by Laura Bray
Many of you reading this blog will have heard of the book ‘Off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ charting the early life of Joseph Parry and his family as they try their luck for a new life in America. Some of you reading this blog may have been on the cast of the television series that was made in the late 1970s. Remember that?
But how many of us know anything about its author – Jack Jones?
It’s an interesting story.
Jack’s given name was John Jones, and he was born on 24 November 1884 at number 14, Tai Harri Blawd, which, from what I can work out, is somewhere around the Theatre Royal/Taf Vale Brewery/ Dan y Parc area of town.
He was the eldest son of David, who was a collier from Merthyr, and Sarah, who was from Swansea and only 19 when Jack was born. David and Sarah, both Welsh speakers, had 15 children, only 9 of whom survived beyond infancy, and by the time Jack was six he already had three brothers – William, Francis and baby David – and also shared his home with two cousins, the eldest of whom, aged 15, was also a collier. By 1901 the family had moved to Penyard, by which time Jack, and his three brothers, had been joined by three more brothers and two sisters.
By this stage Jack was 16. He had left St David’s Elementary School three years earlier and gone to work underground, but was of an age to enlist and so joined the army – Militia Battalion of the Welch – and was sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Hating it, Jack went AWOL, but was recaptured and sent to India, where he remained until his demobilisation in 1906. He then returned to Merthyr. In 1908 he married Laura Grimes Evans, who was 6 years his elder, and for the next few years the family moved between Merthyr and Builth Wells, their two eldest sons being born respectively in these places. Times must have been hard – Jack worked as a bark stripper and then as a general labourer for the Railway Service Company in Builth Wells before finances forced Jack back underground, this time in Pontypool. These were turbulent times however – and when war broke out in 1914 Jack, as an army reservist, was called up back to his regiment, and sent to the Western Front, where he was mentioned in dispatches. After suffering shrapnel wounds, however, he was invalided out and returned to Merthyr where he became the recruiting officer.
During his 20’s Jack was becoming more interested in theatre, writing and in politics, and by 1920 had joined the Communist Party, representing his Miner’s Federation Branch at Pontypool in the formation Conference of the British Communist Party in Manchester 1921, from where he was chosen to become temporary corresponding secretary for the South Wales coalfield. For months he sought to establish a branch of the Communist Party at Merthyr, and gave active support to the Communist parliamentary candidate for the Caerphilly constituency. But Jack was not a life-long communist and his political affiliations vacillated. By 1923 he had left the Communist Party in favour of the Labour Party, and had been appointed full time secretary-representative of the miners at Blaengarw, a job which necessitated him moving his family again, this time to Bridgend. Although active in the Labour Party, criticism of his controversial first article for the press, ‘The Need for a Lib-Lab Coalition’, and his increasing disillusionment with Labour’s stance over nationalisation, resulted, towards the end of 1927, in his resignation from the post at Blaengarw, another house move – from Bridgend to Cardiff – and another political move – from the Labour Party to the Liberal Party. In the meantime he had also written and submitted a play, ‘Dad’s Double’, into a competition in Manchester where is had favourable reviews.
1929 saw Jack working as a speech writer for the Liberal Party and standing as a (defeated) Liberal candidate for Neath in the election but only a year later, Jack was unemployed and having to make ends meet by doing whatever he could – working as a platform-speaker for Oswald Mosely’s far right party, as a salesman, a cinema manager, a navvie and also as a writer. Now nearly 50, these must have been tough years, but Jack persevered and in 1934, he had his first novel published: ‘Rhondda Roundabout’.
More success followed and by 1939 Jack had written two more novels – ‘Black Parade’ (1935) and ‘Bidden to the Feast’ (1938); a play ‘Land of My Fathers’ (1937) and the first volume of his autobiography ‘Unfinished Journey’ (1937). A short run of the stage-version of ‘Rhondda Roundabout’ on Shaftesbury Avenue added to his fame.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Jack carried out lecture tours in the USA and Canada, worked as a speech writer on behalf of the Ministry of Information and the National Savings Movement, wrote radio-scripts and articles, visited troops on the battlefields and also had to deal with the death of his son Lawrence, who was killed in action in 1942. He also changed political allegiance again – this time supporting the Conservative, Sir James Grigg in the 1945 election. Jack still found time to write, producing ‘The Man David’ an imaginary presentation, based on fact, of the life of Lloyd George, in 1944, and then after the war, and in quick succession, two volumes of autobiography (‘Me and Mine’ in 1946 and ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ in 1950), three new novels (‘Off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ (1947), ‘Some Trust in Chariots’ (1948), and ‘River out of Eden’ (1951) and a play (‘Transatlantic Episode’ (1947). Personally these years were difficult: Laura died in 1946 and his other son, David, in 1948; although Jack did find love again, marrying Gwaldys Morgan, a library assistant from Rhiwbina, in 1954.
Jack wrote five novels during the 1950’s although these were not as well received and although he continued to write until his death, his last published novel was in 1956 – ‘Come Night, End Day’.
In terms of accolades, Jack received many. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1948, the first president of the English section of Yr Academi Gymreig; and, in February 1970, he received an award from the Welsh Arts Council for his distinguished contribution to the literature of Wales. He died on 7 May 1970 and is now all but forgotten outside Merthyr.
Perhaps it is time to reappraise this lad from Merthyr, who led a life so unlike many of ours and recorded his experiences so skilfully, depicting, in the words of Phil Carradice, “…an accurate and powerful picture of life in the industrial valleys of South Wales in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arguably, it has never been done better.”