Patrick Chaplin: Players Past & Present

Leighton Rees

Leighton Rees Included In The Dictionary Of National Biography

Leighton ReesLeighton Rees, the first World Professional Darts Champion and probably the best-known and best-loved Welsh darter of all time, has become the first British darts player to appear in the prestigious Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) published by the Oxford University Press. The Dictionary has been described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘The greatest reference work on earth.’

Darts Historian Patrick Chaplin has been invited to prepare the entry on Leighton’s life by the Research Editor of the DNB, Dr. Alex May. Patrick, who is also a member of the British Society of Sports History, told Darts World ‘It’s an absolute honour to be asked to write a piece about Leighton. The Dictionary of National Biography is an illustrated collection of more than 50,000 specially written biographies of men and women from around the world who shaped all aspects of Britain’s past. Leighton certainly helped shape the future of the sport of darts and so has every right to be included.’ Leighton’s wife Debbie, saw Patrick’s article in draft form, says that it is ‘A true testimony to a great man.’

© 2006 Darts World/Patrick Chaplin

In January 2007 the article about Leighton appeared in the Oxford DNB. The following is a copy of the original work submitted by Patrick to the DNB.

OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY

Rees, Leighton Thomas (1940-2003), darts player

by Patrick Chaplin

Rees, Leighton Thomas (1940-2003), professional darts player, was born on 17 January 1940 at the Lady Aberdare Maternity Home, Mountain Ash near Pontypridd, Glamorganshire, only son of Ivor Thomas Rees, lorry driver, and his wife, Olwen Holt. Although he travelled extensively as a professional darts player, for most of his life his home was Ynysybwl, near Pontypridd. He was educated at Trerobert Junior School and the Mill Street Secondary Modern School. It was during his period at Mill Street that he threw his first darts at the local Ynysybwl United Services Club. In 1979 Leighton admitted ‘I was only an average pupil and cannot remember being gripped by the urge for learning.’ Upon leaving Mill Street at the age of 15 one of his teachers declared he would be “good only for reading the sports pages of the South Wales Echo,” his mind having been more on rugby football than anything else. (Daily Telegraph)

He immediately began work a local factory, Simmonds Air Accessories, which specialized in manufacturing nuts and bolts, eventually moving into the Despatch Office where he remained for twenty-one years. It was during his lunch hours that Leighton became interested in darts. A factory team was established, based at The Colliers Arms at Porth, and played in the Pontypridd District Darts League. Leighton was a team member for two years before signing for the United Services Club, Ynysybwl on whose books he remained for his entire career in darts.

Leighton’s ambition was always to win the prestigious News of the World Individual Darts Championship. Although he reached the Grand Finals in London on no less than three occasions (1970, 1974 and 1976) his dream was never realised. Rees later said, ‘It is every player’s dream of success and, as it turned out, my impossible dream.’ (Lanning, 58)

By 1974 Leighton had been capped for both the Wales and Great Britain national teams and was receiving numerous invitations to appear at events and play exhibitions around the country. This placed him in a dilemma. He told his biographer Dave Lanning

‘I loved my job, my workmates, the uncomplicated routine of my life. A simple home life, Mum’s cooking, friendly employers, a boisterous, if beery, social existence. It all offered an odd sort of security, protection. You could call it humdrum. But I was perfectly happy and who needs fame, fortune and flashiness if you’re happy and healthy enough not to have a hangover after a night out with your mates?’ (Lanning, 7)

It was during the late 1970s that the ubiquitous pub game of darts was elevated to a global sport by the combination of the drive and organisational skills of the British Darts Organisation (BDO) and the involvement of television with its innovative split-screen technology. Almost overnight amateur dart players were transformed into highly paid professional players. Eventually, convinced by his manager Eddie Norman and his Welsh darts colleague and friend Alan Evans, Leighton turned professional in 1976 and became one of the darts players who helped usher in a new era for the sport. (The Times)

Leighton’s first major international success came at the Wembley Conference Centre, London in December 1977 when he led the Welsh national team to victory in the inaugural World Darts Federation (WDF) World Cup and won the individual title at the same event. (Darts World, January 1978) But the highpoint of his darts career came on 10th February 1978 when Leighton became the first ever World Professional Darts Champion in the Embassy World Professional Darts Championship organised by the British Darts Organisation (BDO) and held at the Heart of the Midlands Club, Nottingham. He beat England’s John Lowe by 11 legs to 7 in the Final and collected the winner’s cheque for £3,000. (Darts World, March 1978) Later, in honour of their world champion, Leighton’s local council named a street after him, Leighton Rees Close. (John Lowe, 296)

Although winning the World Professional Darts Championship was the pinnacle of his career, Leighton continued to be a leading contender in all major darts competitions for which he entered. In his international career he represented Wales on no less than 77 occasions and, even as his health began to decline in the 1990s, he remained a highly popular player on the lucrative exhibition circuit until ill-health forced him into retirement (The Times).

In 2002, in what was to become his last major interview, he spoke to his old friend and adversary John Lowe about his career in darts. Leighton told John that he would not change anything but then added, ‘If only I had a crystal ball at the time. I would have looked after my health and money differently.’ (John Lowe, 296) Leighton eventually succumbed to a long-term heart condition and died on 8 June 2003 at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant. He is survived by his wife Debbie (nee Ryle), whom he had married in Las Vegas on 16 August 1980, and son Ryan.

Patrick Chaplin

© 2006 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

It is hoped that Leighton is not the only darts player to eventually be mentioned in the prestigious DNB.

Supplementary note – December 2007

I recently learned that Leighton’s wife Debbie passed away during the summer of 2007. My sincere condolences to Ryan.

© Patrick Chaplin 2007