Liverpool samurai: The karate grandmaster who helped change a city

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Ronnie Colwell and his samurai armourImage source, National Museums Liverpool/Andrew Colwell
Image caption,
Ronnie Colwell's suit of armour was created by the tailors to the Japanese royal family

A suit of samurai armour has been installed at the Museum of Liverpool which belonged not to some fearsome ancient warrior, but to a modern day martial arts "legend", who served with the SAS, led an Olympic team, became a karate grandmaster and helped change the city forever.

Born in Liverpool in 1934, Ronnie Colwell went on to become one of only three British people to achieve the highest rank possible, that of 10th dan ju-jitsu and karate master, a prestigious title that was awarded four years before his death in 2015.

His journey to gaining that rank - and the armour - "was like something from a movie" and began with a chance meeting at Liverpool docks, his son Andrew says.

"As a boy growing up in the south of Liverpool, to earn pocket money, you'd go down to the docks and carry things for people - you'd get a penny or two for carrying a full Persian rug two miles up a hill.

"My dad became friendly with a guy working as a dockhand, who was an ostracised member of the Japanese royal family - he had refused to marry someone.

"He was Dad's initial introduction to martial arts. He spent time with him and taught him some stuff."

Image source, Andrew Colwell
Image caption,
Ronnie Colwell was a master of a number of disciplines

It was a passion that once ignited, would never leave Colwell. He continued to train while serving with the military, where he became part of the SAS, and the British Secret Service.

After he left the services, he went to Japan, where his abilities saw him teach karate and become the first ever British competitor at the South East Asian World Championships in 1959.

Adam Carter, who runs karate and kobudo site Shuriway says Colwell was a "giant in martial arts".

"I believe he was the epitome of a traditional and highly practical martial artist, who didn't suffer fools, but would help anyone that wanted to learn.

"He was a great man, not just a great martial artist."

Image source, Andrew Colwell
Image caption,
As well as competing and winning medals, Colwell also officiated over bouts

Andrew Colwell says for all his father's achievements globally, he was most proud of what he did when he returned to Liverpool in the 1960s.

In 1969, he opened the Liverpool Shotokan Karate Club (LSKC) in an abandoned boys' mission in Toxteth.

"It was a fairly divided part of the city in those days and a lot of people there had to deal with a lot of unsavoury issues.

"He took in all people from all areas of the city - mixed race, black, white, Chinese and Asian people. Everybody was welcome and there was no divide - and everyone knew that.

"It became a major part of the local community and a social hub as much as a martial arts centre of excellence."

From schoolboy to grandmaster

Image source, Andrew Colwell
  • Ronnie Colwell was in the British Secret Service and the SAS 22nd Pathfinders Regiment, where he worked clearing safe routes behind enemy lines in places such as North Korea
  • While in Japan, he trained under legendary Shotokan karate master Gichin Funakoshi, who is known as the "father of modern karate"
  • In 1959, he became the first Briton to compete at the South East Asian World Championships, where he won gold in the Weapons and Kata categories and a Silver in the Kumite category
  • He was head coach for the Great Britain karate team in 1984, leading them to Junior Olympics gold in Los Angeles
  • He was bestowed the honour of 10th dan in 2011 by the All Japan ju-jitsu world governing body for outstanding contribution in the development of martial arts

Source: Museum of Liverpool

Former British karate champion Harris Jonas, who now helps lead LSKC, was one of the club's early pupils and one of several who went from Colwell's dojo to fight at European and world championship level.

He says Colwell was a "legend", who was "very tough, very disciplined".

"People looked up to him because he came into the area and took that chance.

"He kept us off the streets, kept us away from certain things and he was like a father figure. It was about more than just the karate.

Image source, Andrew Colwell
Image caption,
All were welcome at Ronnie Colwell's club, which was based in an abandoned boys' mission in Toxteth

"Toxteth was having a tough time and he helped change that. Everyone knew Ronnie and everyone went to the club - some for two months, some for two years and some, like me, for 40 odd years.

"His achievements rubbed off on us. He gave us something to look up to. I've got kids now coming to me and that's his legacy."

Andrew Colwell says what his father did "for other people is what gave him most reward".

"My dad didn't really have much of an education. He left school when he was about 13, but became a very clever, self-educated guy who put a lot of value in education.

"I think that is why he was such a good teacher, bizarrely. Seeing others learning and being educated was something he was proud of. He was an inspiration."


Image source, Getty Images
  • Karate originated thousands of years ago and was brought to Japan from China, Taiwan and Okinawa (an island which is now part of modern Japan)
  • The original characters for karate meant "China Hand". They later became characters with the same pronunciation that meant "empty hand"
  • To be able to use karate effectively, each separate technique - blocking, kicking, punching - has to be practised individually then put together into different combinations during basic training
  • The martial art, which has never been a full Olympic sport, is likely to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games

Source: Shuriway/BBC Sport

As for the Liverpool Samurai moniker, that is something Andrew says would have been met with "a wry smile".

"My dad lived in Japan twice and became part of the house of Hikari - he was ordained into that house and he had very close ties with Japan.

"That's why he had the Samurai suit. It was given to him by the people who make them for the Japanese royal family.

"It's emblazoned with his crest, the Hikari mon - a Japanese badge - and he was a standard bearer for that house.

"To be called the Liverpool Samurai would have made him smile because he was very proud of both things - the city and his Oriental ties."

Image source, Andrew Colwell
Image caption,
Colwell was awarded 10th dan status in 2011

The unveiling of the armour at the museum will be accompanied by a certificate from Liverpool's Lord Mayor, recognising the impact Colwell had on the city.

Andrew says that would have made his father happy, as he was "always aligned to the city".

"He had opportunities to emigrate to many different countries and he turned them all down - he was always a loyal and honest citizen of Liverpool.

"He lived abroad and worked away, but he always returned home to Liverpool, the place of his birth and a place he was very proud of."

Ronnie Colwell's armour and medals can be seen with other items from his life and career at the Museum of Liverpool

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