Suffolk bowls legend Derek Johnson dies, aged 88

The Margaret Catchpole rink which won the Suffolk EBA county fours in 1974. (left to right): Derek F

The Margaret Catchpole rink which won the Suffolk EBA county fours in 1974. (left to right): Derek Farr, Derek Johnson, Ron Gage and DC 'Chick' Halls. - Credit: Archant

Suffolk Bowls has lost one of its greatest-ever players following the death of Derek Johnson, writes Steve Prentice.

Derek Johnson, a legend of Suffolk bowls, has died aged 88

Derek Johnson, a legend of Suffolk bowls, has died aged 88 - Credit: Archant

One of only eight men from Suffolk to have represented his country at the top level in the sport of bowls, Derek – who passed away on April 2, aged 88 – quite rightly took tremendous pride in wearing his treasured England Blazer.

Always positive and encouraging to his bowling colleagues, he was one of the sport’s purists, possessing a razor sharp tactical brain, intense concentration and the fierce will to win that all champions require.

In 1994, in his Ipswich Evening Star column, former Commonwealth Games competitor, Roy Cutts, who, like Derek also represented Suffolk and England, offered the following view: “In my opinion, Derek was the finest all-round player that I have seen or played against from Suffolk, he certainly was a superb stylist.” High praise indeed.

Whilst former England captain and current Suffolk Middleton Cup player/manager John Rednall counts Derek as one of his early inspirations. He said: “Derek was a player I so vividly remember at his peak when I started playing bowls as a youngster. Like all great players he had the ability to seemingly play the all-important shot when it looked impossible to do so.”

Derek began his illustrious bowling career in 1949, spending two years with his father at the Duke of Gloucester, adjacent to the family’s grocery shop in Clapgate Lane. This was followed by a further year at the Marlborough Bowls Club before settling at the Margaret Catchpole in 1952.

A collection of great bowlers and characters contributed to a halcyon time for the Cliff Lane based club. Derek and his long-term playing partner, Ron Gage, himself one of Suffolk’s greatest ever players, were joined by the likes of Derek Farr, Ralph Gage, Chick Halls, Derek Curtis and Mervyn Thomas in winning a multitude of County and Eastern Counties competitions.

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For just over a decade they dominated the Suffolk County Championships – from 1968 – 1979 they captured 12 county and 3 Eastern Counties titles. He also led his beloved Margaret Catchpole teams to three victories in the Norton Cup and its only Quinton Bowl success.

During the 1960s and 70s Derek was a constant presence at the National Championships, and it was his performances on this stage, including three semi-final appearances, that led to international recognition.

Selected for the 1971, 1972 and 1977 Home International Series, he played in the lead position on a rink skipped by the most recognisable man in the game’s history, the pipe-smoking David Bryant.

He was a regular in Suffolk’s Eastern Counties and Middleton Cup teams for many years too, appearing in the team which reached the final for the first time in 1968.

Indoors he was a founder member of the Ipswich & District Indoor BC which opened in 1970 and then following his relocation, he moved to the Diss indoor club. The indoor game suited him too and this gave him the unique distinction of becoming the first person from Suffolk to win all of the county titles (singles, pairs, triples and fours) on both indoor and outdoor surfaces.

When he moved to Yaxley in 1983, he joined the Borough of Eye BC where he would often unite with another of Suffolk bowls most ebullient characters, Alfie Chambers. The two of them would regularly combine to put on ‘exhibition performances’. He also enjoyed a four year spell with Debenham before retiring from the game.

Derek was a sociable, friendly character with forthright opinions. He certainly reveled in debating the matters of the day, whether bowls related or not.

This was underpinned by a real passion and love for the sport of bowls. He enjoyed teaching beginners and then mentoring them as they too enjoyed success. He desperately wanted to see Suffolk achieve glory at national level and was an ever-present at Middleton Cup home matches, whilst his health would allow.

Even these days the elder statesmen of the sport from far and wide remember Derek fondly, whilst members of the Margaret Catchpole, both past and present are tremendously grateful to him for the honour and distinction he brought to their club.

His final visit to the Margaret Catchpole, where he was made an Honorary Life Member, was with his wife, Rita on the club’s 70th anniversary celebration day, which coincided with their diamond wedding anniversary.

He was in great spirits and spent the afternoon chatting with an array of current and former club members. In recent years his health slowly failed him and he eventually passed away peacefully. He leaves his wife and children Roger and Judith and their respective families.