In this essay, first published in the Cradley Parish Church Magazine of May 1959, a very young Peter Barnsley describes the Blue Ball Inn, and how some of the church officials and congregation of a local chapel found its proximity convenient after listening to a long sermon!
THE BLUE BALL - PAST, PRESENT . . . AND FUTURE?
During the Prohibition Era of 1920-23, when the American Government forbade the manufacture and sale of all strong drink, in the wildly optimistic belief that by cutting off the supply it could stem the demand, one of the features of the American scene was the "speakeasy". The speakeasy was an illicit liquor shop where drinks were sold behind closed doors, with or without the connivance of the local police.
If Prohibition ever came to England, no building could be better sited for the sale of illicit liquor than the Blue Ball Inn. Even today the Blue Ball has a hidden, secret air about itself. It lurks furtively at the foot of Blue Ball Lane, almost burying its face in the side of the Baptist Chapel, as if seeking not only concealment but a certain reflected respectability from its walls.
The Blue Ball even has a roundabout means of access for anyone who might wish to get there unobserved. A secret drinker can stroll with apparent innocence down Church Street, turn sharp right at the Church gate and plunge into the Innage - the narrow passage which runs from that point down into Blue Ball Lane, and comes out almost opposite the Blue Ball front door. The Innage must have originally been built for an alcoholic parson who wished to get from Church to Blue Ball with the minimum risk of detection. It zig-zags between high walls, giving almost as effective shelter and concealment as a slit trench.
Whatever its history, the Innage has certainly seen the passage of many worshippers anxious to quench the thirst which inevitably follows 75 minutes or so of community worship. One verger in past times even found himself unable to last the full service, but plunged down to the Blue Ball as soon as the sermon began, like a desert traveller who has spotted a distant oasis. Experience taught him how long any particular clergyman was likely to preach, and he learned to time his absence to fit the sermon. So, as the officiating parson walked out from the vestry to begin the service, his image was registered on the verger's brain not in the form of a figure in surplice and cassock, but as a glass or row of glasses, pint or half-pint in size, according to the known length of his sermons.
Higher officers than the verger have visited the Blue Ball, to the great scandalisation of the more puritanical Church members. Three very prominent officials were once disturbed in a mild Bacchanalian orgy by an elderly lady who expected less dissipated behaviour from her spiritual leaders. She was struck too speechless to do more than utter one word, repeated four times in tones which gradually grew more severe as she recovered her senses.
"Well!", she said (in a tone of surprised disapproval) ... "Well!!" (disapproval grown stronger on reflection) ... "Well!!!" (whoever would have thought it). Then, pausing in the doorway before making a dramatic exit - "Well!!!!" (final judgment and damnation). Her own mission in the Blue Ball is unknown but presumably blameless.
The Blue Ball has a happy and regular trade. In fact, going into the Blue Ball on successive nights, you might suppose that the faces and figures in the bar were pictures on the wall, so unvarying is their appearance and position.
There is the short, genial gentleman as round and red (and almost as bald) as a ripe apple; the tall, lean laconic one with his pipe at a downward slant of 45 degrees from his lips, one hand clutching his glass and the other deep in his trouser pocket; his glass and the other deep in his trouser pocket; the quiet gentleman in the corner gazing shrewdly out from beneath the peak of a capacious cloth cap which shades his brow and hides every hair of his head. Then there is the tall gentleman whose large nose supports a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, his hair cut as close as a Roundhead's from the nape of his neck to the crown of his head, but sweeping profusely back from his forehead in a mass of close, silver waves which gave him an almost professorial air. Opposite him, another tall man with swept-back, straight black hair, thinning a little in front, big ears sticking out slightly and a long face, whose thin compressed lips give him a gambler's air of impassive coolness and sardonic humour. This impression is heightened when he smokes, cigarette hanging half-forgotten from his lips.
Presiding over the assembly is Charles Willetts - a landlord of the unobtrusive school, who serves drinks from behind a small window, like a railway clerk issuing orders. He emerges only occasionally - usually when he wants to light a cigarette. A short, stocky figure, dressed comfortably in pullover and flannels, he crosses the bar to the old-fashioned hob grate (in which a fire burns brightly all night), puts a tightly folded paper spill into the flames, takes it out, bends his face to it, lights his cigarette, tosses the spill into the fire, and retires again behind his little window. He might pause to pass a few brief remarks, in a measured, surprisingly deep voice which seems to come from well down in his throat. His wavy grey hair and his black eyebrows, arched over horn-rimmed glasses, give him air of quiet wisdom.
As more customers file in over the red square tiles and sit down at the bare wooden tables (their tops so spotlessly scrubbed that the grain in the wood stands out like veins) a murmur of conversation spreads round the bar. The talk may be on any subject, usually something with direct reference to daily life and experience - such as gardening.
"Th'only thing I've ever had out o' my garden's the backache."
"Yo wantin' a winder box - it do' tek much digging', weeding,' nor waetering.'"
"'Ow's yower garden?"
"Waitin' for thee to come and start on it."
The scene in the bar, the atmosphere, the humour and the accents, cannot be very different from what they were forty or fifty years ago. There is still the feeling of a small, self-contained community, with its own interests and amusements; a feeling which has now been lost in the world of cinema, television, motor transport and large, anonymous housing estates. These things seem far from the Blue Ball and its customers, though occasionally they might intrude on the discussion - traffic problems, for instance, are an important problem.
"A mate of mine got stuck in a traffic jam - 'e couldn't shift - 'e found 'e was outside a pub so he left the car and 'ad a couple of halves while 'e was waitin'."
As you listen to the talk, you are forced, inevitably and regretfully, to the conclusion that the public house is one of the few places where you can still catch an elusive echo of the old Black Country - of the days of ponies and traps, backyard chainshops, Sunday School treats, the Liberal heyday and homebrewed ale (the Blue Ball itself used to brew its own ale).
Shutting your eyes to the anomalies of dress, you would not be surprised if someone came in and said that Wilson had been re-elected, that Lawyer Homer's apple trees would bear a fine crop this year, or that Mrs. Strawson's groom had a new livery when he drove her to church last Sunday.
But the talk dies down when the dominoes and crib begin, the concentration of the players subdues the conversation until towards the end of the evening, when the games lose their novelty and the talk, under the mellowing influence of the mild and bitter, takes on fresh vigour.
Even Charlie Willetts, his evening's work nearly done, sits and joins in the conversation. He can be surprisingly dogmatic. He states as proven fact that there has not been a good footballing side in the country since the 1920's. He also asserts that W. G. Richardson could turn, with the ball, on the space of a threepenny bit, and that no player since has performed the feat to his satisfaction. It is in talk of football, particularly, that the Black Countryman's latent nostalgia is most often revealed. Names such as Sandford and Magee, Pearson and Pennington (famous Albion names of pre-war days), are spoken of as though they still appear each week on the Albion team-sheet. The past is very much alive and nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Modern changes are even affecting the Blue Ball and its customers will soon have to find a new home. The road must be widened, so the Blue Ball must be demolished. Its hold over its customers is strong - their footsteps turn towards it like a compass needle to Magnetic North. The strength of this hold was unwittingly summed up in the sharp reply given to a parishioner leaving home to attend a Church meeting. "I shouldn't be surprised," he had said to the lady of the house, "if it doe end up in the Blue Ball."
The reply was neat and to the point. "I shouldn't be surprised," she said, "if it doe start theer."
Customers of long standing have their own glasses - the initials painted on in thick white paint. One man even had his initials put above his favourite seat. He is now dead and he probably rests more quietly for knowing that he has two memorial inscriptions - one above each of his resting places.
The Blue Ball has stood for upwards of 100 years1; it now awaits only a word from the local Council for its history to be crumbled to dust in a few hours.
Perhaps when the last customer leaves the Blue Ball after its last closing time he will pause outside the bay window of the bar and think of the words of the last of King Arthur's knights when he realised that the brotherhood were scattered and destroyed, and would never again meet at their beloved Round Table.
"For now I see," said Sir Bedivere, "the true old times are dead."
With acknowledgements to a well-known local Decorator,
without whose patronage this article would never
have been written. - P. M. Barnsley
This essay first appeared in the Cradley Parish Church Magazine of May, 1959.
1 "The Blue Ball has stood for upwards of 100 years" (1959). It seems that it was even older; the Blue Ball is mentioned in the 1782 House Survey.
In a letter to Cradley Links of 23rd Feb. 2003, Peter wrote:
I probably wouldn't write it that way now; it reads like an effort by a sixth form student (which is about the mental age I was at the time - I was actually 25 when I wrote it).
The "Wilson" referred to in the article is, of course, not Harold Wilson but J.W. Wilson, M.P. for North Worcestershire for about 27 years before losing his seat in 1922.
The outraged old lady referred to in the article was Minnie Hodgetts (my grandmother Reece's sister). She was still alive when I wrote the article, and I thought she would not want her identity revealed.
The decorator referred to in the footnote was Jim Shaw, later a Liberal councillor on Halesowen Borough Council.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.