Phil and Caroline Welch
Phil Welch hands the mayoress’s chains to his wife Caroline
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Local journalism isn’t normally the way to fame and fortune – but one hack from SE London’s long-gone local paper has made it big in the West Country. 853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN caught up with an old friend…

Taxi outside. Zooming to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich, about me knees. Not sure if I’m under the knife or if they’re just having a good look.

Shame, because I was just about to complete a column about a remarkable journo who took over as chief sub-editor at the Merc in the late ’70s and went on, among other things, to take Somerset by storm.

Philip Welch managed, in his serene way, to add “appropriate” to the Mercury’s quirky style – accepting that fish had indeed been found in the Thames but refusing to agree that it merited the headline “The Eels Are Alive”.

Phil was always bound to go places but even I didn’t see him as the 647th Mayor of Wells, a title bestowed up on him just a few weeks ago.

Phil Welch
Phil in his Deptford days

Okay, cabbie, I’m coming… luckily I’ve got stuff from the Wells Journal he once edited, plus emailed thoughts down the years and from eye-to-eye across the table as he prodded his favourite prawn dhansak in one-bridge Wells.

So I’ll just have to leave it to Ed to weave it together…

So (writes Ed reluctantly), today’s Phil reckons: “The South East London Mercury was the best paper for hundreds of miles, with a brilliant weekly column read avidly by thousands of loving fans (Don’t overdo the irony, mate – Ed).

“Now the Mercury is kaput and MM is read only by my mum, two Millwall fans and a dyslexic dog. Meanwhile, old Mercury mates have gone on to great glory like Geordie Greig, now editor of the Daily Mail.

(How the Daily Mail has an editor with a soul of gold is beyond Phil and me, but there you go. Perhaps it was the example set by the man who took him on at the Merc, Roger Norman, who got a gong for services to local journalism, including nailing the National Front on local elections day).

Phil again: “Mayor-making this year in Wells Town Hall was a bit different. The usual five hours of pomp and ceremony with 100 guests, drinks, supper, even a disco – none of that happened this time.

“Instead the Rule of Six meant only half a dozen took part in a basic 15-minute ceremony in the huge town hall ballroom, then I, as the new mayor, took my grandchildren for a pizza!”

Known lovingly as ‘Mr Community’ in that part of cidery Somerset, Phil hastens to point out that he hasn’t always been a pillar of society, especially during his time in SE London.

“I was a tenant of actor ‘Terry the Hat’ Cowling in Columb Street, east Greenwich – legendary for its amazing parties. I liked an occasional drink, and a dance, and then of course there were the women, but I can’t go into all that here.

“Back to the Mercury… there was chief reporter Janet Midwinter, who went to work for the New York Post. Lovely, lively woman. I used to borrow her trendy Morris 1000 convertible. Poseur personified.

“How did it all start for me? Well, rough old Birkenhead. It made the Brandon Estate in Southwark look like west Greenwich. Then on to the Oxford Mail and senior roles at the Folkestone Herald and South Kent Gazette, Kentish Times, Western Daily Press, Bristol Evening Post, editor of the Milton Keynes Mirror (seriously), deputy editor of the Bath Evening Chronicle.

Wells Journal
How the Wells Journal reported Phil’s elevation to the mayoralty

Phil later moved to the Bristol Evening Post as the district chef sub-editor. It was there that he met his wife, Caroline, and they were married in Wells Town Hall in 2009, followed by a blessing in the Bishop’s Palace chapel.

If that’s not enough to compare Phil’s achievements with an MM who’s never stepped out of SE8 (the bookies in SE12, surely? – Ed), I don’t know what is. And the multifarious community work that led to mayoral magnificence needs to be listed for impact and clarification.

  • Greater coverage of the Glastonbury Festival due to his love of music
  • Becoming an independent city councillor
  • Vice chair of Wells Civic Society
  • Member of the Wells Dementia Action Alliance
  • Vice chair of the Heads Up mental health charity
  • And other roles, including the Wells In Mosaic team due to build a six-metre mosaic around Wells Recreation Ground

Phew… and, in typical Mercury fashion, he’s now trying to stop the Portway Annexe – which for many years housed popular adult education classes – being sold by Somerset County Council to developers.

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Phil, now 72, is quoted in the Wells Journal as turning down a job in big Bristol for “home” in weeny Wells. But we know that a little bit of his heart still resides in dashing Deptford High Street…

Mercury Man talks to SE Londoners with interesting tales to tell. Read his past stories.

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