Homeless man who lived on streets of Leith for two decades becomes global phenomenon

O​nce a familiar face on the streets of Leith and Edinburgh, Arthur Williams, a homeless man who lived on and in the vicinity of Leith Walk for two decades has become a global phenomenon after his image was shared around the world on social media, ​making him ​a viral hit.

Thursday, 8th April 2021, 4:34 pm
Updated Saturday, 10th April 2021, 1:33 pm
Bonnie Thompson, age 6 and Euan Thompson, age 5 visit the mural of Arthur Williams on Arthur Street, Leith

The story of Arthur Williams was part of the online project 100 Days of Leith, which celebrates the people, places and historic events which make​ the Capital's port ​unique.

Conceived ​during lockdown under the banner Leith For Ever, the virtual exhibition has ​now ​been visited more than 21,000 times, with Arthur ​proving ​the most popular post, with ​in excess of ​3,500 views.

“It’s marvellous to hear how many people were touched by Arthur’s story​,” says ​Natasha Collins-Just, ​his niece​, "I shared it myself with relatives around the world."​

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Bomb damaged Leith Theatre

The post featuring Arthur has now been viewed as far afield as Seychelles, where he was born. Williams​ ​became homeless in the late 1980s and stayed around Leith Walk until 2013, when his family finally persuaded him to move into a care home.

Collins-Just ​explains, “He is a very gentle soul.​ ​He was a familiar presence for people and he became part of Leith. He never begged but people looked out for him ​-​ or there was no way somebody could survive on the streets for so long.”

Staff at the Sea Breeze cafe on Leith Walk, the Scotmid supermarket and the local KFC all helped make sure Arthur did not go hungry, but he could never be persuaded to leave the streets.

“He always preferred his own company and he is a man of few words but the people of Leith took him to their hearts​,​”​ says his niece.​

Leith - Winter 1947

​Now 83, ​Arthur originally came ​to Leith in the mid-60s​, working at Henry Robb​'​s​ shipyard, ​the ​Sunblest ​bakery ​and ​local​ whisky bonds, even after becoming homeless. ​

F​ondly remembered ​as a ​kind and gentle soul, occasionally accepting food, but only very rarely accepting money​, Arthur is now being​ ​looked after in a residential care home.

Erin Thompson co-producer of 100 Days ​adds, the post about Arthur Williams has been shared and visited by people all over the world​.​

“I realised what was happening when my phone kept buzzing.​ ​The post has been viewed 3​,​542 times and been shared in America, Australia and the Seychelles.”

The Kirkgate

Producers of Leith For Ever worked with the family to make sure the post reflected the reality, rather than the many myths which grew around Arthu​r ​when he lived on the street​ and in ​December 2020 the family unveiled a mural of Arthur, on Arthur Street, created by local artist Shona Hardie.

The family also commissioned a bench on Smith’s Place​ and ​more than £9​,​000 has been raised for Edinburgh homeless charity Streetwork in his name.​

​“My dream is to make it to £10,000,​"​ sa​ys​ Natasha Collins-Just, who hopes his story and funds raised will help others struggling with homelessness and mental health issues.​

Arthur Williams as a young man

One Hundred Days of Leith, which was conceived as a way of uniting a community during lockdown, has included music, podcasts, and illustrated talks, as well as archive photos and oral history​ with m​ore than 50 Leith-based community groups​ ​involved in contributing to the project.

Among the most popular posts have been historical images of The Kirkgate before redevelopment, photos of the freezing winter of 1947 and a Remembrance Day post with stories of individual soldiers lost in war.​

Author ​Tim Bell, part of the steering group behind the project​ says: “One Hundred Days has been and remains a wonderful exercise in collective memory and celebration. Except it’s not always celebration, sometimes it’s being honest with the past and it isn’t always happy. ​It’s a contemporary expression of the ​Leith ​motto​, P​ersevere​.”

Ron Neish, a former wharfman, who contributed three articles on the history of shipbuilding in Leith, ​believes the project ​is a great opportunity to explore some neglected areas of history.

“What I have got out of it is to remind people of the amazing maritime heritage of Leith. Leith was building ships 400 years before the Clyde but there is very little evidence of that in national museums.”

100 Days of Leith ​Top 5 ​most popular posts​

Leith For Ever banner

​1: ​Day 85 Arthur Williams​ - ​The family of Arthur Williams tell the true story behind Shona Hardie’s mural​2:​ Day 54 The Kirkgate​ - Historic photographs of Leith’s central shopping street before redevelopment3​:​ Launch of Leith For Ever​ -​ Launched on November 5​,​ 2020 the project took its title from a banner protesting against amalgamation and proclaiming Leith For Ever4​:​ Winter of 1947​ - ​Memories of the harsh winter of 1947 are shared, together with historical photographs and memories shared by Leithers5​:​ Air raids in Leith​ -​ Historic photographs of bomb damage in Leith and memories of life during wartime.​

To see all the 'Days' go to ​https://www.leithforever.org/100days

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription