Baron Billy’s battle

First published in Features

He was convinced that dominoes was a game of skill rather than chance and campaigned for a Bill to make it legal.

The column looks back on Billy Blyton’s amazing achievements.

THERE are weeks when it seems that readers have emigrated en masse and others when they sail, full-rigged, to the rescue. This, happily, is one of the latter – and with particular thanks to Ian Forsyth in Durham.

Several years since, we exchanged emails with Ian over a Parliamentary debate – he swore it happened, but was unable to find proof – on an issue of clear and crucial national importance.

Was dominoes, and 5s and 3s in particular, a game of luck or of skill? Now he’s finally found the Hansard reference.

It was 1960 and MPs were debating a Bill to legalise small-stakes gambling in pubs on what were perceived to be games of skill – including darts and cribbage, but not dominoes.

The 5s and 3s men found a hoaryhanded champion in Billy Blyton, former Harton miner and NUM-sponsored MP for Houghton-le-Spring.

Born in 1899, he’d been knocking around a bit, even then.

He didn’t know who the government’s dominoes adviser was, said Billy, but he’d come to the conclusion that that great man had never played the game. As the Bill stood, North-East lads faced a £50 fine for playing 5s and 3s for sixpence.

“5s and 3s takes a great deal more skill, if one wants to win, than chess – that monotonous game which I see played in the smoke room so often. It also requires more skill than playing draughts, in trying to think what the next moves will be.

“I have played dominoes for 41 years.

I learned the game in the Royal Navy for threepence a corner and have often played it for a shilling a corner.

“An uncle of mine was caught playing 5s and 3s with three old men whose ages totalled 305. When I went to see the Chief Constable about it, he said they’d be laughed out of court.”

“I’m prepared to sit down with the government’s advisers and give them a games of 5s and 3s and show them how skilful it is.” Dennis Vosper, a junior Home Office minister, was reluctant to be thus cornered. Only if he and the Honourable Member were able to play dominoes with exactly the same hand – “which I understand is not possible” – would he accept it was a game of skill, Vosper said.

Dominoes was eventually added to the Bill on an amendment from the House of Lords. Parliament had spoken: Billy Blyton had the whip-hand after all.

The late Stephen Smailes, a windmill- tilting Conservative on Stockton Borough Council, knew all about “ordinary”

dominoes being a matter of luck. In the regular Sunday night fourhander at Stockton Cricket Club he not only lost all 29 games but last-inthe- box – upon which he claimed to be a world authority – as well. “It cost me £1.45,” he protested. “As a Tory, it’s money I can ill afford.”

I’D gone to see Billy Blyton, so far as may be ascertained no relation to Enid, shortly before the 1987 general election. He was convinced that Labour would win.

“I don’t take any notice of polls,” he said. “They’re a propaganda exercise for the Conservative party.”

Born in Tyne Dock, Houghton’s MP from 1945-64, he still lived in the former South Shields council house which, like many other Labour politicians, he’d bought under Tory legislation.

Ennobled by Harold Wilson in 1964, he was officially Lord Blyton of South Shields in the County of Durham – but still just Baron Billy to his mates.

Invited by the College of Arms to suggest a crest, the council house peer had asked for a bottle of Brown Ale quartered with a greyhound rampant.

Told it wouldn’t be possible, he asked for his £300 back.

Though it was mid-May, we’d found him huddled over a concessionary coal fire, cigarette ever-aglow in his left hand, Mackinlay’s Whisky ashtray overflowing.

He was reading The Enemy Within, the autobiography of former NCB chairman Lord McGregor. “If you believe all that’s in there, there’s been an awful lot of skullduggery in yon strike,” he said.

He’d smoked “25 or 30” a day for 75 years, liked a couple of pints every night, probably got the Mackinlay’s ashtray as a long-service award.

“I was 32 years down the pit, three in submarines, 40-odd in Parliament.

I don’t think I’ve done that bad, have I?” he said.

Baron Billy, bless him, died five months later. He was 88.

MUCH of the remaining correspondence concerned last week’s piece on the inexplicably named Allens West railway station, near Eaglescliffe, including an inarguable email from Alf Hutchinson in Darlington following the reported discovery of 13 bottles on Platform 1.

“I don’t wish to be a pedant,” says Alf, “but can you really have 13 empty bottles of Carlsberg Export? Should it not be 13 empty Carlsberg Export bottles?”

Unlucky… David Mackintosh uses the same platform to highlight the use, elsewhere in last Wednesday’s paper, of the term “train station”.

David considers it an unacceptable Americanism. “We have always had railway stations in the United Kingdom and if anyone wishes to challenge that, I would direct them to Saltburn where it proclaims “Railway station”

above the portico.

“I would be more than pleased if The Northern Echo banned the American version.”

The reporter, in fairness, did call it a railway station. The uncomfortable “train station” was in the headline.

Perhaps like a 225 at a wayside halt, the original was simply too long.

COLIN Young in Thornaby insists that Allens West, opened in 1943, couldn’t initially have been to serve a Royal Navy depot, as we’d supposed.

“It was one of the biggest aircraft recovery plants in England, all the crashed, smashed and bashed planes from both Allied and Axis were stripped and melted down to be used in new aircraft. It was a huge area.”

Not even Colin, however, can explain the name – and nor, despite many childhood adventures in the area, can Robin Perrie. It may explain why he invites us to accompany him half a mile down the line, to Eaglescliffe station itself.

There are, of course, both Eaglescliffe and Egglescliffe villages thereabouts. Local legend claims, and the Wikipedia website perpetuates, that it’s all the fault of a railway painter.

Sent to put “Egglescliffe” on the station signs, he either – it’s said – thought that there must be some mistake or else was simply perverse. Either way, that’s how Eaglescliffe took off.

ANOTHER possible explanation for Allens West comes from Colin Jones in Spennymoor – “just some ramblings round the internet sidings,” he supposes.

Since it was undoubtedly a Ministry of Defence site, and since Allens West was a Brighton-based company making grenades and other munitions, could the name have been chosen because of the firm’s involvement up here?

STILL further towards the sea, David Walsh sends a cutting about Gabriel Harrison’s campaign to have more trains stop at British Steel Redcar, a timetabled halt where the station is actually within the works complex.

Mr Harrison lives in Chester-le- Street but works at Corus – British Steel as was. He catches the 6.31am from Chester, changing at Darlington, and arrives at British Steel Redcar at 7.38.

The only problem is that there’s not a return train until 16.48, more than nine hours later. Though it still makes Teesside Airport station seem like Charing Cross by comparison, British Steel Redcar is served by just one train a day.

THERE are several more letters, but no more space. The column returns in a fortnight – with thanks, as always, to its faithful readers and in the sure and certain knowledge that, whatever they say about dominoes, completing six multi-faceted columns each week is unequivocally a game of luck.

 

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