The Late Great Baron of Black Country Blood Sports
Joe Mallen was born at Cradley Heath in 1890 and was laid to rest in December 1975. Joe's 85 years between "womb and tomb" were filled with red-blooded living and embroidered by an impish sense of humour - a legacy from his Hibernian forebears.
When Cradley Heath was a booming "Citadel of Chain" in the early decades of this century, Joe "ruled the roost" at The Old Cross Guns, where dog and cock fights took place in the cellars, attracting the hardest and canniest characters from Cradley Heath's fraternity of chainsmiths and miners.
As early as 1835, "blood sports" had been outlawed by an Act of Parliament, but old customs are slow to change in The Black Country, and the old adage...
"An ounce tew a fowl is a pound tew a dog and a stoon tew a mon"... still held sway in the sporting arenas of the day. Young Joe picked up a lot of "blood sports" lore from such legendary characters as Old Steve Bannister and Jack Garrett. His own father was no less forthcoming when Joe, on the brink of manhood, received the following advice from Mallen Snr:
1. Never be 'ooman licked.
2. Never back slow 'osses.
3. Never let yer navel get tew close ter yer backboon.
When Joe saw the local vicar, shortly before his marriage, he explained what advice his father had given him. The cleric had to admit that some merit was contained therein but he was visibly shaken when Joe imparted a further tract of Black Country wisdom which his father handed down to him.
"He did tell me one other thing," said Joe:
"Now remember, me lad, they sen the good die young - so dew as many bad things as yoe con an' yole surely live tew a good ode age."
The vicar then became speechless and didn't pursue the subject any further.
He bought his first "Stafford" from Jack Challoner, a Salvation Army man who found nothing in the "Good Book" to prohibit dog-fighting. In 1921 he became "gaffer" of The Cross Guns at Five Ways, Cradley Heath. His "house" was soon the recognised "headquarters" for "Stafford" fanciers. In 1935, The Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club was founded at The Cross Guns, with such famous "dog-men" as Joe Dunn, Harry Pegg, Jackie Birch and Jack Dunn taking a prominent part in its early endeavours. Mr Tom Walls, the well-known actor, was responsible for the "Stafford" being shown at Crufts in 1936. Joe took his dog, "Cross Guns Johnson," along to win "Best Exhibit" in the breed.
How Joe "came by" Gentleman Jim, from Jack Dunn, of Quarry Bank, "for a mere quid," is a story in itself. Nineteen-thirty-nine was Gentleman Jim's year. For the first time the "Stafford" was granted Challenge Certificates, and Joe's famous dog emerged the Staffordshire Bull Terrier Supreme Champion!
That was a great event in Cradley Heath and Black Country history, and made Joe Mallen a name to conjure with for all time in the canine world.
"Dog-men" came from many miles around to see the "Stafford" who had put the breed on the map. Gentleman Jim was no "pampered pet" but a fighting dog who had to earn his keep in the time-honoured manner - meeting and beating any challenger whose owner was unwise enough to bring him to The Cross Guns.
How Joe became a well-known judge of the breed and a much sought-after guest wherever the "Stafford" flourished is common knowledge. His reputation as one of the canniest breeders and salesmen of The Stafford was embroidered by many hilarious anecdotes which caused him much amusement in his declining years, for many a man was "sold a pup" in his dealings with the crafty Cradley Heathen.
He was never one to mince words, evidenced by his remarks to no less a personage than The Earl of Dudley concerning a dog he brought to The Cross Guns for Joe's critical perusal.
"'Ow much did yer pay furrim?" was Joe's opening question.
"Ten pounds in London" came the reply.
"Well," said Joe, "for the fust start, he ate no Stafford, an the second, he ate wuth ten pence, let aloon ten pounds."
In his own domain, Joe Mallen bowed to no man. He revelled in a rascally reputation - but had the redeeming feature of never pretending to be anything but the loveable rascal he undoubtedly was. In his later years he moved to Kinver, helping out at his son-in-law's farmstead on White Hill, and soon became known in surrounding "locals" as a formidable domino player, whose style of play evinced all the craft and gamesmanship which had been his "hall-mark" in earlier "blood sports" days.
Suffice it to say that as long as The Black Country exists, Joe Mallen's name will be remembered as a "devil-may-care" character whose colourful career embellished some of the darker decades in our history. His ilk are pretty thin on the ground, nowadays, but the few veterans who are left are accorded a deep affection, sometimes concealed in irreverent raiment, after the custom of our Black Country ancestors who shed their share of tears - but usually when no-one was looking.