Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Being a Welshman,


Being a Welshman, like many of his breed my maternal grandfather was a strong and aggressive individual both in mind and body. When compared with his fellow countrymen he was considered to be a tall man being over six feet, but like most of his compatriots he was dark and strong featured and had a way with words. His name was Tom, and I have been told that he came from a good family who originated in South Wales, though when that was I don’t know. His father Edwin was for a time the manager of various coal mines; one of them being a pit called the ‘Old Moreton Hall’ colliery. Where these collieries were I do not know, though some research might reveal more. They say the youngest in a family is usually spoiled, so maybe that is the reason he was also said to be the 'The Black Sheep' of the family, running away in his early teens and becoming something of a bad character. What is more certain is that he joined the army, serving as a regular soldier for a number of years. By the time he joined the ranks he was already living in or close to the county of Shropshire, so it was with that county’s light infantry regiment that he served. I know little more about his time as a soldier, though I have been told that he was awarded a number of medals; I know nothing of the circumstances under which these awards were won, though most of his ribbons would have been campaign medals, earned by his service in the Boar War and the Boxer Rebellion. The regiment’s depot in those days was at Oswestry, so that is where he probably began his career as a soldier.

Often I have wondered what sort of a man my grandfather must have been, but mostly I can only rely on hearsay and stories told over the years. For example, I can recall as a boy of some eight or nine years of age, talking to an old man who lived in my neighbourhood who said he had served with my grandfather. I listened with some pride and satisfaction to some of the exploits that the old man described, and always it was Tom Jones who took the leading part. It is still clear in my mind that the story teller was a great admirer of my grandfather, which is why he probably embellished the stories more than a little. If even a small portion of these stories were true it certainly gave a vivid outline of the sort of man my grandfather had been in his younger days.

The regiment had served in South Africa during the Boer War, and Tom was to prove his bravery on more than one occasion, and not only against the Boers. When they were not fighting the enemy they were fighting each other; in those days men judged each other by their manly virtues, according to their standards my grandfather stood out head and shoulders above the rest. It was Tom who stood against a fierce and bullying fellow soldier who had the reputation as a cunning fighter and hard man. They stood toe to toe and fought it out until one man could no longer toe the line, and that man was not Tom Jones, or so I was told.

One story that found favour with me was another heroic deed that took place on the troop ship taking the regiment to China. A man fell overboard and our hero dived into the sea to rescue him, an incident which for ever made granddad a hero in the eyes of his colleagues, and also in the eyes of his grandson.

It would be so easy to romanticize the memory I have of my grandfather, but my intention is to be accurate and honest, which is why I have to record that I also heard stories that reveal a darker side to his nature. In later years he was to experience a religious conversion; one of the great number of people who were saved by the evangelical movement founded by John Wesley. Before that time I believe that there was a period when he was both a drunkard and a man not averse to using violence.

According to a tale that I overheard, Tom had a little cottage where he lived alone. In the days of which I speak it was usual in warm weather to have all the doors and windows wide open, and seeing the road passed by within a few feet all the world could see you, and you of course, could watch the world pass by. I have very few details and the story was told long ago, but I am given to understand that it was not uncommon for hawkers and beggars to ply their trade, a common sight in those times. Nor was it uncommon for Tom Jones to have been seen enjoying his ease in a state of complete inebriation. On the day in question an Italian organ grinder came along, and in accordance with the methods such people practiced, he had with him a little monkey. Such an animal was not just a novelty; it was trained to beg for money, often running into the houses with a begging bowl. To further improve his financial position the beggar, or if one wishes to apply a kinder description, the itinerant musical entertainer, would have also trained his monkey to steal by picking up anything that could be easily moved. And so the stage was set for what was to follow.

The impression we have is that Tom Jones was not a man to be trifled with at the best of times, but when drunk he was undoubtedly more belligerent. What happened next was almost inevitable. When the monkey appeared in the room and when it attempted to remove some small item that was to hand, it was dealt with in a most uncharitable manner. (It is assumed that charity was the objective of this little interloper?) A swift and forceful boot was placed behind the poor animal, which sailed out into the road before the startled gaze of its owner. I suppose most people would react with some sort of protest and that was especially likely when considering the excitable temperament of the average Italian, who, whether guilty of an act of dishonesty or not, reacted with a show of righteous indignation. Obviously this foreign visitor was not familiar with the type of Celtic temperament with which he was dealing, and so he very unwisely confronted my grandfather. Knowing what we know there is no doubt that such an action was bound to result in the violence which followed. The unfortunate Italian was soundly beaten and ejected into the road in much the same fashion as his monkey had been.

It goes without saying that such behaviour would not, and should not, be tolerated under any circumstances; though I suppose it is possible that a degree of provocation could be claimed. Whatever the truth of the matter, it was inevitable that a representative of the law would be called, and I suppose it was just as inevitable that the said constable found himself subject to the same sort of treatment. Having been set in motion the dignity of the law, and the police force, would have to be upheld, even if it required several constables to achieve it. There could only be one outcome though it is said that at least two bodies of reinforcements were required to demonstrate the power of those in authority. Grandfather dispensed his own code of justice all his life, drunk or sober, and the fact that society might not always have agreed with his assumption that he had the right to do so, such differences never seemed to stop him, or even discourage him.

When I reached the age of three my mother and I were to finally join my father, who was a soldier serving in India, but when it is realized how far reaching was to be the influence of my maternal grandparents, it is most important that I attempt to fill in a little of their characters. My knowledge is bound to be scanty in this area as I write of a time before I was born. Without the aid of research I rely exclusively on my memory and the descriptions of people and places as they were represented to me over the years. Aided by a little imagination a picture can be created, and so I rely on the perspicacity of my readers, to flesh out the characters I am describing.

Being from a coal mining family it is hardly surprising that Tom Jones eventually became drawn back into the industry that he knew. It must be presumed that on leaving the army he settled in the locality of his old military base which was Oswestry in Shropshire; which is where my grandmother came on the scene. They lived just over the border on the Welsh side, at Preesgweene which was not even a village but just a few cottages and the inevitable public house, known as the ’Cross Keys.’ A short distance away was a canal and close by the road which ran from Wrexham and Ruabon to Shrewsbury to the South. A short distance on the other side of this main road which incidentally was on the English side of the border lay a small village called Saint Martin’s, and my grandparents had numerous relatives in this village and also in the location of Ruabon. I have few details of this period but I know that he married and proceeded to produce the numerous children that were usual in those days. Being the son of a man who managed coal mines, it was to be expected that he should turn to the same business to earn a living.

It must also have been about this time that his character began to take on a new dimension with the advent of religion in his life. Primitive Methodism was sweeping the Welsh borders about this time and when Tom Jones became a convert he brought to it all the strength and single mindedness that his personality was capable of. It is clear that my grandfather was no weakling, in mind or body, he had strength and he applied it to his thoughts as well as his actions. He had been vigorous in his adventures and even in his misdemeanours, so it was that he was just as forceful in his approach to religion. He applied his beliefs to his family with an unremitting rigidity, such was his unbending personality. He dealt with everyone in the same way as he dealt with himself without fear or favour. An intelligent man with the natural gift for words that many Welsh people possess, it was inevitable that he was to become a lay preacher of the fire and brimstone variety. When he preached it was always exciting and some action was always to be expected, which soon made him a popular figure. He was considered to be quite an entertainment and the chapel was always full when it was known that Tom Jones was to give a sermon. It must be said however, that his popularity as a speaker was not always shared by other officers of the church. Preachers and those who were ordained, considering themselves to be better qualified to expound the word of God, they were mostly of the ’Turn the other cheek’ school of thinking, whereas my grandfather was more: ’An eye for an eye’ sort of man. To proffer a religious opinion in his presence could be a risky business, he was sometimes known to interject and what was even more horrifying was the likelihood that he would not hesitate to question the accuracy or the interpretation of the holy word if it was not to his liking.

When I enquired about grandfather in later years, I found that he was still remembered and spoken of with great glee and considerable amusement. It seems the adventures of ‘Jones The Soldier‘, as he was wont to be called, had provided much entertainment in the locals on a long winters evening, and later it was his religious involvement that became the favourite subject of conversation. It was from this source that I heard a popular story which went as follows : ‘The chapel was full on a particular Sunday evening though on this occasion grandfather Jones was not one of the speakers, he was however in the congregation. At a certain point in the proceedings it fell to someone to read a lesson and interpret it for the benefit of the flock, though in doing so it had been forgotten that among the sheep was also one who saw himself as a shepherd. What is more, the shepherd in question was one who would be determined to ensure that the flock was not led astray. The teachers of this world almost always have the conviction that they are right and not to be questioned, and this breeds in them the absolute conviction that no one would have the temerity to do so. Such an opinion is sadly in error where strong characters are concerned; there is no doubt that Tom Jones would have taken issue with the son of God himself had he considered him mistaken. And so it was that on this occasion the speaker’s words of wisdom were judged and found wanting, in fact they were even thought to be a deliberate attempt to deceive. In his righteous anger grandfather leapt to his feet and yelled 'Liar'! Not a very polite thing to do, and an action which if challenged could have lead to a most embarrassing argument in the middle of a religious service; but this was not to be even a possibility as events turned out. Maybe it had been the suddenness of the outburst, or maybe it was the fact that at the time Tom was at the rear of the chapel, but those who tell the story say that the word was misunderstood by some being taken for the word 'Fire', and in an instant many of those present leaped up and dashed for the exit, followed by the remainder who not really knowing what was happening deemed it wise to follow the example of those on the move.

They say that the chapel could not have been emptied quicker had the devil himself appeared in their midst, though one would imagine that the main participants in this incident would have remained, and once the rush had subsided would have undoubtedly debated my grandfathers actions. What a pity it was that those who recount this tale did not also remain and witness the final outcome; a further chapter of events which would have probably been much more entertaining than the initial incident itself.’

The Jones family were essentially country people, though grandfather himself had always been a soldier and a miner. They were not wealthy, but as with many rural dwellers their lives appeared to have been reasonably healthy and happy. The children appeared at regular intervals beginning with Jane always referred to by all that knew her as Jin. - Their father gave these affectionate titles to some of his children. - Then after a short interval appeared three boys in quick succession. Their names were Bruce, Walter, and Tom, and after another interval came Elizabeth known always as Nin, then Victor, and finally the youngest of the family, my mother Mary.

By the time my mother was born in 1911, - A date I have never been able to confirm, - the family income was beginning to feel the strain placed on it by the growth in numbers, it was also possible that economic and industrial changes in the area in which they lived had also begun to make themselves felt. Even the structure of the railways had changed, resulting in much of the traffic being rerouted through the industrial midlands and the fast developing railway centre at Crewe in Cheshire. Maybe my grandfather’s experience as a miner had attracted attention from some colliery owner? Whatever the reason, history records that circumstances required that the Jones family move on in search of better things.

There appears to be a constant desire in human nature to change, to move on; doesn't ‘The grass on the other side of the fence always look a little greener?’ But there is also the old saying that we can often leap 'Out of the frying pan into the fire.' It is impossible to know how events will turn out; what we do know is that not all change is for the better.

About 25 miles North East of the Welsh border was the Potteries, where industrial development was booming. Part of that development included the opening of an ever increasing number of collieries, and what with the advent of new steel foundries in a part of the city called Shelton there was little doubt that Stoke-on-Trent was going to grow rapidly. Such growth was certain, but if anything could have ensured that it would happen then the arrival of the First World War was to make it a certainty. There seems little doubt that a move to this smoky metropolis was to prove a decided improvement from a financial point of view, but I am sure I can also say that there were many times when those healthy, happy, country children, dreamed and longed for the clean green vistas of the Welsh border and Shropshire. It would have been about 1921 the Jones family moved to Stoke-on-Trent, and I calculate that my grandfather was about 47 years old at the time. - He died in 1939 at the age of 65, and on this basis I estimate his date of birth as being 1874.

The unnatural environment created by industry we now know destroys not only the countryside, but the health of the people who are required to tend it. Some knew it would happen, many did not, but mostly the ordinary people had little choice in the matter. What is clear is that those who were instrumental in creating the monster we call industrial progress, those who were to benefit and grow wealthy from it, they were always careful to ensure that they did not live amongst it's dark and damaging consequences.

Like it or not the Jones family found themselves living in a fast growing part of the city called Fenton, which lay between Longton, (Known to some as Neck End,) and Stoke, to the South/West, and Hanley, to the South/East. It must have been very strange to them but at least they were in a part of town which had not yet thickened. It was mainly a thin layer of development along the side of the road that joined the other centres. Fields and countryside still surrounded most of the houses, but that would change as time passed by. Where the main road divided, with one road leading to Stoke, and the other to Hanley, there was a little triangular area called Victoria Place, and it was here that the new pit where Tom was to work was located. It was called the 'Glebe' presumably because it stood next to the local vicarage and was on land owned by the church. Collieries were privately owned of course, though the procedure for recruiting a work force was rapidly changing. Management had found that the most effective way of dealing with the difficulties of hiring and firing was to employ subcontractors. Generally the contractors were experienced miners who employed and paid their own team, and they guaranteed to produce a certain number of tons of coal a week or in a given period. Tom Jones was such a contractor at the Glebe and for a time his own sons, and one of his son in laws, were his team.


Tom Jones and his wife about 1935 or 1936.

It is an interesting fact that long years of exposure to a particular situation or a certain set of circumstances invariably leads to a total acceptance. It is this fatalistic acceptance that neutralises the determination to resist, and allows the few to dominate and control the majority, often referred to as the masses. This may be the case but it does not result in a complete lack of progress and improvement; though one sometimes wonders whether we will ever achieve an ideal society at all? I doubt that Tom Jones or any of his family would have understood these observations, and even if they had it is unlikely that they would have agreed with them. Many of the long term effects of industrialisation were not recognized until it was too late, and sometimes even when recognized the conditioning of those involved resulted in them accepting such things as normal and natural. In the meantime the benefits of an improved wage and regular employment blinded most to the dangers of the conditions under which they lived and worked.

clip_image004Living in a large industrial city in conditions of rapid development and growth, there were occasions when talent and ability were recognized or given a chance. For a man like my grandfather who was without doubt an intelligent man, who taught himself a number of skills, including the ability to use shorthand for example, the existing conditions provided new avenues. It was not long before he had become involved in the miners union, and his forceful personality soon impressed those around him, which in turn led to further involvement in other public activities.

← Grandfather Jones having a day in the country; taken about 1935/1936.

Such things must have given the Jones family much satisfaction; such things are progress are they not? By the time that I was born in 1933 my grandfather had become a very well known figure in the city. In 1926 he stood for the council in his local ward 20 and won famously; and followed that with two more successive wins, though this was hardly surprising when one considers that the vast majority of the locals were working class, which ensured that any Socialist candidate was guaranteed a seat on the council. The trick was to be chosen as the candidate in the first place; once elected re-election was almost a foregone conclusion. After 8 years of strenuous activity, he retired on health grounds in 1935. - He had been prominent on the Housing committee, also the Electricity, Estates, and Baths and Markets committees. - He was also a very active man politically, being for a while the Chairman of the Longton and Fenton branch of the Labour Party.

As a member of the city council Tom must have looked back on his life with some satisfaction; from his point of view he had made progress and the rightness of his decisions was surely vindicated? How much I would like to agree with this, but alas I have the benefit of hindsight and must reject what has to be described as nothing but a hollow dream. Of course it is easy for me to be wise after the event, I can look back and see all the damaging and destructive events and circumstances, but the characters I write about did not see clearly, or chose not to see, and to use a well worn expression one could say that they were the product of their environment.

If only the good could have happened without any of the bad, if only the skill and the courage, the determination and the hard work, could have reaped it's reward without having to pay the price which the dark satanic mills were to extract. Sixty years after the events of which I presently write, I saw the face of a miner with tears in his eyes. He was singing 'Jerusalem' with a crowd of his comrades; he was attending a demonstration against the closure of the pits and the loss of his job. The tears were for the recognition that his belief in England had ended; this green and pleasant land for which he had worked would never be his, it was a sham a cruel deception and now finally he knew it.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Glynn, what a colourful character your Grandfather Jones was - it's delightful to read about him! My paternal grandmother came from Shropshire and the place names you mention are all familiar - I enjoyed that. I envy you having these photos, which are priceless.

You mentioned you hadn't confirmed your mother's birth in 1911. If you haven't already, you might like to check the BMDs at If you like I could so a search there and other places for her although you would need to give me more particulars such as parents' names, possible location of birth, her full name.

I'll read another installment later.

Cheers, K