Jack Jones – Merthyr’s Literary Great

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.

Merthyr’s Chapels: Ebenezer Chapel, Cefn Coed

The next chapel we look at in our continuing feature is Ebenezer Welsh Independent Chapel in Cefn Coed.

Ebenezer Chapel in 1983

The cause at Ebenezer started in 1836 when four members of Bethesda Chapel called Jededia Jones, Thomas Williams, Morgan Morgans and Henry Thomas started meeting in two small rooms in Cefn Isaf, Cefn Coed belonging to the ‘Hen Dafarn Bach’.

In 1837, as the congregation grew, they decided to build their own church, and a piece of land was bought from Lady Gwyn Holford, and a chapel was built at a cost of £400. The first minister was Mr Evan Williams, a teacher and part time preacher at Bethesda Chapel.

In 1838 the Chartist Rising began, and as many in the church supported the points of the Charter and Evan Williams the minister opposed them, it was agreed that it would be better for him to leave. Following this Mr William Moses took over as minister, but the arguments over the congregation’s support of the Chartist’s methods of violence to enforce social reform continued.

More disagreements occurred over Mr Richard Evans and Mr Walter Williams, members of the chapel, going to preach at Adulam Chapel in Tredegar which strongly supported the chartists. The East Glamorgan Association of Independent Churches strongly disapproved of this, but the chapel continued to allow them to preach in Tredegar with the result that Ebenezer was excluded from the Independent Union for many years, effectively cutting them off from the other Independent chapels in the area.

The disagreements culminated with the minister Mr Moses leaving the chapel with a number of the congregation and starting their own chapel at Tabor in Cefn Coed in 1842.

That same year, Richard Evans and Walter Williams were ordained as joint ministers at Ebenezer which further angered the Association, and both men were excluded from preaching at any other chapel in the area.

After the chapel had been outside the Independent Union for five years, reconciliation was made, Ebenezer joined the Independent Union and Richard Evans and Walter Williams were accepted as ordained ministers. The congregation subsequently grew and a larger chapel was built in 1861 at a cost of £700.

In 1913 a burst water main undermined the foundations of the chapel and the front and one of the side walls gave way. The front wall and most of the side wall had to be rebuilt at a cost of £500.

During the 1960’s the number of members severely declined, and they were unable to maintain the fabric of the building. The chapel closed in 1970 and services were held for a number of years in the Chapel’s schoolroom in Holford Street, until that too closed.

Ebenezer Chapel is still standing, but is in a very sorry state.

Ebenezer Chapel in 2012

The Meaning of Grawen

by Carl Llewellyn

Although there is a farm in Cwmtaf called “Grawen”, most residents living in Merthyr Tydfil would recognise the name being associated with the area around the Quar, Brecon Road, known as the “The Grawen”.

The Welsh word for “rough” is “garw”, and in the old Welsh language meadow is “gwaen” or “waen”. If these two words are combined we have Garw-waun, drop one “w” and the “a” in waen we have “Grawen”. In the old Welsh the “r” frequently changes its position  and so “Garwen” would become “Grawen”.

This is conjectural – the word “garw” (rough) combined with “nant” (a valley or a brook), gives us “turbulent brook” with the word “rough” associated with water – hence Nantgarw, Pontypridd, and an area near Cwmtaf is known as “Garwnant”. In Dewi Cynon’s history of Farm names the word “garw” or “rough” refers to the bed of the brook being “coarse” hence “rough brook”.

The ‘Round House’ in the Grawen, Brecon Road


Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society – 2018 Programme

The Merthyr Tydfil Historical Society are pleased to announce the lecture programme for 2018. One or two lectures need to be confirmed, but will be announced in due course.

5 February Brian Davies The Welsh Paintings of Julius Ibbetson
5 March Rev David Lee The Disestablishment of the Church in Wales
9 April Stephen Brewer 1936 – A Year in History
14 May Gregg Buick To be announced
4 June Keith Lewis-Jones “Green” Transport in Aberdare and Merthyr
3 September Gethin Matthews Commemorating the First World War in South Wales Communities
1 October Ben Price To be announced
5 November Clive Thomas Merthyr Tydfil: A Decade of Change – 1968-1978
3 December Daryl Leeworthy The Rise and Fall of Council Housing in Twentieth-Century Merthyr

The Aeolus Waterwheel – Merthyr’s Great Wonder

When Rev Sir Thomas Cullum (8th Baronet Cullum) visited Merthyr Tydfil in 1811, one of the sights he was most taken with was the mighty Aeolus Waterwheel at the Cyfarthfa Ironworks, and he even called it ‘the wonder of the place’. Some contemporary accounts actually refer to it as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World‘. I wonder how many people in Merthyr have actually heard of it nowadays?

‘Cyfarthfa Works and Waterwheel’ by William Pamplin. The Aeolus Waterwheel can clearly be seen at the centre of the illustration. Photo courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

When Richard Crawshay became sole owner of the Cyfarthfa Works in 1791, he began making plans to extend the works and come up with innovative ways to increase iron production. In 1792, he made the engineer Watkin George a partner in the firm, and the latter began making significant progress in maximising the potential of the works.

His major contribution was the construction between 1793 and 1797 of a huge overshot waterwheel to provide the air for the four blast furnaces.

According to volume 5 of Rees’s Manufacturing Industry (1819-20):

“…..the water-wheel is 50 feet in diameter and six feet wide: it is chiefly made of cast iron, and has 156 buckets. The axle is a hollow tube, and is strengthened by twenty-four pieces of timber applied around it. On each end of the axis is a cog-wheel of twenty-three feet diameter, which turns a pinion. On the axis of these are two cranks, and fly-wheel twenty-two feet diameter, and twelve tons weight; each of the cranks gives motion to a lever, like that of a large steam-engine, and works the piston of a blowing cylinder or air-pump 52½ inches in diameter, and five feet stroke, which blows air into the furnace, both when the piston goes up and down. The work on the other side being the same, it actuates in the whole four of these double cylinders; the wheel makes about two and a half turns per minute, and each cylinder makes ten strokes.”

At the time, it was the largest waterwheel of its kind in the world and was named Aeolus after a character in Greek Mythology. Aeolus, as mentioned in the Odyssey and the Aeneid,  was the keeper of the winds and king of the island of Aeolia, one of the abrupt rocky Lipara islands close to Sicily. Later classical writers regarded him as a god.

The wheel was operated by water fed from streams across the river and transported by a massive iron and wood double aqueduct mounted on stone piers between 60 and 70 feet high. This was the famous Gwynne Aqueduct. Sir Charles Manby (later Secretary of the Institution of Civil Engineers) visited Merthyr and commented that the aqueduct:

“…..maintained an apparent lightness of the whole that contrasted with the massy [sic] boundary of the river, has not only a singular, but also a very interesting and pleasing appearance.”

Gwynne Aqueduct from a painting by Penry Williams

This is the same aqueduct that was mentioned in the previous post about the Pont-y-cafnau (http://www.merthyr-history.com/?p=678)

The Aeolus Waterwheel continued to power the blast furnaces until the 1820’s when it was replaced by a steam powered engine, and was subsequently demolished.