On Monday 8th May 1989, shortly after his 85th birthday, John Ross passed away. He had been ill for some time. In this article I look back on the life of the man who became known affectionately as ‘The Grandfather of Darts.
Born in 1904 John Ross was destined to become a legend in the world of darts. A legend not in the same way as one would apply the word to the likes of Jim Pike or Joe Hitchcock or Tom Barrett. No. John was never destined to become an individual darts ‘star’ like them. More importantly John was to give a lifetime to the game of darts, over 60 years which would span the most important decades in the development of the game from a frowned upon public bar activity to public acceptability.
John’s passion for darts was kindled as a child in an amusement arcade just round the corner from his family home in Poplar, East London. “I partly got hooked there,” he admitted to me in conversation in the summer of 1988, “The game fascinated me. I suppose I really became interested and involved in about 1920.”
Working behind the scenes, the first major breakthrough for darts came in 1925 when major breweries in the south-east of England realised the potential of promoting darts leagues. John was in amongst them and when the News of the World became involved with the game in 1927 everyone sat up and took notice and before long organised darts leagues were springing up all over the country.
John was an extremely successful league player winning many medals, his most prized one being the News of the World London County Division runners up medal in the 1938/39 season. (He was beaten by Jim Pike 2-1 in that Division final.) Consolation came that same year when he won the London Business Houses Amateur Sports Association Individual Championship.
Because of his age and occupation John was unable to join up when the war clouds gathered in 1939 but this did not stop him from ‘doing his bit’. As a member of the famous News of the World Team of Champions John toured up and down the country with Jim Pike (Captain), Leo Newstead and Harry Head playing darts against all-comers, all proceeds going to the Red Cross. Between 1940 and 1946 over £200,000 was raised through the efforts of the Team of Champions. (Taking 1946 as the benchmark this equates to £8.22m today (2019).)
After the war, in 1946, John, Jim, Leo and Harry formed the Jim Pike Company in partnership. This, apparently, gave all four darters ‘professional’ status and, thus, none were allowed to enter the News of the World Championships from that time. John did not take this to heart and indeed became NoW sub-area Secretary for the Ilford (Essex) Area in 1947. Seventeen years later in 1964 he became Divisional Secretary for the Eastern Counties; a job he held until 1984.
John left the Jim Pike Company in 1956 joining NODOR as Sales Manager. In 1957 he persuaded the board of directors to sponsor an experimental Fours competition, the organisation being managed by the Essex County Association of the National Darts Association of Great Britain (NDAGB). The following year, as the experiment had proved a success, the competition was extended to include three more counties, including London, and in 1959 four more were added. In 1961 the competition went national. John stayed with NODOR until the business was sold in 1983. John was then 79.
In 1961 John was elected Chairman of the NDAGB, a position he held until 1975 when he resigned only to be immediately elected President of the Association, a post he held until his death in May 1989.
After Jim Pike died in 1960 John more or less put his darts away. In addition the pressures of organising tournaments meant that he had little time for practice. He told me
“I didn’t get much play in at all and my play began to deteriorate very quickly so I decided “Forget it”, but I still often used to go to matches and feel the urge to get up there, especially if a player was in trouble over a double.”
One of the most memorable matches John ever played was after his ‘retirement’ from playing was in Honolulu in 1983 when he was guest of honour of the American Darts Organisation (ADO) at the Royal Hawaiian International Darts Tournament. John entered himself for the singles competition (“At 79, I was the oldest competitor by far.”) and predicted that he would be knocked out in the first round. He was right – but only just. John told me, “I had five shots – fifteen darts – at double 16!”
The ADO bestowed upon John Honorary Lifetime Membership, an honour few had been awarded before him. When receiving the commemorative plaque, John felt this to be one of the proudest moments of his life. (John is pictured below at home, next to that plaque.)
In such a comparatively short article it is impossible to list all the achievements of John Ross; suffice to say that he was extremely hard-working in the cause of darts at all levels and a well-respected figure in the sport for over six decades. A naturally modest man, his dedication to the game earned him such names as ‘The Grand Old Man of Darts’, ‘The Grandfather of Darts’ and ‘The Gentleman of Darts’.
John was a fount of knowledge. With so little written about the early development of the game researchers like me rely so much on the memories of important influences; people like John Ross. Look at any book on darts published between the 1970s and the late 1980s that are worth reading and you will be sure to find John’s name amongst the credits. He was a mine of information. John did write about his life in darts titled John Ross: Memoirs of a Darts-Playing Man which was never published. However, parts of the book were serialised in the short-lived darts magazine The Arrow.
Shortly before John’s 85th birthday in 1989 I asked him what he would still like to see achieved in darts he said that proper training of referees and officials should be seen as a priority. When asked if he regretted seemingly dedicating his life in the cause of darts he replied
“When I look back you know, I think I’ve a lot to thank the game of darts for. I enjoyed my playing tremendously. I’ve met some wonderful people, made some wonderful friends and got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from the work of organising darts over the years. If I was born again knowing what I know, and was asked to choose what I would like to do, I would choose the same.”
On hearing of John’s death England darts legend Bobby George told the News of the World, “If any dartsman deserved a place in the Honours List, John did.”
Darts would not be the international sport it is today but for the hard work and dedication of people like John Ross.
© 2020 Patrick Chaplin
Images © Patrick Chaplin and from my archive.