From 'The Lenton Listener' Issue 18
May - June 1982
J.R. Ball - Chemist
Lenton has a rich and varied history, but any present day account would be incomplete without a mention of the Ball family. The story of his father, also Albert Ball, a prominent local businessman and several times Lord Mayor of Nottingham, has yet to be written. In this edition, however, we turn our attention to a completely different Ball family - Ball the Chemist.
Balls the Chemist at 173 Willoughby Street in 1959
James Reynolds Ball, a native of Witney in Oxfordshire, had begun his career as a qualified pharmacist in a shop at Craven Arms in Shropshire. In 1910 he decided to move to Nottingham and take over a chemist shop here in Lenton at the corner of Willoughby Street and Park Road. Originally a bakery, the premises had housed a chemist shop from 1898 onwards. A succession of chemists, oddly all with the letter H, Hare, Hallam and Husbands had taken up residence, but none had remained there long. One of these, though, had the interior of the shop lavishly fitted out in mahogany as a wedding present treat. The bill, which still exists, shows that a firm of Bristol shop fitters charged £160 for the job, a veritable fortune in those days.
Although the shop was large and well appointed, James Ball and his wife Mabel found it hard work to make a living. The drinking habits of the last chemist had done little to help matters. Customers had frequently been kept waiting while he was called out of the Grove Hotel to attend to their needs, and consequently many local people had taken their custom elsewhere. From necessity the Balls kept the shop open from eight in the morning right through to midnight six days a week. Mabel Ball regularly had a barrow, loaded with sundries, pushed along to the Market Place where she could sell them in the market. The Balls even took over a stock of toys and fancy goods belonging to a distant relative who had ceased trading, and they sold them in the shop. So many Lenton children would have got their first doll or Mecanno set from Ball the Chemist.
Gradually their efforts began to payoff and the shop became more successful. The Balls were one of the first agents in Nottingham for the American drug company Rexall and held an agency for United Chemists Association Limited (UCAL). Like most chemists they carried a range of patent medicines such as Beechams Pills or Steadmans Teething Powders and a full range of dried herbs. Other non-pharmaceutical lines were toiletries, baby foods, household paints, lime wash, French polish and wood stains. Babies could be brought in and weighed, eyes tested and glasses purchased if required. Sick and unwanted pets such as cats and dogs were brought to the shop to be put to sleep. Some chemists even offered to do dentistry and although Mr Ball wasn't equipped to do it himself, a person was employed in the early 1920s to fill and extract teeth on the premises.
Among the shop's many customers was young Albert Ball himself. On his return from the front in 1916 and about to receive the freedom of the City, he called on Mr Ball to ask for something to calm his nerves. He claimed that flying didn't worry him but that the ordeal of receiving the freedom of the City was another thing. Mr Ball gave him a bromide draught. As a schoolboy Albert had called in to buy some carbon disulphide and with this purchase, caused quite a commotion when he placed the chemical in the school's inkwells and created an almighty stink.
In 1917 James Edward William Ball was born above the shop and eventually he was to take over the chemist's mantle from his father. Those who only know the present Mr Ball as Fred may not have realised that 'Fred' was a family nickname, which seems to have stuck fast to him. Educated at Mundella Secondary School, he was then apprenticed to Tom Burrows the chemist at Beeston Square. Then he followed a fulltime qualifying course in pharmacy at University College Nottingham and in the year war broke out he qualified and also married Vera Broughton. Vera is also a native of Lenton, born at No.4, Lombard Street. This used to cross Church Street and run parallel with Willoughby Street, but disappeared in the redevelopment of the area in the 1960s. Vera was one of the few girls to go to Lenton Church School and get a scholarship to Mundella Secondary. After leaving school she worked as medical secretary to two of Nottingham's leading surgeons of the day, Mr H. Bell Tawse and Mr Frederick Crooks. On her marriage, she left her job and the two of them took over the running of a small chemist shop that Mr Ball Senior had taken over shortly before. This was on St. Anns Well Road and Fred and Vera ran the shop for about a year. But in 1940 they returned to Lenton to help Mr Ball Senior.
Although 'chemist' was a reserved occupation Fred volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1941 and after his initial training at Aldershot and Leeds, he began work as a dispensing chemist on troop ships. These ships carried up to 3,000 troops and Fred travelled to many parts of the world dispensing medicines aboard ship to the sick and wounded. In all he worked on eighteen different shops and lived a charmed life. His ship was never seriously damaged but on three separate occasions, shortly after transferring to a new ship, he heard that the old one had been hit and sunk by enemy submarines. In 1946 Fred was demobbed and returned to Lenton. He took over the shop and Mr Ball Senior retired from the day-to-day concerns of the business.
Fred and Vera Ball at their Park Road premises in 1982
In 1928 Fred's sister, Mary, had taken over part of the upstairs and she opened it as a hairdressing salon, and in 1944 her husband Harry Miller took another part of the premises as a base for his chiropody practice.
Until the beginning of the 1960s it was business as usual. But then came the redevelopment of the Willoughby Street area. The shop had to come down. Mary and Harry moved to 80 Harrington Drive and Harry continued the chiropody from there. The planners anticipated that the Balls would want to take one of the shop units planned in the Precinct Centre. But Fred and Vera felt the proposed rents would be too high for them and there would be a lengthy period between the demolition of the shop and the erection of the new shop units. So they decided to look elsewhere. The only available premises in the area which were at all suitable were at 31, Park Road which had been Mr Booth's watch and clock repair shop. But this was a poor substitute for the Willoughby Street shop. The latter had been on a main thoroughfare and could be seen by those travelling along the Boulevards and from Abbey Bridge. The same could not be said for 31, Park Road. Sadly, it was Hobson's Choice and so the Balls moved into the shop. Mr Shepherd, who had run Wilson's the Chemist further along Willoughby Street, decided to retire and wanted the Balls to take over his wines and spirits license. This they did and built it up into a successful side line from their Park Road premises.
Although many of their former customers moved away as a result of the area's redevelopment, many remained and new ones arrived. The Balls have been part of the Lenton scene for so long that very many of their customers have become personal friends and a visit to the shop has become a chance for a chat, a reminiscence or a joke. But time stands still for no one and this March, Fred and Vera officially retired. They have sold the business to Prakash Dattani, a young Ugandan Asian who is a trained pharmacist from Bradford University. In the summer Mr Dattani plans to marry his fiancée, who is also a pharmacy graduate, but from Leicester University. Together they plan to run the shop.