Category Archives: Local

Matt’s Derby Explorations #4: Take Me Out To The Ball Game

800px-Derby2BASEBALLAsk anyone: I’m not sporty. Never have been, mainly due to me being overweight and possibly dyspraxic. About the only thing I know about sport is that I’m British, and therefore my national sports are football and cricket. I know this because, when I was in Toronto a few years ago, everyone seemed to hear my accent and immediately ask me about Manchester United. There I stood, making positive noises and trying to remember if I knew any player who wasn’t Beckham, Rooney or dead.

Baseball, however, is American. Always has been.

Except for eight years in Derby.

I’ve lived here around a year, and now I’m over the initial culture shock, I’m asking questions like “Why was the old Derby County ground called the Baseball Ground when they’re a football team?”

The story begins in 1888, when local industrialist Francis Ley visited America. He’d established Ley’s Malleable Castings Company Ltd in 1874, and during his trip to the States, he was impressed by how companies provided sport facilities to ensure a healthy, productive workforce. On returning home, he built Ley’s Baseball Ground, a 12 acre park partly designed to promote Ley’s newly discovered interest in America’s national past-time.

This coincided with another attempt to give baseball a foothold in the UK. In 1888, baseball professional Albert Goodwill Spalding decided that what his sport needed was a spot of international promotion, and so he embarked upon a tour, taking a group of Major League players around the world for a series of exhibition matches. One of his stops was in England, which lead to a flurry of interest in baseball in the UK and the founding of the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland. One of the first four teams to take part in the League was Derby County, alongside Aston Villa, Stoke and Preston North End, all of whom are now far better known for football.

And Derby County were pretty good, dominating the League in 1890. However, this was controversial, as Derby had hired three Americans as part of the team – Will Bryan, John Reidenbach and Sim Bullas (although there’s a theory that Sim was actually born in my birthtown of Dudley. Which is bizarre, frankly.) All three had played professionally in the US, and Bullas and Reidenbach had been transferred from a foundry in Cleveland to Ley’s factory as part of the activities following Spalding’s initial tour. This extensive professional experience was considered to give Derby an unfair advantage, and after a series of arguments and disagreements, Ley withdrew his team from the League. The Americans returned home at the end of the season; the club itself hung on until 1898, when it folded; the initial version of the Baseball League of Great Britain hung on till the early 20th century. Despite Spalding’s optimism, baseball never really took off in England. Its biggest influence may have been in inspiring Aston Villa’s William McGregor to start the world’s first associated Football League in 1888, based on the baseball system and ensuring a clear fixture list for the newly professionalised football clubs.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because the history of 19th century baseball in the UK is really the history of cultural identities and the building of empires.

See, Spalding’s tour had something of an ulterior motive – in promoting baseball, he was promoting American culture, with all the complicated issues that implies. Certainly he had a complex relationship with international baseball – sure he wanted the sport to take off in other countries, but on his own terms. When it was suggested that baseball had actually evolved from British rounders, Spalding was furious – he established the Mills Commission to investigate the origins of the sport, and when they reported back in 1907, they found that baseball had been invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, 1839. This has pretty much been proven to be a creation myth, but thanks to Spalding favouring commissioners who promoted the Doubleday story, the myth took hold.

This early attempt at cultural imperialism ran into a problem in the UK – football. While baseball had enjoyed a flurry of popularity in the 1890s, it was football that was really taking hold. Derby County FC is a good example of this – founded in 1884, they’d started to share the Baseball Ground when they couldn’t use the local racecourse, moving there permanently in 1895. This showed how the wind was blowing – the baseball club was slowly dying, and the ground was adapted to make it more suitable for football’s growing popularity – all it cost was £500 and a gypsy curse preventing the Rams from ever winning the FA Cup.

The Baseball Ground finally passed into the possession of the football club in 1924, remaining the team’s home until its move to Pride Park in 1997. The Baseball Ground was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. By that time, football had been established as the national game for well over a hundred years – baseball was simply something Americans did.

And so Derby County Baseball Club was at the forefront of a struggle for the identity of two nations and the emergence of organised, professionalised working class sport in the UK. And that’s why Derby County’s home used to be called the Baseball Ground, and why I’ve written a longer post on sport than I ever thought I was capable of.

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

The Days of the Plague

Matt’s Derby Explorations #3: The Days of the Plague

2013-08-12 18.05.03

The Headless Cross at Friar Gate, Derby

There were signs and portents in the heavens when the plague came to Derby; two comets hung in the sky and an eclipse swallowed the sun, and people looked into the sky and wondered what calamity was on its way. Preachers and prophets walked the land, interpreting the political and social strife of the previous decades as harbingers of the End of the World, especially as the year 1666 was on the horizon, the Number of the Beast making its presence felt in the calendar itself.

Plague arrived in London early in 1665, probably brought over from the Netherlands in bales of cotton. Within a few months it had started to decimate the population, with the city’s inhabitants either falling prey to the sickness or fleeing for their lives. It’s gone down in history as the Great Plague of London, although it wasn’t limited to the capital; York was affected, for instance, as was Derbyshire.

The area’s most famous story of the Plague is of the village of Eyam, whose inhabitants isolated themselves to prevent the contagion spreading to neighbouring towns and villages. It’s a haunting tale, and perhaps rightfully the county’s greatest story of tragedy and heroism. But I’ve never been to Eyam; I have, however, been to a chiropractor, and just around the corner from my chiropractor is the Headless Cross.

Trade used to take place at the local markets, but the Plague meant that the usual routines of everyday life were suspended; instead the Headless Cross was erected at the boundary of the city, on Friar Gate. Merchants left goods there, reducing their risk of exposure; in exchange, their customers left money in a trough of vinegar at the top of the stone – it was believed that this disinfected the coins and stopped the transmission of the Plague. This wasn’t true, of course, nor was the belief that smoking tobacco, which had only been introduced in England a hundred years earlier, prevented the disease. Modern medicine was still a while away, although change was in the air; this was also the age of Newton and Halley and the Royal Society. Those comets that burnt in the sky were astronomical phenomena following predictable laws, rather than omens reflecting the Wrath of God on London and Derby.

1666 saw the epidemic burn itself out, ending the last major outbreak of Bubonic Plague in the UK. Yet the Plague still haunts the city – street names such as Dead Man’s Lane and Blagreaves (‘Black Graves’) Lane mark old burial grounds, and the Headless Cross still stands, testament to dark days in Derby…

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

Things I See On My Way To Work 1: The People of Walsall Wood

I commute. I commute for the best part of twelve hours a week. And as any commuter knows, you have to find a way to keep your sanity on these epic trips, to hold on to your senses before you go completely postal and drive through a Tesco Express just for the hell of it. I normally distract myself with podcasts, but I’ve recently noticed that my journey is actually interesting. This is the first in a series about the hidden world of my commute.


As you head out of Walsall, along the A461, look to your left. Standing on the bank of the Daw End branch canal is a fisherman. He’s there every day, every night, and while rumours persist he once caught a fish or a boot or even an Olympic Torch, today his line hangs empty. He’s a lonely figure, lost in his memories; spare him a smile as you drive over the bridge into Walsall Wood.

The Fisherman is part of the Walsall Wood sculpture trail commissioned by the local council in 2009 to commemorate the area’s industrial history. He stands at the canal to draw attention to how this waterway was once a thriving artery, transporting resources between the various mining communities along its route, reminding us how this settlement and the wider Black Country grew up around pits and nail making and steel working. It’s in our DNA, and even those of us who ended up desk jockeys can probably trace our lineage back to a miner or two.

Because this is where the Industrial Revolution was born, the whole Black Country maintaining traces of this history in a landscape scarred by overgrown subsidence and criss-crossed by canals. You can see this as you walk away from the Fisherman towards town; first you’ll come across a miner and his whippet, standing some way away from the other ‘people’. He’s a steel and copper image of an image, a metal interpretation of a stained glass window in the nearby St. John’s church.


It’s a reminder of the centrality of local churches in those days, where the iconography of religion existed alongside that of industry. Apparently the church contains a miner’s lantern inscribed with the names of those killed in a local pit disaster; more on that in a future post.

The whole sculpture trail is about memories – memories of an industrial past now long gone, memories of the families who relied on that industry for survival, whose fathers endured brutal work down the mine to feed their kids. Their stories are told among another group of people, just opposite the church. Now we’re talking about micro-history, stories of children dressing as scarecrows and of a monkey that lived in the local pet shop.


This is the stuff of family history, the stories passed down by grandparents, the stories that would eventually have faded had artist Luke Perry not frozen these memories in metal, preserving the past of the area in the very steel that was so important in creating that past in the first place. In that sense it’s appropriate that the sculpture trail ends with a giant replica of the Walsall Wood colliery: everything is leading to the mine, coal and bricks and workers and memory and legend. Everything begins and ends with the pit.


And yet the Coppy Pit mined for less than a hundred years, from 1874 to 1964. Now the site is a trading estate; the railway line that serviced it a children’s play park. From the point of view of a commuter, the sculpture trail is the only obvious reminder of what this town used to be, a town built around industry, where the community opened soup kitchens to feed each other during the General Strike of the twenties. I have vague memories of the miners’ strike, the outpouring of rage and despair at the collapse of communities built around industry. Is that what happened here? Or did mining in Walsall Wood slowly die, locals finding employment elsewhere, in different towns, different industries?


Because while the sculpture trail is hyperlocal, the town is still moulded by wider, global concerns. While I was taking these pictures, I stumbled on a stark reminder of that: a small cross with a poppy on it, weathered and stuck in a plant pot. I don’t know if it was a leftover from Remembrance Day celebrations or if it was just left there by mistake, but in it’s own way it’s another act of memory; of the men who worked the pit and the canal who found themselves fighting and dying a long way from home.

Memory is a powerful thing, and so is art. Maybe we need more steel sculptures and small wooden crosses to embed these memories in the streets we walk, on the roads we drive.

The Hidden Languages of Towns and Cities

There are, hidden in plain sight, a hundred different languages supporting our towns and cities. I’m not talking about English or Urdu or Mandarin, I’m talking about the secret codes of tradesmen and subcultures, the scrawls and the scuffs and the mystery strings of letters and numbers you see on walls and pavements. They’re everywhere.

And yet I only realised quite how important they are until I listened to the latest edition of 99% Invisible, a podcast you really should be listening to. This episode, about the interactions between city planners and skateboarders, revealed that, like a movie big game hunter, you could find a city’s ‘boarders by looking out for streaks of wax on steps.

And that means you do just learn when kids go to skateboard, you learn about a town’s history and cultures, because there’s a reason skateboarders use these spaces, and that plays in to planning and architecture and questions over who ‘owns’ a space. Study these languages and you can learn how a city works, how initiates keep things running; spray-paint on a pavement tells those in the know where the power lines are; to those who don’t know, that paint may as well be an Enigma code, and yet it’s a language essential to the running of a city. Heck, according to this article, so are the skateboarders.

There’s an example of this near to where I work. On the wall of a bridge overlooking a railway track is this sign:


What does that even mean? I have no idea, but someone does, and while Dudley Station no longer exists, a victim of Dr. Beeching’s railpocalypse of the sixties, those letters and numbers represent something of my local history. I tried googling them, of course, but there was no definitive answer; these languages remain obscure and arcane, even to the Internet. Some cultures have languages used only by women; we have languages used by no-one other than rail workers and train enthusiasts.

I’m not completely ignorant of these hidden worlds; I know hidden Tupperware containing a logbook is probably a geocache; I know a QR code stuck to the back of a road sign is waiting for the local Munzee players. But I recently walked past felt-tipped letters on a tree and I’m not sure if that’s forestry or graffiti. And if it is the latter then it’s just part of a whole vocabulary of tags I don’t know how to interpret, yet another hidden lexicon that makes the world bigger and more expansive than I imagined.

It makes me want to learn a language.

Geocaching, QR codes and Local History: Here’s a project for someone…

I’m a big nerd.

I don’t think this blog does a particularly good job in covering up that fact, but I should make it clear: I’m the guy who gets distracted by tourist information plaques. I’ll pick up leaflets about random places and subjects. I can momentarily find myself immersed in the most bizarre subjects. I’m a big nerd.

Okay, now those cards are on the table, why am I wittering about all this?

Well, I may have identified a gap in the market. See, I’m a big fan of wikis, I’ve dabbled in geocaching, and I live in the UK, where practically every wall was sat upon by Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill. And all those facts are coalescing into a project I don’t have the time, resources or know-how to run, so I’m throwing it out there. Heck, it may already be happening, in which case please let me know.

So, my proposal: all those tidbits of local history, folklore, science and religion you know, all those neighbourhood factlets your granny tells you every time you visit? What if there was a way to make them public, not just on a website that no-one remembers to look at, but using QR codes (or whatever smartphone-friendly technology would be most effective and accessible) to put all that information in situ, with GPS coordinates logged to allow individuals to track down interesting looking sites?

The QR codes could link to a wiki giving articles and videos about the place, and this could be added to by whoever feels able to contribute (notice I didn’t say edited – sure, that’s necessary when verifiable historical facts are wrong, but things get fuzzier when talking about, say, religious belief or the liminal world of folklore).

There would be the option to gameify this along the geocaching model, or use it as an educational tool. You’d want tourist boards, libraries, local history groups and websites like Atlas Obscura involved, but not just them, and you’d want a stonking great searchable database/GPS map tracking all this. Add in all the usual social media integration gubbins and you’ve got something that not only tells you the interesting snippets of history that surround us, but that might also generate enough data to explain why so many communities have a ‘Pig on the Wall’ story.

And you’d award points/badges/kudos to contributors, and hopefully inspire local champions who’d be able to visit, say, church coffee mornings and quiet back-street pubs to gather all the stories there. It could provide a handy infrastructure for preserving community memory. Heck, maybe even a way for communities to fight back against tragedy; following the recent school shooting in Newtown, the author of one of my favourite blogs talked about all the other things that defined the town – the place those affected by the shootings know intimately but that the rest of us only get to see when defined by the 24-hour news cycle. If a QR code and a wiki can help support that, then it will be worthwhile.

I know local variations on this have happened in the past – the QR code thing was inspired by a project carried out in Toronto – but it would be nice to bring it all together, to allow every city and every village to make their history and their uniqueness public. And I have no idea how to do this, but if some clever person could find a way to make it happen, I’d be one of the first to sign up and contribute.

Any thoughts?