John Ball and Memorials of 1381

While there have been earlier memorials to Ball (see John Ball and English Radicalism), they are typically a late twentieth- and twenty-first century phenomenon. The 600th anniversary in 1981 saw murals in the East End of London, including one at Bow Common Lane by Ray Walker who was also involved in the famous Cable Street Mural. Good quality photographs are available here.

St James the Great, Colchester

As we might expect, Colchester has been one of the main centres of Ball memorialising, thanks to the local historians Brian Bird and, later, David Grocott. Bird identified the church of St James the Great as Ball’s home church (whether correctly is another question), which now promotes Ball’s memory.

From St James the Great, Colchester. The accompanying documents are from Morris’ A Dream of John Ball.

Bird was also involved in persuading Colchester Borough Council to name walkways after Ball and Tyler on a housing estate in the old Dutch Quarter which Bird identified as Ball’s residence (again, whether this is correct is another question). On the corner of John Ball Walk there is now a plaque unveiled on 15 July 2017, John Ball Day no less.

John Ball Walk, Colchester

There is a bit of a story behind the plaque, here told by the Colchester Civic Society:

The incredible saga of the John Ball commemorative plaque has, after many years, finally reached it’s [sic] conclusion. Removed from the wall of a house in John Ball Walk at the request of the resident, the plaque was put into store and then lost. After a long search by the Society, it was finally located and a new site for it was sought. Easier said than done. The Society arranged for the plaque to be restored by stonemasons Collins and Curtis Masonry Ltd, who, extremely kindly, refused payment. Libby Kirkby-Taylor from CBC and Geoff Beales from CBH then worked with the Society to find a suitable place for it. Meanwhile, the plaque, once again, went missing! However, all’s well that ends well and the plaque, on a new, purpose built, stand, is now back, exactly where it should be! The Society would like to acknowledge the very generous donation from one of it’s [sic] members, which went a long way towards the cost of reinstating this memorial to one of the most important men in the history of our town – and our country.

The plaque was unveiled by the Bishop of Colchester (Roger Morris) and the human rights campaigner and peer Shami Chakrabarti. Dorian Kelly acted the part of Ball while the John Ball Motet played by Lizzie Gutteridge.

Perhaps nothing more underscores the significance of Ball for local history in Colchester than his appearance on the picture outside the toilets of the St Johns Street Wetherspoons.

John Ball at Wetherspoons, Colchester

Back in London, sites of the revolt have been commemorated. On 11 June 2011, Tony Benn unveiled the Peasants’ Revolt plaque on the outside wall of the pub, The Highbury Barn, in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency.

Benn, using his favoured clerical title for Ball, was reported to have told the 200-strong crowd that:

The Reverend John Ball said at the time: ‘This will not go well in England until all things are held in common. Why should the rich be rich and the poor be poor – where in the Bible will you find the story of a gentleman? Where is the authority for a class-ridden society?’

The other prominent memorial in London is a slate triptych at 57A West Smithfield, on the wall of St Bartholomew’s hospital:

The accompanying brass plaque provides the general information about the memorial’s origins:

Matthew Bell himself has mentioned some of the difficulties involved in establishing a physical memorial to the rebellion. Some socialist connections were made clear at the unveiling which involved Ken Loach and Ken Livingstone, as was its culturally credibility through arguably the most influential popular promoter of the revolt today, Melvyn Bragg (see also John Ball in Literature and Drama). Photographs of the unveiling are provided by Matthew Bell.

In February 2022, a blue plaque was unveiled at St Albans where Ball was executed. The story is avilable here and here.

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