Local bodybuilding legend mourned – Wigan Today

Derek during his bodybuilding days

Derek Gibbons dedicated his life to health and fitness, representing England in the Mr Universe competition, appearing on television and mentoring younger athletes including wrestler Davey Boy Smith, better known as the British Bulldog.

He died at home in Lowton on August 26 surrounded by his family, including his wife of 67 years Joan.

Derek was born in Downall Green and lived on Rectory Road with his parents Winifred and Bert, his brother and four sisters.

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The Second World War broke out when he was just seven, so he had to get used to Anderson shelters, blackouts, gas masks and rationing.

He was dealt a devastating blow when he contracted life-changing illness rheumatic fever at the age of 11, which caused a heart defect. He had to stop playing games and sports, as well as woodworking.

But a GP told him about a light training regime of calisthenics, which allowed him to start building up his strength.

His father helped him to buy his first barbell set in 1946 from a firm in Burnley and Derek carried them all the way home from Garswood station. He kept the receipt in his wallet for the rest of his life. A pre-fab hut was installed in the garden at the family home as Derek’s first gym.

At the age of 16, in 1948, he entered the Junior Mr Flyde Coast competition in Morecambe and won, making him the first bodybuilder from Wigan to win a title.

He met Joan in 1950 in a milkshake bar in Ashton and the couple spent two years travelling around the North West, where he won various competitions.

Derek was called up for national service in 1953 and overcame his health problems to complete rigorous training and become a physical training instructor. On March 27, 1954, Derek secured a 48-hour pass from his army service so he could marry Joan at St Thomas’ Church in Ashton.

Their daughter Catherine was born that year and the family later grew with her two children and two grandsons.

When Derek was demobbed, he returned to his jobs at wagon works in Earlstown and had various temporary gym locations, before opening Ashton Health Club near the steps at Ashton Market.

It was a busy time for him, as he juggled his work, family, training and competing.

Derek represented England in Mr Universe at the London Palladium in 1955 and the following year he won Mr England.

He appeared on TV regularly in the Holiday Town Parade variety show, where he met stars including Errol Flynn. He also performed up and down the country in a cabaret act, tearing phone books in half, bending nails with his teeth and lifting dumbbells with his little finger while doing the splits!

He become close friends with Dave Prowse, who played Darth Vader in Star Wars, and met Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery.

Derek started to run his gym full-time and passed exams in physiotherapy, physical education and chiropody.

At one point he was asked to become a physio for Wigan Athletic, but that was scuppered when he dropped weights on his foot in a gym accident and almost lost four of his toes.

He loved working in his gym, which produced four Mr Britains and 29 athletes who represented their country over the years. Kathleen Winstanley came second in Miss World and Davey Boy Smith took the wrestling world by storm.

After the gym closed in 1995, he continued judging, became highly skilled in woodwork and wood carving, and enjoyed holidays with Joan.

A funeral will be held at 1pm on Monday at Wigan Crematorium, followed by a celebration of his life at Stubshaw Cross Club.

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