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.

Christmas 1945

by Laura Bray

The following is an extract of a letter written by my grandmother, 72 years ago today, to her son who was still on service with the Navy. She regularly attended Christ Church, Cyfarthfa, which she talks about in the letter. The vicar in question was Rev Vivian Thomas who was at Cyfarthfa Church from 1937 until 1948.

Christ Church, Cyfarthfa

Merthyr Tydfil
23 December 1945

“Christmas is the day after tomorrow…..It is a happier Christmas in many ways than we have had for the last six years.  The cloud is lifted.  There is no fear. But for ease of living I suppose things are worse than they have been at all at there is no evidence that they will be any better for a very long time.  We shall be paying off our debt to America for generations.

…Vicar got up a carol service this Sunday evening like the one in King’s. Nine lessons by different members of the choir with a carol sung between each.  Two Choir boys read lessons and four of the choir men….

Vicar had a brainwave.  He would have two Christmas trees in church, decorated and lit.  He appealed to the congregation to give him decorations.  But there are none left…..when I went up yesterday to decorate the font he was down in the depths.  His enthusiasm was petering out.  The trees that came were too big. They had had no end of trouble to get them in place. There were no decorations. People wouldn’t lend any and none could be bought.  And he could see he had had the idea the wrong year.  He should have waited until things were normal again etc etc.

We found at home long stands of tinsel – tarnished but whole – and took them up.  I bought silver paper in town and drew a star on paper, a foot across.  We cut it out in stiff cardboard and stuck the silver paper on.  It made two grand stars.  We made two tiny holes and pushed wire through and they were at the very top of the tress and looked well.  In the dark, before the lights were put on, it looked as if it were a star hanging up in the sky.  Vicar had an electrician up who wired one tree for lights, and he put a floodlight to light up the tree.  Only one.  The other tree was against the pillar just beyond the font.  The electrician came to me (I was decorating the font) for cotton wool with which to decorate the tree.  It looks really well……

After the (Carol) service, the whole choir went to the hospital and gave a concert of carols.  They went to six wards….by the end of the tour even those members of the choir who didn’t attend many choir practises, began to know them.

The sideboard is beginning to assume a Christmassy aspect, cards everywhere and oranges and apples.  Think of it.  G told me some time ago that he would see I had oranges and apples for Christmas; though for their business this was going to be the leanest winter of the war.  It is too.  The powers that be purposely arranged that there should be an allocation the week before Christmas.  To keep up our morale, no doubt”

My grandmother next writes on 29 December, when she describes Christmas Day and Boxing Day , shared with family and friends.  The house had  “Usual decorations, a holly wreath tied with red ribbon over the fireplace, the long string of separate letters from the mantlepiece…mistletoe over the hall arch, holly behind every picture…yellow chrysanths in one table vase and holly in the other…best china and linen and a nice big fire ….. on both days your photograph in a silver frame was on the table for meals and there was talk of you all day long”.

It may have been the first Christmas of peace but in many ways it was also the last Christmas of war, when families were still apart, loved and missed.

How different is her description of 1945 from Christmases today.

Merthyr Memories: Tramroadside North Memories

by Christine Brewer (née Williams)

I was born on Tramroadside North during the War, and I spent all of my early life there. The Tramroadside North I remember from that time bares very little resemblance to the same area today – it has been developed beyond recognition.

The part of Tramroadside North that I am talking about, or ‘The Tramroad’ as it’s more commonly known, is the road that runs between Church Street and what was known as Harris’ Hill – roughly where the Tesco roundabout is today. When I was growing up, the road was much narrower and was lined on both sides with small houses and cottages.

A map showing Tramroadside North (marked in yellow)

On the side of the road nearest the Railway Station were also several ‘courts’ of houses: Joseph’s Court, Vaughan’s Court and Rosser’s Court. There was also a pub, The Tydfil Arms, and we also had a green-grocer’s shop and a small ‘front-room shop’ in one of the houses.

An aerial view showing the top part of the Tramroad. The Tydfil Arms is at the centre of the photo (the larger white building). Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

When I was a child I clearly remember the old tram-lines running down the middle of the road, the trams had stopped running years before of course, and I also remember the air-raid shelter near the lane up to Thomas Street. I often wondered how effective this would have been in an air-raid as it was quite a flimsy brick-built building just built at the side of the road.

The Tramroad decorated for the coronation of King George VI in 1937. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Most of the families who lived on the Tramroad had lived there for generations, and we were a community all of our own. Everyone knew everyone else, and I could tell you who lived in almost every house. I was born in a very small two up, one down cottage – the youngest of five children, so when I was young I went to live with my aunt who had more room. She lived at the bottom end of the Tramroad, and had huge garden which stretched all the way back to the Station Yard. I clearly remember the animals being brought into the Station Yard before being taken to the abattoir, which was near the present day Farm Foods store.

There were, of course, some characters living on the Tramroad. One of our neighbours had a garden full of fantastic cabbages, and whenever anyone asked her about them, she would say that she had buried her husband’s ashes there, and that is what made them so big. Another lady, actually another one of my aunts, had a menagerie in her house. Whenever she came across an injured animal, she would take them in and care of them. Over the years I remember her having many wild birds, hedgehogs etc. At one time I even remember her having a fox-cub!

At the top of the Tramroad was Adulam Chapel. The chapel actually faced Lower Thomas Street, but the cemetery was on the Tramroad, and there was path to the chapel through the cemetery. I went to Adulam Chapel every Sunday, and I remember going to Sunday School in the vestry underneath the chapel and being taught the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh by the teacher Evan John Peters.

The Tramroad in the 1960’s with Adulam Chapel in the middle of the photo. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Also underneath Adulam Chapel were two very small houses that shared a kitchen and toilet. When I was a little older, my sister married and moved into one of these houses. I dreaded going to see her as I would have to walk along a path through the cemetery to get to the house; I remember one occasion walking down the path and a boy jumping out at me from behind a grave – he thought it was one of his friends and wanted to frighten him…..he certainly frightened me!

Adulam Chapel. Left is the front of the Chapel on Thomas Street. Right is the back of the chapel on the Tramroad, showing the cemetery with the path (left) leading to the houses

So much has changed. Most of the houses have been demolished, and all of the courts, the Tydfil Arms and Adulam Chapel have all gone. It’s sad to look back and see all I remember disappeared.

Vaughan’s Court being demolished. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Merthyr Memories: An Abercanaid Childhood

by Ken Brewer

I was born in 1937, so my memories begin during the War when I was about 3 years old, and I started school. I clearly remember carrying a cardboard box that contained my gas-mask, and during school lessons the bell would go, and we were all ushered into the yard and instructed to lie lay on our stomachs in case there was an air raid. The classes in those days numbered about 40 pupils due to the influx of evacuees, so the teachers were very busy.

Abercanaid School. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Abercanaid itself was very self-supporting, meeting the needs of the people who lived there. There were two bakers, a butcher and three grocery shops, plus a number of small corner shops. There was also an official ‘layer-out’ for the village, and when we saw the elderly lady in question hurrying along with her little bag, you knew someone had passed away.

What went on in the village, mostly centred around the church and the chapels. St Peter’s was the church, and the chapels were: Sion Independent Chapel, Deml Baptist Chapel and ‘my chapel’ Graig Methodist Chapel. The members of these chapels and church would regularly stage concerts and amateur dramatic performances to entertain the villagers. For the children there was ‘Band of Hope’ and ‘Rechabites’ so we rarely left the village. As children, we didn’t have chance of misbehaving – everyone knew everyone so any misdemeanours would soon reach our parents.

As in most places, the pubs outnumbered the chapels. In Abercanaid we had The Colliers Arms, The Richards Arms, The Glamorgan Arms, The Llwyn-yr-Eos Inn, the Duffryn Arms (also known as the Teapot), and in Upper Abercanaid – The White Hart.

The Llwyn-yr-Eos Inn. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

We also had our own Police Station, Library, football ground – The Ramblers, and a Social Centre on the Canal Bank which was built by the villagers themselves. Abercanaid was also served by two Railway Stations – Pentrebach Station on the Merthyr to Cardiff line, and Abercanaid Station on the old Rhymney Line.

Ladies exercise class in the Abercanaid Social Centre in the 1940’s.

If anyone wanted to know where someone lived, you could tell that person, not just the street, but the exact house. Neighbours were so important, and everyone was ready to help in an emergency. During the war everything was in short supply, floor coverings consisted of home-made rag mats or coconut matting. My family were considered posh because we had some carpet mats! The items were actually hand-me-downs; my mother had worked for Price Brothers, the bakers and wholesale merchants in Merthyr, for over 25 years, so when their carpets were beginning to wear, they replaced them, and the old ones were given to my mother. Many times I came home from school to find the carpets missing from the front room – when I asked about them I was always told that “Mrs So-and-so has visitors so she has borrowed the carpets”.

Another incident I recall occurred one Sunday lunchtime. The meat was cooked, and the vegetables were ready, and my grandmother (who lived with us) was making the gravy. There was a knock at the door, and a close neighbour stood there in tears, distraught because her brother and three children had turned up from Cardiff and she didn’t have enough meat to give them for lunch. The result was that she had our meat and we managed on vegetables and gravy! I wonder if such a thing would happen today?

Things were undoubtedly hard at that time in Abercanaid, as elsewhere, but I’m sure the wonderful community in our village helped us to cope a lot better with the deprivations and stresses of the time.

Mount Pleasant Spitfire Crash

On 7 July 1941, five people were killed in Mount Pleasant in Merthyr Vale as a result of a terrible accident involving two Spitfire fighters.

At about 6.30pm on Monday 7 July 1941, two planes were seen flying over the hills behind Aberfan at an altitude of approximately 600 feet. The planes were Spitfires of the Royal Canadian Air Force on a training exercise from No 53 Operational Training Unit, based at RAF Heston. The planes were piloted by Sergeant Gerald Fenwick Manuel (R/69888) aged 25, from Halifax, Nova Scotia and Sergeant Lois “Curly” Goldberg (R/56185), aged 27, from Montreal.

From eye-witness accounts, the one plane overshot the other and their wing-tips touched, resulting in both pilots losing control of their aircraft. Sergeant Goldberg’s plane crashed into a field, killing him instantly, but the plane piloted by Sergeant Manuel crashed into a house at the end of South View in Mount Pleasant.

The house was the home of the Cox Family: James Cox, a shift worker at a munitions factory; his wife Alice aged 33, and their five children. At the time of the crash, James Cox was in bed, having just come home from a shift at the factory; his three sons Donald, Thomas and Len were out playing; and Alice and the two daughters, Phyllis aged 14 and three-year-old Doreen, had just returned from a shopping trip. Alice and the two girls were killed instantly, as was Sergeant Manuel, but James Cox had a remarkable escape as the impact of the plane threw him out of the rear window of the house, and he escaped with minor injuries.

Alice Cox. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

William Brown who lived next door to the Cox family, and who’s house was also damaged, spoke of his own lucky escape: “I was coming out of my house with a bucket of water to go to my allotment when I saw the plane coming towards my house. Some instinct made me go back in, and when I was going along the passage something gave me a smack on the head. I managed to get into a room in the back and I saw the Cox’s house in flames……..There are usually ten to twelve children playing by the lamp-post directly outside the house, but today they were playing in the fields down by the river. My wife and grandchildren were in the back of the house, and they too were uninjured”.

Neighbours and local residents tried in vain to rescue Alice and the children, but the house had burst into flames immediately following the crash, and the heat was too great for attempts to rescue the family. The local police inspector paid tribute to the people, especially the women, saying: “The people of the district were marvellous. They all worked and spoilt their clothing, and never seemed to tire. The women-folk worked unceasingly, carrying water and sand while the men worked the stirrup pumps. They were magnificent and worked like Trojans”.

The bodies of Sgt Manuel and the deceased family members were buried two days later in the Ffrwd Cemetery, Cefn-Coed, while the body of Sgt Goldberg was interned in the Jewish cemetery at Cefn-Coed.

In 2007 a mural painted by local school children was unveiled in memory of the victims of the crash.

Mount Pleasant Crash Memorial Mural

Merthyr’s Spitfire

Following on from yesterday’s blog about HMS Beverley, here is a newspaper cutting from the Merthyr Express of 31 October 1942 referring to yet another bit of fund raising by the people of Merthyr during the Second World War:


The Merthyr Tydfil Spitfire. If you look closely you can see the name of the town just below the cockpit

Merthyr’s Destroyer

Did you know that Merthyr adopted its very own warship in the Second World War?

Between 1941 and 1942, the concept of National Savings was introduced by the British government. Each region in the country was provided with a savings target to achieve. This was based on the region’s population, with each general level of savings having a class of warship assigned. This became known as ‘Warship Week’. In one such ‘Warship Week’ in February 1942, Merthyr Tydfil raised the amazing sum of £57,000, the highest amount raised during the period, and was thus ‘awarded’ a ship – HMS Beverley.

HMS Beverley

HMS Beverley, was actually an old American ship – USS Branch, a Clemson-class destroyer that entered service in 1920. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding, the ship was laid down on 25 October 1918 and launched on 19 April 1919. Commissioned on 3 April 1920 for service in US Navy, she was held in Reserve in 1939 until she was transferred to the Royal Navy under the Lend Lease Agreement on 8 October 1940 and commissioned at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

HMS Beverley was assigned to convoy escort duties, and during 1941 escorted several Atlantic convoys, attacking U-boats on three separate occasions, and escorted several convoys to Malta.

In April 1942 she was an escort for Convoy PQ 14 en route to North Russia. On the journey the convoy was attacked by a superior force of enemy destroyers, which had approached unobserved during a snow storm and fired several torpedoes at a range of 9,000 yards. One merchant ship was sunk. The enemy returned four times and took part in short gunnery duels, but did not close the range below 8,000 yards. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, HMS Beverley and the other escorts outfought the German opposition.

Following a refit, HMS Beverley returned to Atlantic Convoy duties, and would soon see her finest hour, taking part in the one of the most bitterly fought convoy actions of the entire Battle of the Atlantic: the defence of convoys HX-229 and SC-122. The convoys were attacked by over 40 U-boats, and despite heavy losses to the merchant ships, the U-boats were beaten off by HMS Beverley and her fellow escorts.

On her next voyage across the Atlantic, whilst escorting Convoy ON-176, some 360 miles southeast of Greenland, HMS Beverley collided with the merchantman, SS Cairnvolona on 9 April 1943. The incident, occurring in “thick weather,” severely handicapped the destroyer. Two days later, U-188 chanced across her and torpedoed her. The old ship went down quickly, leaving only four survivors. 139 men, including her commanding officer, went down with the ship.

HMS Beverley Ship’s Crest

For more information on HMS Beverley please check out the following links: