John Walter Jones (1904-79)

At Coelbren, my grandfather, John Walter Jones (1904-1979), was one of those who escaped the dangers, drudgery and essential poverty of a life in coal mining, and against the odds.  Some form of pre-destination may have played a part - he was maybe helped along the way by two fortuitous events: he was (with his twin) the second youngest child in his family and his father, Daniel (himself the second youngest of ten), married relatively well.  Essentially, this meant he had an education - which was paid for by his elder collier siblings - and did not have to start work as a miner at the age of 14. At this juncture I do not believe that my grandfather was naturally blessed unusually – any more than his siblings or cousins - with genes that pre-disposed him to excel academically and assure his future away from hard and dangerous labour.   Many of his siblings were intelligent men and women – some of the men holding senior and responsible positions in the mines such as firemen and shotsmen.  He did inherit a familial predisposition to hard work – but that was not at all uncommon in south Wales.  Rather, he was nurtured far more by a family who believed strongly in the improving power of education – combined with strong adherence to the non-conformist faith (in this case, Baptist) - which espoused the same values.   There was also the eternal paradox of the coalfield. While the men outwardly celebrated the hard and honest work, the noble fellowship and the close-knit community which that created, many fathers - and certainly mothers - did not really want their sons to follow them.

Frightened of the exhausting labour awaiting them, the slow creep of the coal dust only a theoretical possibility in their minds, despite the evidence in the faces of their fathers and grandfathers (should they have any alive), yet still cowed by the call of their brothers, uncles and neighbours, the vast majority of local boys could but look little further than the mines.   The urge to masculinity, fellowship and early bread winning for the family was strong.   But many families were scarred by the early loss of a father or son to mining accidents – and most wives outlived their husbands by some years.  Gradually though, here, towards the end of the nineteenth century as in all other parts of industrial Wales, firstly the Sunday School, then public elementary schooling started to exercise its slow improvement and offer limited lifelines to those in a position fortunate enough to seize them.  Such was the case of JW Jones.  Enrolled with his twin Jestyn at Coelbren village primary school around 1909, he found his way to Cardiff University by the early 1920s. The second youngest of 10, he was supported entirely by his family, and later asked for nothing, stating his parents, brothers and sisters had given him his education – and his freedom.

JW Jones was born in Colbren House in 1904, one of the youngest children of Daniel Jones and Anne Morgan and was named most likely after his uncle John Walter Morgan, who had died in 1899, himself named after his grandfather, John Walters (1791-1868).   He was one exponent of the power of public education to offer able children opportunities away from the coal fields.   He is shown opposite about 1910 with his twin Jestyn, proudly advertising “Standard 1, Colbren School”.

He was fortunate because his father and grandfather, Richard Morgan, in whose house he was born and grew up, were clearly determined to give an education to all local children and were both part of a group, linked by family ties and the Baptist Chapel, who were primordial in fighting for the establishment of a primary school in Coelbren, established as a publicly funded Board School in 1894.

The photograph above is from Cardiff University (JW Jones rear 2nd right; source: family photograph).  In those days, it was quite unusual for a boy from a mining community to go to university and JW Jones relied totally on his elder brothers - all colliers - to pay for his secondary and higher education.  This support would have been necessary in spite of the probable public support JW received : "pledging themselves to teaching was the only way that the most academically able young people from working class backgrounds could consider university.  The university fees of high-achieving intending teachers promising to undertake a one year training course after obtaining their degree would be paid by the Board of Education.  Also, some of the local scholarships were specifically linked to teaching.” (Williams, 2005, p57)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

This was some time before the wholesale, almost factory-line production of Welsh school teachers engineered by largely Labour councils.  Williams (2005) examined the choosing of teaching as profession between the wars and notes that “Mostly, boys (like girls) attended training college rather than university because it placed less financial pressure on the family, but there are several examples in the evidence to indicate that…it was more likely that the boys would be sent to university to read for a degree before completing a one year teaching diploma (the route to socially superior grammar school teaching..”  Such was the case of JW Jones, who studied for a degree in Welsh at Cardiff.

He first took up various teaching posts in secondary schools in Cinderford, Glasbury, Oswestry and Burton-on-Trent before marrying and settling in Llanidloes in mid-Wales in the mid 1930s, later becoming headmaster of primary schools in Aberhafesp and Newtown (Montgomeryshire).  By this time, the great drain of people from rural Wales to the south Wales valleys had stopped; it had reached its peak at the turn of the twentieth century and indeed many of JW Jones’ wife’s family had come south from decaying upland Montgomeryshire sheep farms a generation previously.   Nevertheless, he was still going against the grain slightly in moving north, away from the industrial south. We don’t know why he appears to have chosen these rural borderland places in preference to his valleys homeland although it is possible the depression had shrunk opportunities for those beginning teaching careers at the beginning of the 1930s.  Williams (2005, p57) does mention the strain experienced by “those (the majority in the 1930s) who had to move across the border to find work and whose salaries were largely spent on ‘digs’"

JW Jones was a keen football player and later became Chairman of the Welsh Schools Football Association.  Above we see him 2nd left, front row, on the occasion of the British Varsity Cup final, 1926, held at Villa Park, Birmingham, home to Aston Villa.  The result is not known (source: family photograph).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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Marriage of JW Jones and Mary Enid Jerman, Llanidloes, 1935 (source: family photograph)

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JW Jones Marriage 1 - Version 2

Among the wedding guests were JW Jones’ sisters from Coelbren: Gwennie and Olwen Jones and his twin brother Jestyn (lower, left).  There is more information on them here.

The bride’s Jerman family had been in this area since at least the seventeenth century.  Link to their family history:

Jermans of Midwales










JW Jones knew what he had left behind in south Wales and maintained a healthy respect for his background.  His father had died one year before his marriage in 1935, and although 71, he had been ill for the previous four years, another victim of work in the mines.    Daniel Jones would never see his son settled in the lush and altogether gentler pastures of Montgomeryshire.  He had nonetheless laid the groundwork and JW Jones maintained a life-long dedication to social improvement and public service in both his professional and political activities.  He espoused what was no doubt a difficult but sincerely held form of Christian Socialism.  When he retired at the end of the 1960s, he named the house in Llanidloes he had built for his and his wife’s retirement “Pentwyn”, after the farm at Penycae his mother had been born on, and in some small recognition of his grandfather Richard Morgan’s staunchness of principle in rebelling against his landlord there a century previously.  

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In the 1930s, the progressive London publisher Victor Gollancz established the Left Book Club.   Producing books across a wide range of contemporary polemical topics, many of the club’s subscribers were teachers, including JW Jones for a while, the cover of whose original 1939 copy of “These Poor Hands - The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales” - is shown here (in the hardback salmon covers, rather than the more usual and iconic orange soft covers).   This became a classic account of conditions in the south Wales mines from the beginning of the twentieth century Later, in an interesting coincidence for this family, BL Coombes would stay in retirement at Nantyfedwen Farm, near Coelbren and Banwen, although by that time JW Jones was settled in mid-Wales.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his progressive principles, JW Jones made himself familiar with many different groups. We don’t know what the occasion was below (JW Jones shown seated, front right, source: family photograph)  Maybe it was a sportsmans' dinner, perhaps a Llanidloes town council event, but it certainly looks to be part of some local establishment; in this, like many other examples, he showed both personal and political acumen in integrating himself into these diverse groups, despite his avowed non-conformist religion and left-wing politics. This was not safe Labour south Wales, where shopkeeper and other petty Tories could only be found hiding in the local Con. Clubs, but the altogether more conservative and unforgiving rural market economy of mid-Wales, traditionally Liberal, but very traditional at that.

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Below (3rd left), he  appears to face the scepticism - if not downright hostile body language - of some mid Wales farmers (from the County Times, early 1970; source: family photograph).


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JW Jones led a very public life and entered society on many different levels: as a school teacher and headmaster, a reputedly very effective Baptist lay preacher, a local councillor - eventually mayor, in 1977 - in Llanidloes and voluntary official of many sporting, cultural and religious bodies.  The location and occasion of the photograph (source: family photograph) on the left are unknown, but it is typical of many examples, and likely that here JW has here been called into service to officiate in some capacity on the field at one of the many local agricultural shows which still take place in mid-Wales.   This was probably not a day for lay preaching, given the cap and pipe of his colleague.    

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JW Jones spent the substantive part of his working life as headmaster of Aberhafesp Primary School, near Newtown (Montgomeryshire). He is pictured extreme left (source: family photograph).  There looks to be a healthy roll here, probably in the mid 1960s.  The school was closed in the summer of 2011, two years after its centenary, at the behest of Powys County Council who then deemed such small rural schools unsustainable. The roll at that time was said to be 9 children but of course by then many had already been “managed” away to other schools in Newtown, easing the council’s decision to close the school.

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Aberhafesp about 1958.  JW Jones is pictured 3rd left with family visiting from Coelbren: sister Gwennie (L of him) and Olwen (R of him).  This was School House - a perk of the job - but had no running water and no electricity until the late 1950s.  Source: family photograph.

JW Jones, Llanidloes 1977

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"Institutional Labourist" or servant of the people?   We think he was probably uncomfortable in his robes and only held the mayorship for a year (source: family photograph).

JW Jones had been a town councillor in Llanidloes in the early 1940s originally, and resumed this role after returning there on retirement in 1969.  He became mayor in 1977, although by this time much of the local town council’s powers had been ceded to the new Powys County Council (from 1974). Nonetheless, it was a busy ceremonial time for him in Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee year, in this quite ardently royalist town. Little Welsh was spoken here as it was an easy and early English conquest up the Severn valley.  Llanidloes was a Labour town in a Liberal county.  It still remembered taking part in the Chartist movement of the late 1830s - and some industry still existed following the small factory model started there in the early 1800s.  Thus, the town appears to have been indulged as a rather wayward son, deviating, but not too radically now, from the old-established and family Liberal orthodoxy in this area - Montgomery had elected Liberals since 1880.  So JW Jones was not really part of any Labour “establishment" in this area and perhaps he escapes the taint of Williams' (1981) assessment:

Social democracy became became a recognised career structure in the life of able and ambitious south Walians; it provided the instutitional framework for social life.  Its hegemony was virtually as total as that of Liberalism before it and…was characterised by a more humanitarian, civilised and educated society, by a genuine concern and effective welfare state, by a genial and easy populism in style.  It was characterised also by accommodation snug within capitalism, by the traditional Welsh blend of high thoughts and low thinking, by total dependence on Westminster and by ubiquitous petty nepotism and corruption…”

Williams (1981)

We do know, possibly to confirm his integrity, that JW Jones was at one stage “offered” the headship of Llanidloes secondary school by some powers-that-be, a good post in the area, but on condition he renounce or relax his association with the Labour party.  He did not do this.  Nor did he revert to the easy comforts of the Welsh-speaking elite, now couched in more obviously nationalist rather than liberal terms -  to which he could have signed up equally. Although himself Welsh-speaking, his wife didn’t and their son wasn’t brought up to speak Welsh: the motivations here are possibly complex, no doubt involving some pure pragmatism, but the truth is that JW Jones probably allied himself more with the south Walian working class - Welsh and English speaking -  of his birthplace and his musical taste may have run more to “L’Internationale” than "Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers).”  

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Councillor Mrs Shirley Hooson (married to Liberal MP Emlyn Hooson) succeeded JW Jones (4th left) as Llanidloes mayor in 1978 (source: family photograph)

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The last recorded public service JW Jones performed was to open this community centre, in 1979, in the village which he had served previously as headmaster for about fifteen years (pictured, 3rd right).




© (the written content and authorial photographs) Gareth Jones 2015-19