Tributes to a true Dereham character

Joe Johnson, a long-serving councillor, well known hairdresser and one of Dereham's great characters, has died aged 80.

He was a colourful raconteur and anyone who went for a trim in his barber's shop in Norwich Street between 1963 and when he hung up his scissors in 2007 always went away with a range of good stories and plenty of news about what was happening in the town.

While he spoke with a broad Norfolk accent and was proud of his beloved county, Mr Johnson was actually born in Gibraltar

His mother Rosa Vella was a Gibraltarian and he still has relatives there and remained passionate about protecting its future under British Sovereignty.

Mr Johnson grew up in Swanton Morley - where he lived for 50 years. He was educated at the village school and of the 42 pupils there, six of them were Johnsons – Joe and his two elder brothers and three younger sisters.


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After leaving school, he got a job with local builder Harold Pegg and as having two trades was the norm with small

firms, he learned painting and decorating and bricklaying.

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Development remained one string to Mr Johnson's bow and he and his wife Sheila spent four years building their own home in Dereham at Rosa Vella Drive, off Norwich Road, which was appropriately named after his mother.

The neighbouring plots were sold off to people also wanting to build their own property.

It was the building slump of the mid '50s which forced him to consider a sideline and the hairdressing contract

for RAF Swanton Morley came up.

Having practised the skill during his National Service days, he decided to go for it and after passing an informal test with Group Captain Goodman - which he once recalled 'had left him shaking life a leaf' - he was taken on and worked there for 22 years.

He used to do cuts in his home next to the Papermakers pub and rattled on the wall of the pub to let the servicemen in there playing darts know that it was time for the next customer.

Over the years he ran a string of salons with old friend and fellow great Dereham character Michael Fanthorpe.

He once shared a story of a man who returned because he missed the inimitable JD Johnson show.

'This bloke came in one day and said he had tried another hairdresser in town. I asked why he had come back to me. He said: 'The other barber didn't speak to me or insult me – I felt quite naked!''

Even the airmen back at Swanton Morley were treated to him sharing the Norfolk tongue and every Monday morning the Squadron Leader used to taken him a copy of the Dereham and Fakenham Times and he got him to read him the column written in the local dialect.

By the time Mr Johnson finished cutting hair, he was looking after the grandsons of some of his first customers.

Mr Johnson's love of Norfolk and its people was the driving force for him becoming a councillor.

His local government career started with Swanton Morley Parish Council, then the old Mitford and Launditch authority and later Breckland Council, where his highlight was chairing the recreation and amenities committee.

He was never a council puppet and stuck steadfastly to his views in his long career.

In his eventful life, Mr Johnson also ran a caravan business, enjoyed rally driving and being a radio ham.

Mr Johnson was a very positive character and fought stomach cancer at the end of the 1990s.

His family were 'the most important people in his life' and as well as his wife Sheila, Mr Johnson has a daughter

Jeanette and son in law Alan Taylor – the former West Ham and Norwich City striker. They have a son Gary, who Mr Johnson loved speed boating with and described him as 'more of a mate than a grandson.'

Mr Johnson also adored Gary's fiancee Jules.

A celebration of his life is being held at Dereham St Nicholas Church on Monday January 16, 2pm, followed by a private burial.

Mr Johnson made a personal request before he died of no flowers but donations can be made to Cancer Research UK.

He died in Lincoln House at Swanton Morley, where he had spent the last three months of his life and his family thanked staff for all their care.

Mrs Taylor said: 'We want the service for Dad to be happy as that is what he would want.'

Mrs Johnson said: 'He was a hard working man who loved life and loved his family. He was certainly an individual!'

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