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 -
During the Prohibition Era of 1920-
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 -
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-
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 -
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-
Presiding over the assembly is Charles Willetts -
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 -
"Th'only thing I've ever had out o' my garden's the backache."
"Yo wantin' a winder box -
"'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-
"A mate of mine got stuck in a traffic jam -
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 -
Shutting your eyes to the anomalies of dress, you would not be surprised if someone came in and said that Wilson had been re-
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-
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 -
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 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-
without whose patronage this article would never
have been written. -
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 -
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.