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 Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 2

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

The biggest and most popular cinema in Merthyr was the Castle Cinema. It was very grand with a large foyer with a café and lounge upstairs. Inside the auditorium were three tiers of seats, and at the back there was a section that was partitioned off by glass so that you could watch (but not hear) the film whist you were waiting to go in.

The cinema was managed by Mr Cyril Smith, and the commissionaire was Vines Perry. The Castle also had a magnificent organ which would rise out of the floor, and the resident organist was Gene Lynne.

The Castle Cinema organ with Gene Lynne.  Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Castle was owned by ABC Cinemas (Associated British Cinemas), and on a Saturday morning they would have the ABC Minors – a cinema club with special showings for children. At the beginning of each Saturday morning session, the “ABC Minors Song” would be played to the tune of ‘Blaze Away’, whilst the lyrics were shown on the screen with a bouncing red ball above the words to help the audience keep the place.

The Palace Cinema, which was in Pontmorlais (where the car park near Flooks is now), was smaller than the Castle. It only had two tiers of seating, but it too had a café upstairs. The manager at the Palace was a Mr Jones who was always smartly dressed in a black suit and a dickie-bow. The Palace was a very popular cinema, but the lasting memory is that in the winter it was always freezing cold there, so there would always be a scramble to sit near the radiator.

The Palace Cinema

Also on the High Street, just a few doors up from the Castle Cinema, was the Electric Cinema. This was the oldest cinema in Merthyr, and by the 1940’s it was quite dilapidated and had a bit of a reputation – its nick-name was ‘The Bug-House’. I (Ken) only ever went there once when I was quite young. I had asked my mother to take me to see a George Formby film (I don’t recall which one), and when we got to Merthyr (from Abercanaid), the only cinema that was showing it was the Electric. My mother didn’t want to go there, but I finally persuaded her – but only on the understanding that I never told anyone that we went to the Electric!!!!!

The Electric Cinema. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall were also used for theatrical performances as well as being cinemas.

The Theatre Royal was also quite grand – it also had two tiers of seating, with a standing area at the back…..not glassed in this time though. Every Christmas there was a Pantomime there – I (Ken) remember seeing Cinderella starring Ronnie Ronalde (the yodelling music hall star) as Dandini and the radio stars Clapham and Dwyer as the Ugly Sisters.

The Temperance Hall also put on plays – it even had its own repertory company. One of the junior leads was Pamela Mant who left the company to play Christine Archer in ‘The Archers’. Another regular at the Temperance Hall was Pat Phoenix who went on to star as Elsie Tanner in ‘Coronation Street’. When you went to see a film at ‘The Temp’, you had to be careful where you sat. Some of the seats downstairs were behind the pillars supporting the balcony, so you would be forever dodging from side to side to see the screen. Also, one of the rows of seats was quite rickety, and if you weren’t careful, you would find the whole row falling backwards…..with you on it!!!!

The Temperance Hall. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Of the other cinemas in Merthyr, the only others I (Ken) visited were the Oddfellows Hall and the Victoria in Dowlais – this was because the queues in Merthyr were so long that we caught the bus to Dowlais to watch the films instead. I only visited each of them once. I remember the Oddfellows Hall was quite big, but a bit old fashioned, and I particularly remember the Victoria because when you entered the auditorium, you came in from under the screen. I had never seen that before.

The Oddfellows Hall (left) and the Victoria Cinema (right)

Those days were poorer, but simpler times, but we were far more contented, and it is sad that all of the history of those days is being washed away.

Merthyr Memories: Merthyr’s Cinemas – part 1

by Kenneth & Christine Brewer

In the decade or so following the Second World War, cinema took hold in Britain in a big way. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless that people loved the all the Hollywood glamour and escapism that the films provided to take their minds off the austerity of post-War Britain.

Merthyr was no exception – going to the cinema became one of the big attractions in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Such was the demand that at one time Merthyr had eleven cinemas – five in town (The Castle, The Palace, The Electric, The Theatre Royal and the Temperance Hall); two in Dowlais (The Oddfellows Hall and The Victoria); one each in Penydarren (The Cosy); Troedyrhiw (The Picture Palace); Aberfan (The Electric) and Treharris (The Palace).

The Castle Cinema in the 1970’s. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Going to the cinema in those days was a real night out. As well as the main feature, you would be treated to a ‘B’-movie (usually a Western from memory), a news-reel, a cartoon and adverts for forthcoming films. The news-reel footage made a huge impact – we only saw the news in newspapers or heard about it on the wireless, but seeing the pictures on the big screen really brought things home to us. I (Ken) particularly remember my grandmother being very upset and having to leave the cinema when they showed news-reel footage of the liberation of Belsen. Everything was on a continuous loop – there were no showings once or twice a day…the cycle would start at a certain time (‘B’-movie, news, cartoon, adverts, main feature), and would continue non-stop until closing time.

You could also have an ice-cream in the intermission as a treat. These were sold by the usherettes. They were a big part of the cinema going experience, they would show you to your seats, and woe-betide you if you misbehaved – you would have the usherette’s torch shining on you within minutes. Repeat offenders would be asked to leave!!!!

Quite often, after the last showing of the evening, you would emerge from the cinema and the town would be crowded with people coming from other cinemas all hurrying for buses to make their way home.

Forthcoming films were advertised in the Merthyr Express, and people would also turn out in droves to see their favourite stars. In the 1940’s the big stars were Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clarke Gable etc. The big matinée idol at the time was Robert Taylor, and the pin-up girl was Rita Hayworth.

Robert Taylor and Rita Hayworth

When there was a ‘big’ film it wouldn’t be unusual to see people queuing around the block to get in. The ones that were particularly memorable were ‘The Robe’ at the Theatre Royal and ‘Quo Vadis’ at the Castle. The biggest queues however were for the re-release of ‘Gone with the Wind’ in the late 1940’s  (the original release was during the war) at the Castle Cinema – the queues stretched as far as the eye could see.

How times have changed, all of these cinemas have closed, and all but the Theatre Royal and Temperance Hall have been demolished. For many years, Merthyr didn’t have a cinema at all until the Vue Cinema complex was opened at Rhydycar. It’s not the same – the glamour and excitement have all but disappeared.

To be continued……