Mr Joe Mallen – Mr Mallen was a throwback to a past Black Country era! Joe was a “big” chainmaker for over fifty years, working in an environment beside which “Dante’s Inferno” pales into a gentle glow. He wielded a hammer, which few men could handle, with a dexterity which made him a legend in a town of tough chainmakers – but it was his dogs, Crossguns Johnson, Gentleman Jim and The Great Bomber which made his name a household word wherever men talk of Staffordshire Bull Terriers. The oldsters will tell you that Joe was a hard man, and his dogs were hard, for in his heyday the “Stafford” earned his keep or wasn’t worth keeping. The pampered pets who perform in today’s parade rings may look the part, but as Joe said “There’s still some good dogs about – but they’n bred the guts out on ’em”
Joe was born in Cradley Heath in 1890, as close to the heart of the Black Country as you can get – but as distant as the Dark Ages from the town today. Like the hamlets which clustered its boundaries, Cradley Heath was a thriving, thrusting “boom town” of the New Iron Age, populated by tough chainmakers, colliers and quarrymen who worked hard and played harder!
Their status symbol was no shiny car or colour TV, but a dog, whether it be bull-terrier or whippet and a man was usually judged by the canine company he kept. Joe became licensee of “The Cross Guns” in 1921 – with his kind of thirst it was just as well he had a pub of his own – and the “local,” off Five Ways, Cradley Heath, became a sporting club for “dog men” from miles around. Like the Corinthians of the previous century, who embraced the blood sports, particularly the prize ring – Joe Mallen’s cronies admired, above all else, raw courage whether it be in man or beast. Unlike the Regency dandies, they dressed in moleskin trousers, heavy boots and the proverbial cloth cap with a muffler, or silk scarf if the occasion demanded it, wound flamboyantly over a collarless flannel shirt. It was said that they didn’t make collars big enough for chainmakers’ necks in those days and the tradition still lingers among the few tough, old characters who survive from that era.
The busy canals of Joe’s youth have become silted spectres of the great arterial waterways which pumped the blood which kept The Black Country’s heart beating! The pit-men are a dead tribe and the hand chainmaker is a very rare species in the scant jungles of the “Dark Lane” today. A great era is dead but its ghosts still haunt the diminishing pit mounds and antiquated “pubs” which have survived 20th century “improvements.”
The Act of 1835 placed the “blood sports” outside the bounds of the law, but old customs die hard and Joe Mallen’s early days were spent in the company of a “cockfighting, hare-coursing, dog-fighting” fraternity into whose midst he was born. His father bred whippets but later turned his interest to bull terriers. With such legendary oldsters as Steve Bannister and Jack Garratt, he formulated “The Rules” which were rigidly adopted whenever matches were made between the fighting dogs of The Black Country. They were remarkably similar to the Old Prize Ring Rules, which had governed bare-knuckle fighting a few decades before. Reproduced below, they prove that bull terrier matches were no mere impromptu, back-street brawls but carefully organised trials of strength, determination and courage fought out under a code of conduct as explicit as it was hard.
Although Joe held such store in the pedigree of his dogs, he never had the inclination to trace his own lineage. But it is generally accepted that the Mallens, Maleys and Males of The Black Country sprang from the loins of the world, Irish boyos who came “across the water” to work as “navigators” when our canals were built at the end of the 18th century. The O’Malleys settled in various places along the new waterways and there is little doubt that Joe could trace his ancestry back to this line. He still has the “blarney” of his Hibernian forebears and an impish sense of humour. The passing generations have hardened the soft Irish burr into the distinctive dialect of The Black Country. In his youth, he was a sudden man with his fists and just as quick to make up a quarrel.
So much for the melting pot from which the iron in Joe Mallen’s character was forged. We find him, in the early years of this century, already a young giant, wielding a hammer with the ease of Thor, and possessed by raging thirst to purchase a bull-terrier of his own. He bought his first dog from Jack Challoner, a Salvation Army man who found nothing in the “Good Book” to prohibit dog fighting.
Joe was already well versed in the breed, a quick-witted lad with a hunger to learn more. Thus began the apprenticeship in breeding which was to make him the greatest authority in the game in later years. His tutors were his own father, old Steve Bannister and Jack Garratt, men who had spent a lifetime in the game and passed the lore accumulated on to Young Joe.
He tried his dogs with the best he could find. They didn’t merely have to “look the part” but possess, in full measure, the innate courage and fighting fervour for which the bull-terrier was famed. The old Black Country adage, “An ounce tew a fowl, is a pound tew a dog, an’ a stoon tew a mon,” had governed the blood sports from the first and Joe followed the old tradition – training his dogs to a hair and never over-matching them. He built up a great reputation which even the old men in the game had to admire – gradually producing a strain of fighting dog which had no equal in the land.
Bull-terrier men came from miles around to put their champions down with Joe Mallen’s breed but, like their canine contestants, usually left Cradley Heath with “their tails between their legs” and pockets empty.
With Joe Dunn, from Cradley, and a few other enthusiasts, including Harry Pegg (owner of Fearless Joe), Jackie Birch (Vindictive Monty), Joe was responsible for forming The Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club at The Cross Guns in 1935. Mr Tom Walls, the actor, was responsible for “The Stafford” being shown as a non-breed at Crufts in 1936. Joe went along with his dog, “Cross Guns Johnson” and got the “Best Dog” award. One of Tom Walls’ eleven entries was made “Best Bitch” – but Joe’s dog beat her in the final to emerge “Best Exhibit.”
Unfortunately, Cross Guns Johnson was “run over” shortly after returning to Cradley Heath but Joe already had “Game Bill” in the pipeline. He took this dog to Crufts in 1937 and won two “firsts”. However, other local breeders were striving for perfection and Jack Birch, from Old Hill, beat Joe in the final with his dog “Vindictive Monty.”
How Joe came by “Gentleman Jim” – the greatest Stafford of them all – is a story in itself. Jack Dunn, from Quarry Bank, was a workmate of Joe’s at Griffins. Joe had given him a bitch called “Triton Jude” who produced a litter, sired by Brindle Mick – the founder of the “M” line. To cut a long story short, the future champion was “left in the nest” and Joe bought him from Jack Dunn for £1. He named his new pup “Gentleman Jim” and it was the start of a wonderful partnership.
Joe took Gentleman Jim to Crufts in 1938 and got two “seconds” in the puppy class. Despite his obvious potential in the show ring, Gentleman Jim was no pampered show dog. He had to earn his keep and reputation in the time-honoured manner, fighting and defeating any challenger who turned up at The Cross Guns. Joe recalls that he fought and defeated three game dogs in one afternoon and lost a fang in the process. All this went on in the months leading up to the 1939 Crufts show. In that period, Gentleman Jim proved he was not only cast in the mould of physical perfection, but possessed the tremendous courage and gameness which was a famous attribute in the Mallen strain.
The year 1939 was Gentleman Jim’s year! For the first time the breed was granted Challenge Certificates and Gentleman Jim became for first ever Staffordshire Bull Terrier Supreme Champion. Joe Mallen’s pride in the success was shared by his Black Country compatriots.
Men came from all over the country to see the great dog. As Joe puts it: “We never closed. If we turned ’em out at closin’ time, the policeman on’y brought ’em back agen.”
Gentleman Jim’s services were in great demand and he sired several subsequent champions. He succeeded in passing on the great qualities of the Mallen strain to his progeny and Joe made a great deal of money in the process. The Second World War robbed Gentleman Jim of many subsequent honours and he died in November, 1947, the year that the championships were resumed, but his progeny listed below, kept the title in the family.
1947 Widneyland Kim
1948 Fearless Red of Bandits
1949 Jim’s Double of Wychbury
1949 Eastbury Lass
Joe has a thousand anecdotes about the old days, like when his pal Harry Pegg, who owned “Fearless Joe,” a noted fighter, received a challenge from Mr Croom, the well-known Gloucester fancier, to take his dog down to do battle with the Croom Champion. Joe Mallen went along and, in his own words: “Harry’s dog won in a very short time – tuther wouldn’t have it.” With the contest so curtailed, Mr Croom invited Joe and Harry to a badger dig in some woodland on his estate.
Although the Corinthian sporting bucks of the previous century had enjoyed the sport with a small breed of Staffords, Mr Croom preferred Jack Russells in his pursuit of Brock. Joe describes how they found the badger earth and Mr Croom sent one of his terriers into it. The dog reappeared in a short time, bitten through the leg and limping heavily.
“Brock’s at home,” shouted Mr Croom, putting his second Jack Russell into the earth. However, he returned from the hole bleeding heavily from the nose and jaws. By this time Fearless Joe, who Harry Pegg held on a leash, was getting very excited and pulled out of his collar and plunged into the burrow.
“That’s done et, Harry,” said Joe. “If he tecks ote we shall have tew dig ’em booth out.” That is exactly what they did. After digging three or four yards they saw the earth moving. Joe probed around with the “Badger tongs,” got a grip and hauled the badger out.
Fearless Joe’s jaw were fastened on the badger’s throat but he rolled off as he was dragged to daylight and lay, savagely injured on the bloodstained earth. They carried him to the pump and sluiced water over him. This cleansing operation revealed the extent of his injuries. One eye had been scraped from its socket, his snout and lips were torn to shreds and the forepart of his body was like a piece of raw liver. Mr Croom wanted to shoot Fearless Joe on the spot but Harry Pegg would not hear of it. He and Joe arrived back at The Cross Guns at 3 a.m. with the dog still barely alive – but he did not last until dawn!
Joe had also brought the badger back with him and kept it in the cellar of The Cross Guns until it died. That is just one of the stories from Joe’s prodigious memory bank. Like Joe says: “Ther’s no dog born as would stond a chance with a badger in his own earth.”
We reckon that few men ever stood a chance of beating Joe at anything he set his mind to. He spent his spare time in his “local” at Kinver, usually playing dominoes. They reckon he never lost at that game either and that he sometimes cheated a little – but that’s only the Irish that came out of him. He still did a good day’s work on his son-in-law’s farm and lived in a comfortable bungalow at White Hill, surrounded by the trophies and accoutrements of a past era. This craggy, old Black Countryman who reigned like a king from his palace at the Old Cross Guns during the most turbulent and memorable decades that Cradley Heath knew. Like the dogs he bred, Joe kept a grip on life.