Think of Darwen's annual Gala and most Darweners will immediately think of Darwen weightlifters. Think of the weightlifters and you at once recall Little Chris Howson, renowned and remembered as both a gentle man and a gentleman.
I first met Chris Howson nearly 40 years ago. The weightlifting club had just a handful of members led by Jack Ainsworth and they trained in facilities that would have put off any but the most hardy and dedicated.
They were in part of a dilapidated old scrapyard in the Ellenshaw area but I remember they certainly weren't complaining. They were grateful, even though they often had to hammer chunks of ice off their rusting equipment before training and make do with an upended bottle of ice water instead of a hot shower after a gruelling session.
They didn't even complain when the roof fell in as they were used to moving "from cellar to stable; from scrapyard to basement," as I wrote for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph. Chris told me: "More than once we've had to move out quickly and get all our tackle across town on a couple of wheelbarrows."
"It's an endless worry," Jack told me back in 1967. "We'd love to find a place where we could develop the sport and encourage the youngsters." It took the club, with help from the newly-formed Sports Council, two years to find a home in the old Everton Street Barracks. Jack and Chris, together with early members Allan Kershaw and Luigi Staffa couldn't have been more pleased.
Darwen had finally done what it could for the club members and they in turn more than repaid the town for its help. Over the years the weightlifters raised thousands of pounds for charity and starred regularly at the annual Gala, setting world team dead-lift records in 1978 and 1981.
Their feats in breaking horseshoes and six inch nails and bending pokers became the talk of the town. But none more so than their amazing expertise in blowing up and bursting hot water bottles. It was all great fun. And the crowds loved it!
Jack Ainsworth, who lived in Olive Lane, was as nice a bloke as you would wish to meet and his death in August 1994 left Little Chris heartbroken. By then veteran Chris himself was not in the best of health and he died after a lengthy illness the following April at his home in Lloyd Street, leaving a widow Pauline and a daughter Tracey who was the light of his life. He was 67.
Over the years Chris Howson had worked tirelessly for a wide range of charities and he was probably the town's best-known character. He spent a lot of time passing on his technique and enthusiasm to youngsters at Darwen Leisure Centre and always had a cheery word for everyone.
Among the highlights of his colourful career in weightlifting were the annual displays at Darwen Gala. "Great days," he used to say. "The whole town seems to turn out whatever the weather. And it's wonderful to see all the youngsters having a nice time."
Little Chris was a true Darwen character, just as his power-lifting hero Bill Hunt had been before him. He was barely 4ft 11in, but stocky and muscular. He used to stride along Blackburn Road like a cowboy from the Wild West, a smile or a "Hiya" for everyone he passed. Everyone knew Little Chris.
Joe Fairhurst, former editor of the Darwen Advertiser, penned a moving tribute to the Little Big Man. "He had a simple but wonderful philosophy," wrote Joe. "His quiet charming manner; his wide-eyed innocent belief in everyone made this little Darwener giant among men."
Joe wrote: "There was no mountain he wouldn't climb for his friends or for a good cause. I don't believe he was afraid of anything. He met it head on and was tireless in helping countless young Darweners do the same. Now that brilliant spark has gone from our lives, but the light will remain as long as people strive for excellence."
Darwen Weightlifting Club goes back nearly 60 years. It was founded in 1947 by Jack and Chris and Jack's brother Maurice. They first met in the cellar of Yana's cafe in Bolton Road which is now a hairdresser's. Then they moved to another cellar in Foundry Street near to the "Saddler's". They moved around but had a few steady years in Vernon Street School and in about 1958 Allan and Luigi joined together with Peter Cooper, Ken Aspden and Franco Mazzafiore.
They later ended up in yet another cellar in what is now Gibson's ironmongers in Duckworth Street and membership grew to include Dave Packer, Kevin Niland, Bob Cracknell, Vinnie and Philip Crabtree, Bob Wright, Steven Nigh and many more.
By now the club was well-established and they often entertained local schools and raised money for charity as well as appearing at the Darwen Gala where the piano smashing contest was always great fun.
The club is still going but, like so many similar groups, interest is not what it was. Says Allan: "Power lifting needs absolute dedication. There just isn't a lot of that around these days."
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