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Gilbert Johnson: Death of a legend

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Gilbert Johnson

By Robin Morgan

Institute retired member Gilbert Johnson, a legend in the North of England and The Sun’s man in Yorkshire for many years, died on July 29 at the age of 81. .

Gilbert started his career on the South Yorkshire Times before going to work, in 1955, on the Hull Daily Mail. Within two years he was working for the nationals, covering the Yorkshire area for the Daily Herald, then the Daily Sketch and the Daily Express. He then joined the Sun in pre-Murdoch days and also did work for the News of the World.

He was a character and few Northern journalists could fail to come up with an anecdote about Gilbert – though few would be publishable!

In an obit in Press Gazette, his daughter, Susan, said: “On returning from National Service with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in Kenya it was expected he would resume his studies for the priesthood. But he told the priest he had decided mortal sin was much better, so he became a newspaperman!”

His career on The Sun was interrupted when he decided to quit the nationals’ rat-race and return to local journalism – as news editor of the Doncaster Evening Post. He joined on a Monday, quickly found that he and the editor did not see eye-to-eye and by the Friday was bitterly regretting his change of career. Gilbert went off to the pub to drown his sorrows, popped into a bookmaker’s shop to place an ‘impossible’ bet – saw it come up and, flushed with winnings, returned to the office to tell the unpopular editor what he could do with the job….and was back working for The Sun the following week!

When a major story broke in the North, once the cry went up “Here’s Gilbert” the story took on a new, usually hilarious, dimension as his personality and popularity became dominant.

Among the many ‘majors’ he covered were the John Poulson scandal, the Cod Wars, mining disasters and he was the first reporter to knock on the door of Viv Nicholson, who in 1961 won more than £150,000 on the football pools and famously declared she would “spend, spend, spend.” He was at the heart of the newspaper coverage into the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, and was one of the first to coin the “Yorkshire Ripper” identity.

Gilbert was also a keen racegoer, and, as a birthday surprise, when he turned 80 in May 2010 he arrived at Beverley Racecourse to find the 3.10 race named “The Gilbert Johnson 80 Not Out Handicap”.

He is survived by his wife Shirley, their son Chris, daughters Kate, Susan and Vicki and grandchildren Amy, Hayley, Matthew and Max.

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