ASK Star readers between 1973 and 2009 what page they turned to first every week and it’s a pretty safe bet “Whalley’s World” would be the answer on most lips.

Alan Whalley kept St Helens smiling over four decades as he served up a magic menu of larger than life characters and nuggets of nostalgia every week with his sublime storytelling skill.

Alan passed away last October, but we’re sure he’d be tickled pink to know his award winning words were making a timely comeback to the Star’s pages to inject a little cheer in these days of unprecedented darkness, tragedy and fear. 

This week’s piece, from 1994, shares some memories of ‘record breaking’ ale drinker Joe Johnson.

BIG Joe Johnson, the uncrowned world champion boozer, died in 1994 at the age of 62 with his dream of lasting fame unfulfilled.

Joe, a 17 stone former roadworker with an incredible capacity – he once outslurped a one-ton brewery shire horse – longed to have his string of tippling triumphs included in the Guinness Book of Records.

But his place among the mighty was blocked on the grounds that his type of ‘sport’ represented a major health hazard.

Joe from Albion Street, St Helens, could never quite understand why a world famous publication which carried gluttony and obesity entries and listed voluntary brushes with venomous snakes and the like, could refuse to acknowledge his prowess.

Certainly, Joe’s achievements which hit national press headlines on several occasions and earned him fleeting fame on local radio, would have provided spectacular reading for all record-book buffs.

As an old mate of mine from way back, he reckoned he had earned an unofficial world title when he guzzled a staggering 100 pints of flat bitter in one hour and 42 minutes at a workingmen’s club 15 years ago (the late 1970s). 

And there was a host of witnesses to this mind-boggling feat.

But Joe who never profited from his extraordinary talent, instead preferring to make his assaults on unofficial records in aid of charity, didn’t confine himself to ale. 

He also claimed a water drinking championship by necking five pints in 31 seconds.

Remarkably, this was just under his mark for five pints of beer, and during that particular achievement he even paused momentarily to light a fag.

I know, because I was there to see it happen.

Another of his party pieces was to polish off a dozen pints as Big Ben struck midnight on the radio (this, of course, also included the little wind-up tune before the first stroke).

It was the sort of form that caused the self-styled cider drinking champion of Somerset to fall off his stool in a head-to-head scrumpy-supping challenge staged by a Sunday newspaper in a Southern nightclub.

As the cider champ slowly sank into submission, Joe merely reached across for his opponent’s surplus pints and downed ‘em at the double.

“There didn’t seem any sense in wasting perfectly good stuff,” he later told me.

That Somerset pretender was as nothing compared with Joe’s four-footed challenger 12 years ago, Major, the pride of Thwaites brewery transport.
This mighty shire horse had developed  a fearsome thirst for his bucket of beer reward after a hard day’s slog.

But he proved no match for Joe.

Joe shifted five pints, from a separate sterilised bucket, in 37 seconds, a clear 15 seconds ahead of the mighty dray horse – much to the amazement of brewery transport chief Harry Cowell who had imagined that Major was invincible when it came to bucketing down the life-giving fluid.

Big Joe failed to fulfil another man-versus beast drinking challenge when the zoo camel he wished to take on at water drinking stubbornly refused to perform on cue.

During his time, Joe clocked up thousands of pounds for good causes.
He was particularly active in supporting the sadly unsuccessful campaign to keep the old St Helens Providence Hospital out of the shadow of the axe.

Yet in all the years I rubbed shoulders with him – a span reaching back to my youth – I never knew this burly son of Blackbrook to suffer mood swings or become helplessly drunk as the result of his amazing boozing bouts.

A huge uncomplicated happy-go-lucky fellow with a fund of funny anecdotes and a booming dark brown voice, he was one of the most extraordinary characters it has been my privilege to encounter.

A supporter of good causes and a chap who saw good in everybody, it could truly be said of Joe that he had a heart as big as a barrel.

This article was published in Whalley’s World in 1994.