Arthur James Ball was born on 24th January 1899 in Earlsfield, London to George and Ellen. He was one of five brothers, the two eldest of whom – George and Frederick – were to be killed within months of each other in World War I. Leaving Battersea’s Belleville Road School in 1913, and, after a spell as an office boy, Arthur joined the Harley-Davidson Motor Company as a book-keeper. War would see him join the Royal Army Service Corps in early 1917, but he was never to see active service (probably to his parents’ great relief).
Arthur joined the City of London Police on 2nd August 1923 and was posted initially to Bishopsgate Police Station. Promotion to Sergeant saw him move first to D Division (based at Cloak Lane Police Station) and then Snow Hill. By 1937 he was a Sub-Inspector at A Division, Moor Lane, a division that covered much of the area where the Barbican now stands.
It was from Moor Lane that Sub-Inspector Arthur Ball worked on the night of 29th December 1940, a night that saw around 100,000 incendiary bombs dropped on the City of London, destroying more than a sixth of the City in four hours. It was said that the resulting fires were bright enough to read a newspaper by.
Sub-Inspector Ball’s Air Raid Report, regarded by other witnesses as rather understated with regard to the extreme dangers he personally faced, does though go some way towards explaining why Arthur was subsequently awarded the George Medal.
“I beg to report that at about 1830 hours on 29th December 1940, I was patrolling the Division when a large number of incendiary bombs fell in Fore Street and adjoining streets, also on buildings in the vicinity. A number of constables and myself dealt with several of these. Some of the bombs being of the explosive type detonating after an interval of some minutes. The latter caused some casualties among the officers engaged in extinguishing them. During the time we were thus occupied further falls of incendiaries occurred. Buildings were seen to be on fire on all parts of the Division, and in several cases constables entered premises and successfully dealt with fires being started by bombs.
Seeing a fire commencing on the roof of a building in Fore Street Avenue, I informed the officer in charge of a trailer pump standing by Fore Street Post Office and he told me he was endeavouring to obtain access to a fire apparently on the roof of the Post Office Building. With PC 211A Charles Salmon we forced the door and assisted the firemen to run the hose to the top of the building where an extensive fire was found spreading towards Coleman Street. Whilst forcing the door what I believe to have been an anti-aircraft shell exploded in a building in Fore Street nearly opposite and I heard three bombs whistle by very closely, but no detonations.
Knowing people to be in the Plough public house I went there and told them that as a safety measure they should at once leave and take shelter which they did. On leaving I heard a crash and saw the Fore Street side of No 2 New Basinghall Street collapse into the street. I remarked to PC Salmon that as there were two fire watchers in the building we must ascertain if they were safe and we hurried towards it. We reached Fore Street Avenue when a heavy explosion occurred and I was thrown to the ground. I got up and ran towards Coleman Street where I was again thrown down and apparently blown under the fire brigade trailer from where I was extricated by PC Salmon. It was then impossible to see down Fore Street owing to dust and smoke and I realised that debris would make it impassable. As we could see two large fires in Coleman Street, I decided it would be advisable to warn the Marshall at the public shelter at No 16 Coleman Street of danger from the fire. He informed me that about 170 were sheltering there and took immediate steps to be ready to deal with fires and to evacuate the shelterers if necessary.
I then went with PC Salmon to Moorgate Station where I found the Metropolitan Station was extensively on fire. On entering the tube station I found the stairs and booking hall packed with people most of whom apparently desired to get to London Bridge Station, but were disinclined to leave the station owing to the danger from fires and falling debris. I had to force my way through the crowd and went to the Metropolitan Railway Station where I found the platforms, superstructure and buildings above to be burning fiercely and a quantity of debris falling. There were probably 3000 people, shelterers and passengers on the platforms and booking hall of the tube station and, as the water supply there had failed, also on account of a certain restlessness in the crowd, I sent for the Station Master and instructed him to ask his Control to resume the suspended train service on the Northern and City Line with a view to evacuating those people who did not desire to remain. I then went down to the platforms which were dangerously crowded and the shelterers somewhat uneasy with their bedding packed up. After explaining the steps I had taken however, they became quite orderly and within about 25 minutes three or four trains had departed and few people were left. I subsequently learned that at about midnight the station was totally evacuated and closed down.
On regaining the street I found several piece fires in Moorfields, and Fore Street being impassable, returned to Moor Lane Station via Fore Street Avenue which had been severely damaged by the explosion of the parachute mine and was partly on fire. I found the Station extensively damaged by blast and buildings in the front and at the rear burning fiercely. Shortly afterwards the second floor caught fire and as there were apparently no fire brigade appliances available and the water supply had failed, I considered the danger was such as to make the Station untenable and accordingly, after consultation with Superintendent Lucas, ordered the Station to be abandoned, sending such records, etc, as it was possible to save to Courtauld’s Sub-Station. I then ascertained that no person was in the building and left for No 6 London Wall, a message having been received at the Station that shelterers there were trapped. They had however, left before my arrival. I had noticed a fire burning in a tailor’s shop in Cripplegate Buidlings and seeing a fire pump working at London Wall, coupled up a hose and with the assistance of constables, broke in and extinguished it. I then made my way to Courtauld’s sub-stationand subsequently to Police Control reporting the state of the Division to Superintendent Lucas.
I would mention the commendable coolness and efficiency of Acting Sub-Inspector Gorton, who was on duty at Moor Lane Station during the whole of the raid under circumstances which are difficult to imagine.
PC Salmon who accompanied me during the greater part of the evening was of great assistance to me by his calm bearing, particularly in trying circumstances at Moorgate Tube Station and his resourcefulness in dangerous situations.
During the time I was patrolling the Division, I found that the Sergeants and Constables were carrying on their duties and performing difficult and dangerous tasks with the utmost willingness and are deserving of praise”.
Arthur was subsequently commended by the City of London Police Commissioner for setting “an outstanding example to his men. Although badly shaken and slightly injured he continued directing operations, and never for an instant had any thought for himself. All the officers and men on duty that night were greatly impressed by the Sub-Inspector’s cool and courageous conduct”. It was this conduct that subsequently saw Arthur receive the George Medal for his actions on the night of the firestorm.
Following the war Arthur became a Chief Inspector before retiring from the police in 1954. He died on 7th June 1991.
Sub-Inspector Ball’s medal is on display in the City of London Police Museum, Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, City of London.
Learn more about what the City of London was like on the night of 29th December 1940: