Meeting with Dennis Ball 29/10/13

I met with Dennis at his home in Norton, a meeting kindly arranged by his nephew Tony Lilley. Dennis was well prepared and had a folder of documents, although perhaps a strange situation when a stranger enters your home seeking information. I must say the welcome was warm and the coffee was lovely.

Dennis began with the siting of Norton Cricket club and told me that it was originally on Norton itself near where St Mary’s Catholic Church stands now. He added that he can only remember on its current site and, as with other accounts, there was little else around it. He described the Brittle where the trains ran up to Nettlebank Wharf from Norton Colliery and how the trains ran up one way and down the other. He added later in the conversation that there was a steel bridge that carried the wharf line over the mineral line and having always assumed that this would be some kind of points connection it suddenly made sense.

Dennis described the main Road through Smallthorne and that on the left hand side facing down it went as far across as Edward Street (Coseley Street) and one side of Edward Street was allotments and fields. The right hand side going down went as far as what is now Mars Street with nothing behind apart from Norton Cricket Club and the Brittle, he confirmed that Rowie’s Farm was past the cricket club and recalls that it was run by two brothers.

Dennis’ father was Charlie Ball (known as Wacker) and by all accounts one of the local characters. Tony related an anecdote of a Burslem pub landlord bragging to Charlie and his friends that no-one could steal his poultry. The birds disappeared that night and Charlie managed to locate some very similar birds a couple of days later to sell to the landlord. The consensus was that Charlie could get you the town hall clock if you wanted but was in general a grafter but nonetheless a well-liked character.

Charlie did his bit in the war and having overstayed his leave one time was a bit sharp out of the back door, over the chapel wall and heading back on the train to his unit as the MP’s knocked on the front door. This was not uncommon as men wanted to see their families. He was also well capable of standing his ground and although facing bigger opponents not likely to back down, a trait that runs in the family. Another anecdote was a journey back home on the train from Nottingham when Charlie and his mates despite having had a drink were silenced by the sight of a woman on horseback whilst passing Newstead Abbey, as this is one of the haunted legends of that site.

Dennis said that he was born in Chapel Lane at number 3 or 4 (now Sangster Lane) and that the houses stood on what is now the mechanics yard. I asked about the type of building and Dennis described a 2 up 2 down with an outside loo. The family moved just around the corner to Victoria Street (now Regina Street) and Dennis described how their family took on evacuees and so it was rather cramped but it seemed that people did not moan about it but go on and made the best of the situation.

Dennis also said that his family had lived in Ford Green Cottages which is Ford Green Hall when it was divided into three. We discussed this as early census records show it as being split into 4 dwellings and a check on the Hall website shows that it was both at various points before being restored to its current status as an historic building in the late 40s, early 50’s. He described Chain Row as being opposite the Hall and these were a row of narrow cottages that shared 3 taps and a duckett toilet which was emptied by a night soil-man. (night soil men were often farmers who used the collected waste as manure). The garage was, at that time, a wagon works for the rolling stock with Heath’s chain works behind.

Dennis described one of his playgrounds as ‘white rocks’ and as we discussed this it became clear that this was the remainder of the concrete where the iron works had been. I asked if he ever ventured as far as Norton and Dennis showed me on the map and described in detail the area around St Bartholomew’s and where he and his friends played. I asked about the cinema, as I remember my dad saying he used to go to see the cowboy films, and Dennis said that he used to go to ‘the scratch’ in Smallthorne then as he got older he would go to The Palace or The Colloseum in Burslem. He stated that it was easier to get to Hanley or Burslem as that is where the buses ran to. As well as Turner’s buses which I knew about, Dennis mentioned Baxter’s and Brown’s (another project to research).

Tony asked about the Wakes and Dennis said that this was generally a holiday, similar to how we know the Potter’s holidays and that the travelling fairgrounds usually came to Burslem or Stoke but did start coming to Bradeley at a later date. Both myself and Tony remember the location on the S bend before the road was straightened where the workingmen’s club used to stand as it leaves Old Bradeley and rises to new Bradeley. Dennis knows this area well from his schooldays as he went to Smallthorne then Bradeley schools and added an anecdote about walking two of the horses from Bert Proctors farm across to the field near where the fair was held and they grazed near to one of the railway bridges at the end of a track.

Dennis described Bradeley in some detail and Graylings farm below the Bradeley pub where my house now stands and the Rubber Tyre storage. There were also the Bevan Huts situated opposite the bottom of Hayes Street where the medical centre now stands. He recalls playing in the fields and doing lickers (doffers) across banky brook which was red. I spoke of the recent reed bed installation that dealt with this and Dennis said that run off water from the top of Norton still had the same red colouring. As well as the lickers over the brook he and his friends would jump off the footbridge near Ford Green Hall on to the coal wagons and some coal would often find its way off the truck and provide warmth for a local family.

Dennis described local rivalry between the gangs of kids and how sometimes it would be name calling and other times it night result in a one to one fight between boys. This not being the way today, Tony asked if and when Dennis had noticed a change in the village. Dennis stated that it was noticeably different in the late 50’s and early 60’s as there was an influx of miners from the north east seeking work following the closure of many pits in that area. Tony asked about the family connection to the Black Country and Dennis explained that the Oakley’s had moved up to Smallthorne area as they had the necessary skills for the iron and chain making industries.

Dennis recalled camping when he was in the scouts and when asked about holidays he told of a group of them being taken aback of a coal wagon from Nettlebank with their camping gear up to Rhyl. He then added when asked by Tony that his aunty eventually bought a caravan near Abergele and this was then the setting for many holidays.

I would like to thank Dennis for his hospitality and for sharing such vivid memories.

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