Born 1932 Died 2007

Terry, and indeed in this case Terry was his name rather than Terence, was the elder brother of the former Prime Minister John Major, and the inspiration behind that enduring comedy classic Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother.

Early Life

Terry Major-Ball was born on the 2nd July 1932 at the family home in Worcester Park, London, some eleven years before his more famous brother John. Their father Abraham Thomas Ball was a music-hall comedian and song-and-dance man who adopted the stage name of 'Tom Major', and later assumed the surname of Major-Ball after he left the stage in the early 1930s. But whilst Terry and his elder sister Pat, found that their birth certificates bore the surname of Major-Ball, their mother Gwen later insisted that baby John's surname would be recorded as simply 'Major'.

The young Terry initially went to a private school and attended the Morgan Juveniles dancing school. The family's fortunes however declined, the fees became unaffordable, and he was sent to the local Cheam Common School, where he later failed the 11-plus, (unlike his two siblings) and attended Stoneleigh East Central Secondary Modern School. Although Terry himself regarded it as "a good school with an excellent headmaster" he never acquired the educational qualifications that might have allowed him to find more lucrative employment in later life. After school he did his National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps where he spent most of his time engaged in the "completely barmy" practice of dyeing brown shoes black, and had a brief spell as a trainee manager at the Brixton branch of Woolworth’s in 1958, where he met a girl named Shirley, but was sacked after a run-in with a particularly tyrannical boss.

The Gnome Business

After abandoning the stage at the time of the Depression, Terry's father had established a business trading as Major's Garden Ornaments which manufactured a range of moulded tiles, plaques, and sundry garden ornaments and later branched out, of course, into the production of garden gnomes. Unfortunately the family business began to fall on hard times after the war, mainly as a result of his father's poor health. Things got especially bad in the mid to late 1950s, and Terry regarded it as a matter of duty to try and to save the family business and insisted on honouring debts incurred, despite the fact that he might have been better advised to have sought bankruptcy and sought more lucrative work elsewhere.

In an effort to revive the business, the family home at Worcester Park was sold and the family moved to rented rooms in Brixton, whilst gnome production continued at a nearby workshop. Eventually the business was sold in 1962 to a competitor David's Rural Industries, and although this freed Terry from the daily grind of mixing sand and cement he nevertheless spent the rest of his working life in a variety of menial jobs.

His first job was working in a factory producing plastic pipes were the working conditions were positively unhealthy, but he soon found more congenial employment reading meters for the South Eastern Electricity Board. Life as a meter reader might not appear to be that potentially dangerous but Terry managed to injure himself with a screwdriver in his eye, twisted his back after slipping down some icy steps, and once managed to almost kill himself by electrocution when he was surprised by an elderly lady offering him a cup of tea. He nevertheless persevered and ended up working for Phillips Services before being eventually made redundant at the age of sixty in 1992.

The Prime Minister's brother

Life changed for Terry in 1990 when his younger brother John found himself propelled to the very top of the greasy pole as Prime Minister, and Terry found half of Fleet Street camped outside his house in Wallington, hoping to obtain some fascinating insights into the life and character of the nation's new leader.

To many Terry appeared to be somewhat simple-minded and initially he became the target of journalists who hoped to have some fun at his expense, and possibly embarrass the government in the process. However even the hard bitten denizens of Fleet Street found themselves charmed by his unfailing desire to be helpful. Indeed he become something of a media favourite throughout his brother's time at Number Ten, always ready to be help out with a quote even though journalists were often informed that he was busy "tiling the bathroom" when they first rang. His one complaint being that they diverted his attention away from the important things in life. Having once spent two hours being interviewed by a journalist for an article that never saw the light of day, Terry felt moved to record, "Two hours, what a waste! I could have painted a door in that time." The only occasion on which he seemed to have resented the media interest was when Charles Moore described his father as a "failed trapeze artist" and Terry felt obliged to ask, "How would Charles Moore fare on the trapeze, I wonder, if he hadn't decided to pursue a more disreputable profession?"

Having admitted that he had never flown in an aircraft, never stayed in a hotel, or been abroad (apart from his time in Germany when on National Service) in 1993, the Evening Standard decided to remedy these omissions and organised a trip to New York, and was so impressed that he announced that he could have stayed for a fortnight. Terry thereafter embarked on a career as a minor celebrity. He opened a garden gnome festival in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a flower show in Melbourne, Australia, visited Utah and Alaska, made frequent appearances on radio and television. Terry's observations on life found their way into various columns penned for the Daily Mail, the Daily Express or The Guardian, and made A Postcard to my Brother for the BBC about his travels in Europe.

Throughout this time the family secrets remained just that, and he never revealed his brother's affair with Edwina Currie, or his previous relationship with an older woman, or indeed the existence of the 'secret' older half-brother.

The climax of his career was undoubtedly the appearance of his autobiography Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother in 1994, largely ghostwritten by James Hughes-Onslow, which recounted the family history and the various tribulations of his early life. John Wells described it as "one of the great comic books of the year, or any year"; Auberon Waugh believed it to be "exquisitely funny"; while the anonymous reviewer in Private Eye wrote that it "makes you proud to be English. No foreigner could dream of such a masterpiece. It is one of the most distinctive products of our great civilisation". (And although most commentators seem to be of the opinion that the comedy was entirely unintentional on Terry's part, personally I wouldn't be so sure.)

Naturally the media interest in Terry Major-Ball died down after brother John lost the 1997 General Election and he disappeared from view in 2003 when he moved to Chard in Somerset with his wife, children and his sister, Pat. He was later diagnosed as suffering from prostate cancer and died at a hospice at Chard on the 13th March 2007, although the news of his death was not made public until 20th April. He was survived by his wife Shirley Wilson (the girl he met in Woolworth's back in 1958 and married in 1960) together with their son, Mark, and daughter, Fiona.


Sadly it appears that Major Major: Memories of an Older Brother is out of print at present. A glance at Amazon.co.uk marketplace confirms that second hand copies are currently trading at a premium to the original published price.


SOURCES

Obituaries of Terry Major-Ball

  • The Daily Telegraph, 21/04/2007
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?view=DETAILS&grid=&xml=/news/2007/04/21/db2101.xml
  • The Times, April 21, 2007
    www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article1686037.ece
  • Dennis Barker, The Guardian, April 23, 2007
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2063169,00.html
  • Edward Pearce, The Independent, 23 April 2007
    http://news.independent.co.uk/people/obituaries/article2474439.ece

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