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Tommy Ball was Blackburn's life and sole
BLACKBURN shoe king Tommy Ball's rags to riches story is the stuff of legend. Following his death, we look back in detail at the remarkable life of 'the man who put Blackburn on the map'.
A young Tommy Ball made a vow as he was left standing in the pouring rain while he waited in vain for a stall on Blackburn Market.
As he pushed his pramload of secondhand shoes back to his home in Boxwood Street, he made a promise never to be left so humiliated again. And from that day he never looked back.
Tommy went on to put Blackburn on the map by selling cut price shoes to local people, the nation and the rest of Europe.
The shoe tycoon, who is remembered for flouting Sunday trading laws and buying at least one pint for every drinker in a pub, started his career more than 60 years ago.
In the 1940s, Tommy started as a rag-and-bone man selling everything from secondhand clothing to shoes.
Maralyn Rigby, 57, who now owns Tommy Ball's with husband Paul,worked for Tommy.
She said: "I remember when he was a rag and bone man - he would cart his wagon up Whalley New Road. He looked in the obituaries to find out who had died for things to sell."
After the market incident, when he was 29, his drive and promise to himself saw him build up a multi-million pound business from just a £5 note and a pile of secondhand clothes.
Blackburn businesswoman Margo Grimshaw said: "Mary, his wife, had a secondhand stall on the markets. He was sent shoes, sold them and realised that they could make him money."
As well as the vow to himself, he made it his mission to help other business people get a start. Tommy opened Blackburn's Owd Stables Flea Market in 1981 and a Blackburn exhibition centre for other businesses to run from.
At the time he said: "I vowed all those years ago that I would bury the bitter memory and I would try to see that other people starting out in business were given decent accommodation to help them. I dreamed one day I would help these people and that day has arrived."
By then everyone in the town knew they had a pair of Tommy Ball's shoes on their feet by trademark holes at the back of each shoe to hang them on racks in the shop.
His eye for business meant, as the managing director of the businesses in Cicely Street and Hart Street, Harry Walsh, said: "We never sell cheap shoes, we sell good shoes cheap."
Maralyn said: "Tommy would go directly to the manufacturers - that's how he could sell the shoes cheap."
His workers and shoppers were beginning to talk about Tommy Ball's.
And soon the man himself became famous in Blackburn for buying a pint for everyone in any pub he visited.
Margo said: "Buying everyone a drink in the pub was cheaper than advertising, and it worked because every talked about it."
Derrick Jackson, 71, from Blackburn, said: "I met Tommy in the Noah's Arms in Pleckgate, and he bought me a drink.
"I asked him if he had any jobs going for my son. My son Mark Anthony Jackson had been diagnosed with leukaemia and had to attend appointments at The Christie Hospital every week and no one would give him a job.
"But Tommy did, and when he was off sick he would still pay his wages even when he was getting sick pay from the government.
"It was Tommy's money that helped pay for his wedding before he died in 1982."
Soon the nation wanted Tommy Ball's shoes and thousands of coachloads would arrive from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Yorkshire and Wakefield. And there were reports that in the late 1970s even people from countries in Europe had visited Blackburn to buy a pair of Tommy Ball's shoes.
Around this time Tommy's rebellious streak showed as he launched a high-profile battle with authorities and courts to open seven days a week. Tommy flouted the Sunday trading laws for the first time in April 1982 despite warnings from the council that it was illegal. Determined Tommy tried a number of ploys to stay open.
Maralyn said: "On Sundays you could sell religious artefacts. So he would sell bibles and people could also choose a pair of shoes."
Tommy also set up the Sunday Shoe Club, which raised £45,000 for charity.
The club operated a membership scheme to avoid Sunday trading laws. He charged 5p membership fees to shoppers, who had to join if they visited the store on Sundays. Tommy topped up the fund with £500 a week from his own pocket. Some of the money was used to buy a kidney dialysis machine in memory of his mum Charlotte Elliot who died in 1982.
Tommy was taken to Blackburn Magistrates' Court three times over Sunday trading and was fined £2,000. But he continued his rebellion and the case was taken to the High Court. He told the Telegraph: "They can send me to prison if they like because that will bring the whole farce of the Sunday trading laws to the attention of the public and parliament.
"I'm ready to eat porridge."
But days before he was due to appear at the High Court, Tommy gave a firm promise to stop all Sunday trading after saying that the High Court fight could leave him bankrupt.
He then set about his next move to win more trade with late night openings and again he was threatened by legal action. But his campaign was cut short when he retired in 1986 aged 63 due to ill health after a heart attack in 1977.
He leased the Tommy Ball's complex to managing director Graham Threlfall and manageress Joan Piper in November 1984.
In 1986 he sold his business on doctor's orders for an undisclosed sum.
Then in April 1987 Tommy Ball quit Blackburn for good to start a new life in the Isle of Man. He ended his reign in Blackburn by saying "It's a big wrench but I'm hanging my shoes up for good.
"I've grafted all my life and I just want the chance to take it easy.
"Blackburn is a great place and it has always been good to me."
Tommy died aged 83 at his home in the Isle of Man on March 30.