Ball Billy

William Ball was born in Reading in 1915. His father, Henry Ball, ran a chemist shop in Oxford Road and lived in Clifton Park Road, Caversham. The young Billy went to Reading School where he had been in the Officer Training Corps, an approach that provided boys with basic military training and familiarity with weapons. Bill became a corporal and was also a member of the School’s rifle shooting team.

Bill became a member of the Reading Branch of the Young Communist League, which also had as members Thora Silverthorne and Reginald Saxton (see separate entries for both). He was also close to a number of other, including the later famous film director, John Boulting, who was a member of the Labour Party League of Youth. Like everywhere, a Reading Spanish Medical Aid Committee was formed; on 22nd July 1936, a number of YCLers were arrested for making supposedly unauthorised coin collections for the Spanish Aid.

A fair few of Reading’s most political youth now became very involved in the campaign to support the Popular Front government against the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, by providing military support. Billy Ball joined the International Brigades and, according to his friend Jimmy Moon, Ball’s father “was a left-winger, but he was furious” with his son’s decision as he thought it would ruin his career. However, later he boasted: “I’ve got a boy in Spain”.

Bill Ball left for Spain at the beginning of January 1937 with Cyril Sexton. Almost all the LLY and YCL group from Reading joined the British Medical Aid Unit, Ball joined the British Battalion’s No.2 Company, where he served as a Maxim machine gunner.

Ball was killed during action at Jarama on 14th February 1937. His death was described by Tommy James: “Tank shells began to fall all around us. At this moment Jock Cunningham (the commander of the British Battalion) … came up accompanied by Comrade Ball… (Bill was working closely with the Commander during the battle.) They paused whilst Jock scanned the Fascist positions through his field glasses. Suddenly, a shell burst right beside them… The explosion tore the leg off Comrade Ball… for a few minutes Ball lay, blood pouring from his ghastly wound and reddening the soil, but he died as he was carried away. I will never forget the look of rage and hatred upon Jock’s face as he kicked loose soil over the blood soaked soil. Ball was his greatest friend.”

Thora Silverthorne wrote to her family on 9th March, 1937: “Did you know that Comrade Ball of Reading (son of the chemist Dad was friendly with) was killed on this front! He’d behaved very well: the commandant praised him highly. Said he was due for promotion for his splendid behaviour. Please give my very sincere sympathy to Comrade Ball’s father; tell him his son died with many other fine fellows but not in vain.”

In the 1938 May Day pageant held in Reading large photographs of William Ball and another of the fallen, Josh Francis, were carried under the slogan “Reading’s heroes in Spain.”

Sources: Spartacus School Net; Reading Chronicle 5th January 1937; Reading Citizen April 1938; The Reading Standard 18th December, 1937;

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