young Stannington railway worker chosen to meet Picasso on his arrival at the Midland Station and guide him through the city.

Now, today – to celebrate the premiere of a new film, Trimming Pablo, based on the visit – Midweek Retro brings you the 89-year-old’s recollections from both the day and the hugely controversial peace conference which, for just a brief moment, put Sheffield on the front line of the Cold War...

“It’s strange really, the things you remember. The one thing that stands out clearest in my mind was walking down to the Midland train station to meet Picasso. It was about midday, and three of us had been sent to be the welcoming committee. I was the youngest. I was 26. The other two were Tommy James and Chris Law, and they were the main men. I was the support. But I remember, as we walked down, Chris turning to me and saying: ‘Well, I suppose this Picasso is pretty important?’.

‘I should think so,’ I said.

And then he says: ‘Well, in that case I better put my false teeth in’, and he pulled them out his pocket and popped them in. I’ll always remember laughing at that. How had I come to be picked to meet him? I’d taken that week off work unpaid to help out with the conference. I wasn’t one of the main organisers. I just wanted to be useful. I believed in what the conference was trying to achieve; in peace. The dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been so terrible. I was a communist and I believed communism, at that point, had been good for the Soviet Union, and this was a communist-led conference, no doubt about that. But it was about promoting peace.

Anyway, I spent the week running messages, doing errands, escorting delegates. I spent some time in the City Hall, which was being equipped for 2,000 people who all spoke different languages and would need translations. There were cables as thick as your arms running under the seats, wires everywhere. It was a marvellous feat.

I was sent out to Bakewell one day. All the hotels in Sheffield were booked out because there were supposed to be these delegates coming from all over the world so some people had to stay in the Peak District. That’s why I went to Bakewell. There were delegates arriving at a hotel there from Africa, and I went to meet them.

I stayed the night and they were due there first thing in the morning but when I woke that day, it was all over the newspapers that the delegates weren’t being allowed in the country. The Government didn’t want communists coming here. I remember the hotel manager getting mad.

The country was still on rations and he’d managed to get a lot of food he perhaps wasn’t entitled to. He was saying ‘What am I going to do with all this food? Who’s going to pay me?’

The World Peace Congress ended up being moved to Warsaw. They said Sheffield would be a beacon of shame and I think they had a point. The delegates should have been allowed in.

But Picasso arrived anyway. He was already on his way by then. He came by train from London. I wasn’t intimidated waiting for him. He was just a guest to me.

I remember seeing him get off the train. The Daily Herald said he was wearing a dirty raincoat but it looked alright to me. It looked fine. I didn’t speak to him much. I can’t even remember if he spoke English, I suppose he must. There’s a famous picture of him being given a bunch of flowers by Tommy James when he arrives.

You can see me in the background. But here’s a thing: we only had one bunch of flowers to meet the delegates with that day.

Once the picture was taken we sort of eased Picasso into a taxi and then took back the flowers to be presented to the next arrival.

We took him up to a restaurant above a grocery store in Fargate, and that was our job done, really. The big organisers were waiting for him, and they ordered some drink and food – I don’t remember what.

People were unsure what was going to happen to the conference so there was some hanging around. It went ahead in the end.

I attended Picasso’s talk. It was very passionate. We wanted peace very much. He got a great reception.

And that was it really. Because most of the delegates hadn’t been allowed into the country there wasn’t much to do the rest of my week off.

A friend had bought a car recently. We got in and went and explored Derbyshire.”