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Ball, John (1783 -1821) FARM LABOURER

John Ball (1783 – 1821)


John Ball is one of those “ag labs” nearly lost in the carelessness of history. He died before the first Census that began to put names and places and ages to our ancestors. Even the 1841 ages are often rounded to the nearest five and the place of birth is not given. We have to piece their lives together from scraps of information and the laws of probability. It surprises me that people confidently trace their ancestry back to some noble lord when one wrong piece of information, one unrecorded "one night stand" would send the roots off into much commoner soil.

At first I thought that he was the John Ball who married Sarah Lackson in 1807 in Ringstead but they were widow and widower and the children of John and Sarah did not start appearing until 1817. Then I discovered another John Ball (one of many) who married Sarah Burkett on the 6th June 1816, I realised  that for all those years I had the wrong man.

As was often the case in those comparartively contraceptiveless years the children then came tumbling one after another. John was baptised on the 18th May 1817, Thomas on the 19th July 1818, Ann on the 16th April 1820 and Daniel Clarke Ball on the 4th November 1821. Then just as suddenly the children stop. John and Sarah have no more baptisms recorded in the registers. It is only when we turn to the entries of burials that we see a possible reason. The register states in unusually full detail:

John Ball killed 13th March 1821 at Denford by the falling of a wall at a fire at Thos Fouscutts aged 38.”

1830 was the year of Captain Swing when groups of agricultural workers and their sympathisers went around the countryside burning ricks and machinery of farmers who had brought in the new steam threshing machines. Wages were poor and the new machines threatened even this meagre income. Land was being enclosed and the family use of the common land, for animals or wood gathering, was disappearing. There was unemployment and pauperism. Even as early as 1816 there was some machine breaking and rick-burning. Northamptonshire was never as much affected as Norfolk but as the book Captain Swing points out riots were more prevalent where there was a large population of shoemakers. Shoemakers, like tailors, were known to include many dangerous radicals. Was this just an accident or was there insurrection in progress?

If the latter, on which side was John Ball?

Many may find that this is fanciful stretching of the known facts. There is, however, a bill which was posted around the district, a copy of which is in the Northampton Record Office. As the emerging police force was unable to cope with large scale problems Associations were set up. The wealthier members of an area paid a subscription and if one of their number suffered harm the Association would send out reward notices and also pay the court costs. The “Thrapston Association” sent out such a notice offering a reward of sixty guineas (including fifty from the County Fire Office), on the conviction of the culprits, to anyone (except the perpetrator) who shall “discover” them. As Richard Cowley points out in his book “Guilty M’Lud!”, sixty guineas would pay an agricultural labourer’s wages for at least two years. In this case someone had set fire to “A Range of Hovels and Sheds partly covered with beans and partly with straw, standing in a Farm Yard in the Parish of Ringstead”. The date of the fire was 24th April 1824, just three years after John’s death.

With kind Permission of Northampton Record Office

It is only the death entry in the Parish Register which gives us some idea of John’s birth date because it means that he was born in about 1783. There are other John Balls in Ringstead and the villages around but none seem to be the correct year. Like the people of prehistory we only know a few details of their lives through their deaths.

On 25th April 1831 a Sarah Ball (widow) marries John Cheney (widower) BOTP at Ringstead. This I believe is John’s widow. The 1841 Census now help to offer some evidence for what we have so far surmised. John Cheney, (60) and his wife Sarah (50) are living together and it appears that John (20) and Thomas Ball (20) are living with them. Given the fact that the ages are mostly rounded to the nearest 5 this seems to be compelling if not conclusive evidence for the pattern of events I have given being true.

John Cheney (72), tailor and his wife Sarah (62), tailor’s wife are there together in 1851. By 1861 John is dead and Sarah has her granddaughter aged 14 living with her. By 1871 she is living on her own in Carlow Street, a few doors down from her son Thomas and his family. She is aged 81 and on Parish Relief. In 1873, aged 83 she dies.



Captain Swing  E.J. Hobsbawm & George Rude {Lawrence & Wishart 1969}

Guilty M’Lud. The Criminal History of Northamptonshire. Richard Cowley (Peg and Whistle Books 1998)

Ringstead Registers (NRO)

1841,1851,1861,1871 Censuses for Ringstead

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