A RUGBY lover described by his family as a "pillar of society" has died.

Bill Barnett, a lifelong supporter and member of Thurrock Rugby Club, died on Sunday at the age of 86, following a long battle with dementia.

Mr Barnett, who lived in Grays and later Orsett after moving from Wales aged nine, was one of those behind the construction of Thurrock Rugby Club’s Oakfield club house.

He not only helped to build the first clubhouse in Long Lane but designed and built the present club venue near Blackshots. He proudly watched his two sons Michael and Glyn play for the club, too.

Mr Barnett himself started out playing for Thames Board Mills in Purfleet before qualifying as a referee.

In a joint statement, his family - consisting of wife Nina, son Michael, daughter-in-law Jill and his five grandaughters - said: "He will be missed very much. He was a loving husband, Dad and Grandad. He will be missed by friends and everyone who knew him.

"He was a lovely, irreplacable man.

"One of his favourite roles was as Father Christmas, when every year Bill would sit for hours on the Rotary Club sleigh, helping to raise money for charity."

Brian Howells, president of Thurrock Rugby Club told the Gazette that the club would not be where it is now if it had not been for Mr Barnett. He said: "He was a great bloke. He was a very strong character.

"His dedication to the club was unbeatable. I don’t think the club would be the club it is if it wasn’t for him. That’s his legacy.

"The club owes him a great deal for his efforts to get us moving."

Aside from rugby, Mr Barnett worked worked for Murex, and later for Purfleet Deep Wharf, where he was engineering eirector.

As a qualified engineer, he contributed to the construction of several houses and other projects in Thurrock. He was instrumental in the building of a large extension to Orsett Primary School, while he was chairman of governors there.

He also served on the committees of Orsett Charities, Orsett Village Hall and with the local Conservative party.

Sue Little, a Conservative Orsett ward councillor who was friends with Mr Barnett from a young age, said: "He was larger than life and kind. He was generous in spirit and money - donating to many local organisations.

"He was lovely and a great community man. He’ll be missed."

His funeral will be held at Pitsea crematorium on Tuesday, June 10 at 10.40am.