They say that whatever happens to you in the first years of your life leaves an indelible mark. For Doug Ellis OBE, the retired 83-year-old chairman of Aston Villa Football Club, this couldn’t be more true. The impact of his father’s death from pneumonia and pleurisy at the age of 27 was to shape the rest of Doug’s life.
Born in the little village of Hooton, on the Wirral, Doug had a harsh start to life. His father’s premature passing left his young mother with two small children, Doug, aged three and Doreen, eight weeks old.
“Coming from a farming family, I delivered milk from the age of twelve before I went to school each day. I’d have forty-eight cans hanging on the front and back of my bike, then I’d have to rush to catch the 8.25am train to Chester to try and be in school by 9am. I earned six shillings for a seven-day week – five went to my mother so I’d have a shilling as my pocket money.
“After I left school, I took a job as a clerk at the local station, earning 12 shillings and 6 pence a week. When I became a relief clerk, I got 30 shillings. I also started doing business from home, breeding canaries and budgies and repairing the odd motorcycle. At seventeen I volunteered for The Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy and served for over four years. I was posted to Ceylon. During this time, I had a mild form of malaria. A nurse called Audrey cared for me and later became my first wife.
“I came out of hospital without a job, but a friend of mine, Lieutenant Canavelli, asked me if I knew anything about transport. I told him I’d been a railway clerk and that I could strip Austin cars down. He took me on, giving me the responsibility for starting our own transport section for a stores division of the Fleet Air Arm. I was in charge of transporting stores and distributing them across the island to the three Fleet Air Arm bases, as well as to ships in Trincomalee. Eventually I had around eighty staff including local Cingalese and Tamils.”
When the Tsunami struck in 2005, it hit the former Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, very badly. Particularly affected was the region Ellis had been in. He held a function to raise money for the area and wrote to all his friends, business associates, private box holders and season ticket holders, telling them he wanted to raise £100,000 to buy food and medicine. Doug started the ball rolling by writing a cheque for £10,000. An extra £104,000 was donated on the night of the function alone.
“The Aston Rotary Club went out there on my behalf. They found it wasn’t food and medicine the people needed, but a livelihood, which in this particular region was fishing; all their boats had been wrecked. I bought forty-two boats and painted them all in Aston Villa colours, claret and blue, with the Aston Villa name on each, and the name of one of our current players. Every boat provided a living for nine families.”
Ellis left Ceylon in 1946 and decided to try his hand at the travel business. He remembered hearing servicemen, many of whom were seeing the world for the first time, saying how much they would like to travel with their wives and families when the war was over. He took a job with Frames Tours in Preston, at the time, the second largest tourist agents in the country.