Jack the Lad
Updated: Feb 11
A guest article by John Senior.
'It's Mr Fowler to you!' These were the first words Jack ever said to me as a young, well, a 23 year old upstart want-to-be bowler. Many would not be at all surprised that our first meeting was in a pub. Jack certainly spent a fair proportion of his time in the local hostelries and, in fact, it seemed to me more time than he spent in his bed. After one Saturday playing bowls and celebrating a win, he actually slept in his own privet hedge.
That first meeting was in the Park Hotel, Leppings Lane, Sheffield, around 1 o’clock Saturday afternoon. Jack was calming his pre-game nerves with the odd pint or two, waiting for a lift from one of his Millhouses Park team mates. I believe Jack could not drive, thank god for that mercy, so it was either the bus or more often a lift from a team mate for his bowls match in the early eighties when he was in his pomp. Dressed very smartly in his grey slacks, burgundy team jumper, sponsored trainers and Tetley sponsored Millhouses bowls bag, Jack looked like a professional bowler to me, someone to aspire to.
Jack was like marmite, you either loved him or disliked him, the loveable rogue and the master of the one line put down, but not brash or big headed. Many reading this will have known Jack and undoubtedly everyone will have a story about him. He was larger than life, he could play his audience and basically toyed with us upstarts, playing us like small children in front of the Grandmaster and entertainer.
Crown green bowls in Sheffield in the early eighties was not about the Waterloo, Bass Masters, or other big handicaps. Few could afford or had the transportation to travel too far and, frankly, not many would have held their own in those spheres. One or two could and we will cover that later. Sheffield bowls was all about the Telegraph league and the Civic competition held a Hillsborough Park. There was the City of Sheffield Competition, sponsored by the local sweet company and known as 'the Bertie Bassett', also at Hillsborough Park and which attracted a good number of travellers from Manchester and Yorkshire, plus the odd handicap competition. But it was all about the Telegraph; Millhouses were one of the best teams around and generally were competing with Hillsborough and Meersbrook Park to win it.
Back to Jack, well the only thing I know of his formative years was that he was a professional footballer, a rugged centre half and that he played for Chesterfield FC. To what degree any of the following is precisely true is maybe questionable and I am sure others may have a different recollection, particularly as Jack's was often lubricated by the amber nectar as he held court in the Park Hotel. Jack told me that one Saturday whilst playing for Chesterfield he managed to get himself sent off before most of the Directors had taken their seats. He then, in his own inimitable style, with a few choice words of the colourful variety, admonished the groundsman because the water for the bath was not yet warm. Well, you weren’t supposed to get in for another couple of hours! That was Jack.
Jack was a team man. His approach to entering individual competitions was lack lustre at best. Although he did enter a few, with some success, his goal as with many things was to win enough cash to get a good drink out of it. He played in a handicap at Dodworth Miners' Welfare and reached the latter stages. When it came to the presentation Jack discovered to his complete dismay that there was actually no money, all of the prizes were just that - prizes - and he had won an instamatic camera. He was not best pleased, as you can well imagine. However, his wife was even less pleased to discover that he sold this new state of the art camera in the club for a few quid. At least he got a good drink!
Another of his rare forays into competition bowls took him to Spen Victoria, where he played against a very young lad he didn't know at the time and subsequently lost. He was not at all pleased, especially when he found out that this young lad by the name of Andy Moore was not old enough to enter the competition. 'I’ve lost to the f…… paper lad'. By chance Andy lived less that a mile from Jack and it was conjecture whether he was in fact the paper boy who delivered Jack's newspaper, amongst others. Andy grew up to be a very good player and a very good friend. The nickname, however, stuck and on the Sheffield bowls circuit, well into his thirties, everyone still called Andy the paper lad. They actually played together in the Tuesday night league for a small backstreet club of much debauchery called La Plata, where few made it home after games until after midnight, with Jack organising indoor bowls in the concert room. Rumour has it that the surface was pretty slick but could be sticky. Andy also fell foul of a drink in the Park Hotel with Jack. Having won a valuable competition at Meersbrook Bowling Club in his late teens, one year on he was geared up to defend his title that weekend. Andy cherished his wooden bowls, and played the quick greens particularly well. In those days he played at the Pinegrove Country Club in the South Yorkshire Friday Night league and usually afterwards we would find Jack in the Park Hotel. Somehow, after a few beers with Jack, Andy managed to leave his bag in the car park and it was run over by a car. On arriving at Meersbrook to defend his crown he discovered a tear in the side of his bag, one of his bowls had mysteriously fallen out and was missing. The bowl was never found and Andy was never the same player.
Another bowls bag , this time his own, came in handy when Jack needed something to carry a lot of lead he had acquired from a job he was doing with the Yorkshire Electricity Board. There was quite a lot of it and on the bus to the scrap yard with his son Chris the handle broke. Jack was happy, however, as he raised enough cash from the sale for a drink and had plenty left over to dispatch his wife to the sports shop to buy him a new bag.
Jack was, for all of his misdemeanours, a very good player, especially when playing for a team in a one-off match. He let the opposition have it and also his own men. Whilst never underestimating his contribution as a player, he was worth as many again on the sidelines. Whether he had won or lost Jack would be shouting for his men and he was certainly someone you wanted shouting for you rather than against you.
The Sheffield Parks league in the early eighties boasted upwards of 8 divisions. The top league was the Telegraph. Jack played for Millhouses, who had a fair number of good players, but probably only Ian Ross, winner of the All England and British Parks Merit in 1981, was a true star.
How Jack came to be at Millhouses was a story in itself. Many will know Robert Jackson, Mr Millhouses and one of the main characters running Sheffield bowls at the time. Bob, as many knew him, was also a JP and the columnist for the Sheffield Star, publishing a full page of Bowls news and pictures in the 'Green un' each Saturday evening. He was also the inventor of 'Praise and Grumble' as part of his role as sports presenter on Radio Sheffield, which many stations have subsequently copied, including 606 on 5 live, where supporters of football clubs call in after matches to praise or moan about their team. Though they were from very different walks of life, Bob saw what a good player and team man Jack was and decided to ask Jack to transfer to Millhouses to strengthen their team. He arranged to visit Jack, at his Parsons Cross home in north Sheffield. The story goes that when Bob arrived Jack (more likely his wife) invited him inside and offered him a cup of tea. The family dog took a dislike to Bob and bit him. I am sure any video would have been a viral hit on social media. It all turned out fine, however, as Jack signed on the dotted line to become a Millhouses player, no small commitment for someone who did not drive, playing for a team ten miles away in the south of Sheffield.
Jack's dog actually continued its propensity to enjoy taking chunks out of crown green bowlers. Jack's TV had broken and, when the TV repair man called, the dog did its best to eat him. The TV repair man was another crown green man, Paul Middlemas of Stannington. Jack was telling the story to the bowls fraternity, in his normal way over a beer in the Pinegrove Club, when someone asked if it was a mongrel. Quick as a flash Jack replied, 'No it’s a Panasonic'. You can imagine the scene as the bar erupted in laughter and at least one of the assembled bowlers fell off his chair. That was Jack, the master of delivering the punchline.
Playing all but four games away from home, Jack represented South Yorkshire on 23 occasions between 1981 and 1988. He won 13 and lost 10 games. Perhaps his finest performance was to be his last, beating Jeremy Muff from Yorkshire, a multiple winner and very successful circuit bowler. Jack's 21-10 away from home at Cleckheaton in July 1988 was the only South Yorkshire away winning card that day and he was batting at number 1. He was ever present in the 1983 Crosfield Cup (County Championship) winning team, winning 4 out of his 5 games, again all away from home. Despite some near misses this remains the only time South Yorkshire have lifted the cup and is testament to the quality of those players, most of whom, like Jack, did not play on the lucrative circuit around Lancashire and Huddersfield. This was undoubtedly where he was at his best, a team match, with a big vociferous crowd, preferably shouting him down so that he could kill them all with his wit.
As mentioned, Jack was not a prolific handicap player. He did enter a few competitions, however, and provided me with a lasting memory in the City of Sheffield open at Hillsborough Park number 1 green. It was a baking hot day, the crowd were three deep and by mid afternoon the competition had reached the semi final stage. As usual, there were a number of travellers, and only Jack was left from the Sheffield contingent. As you would expect, he was giving it his all and had found a mark along the edge alongside the number 2 green. Sweating, shouting, running and nearly kicking every bowl, including his leads, as usual the crowd was either for or against him. Pure theatre. Whilst most of the spectators were enthused and enjoyed Jack's antics, he was always stretching the rules. For some spectators, often the ladies, who preferred their bowls in a more genteel garden party environment reminiscent of flat green bowls, the referee should have been taking action. They would have happily and loudly clapped, had the referee removed his bowls or, even better, disqualified Jack. However, referees of that era let the players play as long as neither had cause to complain. Antics like Jack's were all part of the game and were very entertaining. As Jack stamped another bowl up to the jack, Mrs Garden Party shouted, 'Mr Fowler you are a nasty man!' She was immediately muted for the rest of the afternoon by a Jack riposte, one of his one liners, 'Mrs, should you not be at home burning the Yorkshire puddings?' This interchange left everyone apart from Mrs Garden Party in tears of laughter. Jack was definitely unlike most bowlers; he was one who would play better the more he engaged with the crowd. It was worth the entry money to watch him in his prime.
Getting a decent drink from his competition winnings, and anyone else’s, was often Jack's primary aim. Never malicious but always hilarious, woe betide any team-mate who did not stand his corner in the pub after a good handicap win. These were, of course, the days when a pint was about 50p and reaching a semi final could well herald a win of £250. Star man Ian Ross was often the target for Jack, as 'Rossy' won a lot more prize money than most of the team. Probably more than the rest of the team put together. After one successful outing, Ian was playing an evening game with Millhouses. All of the team congratulated him on another win. Ian was not known to be flash with his cash. The team reached the bar after the game and Jack made it known to all that Ian was buying the drinks with his winnings, unbeknown to Ian. Ian protested, 'I gave all of my winnings to Rachel,' his wife, who was with the team at the time. Rachel countered, 'He has plenty left Jack; he only gave me half. He thinks I don’t know he won £400, but only gave me £200'. On a separate occasion, after a game at Bradgate in Rotherham, Rossy suffered again for his success. After winning a gold cup and another £400, approaching the bar afterwards Jack engaged Ian in conversation. 'Now then, Rossy, when we get in t' pub don’t disappoint me and get the fags out.'
Jack also managed to cause uproar after a game at Beighton Miners Welfare Bowls Club. When the team retired for a post match drink, it just so happened that the bingo had started. The team were talking and a lady sitting next to them asked for quiet as she could not hear the numbers. Jack then engaged her in a conversation before telling her she had now missed a few more. The entire team was admonished by the steward, instructed to leave and finish of their drinks in the corridor.
As the Sheffield Star sports reporter, Bob Jackson made sure that the paper's photographer was present at every major final to take a picture of the teams to accompany his report. Before one such Millhouses win Bob summoned the players for the photo, including Jack. Jack refused to be on the team photo, 'I can’t have my photo taken cuss I am on t' panel with a bad back'. It troubled Jack all evening, wondering how he would explain to his bosses that he was playing bowls but was unable to work. It affected his game and he threw them all over the place. Bob told him he must go on the photo again at the end. It was a pairs cup and would look odd with 7 players. Whilst Jack protested, he eventually he did go on the photo but only with an assurance that Bob would misprint his name in the newspaper.
That bout of illness also gave Bob a chance to get revenge on Jack for his dog bite. Bob’s son Richard had arranged to pick Jack up for the Saturday afternoon Telegraph match. Bob knew this and at the time was presenting his Saturday afternoon sports show on Radio Sheffield. He also knew at exactly what time they would be travelling in the car. Bob called out on the radio, "Here’s a song for a friend of mine who is ill at present. Jack Fowler, from all of your work colleagues at the YEB here are the 3 Degrees with 'When will I see you again'". It was not often Jack was the butt of a joke!
There was never a dull moment with Jack around. He offered sound advice, was a very funny man but, above all, was a great team man who took his bowls seriously. And he was always entertaining. RIP
Many thanks to John Senior (formerly of Millhouses & South Yorkshire) for this article. Thanks also to Chris Fowler and Richard Jackson for their memories of Jack, Graham Garnett for county stats and to Darren Smith, Richard Jackson and David Rodgers for photos.