He was born Abraham Thomas Ball in Bloxwich, Staffordshire, in 1879. He was a son of Abraham Ball, a bricklayer, and his wife Sarah Ann Marrah or O'Marrah who was of Irish and possibly Welsh descent. When Thomas was about five years old, his parents emigrated to Pittsburgh, USA, where he spent his formative years. He worked in the United States as a vaudeville performer and a trapeze artist in travelling circuses. He is also reported to have worked as a professional baseball player.
Early adult life and stage career
By 1896, at the age of 17, he was back in the UK where he developed a successful music hall career in the United Kingdom. He claimed to have performed at "every theatre in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland". His music hall act was as a comedian and song-and-dance man, chiefly with his first wife, Kitty Grant. Kitty called herself Drum for the stage effect of "Drum and Ball". Tom later added "Major" to the name when the double act was renamed "Drum and Major". He sometimes performed under the name Tom Major. He would later regale his family with tales of Harry Houdini and Marie Lloyd.
In July 1903 he and Kitty embarked on a performing tour of South America. He spent time at a cattle ranch in Argentina before getting caught up in civil war in Uruguay, where he was forced to enlist in a local militia.
On return to the UK in 1904 his performing career flourished as he resumed touring music halls. On 18 February 1906, he and Kitty became founder members at the creation of the Variety Artistes Federation (a forerunner of the Equity performers' trade union) at the Vaudeville Club in London.
By 1914 Tom and Kitty were running a successful touring company, but a heart condition prevented Tom from enlisting for active service. He continued to perform throughout the war. Kitty died in 1928. Music Halls suffered a decline as cinemas became popular, and Tom gave up his performing career by the late 1920s.
Later career and life
His second marriage was to dancer Gwendolyn Minny Coates (Gwen) in 1929. Once his stage career ended, he founded a business, Major's Garden Ornaments, manufacturing garden gnomes and other garden ornaments, moving to Brixton in South London in 1955 when the family fell on hard times.
He fathered at least five children with four different mothers over a 42-year period, including former British prime minister John Major, author and journalist Terry Major-Ball, dancer's son Tom Moss and daughters Kathleen Lemon and Patricia Dessoy (née Ball).
It has been suggested that rock singer David Bowie got the idea of the character Major Tom's name in his song "Space Oddity" from seeing an old circus poster featuring fellow Brixton resident Tom Major.
Tom Major-Ball died in March 1962. His son John became prime minister in November 1990. It is claimed by John that when Major-Ball was dying "Every act in the country trooped through to perform at the bed of their dying fellow artiste."
Gwen outlived him by more than eight years, dying in September 1970 at the age of 65, shortly before John's marriage to Norma Wagstaff.
After John Major became prime minister there was considerable media interest in his father’s colourful background. Journalist Bruce Anderson described Tom Major-Ball as “one of the most fascinating characters of the century".
- Edward J. Davies, “The Ancestry of Sir John Major”, Genealogists’ Magazine, 29(2007-09):335-40.
- Major, John (1999) – The Autobiography (London: Harper Collins, ISBN 0-00-257004-1)
- The Independent (London) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/terry-majorball-445861.html
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- "Major sets scene for music hall history". Evening Standard (London). 11 April 2011. Retrieved 12 April 2011.
- "The miraculous Major-Balls". BBC News. 21 May 1999.