Book Review – The Armistice Day Killing: The Death of Tommy Ball and the Life of the Man Who Shot Him by Colin Brown.
MOST SERIOUS football enthusiasts, whether Aston Villa fans or not, are broadly aware of the story of Thomas Edger ‘Tommy’ Ball, a former coal miner, born in 1900 and signed from colliery football by Aston Villa in February.
Ball holds the dubious distinction of being, in November 1923, the only active British professional football player deemed in law to have been murdered.
So begins the introduction to Colin Brown’s book, The Armistice Day Killing: The Death of Tommy Ball and the Life of the Man Who Shot Him. Now I have watched, played, and read a great many books about football over the last 50 years, but it was slightly disconcerting to realise that I had not been aware of Tommy Ball’s story, however on the other hand was intrigued to learn about the Villa players fate.
Villa fan Brown’s intention is to re-examine through extensive research as much about the case, and the main protagonists as possible. So whilst there is detail about Ball growing up and his football career up until his fatal shooting, the books focus is very much on building up a picture of George Stagg, a decorated veteran and ex-policeman, who was convicted of Ball’s killing, as well as a thorough review of the evidence and events leading to the tragic day, and additionally the court hearings, trial and events post the sentencing of Stagg.
It is if you like a modern day retrial in book form, with the reader playing the part of the jury, whilst Brown operates as both prosecution and defence in trying to present both sides of the argument. And just as jury service requires, for anyone that has done it, this book needs to have your full attention, as Brown presents and reviews the witness testaments of the time, finding the inconsistencies in them but whilst attempting to bring some balanced perspective without trying to influence the reader too much.
What Brown comes to illustrate is that there seemed to be some haste with the way in which Stagg was sentenced, given that trying to firmly establish the events of the night, even now cannot be conclusively drawn. Stagg was sentenced to the gallows but following the intervention of the country’s first Labour Home Secretary this was changed to a life sentence. He spent two years in Parkhurst from 1924 to 1926 but spent the majority of his life in Broadmoor the high-security psychiatric hospital up to June 1963, passing away in 1966, aged 87 in Highcroft Hospital.
There is very much a sense of this case not being as clear-cut as events came to pass at the time, and indeed this reader was left with an overriding feeling of sadness at the loss of Ball, a talented player, who had been touted as a possible future England international and for Stagg who having been branded a murderer, spent nearly 40 years locked away as a lunatic in an asylum.
Murder? Manslaughter? Not guilty? You the reader decide.
(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. May 2022. Hardcover: 288 pages)
Buy the book here: Tommy Ball
Sales of the book are supporting acorns a Children’s Hospice charity.