WM Jones

WM Jones found fame as the creator of the "Jarge Balsh" books, comic tales of life in a North Somerset village in the 1920's written in local dialect. He was also a pioneer photographer, recording life in the early 1900's in the pit village in which he was born.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - The Creation of Jarge Balsh


“As I got out of the train an individual with a round, red, clean-shaven face, so wrinkled and weather-beaten that it gave one the impression the owner was perpetually grinning, sauntered up with hands in breeches’ pockets. One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to realise that he was connected with the agricultural industry. His boots and leggings were generously plastered with samples of the usual contents of the farm-yard, whilst to his slouch hat and old bottle-green morning coat there still adhered strands of hay.
Halting before me, and spreading his legs, he thrust his hands deeper into the cross pockets of his corduroy breeches, and changed the straw he was sucking to the other side of his mouth.
‘Be you the young gent as is gwain ta bide wee widder Toop? ‘Cos if ye be, I be come vor ‘ee.’”

Thus Jarge Balsh greeted the world, and the anonymous narrator, in “Discovering Somerset”, first serialised in the “Somerset Standard” newspaper in 1925 and then published between hard covers in October 1926. George Balsh is hardly an original, descending as he does from an honourable comic line, from the bawdy peasants of mediaeval miracle plays, through Shakespeare’s large cast of rural clowns, and on via Tony Lumpkin and Surtees’s “chawbacons” to land up outside Castle Cary station in the shape of Will Jones’s straw-sucking bumpkin.

Conventional creation Jarge Balsh may be, but there is much in the four books in which he appears which is original to Will Jones. The character of Jarge Balsh had evolved gradually during the twenty years his creator had spent treading the boards of North Somerset concert halls. By the early 1920’s an important development in Will Jones’s performances was the creation of his own material. In 1922 at a concert in Coleford in aid of the British Legion, he performed an “original sketch, The Policeman, in which Mr Jones was assisted by his daughter Gwennie, and which practically brought down the house.”
A year later he appeared at the Palace Theatre, Frome, with the “Black Diamonds”, a troupe which revived the tradition of the old black and white minstrel shows. Will closed the first half of the show with a “stump speech”, a tradition of minstrel shows in which a comedian used a quasi-political address to satirise local people and events well known to the audience. “The concluding item of part one was a stump speech by Mr Will Jones of Coleford, who very humorously described his imaginary visit to people of note in the town. The conversation which took place between him and the various gentlemen on the subject of beer as a beverage was highly amusing,” reported the Somerset Standard. The Western Gazette added, “One of the most successful members of the party was Mr W Jones of Coleford, as a comedian. His stump speech, dealing in a most witty fashion with local events and topics, was one of the tit-bits of the programme.”
A type script of the stump speech has survived, hidden amongst his sheet music. It’s a petition for the restoration of all-day opening hours for the pubs of Frome after strict licensing hours had been introduced during the First World War to help increase munition production. It begins, “My dear wooden-headed Brudders and Sisterns and Fellow-Ignoramuses:- It is wid de utmost difference and humidity dat I venture to undress you on de problem of – De liberty ob de subject in regard to de National Beverage.” When the character of “Bones” breaks in with “Beer”, the speech continues, “Massa Johnson if I get annudder interuption from dat fool niggah de bier will be wanted, also de flowers but he wont be able to smell dem.” In 2010 Will probably would have been arrested by the Thought Police, but in 1923 it was just harmless fun in front of an audience which had never seen a black person. The comedy is more at the expense of notable Frome citizens, from the editor of the “Somerset Standard” to the councillors and magistrates.

WMJ or Jarge Balsh?

It was only a short step from Will Jones, blacked-up, delivering a comic view of Frome life, to Will Jones, straw in mouth, appearing in the form of Jarge Balsh himself. In November 1924 he was in London to perform in a concert at the Kingsway Hall given by the Society of Somerset Folk, London. “Mr WM Jones of Coleford, who was specially engaged by the Society, gave several original songs of his own composition, ably assisted by the composer of the musical settings, Mr AA Gregory FRCO at the piano. Dree Burgewater Vairs and a character sketch of an old countryman “up to Lunnon” – Yur, hoi! What be at? What be doen’ o’ – were vociferously encored.” The Kingsway Hall was celebrated for its marvellous acoustics and was constantly in use after the invention of electrical recording in 1926 for recording orchestral music.
The “old countryman up to Lunnun” was a prototype of Jarge Balsh. Will’s original typewritten script survives, also concealed for many years amongst his sheet music. It consists of a verse, followed by the “patter” which often formed the centre piece of music hall turns, and concluded by a chorus. It’s very much in the music hall tradition of the performers represented in his substantial collection of sheet music; George Robey, Albert Chevalier, Harry Randall, George Leybourne, Little Tich, Sam Mayo and, of course, Dan Leno. No doubt there was a suitable piano accompaniment, probably worked out at home at the Crossway with my mother, an accomplished pianist from an early age and the “Gwennie” who assisted him in his “Policeman” sketch when just nine years old.
The second piece of patter is rather daring for the BBC of the day, as Albert John Hodges catches the eye of a tart in Piccadilly. “A Beautivul lady dressed up zummit zplendid in lovely clothes passed by and zmoiled, like as if she knowed Oi. Oi were that took to, oi did stan’ an’ gawky at her.” Albert John can’t puzzle out where the lady has seen him before, unless when he was working in the squire’s garden. Albert, however, is saved from his fate by the intervention of a woman policeman. It’s the same theme as George Formby’s famous “I wish I was back on the farm,” written twenty years later.


In March 1926 Jarge Balsh himself, aka Will Jones, made his first appearance in London, broadcasting for the fledgling BBC from Station 2LO at Savoy Hill, as the compere of a Somerset folk broadcast. “Wireless listeners in the South West of England on Monday evening greatly enjoyed a short recital, sent out from the London station, of Somerset folk songs and dances…The chief feature of the programme was the announcement in Somerset dialect by Mr WM Jones, of Coleford, under the nom de plume of “Jarge Balsh”. It is understood Mr Jones was selected for the task on the recommendation of a prominent member of the Society of Somerset Folk in London, and the choice was a most happy one to the many Somerset listeners who have suffered from certain renditions of what were supposed to be Somerset dialect…Though atmospheric conditions on the night were not perfect, every word of Mr Jones’s humorous introduction and his comments on the excellent singing and playing of the artists came with exceptional clarity, and gave exactly that atmosphere which had been aimed at, and made the little programme a complete success and a source of great enjoyment.”
In October of the same year Jarge Balsh was back in London. The “Radio Times” on October 22nd promised at 10.15 pm “Vun vrom Zomerset” next to the hallmark image of Jarge, adding, “Jarge Balsh, who is here seen in character, has been well known as a dialect entertainer on concert platforms for over twenty years. He is a real expert on the Somerset speech and tradition, and has published many songs and stories in the West Country Press.” After that those “listening in” at 10.30 pm would have been treated in contrast to dance music by Jack Payne’s Hotel Cecil Dance Band until midnight.
More than one review praised Will Jones, at a time when radio reception was less than perfect, for the clarity of his diction. “He makes an almost ideal broadcaster which is no mean achievement.” He was blessed with a remarkable bass voice, as rich and deep as a dish of cream. In later years, one of his gadget acquisitions was an early Grundig tape recorder, on which he intended to record, years before talking books became popular, the Jarge Balsh stories read by himself. Sadly, the plan came to nothing. At least we have the recent recording of “Discovering Somerset” by the Bristol actor Barry Paine. Jarge Balsh was born out of his author’s stage act and undoubtedly there is no better way to appreciate the books than to hear them read aloud. Barry Paine’s excellent recording is available on the internet from Poppy Records.
Will Jones’s first publications were in verse, but he won’t be the first writer who fancied himself as a poet, and who should have stuck exclusively to prose. His poems, first published in the Somerset & Wilts Standard, and then collected in “Living Poets of Somerset” and his own “Somerset Songs And Verse”, are rural verse of the most conventional kind. Orchards are “a-bloom” and daisies and buttercups abound in “white and gold array.” Public poems, like “R101, In Memoriam”, sadly recall the ludicrous Walter McGonigall rather than Alfred Lord Tennyson. His contemporaries were less critical than, perhaps, today’s readers might be, as his verse was always well reviewed and he was commended in a competition run by the “Poetry Review”. “A Song Of Somerset”, set to music by AA Gregory, was a minor hit, and was even scored for brass band.
Literary convention is less of a handicap and more of an essential element in his first prose publication, “Discovering Somerset and Jarge Balsh”. The story is written in the first person but the narrator is not Jarge Balsh, or even some local villager, but a “young toff” from London straight from the pages of PG Wodehouse. The anonymous story teller has exiled himself to Somerset on the recommendation of a Harley Street consultant “to rebuild the reserves of health” which the young man has thrown away in riotous urban living. Will Jones’s “I”, therefore, assumes a character quite foreign to that of his creator. Indeed it would be difficult to think of a dramatis persona more alien to his author than the hypersensitive and feeble youth who comes face to face with Jarge Balsh on the station platform at Castle Cary, although this “silly ass” character was a staple of early twentieth century writing. Bertie Wooster may be the most famous of them, but they people the pages of such disparate writers as Saki, Dorothy Sayers, Frank Richards, and Sapper.
Much of the humour in “Discovering Somerset” relies on the ironic tension between the attitudes and language of the young toff on the one hand, and those of the Somerset yokels on the other. The reader takes a dive into this comic world immediately the young gent clambers into Jarge Balsh’s battered landau to drive from the station to the village of “Springfield”. The old seat springs stick into his bottom and the horsehair stuffing tickles his neck as Jarge’s ancient horse, Friday, unwillingly drags them along. It is all very different from the “immaculate appearance of the family Rolls at home.” Jarge, of course, whose “continual grin” broadens as one embarrassment follows another, enjoys the discomfiture of the fastidious townie, and we laugh with Jarge, and at the narrator.
We also enjoy the narrator’s astonishment at the language which Jarge uses. “I remained speechless, and could only goggle at the man, and wonder what strange noises issuing from that cavernous mouth could possibly mean.” We can understand, of course, exactly what Jarge was saying, whether we were born within spitting distance of Radstock or not, but the dialect draws us into a conspiracy with the author to laugh at the foreigner and to sympathise with Balsh. It is a conspiracy which is at the heart of the fun in Will Jones’s books, a fellow-feeling which would have been all too familiar between the “Coleford comedian” and his audiences in church halls and miners’ welfare clubs. Laurie Lee in “Cider With Rosie”, his memoir of growing up in a Cotswold village in the 1920’s, recalls in village entertainments “broad Gloucester exchanges between yokels and toffs, with the yokels coming off best.” In “Jarge Balsh” the Somerset dialect is the private language which the author shares with the reader, and which allows them both to laugh at the pompous pretensions of the characters, be they toffs or otherwise. It is the comic language of misrule, of the life of “cakes and ale.”
He wrote in dialect with remarkable fluency, as revealed by parts of the manuscript of “Our Village Parliament” which have survived. It is written in free-hand and in pencil and with very few corrections. He was able to reproduce the North Somerset speech and accent in his own phonetic spelling system as easily as if he was writing standard English.

Will Jones never wrote a better scene than the disastrous journey from Castle Cary to Springfield. The comi-tragic death of Jarge’s old horse, Friday, outside the Bunch Of Grapes pub is a triumphant cocktail of the cruelty and pathos which is at the heart of all comedy. The wretched Friday collapses in the road outside the inn, but George remains unfazed, explaining to the narrator that Friday was once a circus horse and that this is only part of his former repertoire. Friday will rise to his feet again in exactly half an hour and, meanwhile, Jarge and his passenger repair to the pub for a mug of cider. Friday, however, fails to stir at the required time, and a passing farmer declares that he is dead. A village drunk provides Friday with a fitting epitaph.
“George lifted poor Friday’s head, and let it fall back with a sickening thud. Overcome for a moment, George looked reproachfully at Friday for a full minute, and then in a hurt tone of voice exclaimed: “Well, I han’t niver knowed’ he do that avore!” Whereupon the aforementioned worshipper at the shrine of Bacchus again removed his clay and, with the skill born of constant practice, neatly deposited a jet of nicotine in the ear of the departed, as he sagely remarked: “No, an’, whut’s moore, thee’t niver know’n doo’t agen!””
“Jarge Balsh At Frome Cheese Show” was published in tandem with “Discovering Somerset”, and in the opening chapter promises more of the same as in the earlier story. When Jarge begins to describe his adventures at Frome Show to the narrator, however, there is a radical change in the author’s approach. The remainder of the book, and its sequels, “Jarge Balsh Goes To Lunnon”, “Jarge Balsh At Bristol Zoo”, and “Our Village Parliament”, are all virtual monologues in dialect by Jarge Balsh. The toff narrator becomes almost invisible. Through their serialisation in local newspapers, Will Jones had become aware of what his readers wanted, and that was unadulterated Jarge Balsh. He had discovered a successful formula, and he stuck to it, loading his repertory cast of Springfield characters into a charabanc driven by “Back-Fire” Jim, and sending them out to take on the modern world beyond the village, in which they would be ridiculed and humiliated but would emerge bloody but unbowed. If the Springfield folk do not always win, they at least fight an honourable draw against the forces of affected superiority and respectability.

As important as Jarge himself are his scolding wife, Mary Ann, and his dreadful mother-in-law, “the woold ‘oman”, two characters straight from the music-hall or a seaside postcard. Slapstick and pratfalls, Ford cars and fat ladies, may have been the staples of the “Jarge Balsh” books but they also have some delicious original moments. In a scene as darkly humorous as the demise of the old nag, Friday, Jarge and his two women receive a lift back to Springfield from their disastrous day at Frome Show in unusual company. The motor van is carrying the corpse of an elderly Springfield resident who has died in the Frome workhouse infirmary. The coffin is perched on trestles with the Balsh family sitting on either side. “’Twere the quietest h’ride I’d iver had wie ‘em,” recalls Jarge. Each lady sits silently staring in front of her, bolt upright and hands in lap, as the van and the coffin jolt their way back home. Jarge struggles to find some appropriate remark with which to break the ghastly silence, “as shid putt the ‘oomen at thur ease like, I patted me han’s on the coffin an’ zed: “Pity Yubby Nokes werden here now. We could have a proper geame o’ hap’ny nap.” His innocent suggestion of a game of cards on top of the coffin is less than well received, and the day ends at home in Springfield with a volley of crockery.
Yubby Nokes, along with Jarge and his women, are the author’s favourite characters. Abraham “Yubby” Nokes, cross-eyed and cantankerous, has his defining moment in “Jarge Balsh Goes To Lunnun”, in which the villagers have been unleashed on the Wembley Exhibition of 1924 and 1925. The oddest aspect of the writing of Will Jones was not so much what he included in his books, but what he chose to leave out. He was brought up and lived most of his life in a pit village, and went to work at a colliery when he was twelve. The village of Springfield, however, in which his books are placed, is picture-postcard Somerset without a winding wheel or a slag heap in sight. Will Jones lived at the centre of Coleford, at the Crossway, but Springfield, if it is anywhere except in his imagination, is the neighbouring hamlet of Vobster, and the King William pub is the Vobster Inn. When the narrator arrives in Somerset, it is at Castle Cary station, miles away south of the Mendips. It is almost as if Will Jones is smuggling his characters in by the backdoor in case the real world of the coalfield catches up with them. The station for Coleford, and for Vobster for that matter, was Mells Road, well-known to me as a small boy as we took the train from Hallatrow, through Farrington Gurney and Radstock, to visit my grandfather on Saturdays. He would meet us off the train, and his erratic driving would then subject us to a journey on to Coleford in his Triumph Mayflower car as perilous as any in his books.

Reality does peep into the world of Springfield when Jarge and Yubby Nokes visit the model coalmine at the Wembley Exhibition. Farmer Jarge accepts it all at face value but Yubby, who “had a worked in a pit avore a come to Zpringfield ta live…’twere over Koverd”, works himself into a fury of indignation at the electric lighting, high and wide roadways, ventilation, and pit ponies “vat as butter.” Before the party can escape from “this yur gentleman’s wine zeller”, Yubby treats the toffs to a slice of life in a real pit.
“Whur’s yur shutes ur gugs down yur’?...Shutes not much bigger’n a chimbley an’ a’moost sa steep. Shutes whut da get choked up wie coal halfwaay up, droo big nubs hitchin’ in the zupportin’ timmers. Shutes thit you got ta climb up ta whur the coal is caught an’ put booerds in the timmers above yur head, an’ then hang on wie yur knees an’ one hand while you da scratch wie t’other hand at the choked coal droo a hole you’ve left in the booerd an’ let it run on down ta your mates below. An’ up there in pitch blackness you da goo on scratchin’ at the coal an’ swallerin’ the bad air an’ the mouthvulls o’ dust until all the coal is gone down past ‘ee – if the booerds doon’t happen ta break vust an’ zend ‘ee ta the bottom to be crushed an’ buried alive.”
For a few pages Springfield meets “Koverd”, or Coleford. It is tempting to wish that Will Jones had ventured more often out of his comic fantasy into the real world on his doorstep but he chose to write “Jarge Balsh” and not “The Stars Look Down”, something which his readership, much of it made up by pit workers, obviously preferred. In the escapist world of comedy, a little reality goes a long way.
In a type script for what appears to be a lecture on West Country dialects, he contrasted the North Somerset accent of Coleford with that of the South of the county. “I say it with some reluctance as a North Somerset native but candour compels me to confess that the South Somerset accent is far more pleasing to the ear than any to be found in the County North of the Mendips.
I attribute this mainly to the fact that the Southerners live, move and have their being, breathing the pure air, feeling the healthful effects of the bright sunshine, viewing delightful scenery, and what is probably most effective on their speech hearing the musical sounds of nature from songbirds, lowing cattle, running water and the wind and the rain.
Contrast this with the lot of the North Somerset collier who spends most of his life in darkness with such aids to speech culture as may be obtained from the dull thud of his pick in the coal, the rumbling of trams in the wet dark underground passages and the crash of the cage on the support at the base of the shaft.”
“Jarge Balsh At Bristol Zoo” was published in 1934 and collected the pieces written for the ill-fated “North Somerset Independent.” He dedicated it “To those women who, being unequally yoked to men who write, yet bear their unhappy lot with fortitude and patience, and, in particular to Mabel May Jones.” Sadly, his devoted wife had little time left to live. “At Bristol Zoo” is the art of Will Jones at its peak. The villagers of Springfield stagger from one disaster to another, from the perilous journey in Back Fire Jim’s “shaura” to Frome Station until they leave Bristol with a police sergeant’s advice ringing in the curate’s ears, “An’ doon’t ‘ee niver bring ‘em out again.” The chapter “Fun in the Restaurant” is a personal favourite, where the inhabitants of Springfield collide with the requirements and pretensions of the zoo’s refreshment room. “Maain posh pleace, ‘twere, to be shower. Vrench winders, girt high ruff, an’ iverything luxurious, like.” The Sanders family nick the tips left under the plates on their table, and Jarge and his women settle down to eat their own sandwiches and pickles which Mary Ann has brought with her, all to the outrage of manager and wiatresses alike. Chaos, of course, follows, finishing with the curate on the floor drenched in tea. “I didn’ like the expression on the Reverend’s feace.’Twere jist like Bob, my cow-dog, da look at me atter I’ve a beeit ‘en vur zummat ur nuther.”
His last book, “Our Village Parliament”, was written in the late 1940’s, twenty years after his most creative years had produced the previous three Jarge Balsh stories. The “Parliament” is the pub, of course. Will Jones was the most moderate of drinkers but he spent virtually every evening at Joe Moore’s “Vobster Inn” where he would sit in the snug and put the world right with his friend, Arthur Goddard. The appreciative foreword to this, his last book, was written by Ralph Wightman, who was then a household name as a broadcaster on country matters in his signature Dorset accent. The BBC was on the verge of launching “The Archers”. It’s a pity, perhaps, that the BBC chose to place Ambridge in the Midlands rather than Somerset. Instead of Walter Gabriel, we might have been treated to Jarge Balsh as the village’s comic relief. At least we could have relied on his creator to have delivered a character with a convincing accent and dialect, rather than with the “mummerset” of Walter’s “my old pal, my old beauty.”
Will Jones the author is remembered now only for the “Jarge Balsh” books. In the late 1920’s, however, he was busy also with his weekly column in the “Bristol Evening World” which was titled “Side Lights – On The World’s Light Side.” It had been commissioned by the editor, who had reviewed “Discovering Somerset” enthusiastically when first published.
It was a selection of humorous snippets, most of them trawled from American “funny papers”, according to his son, Dick. As a newsagent of long-standing, Will certainly wouldn’t have had far to look for his material. Strongly reminiscent of “Laughter The Best Medicine” in the Readers Digest magazine, “Side Lights” was two columns of jokey definitions, puns, and anecdotes. “The man with money to burn usually meets his match…After all, the dress of the modern girl isn’t much to complain about…When flying becomes more general, it will be more difficult than ever to get some people down to business…” and so on and so forth, week after week!
Will Jones thought enough of them to put them into a scrapbook, but far more original was his “Herbert Hopkins” column of the early 1930’s from his own “North Somerset Independent”. The “Independent” was a typical local newspaper of the period, full of traffic accidents, court reports, and, of course, a double spread devoted to the local football teams. The “Independent” tag described its political outlook. There is no doubt that Will Jones wrote much of the feature work, and that he is the writer lurking behind the household advice of “Over The Tea Cups by Maggie Murtry”, and the children’s corner, supposedly written by “Auntie Pat”.
The “Herbert Hopkins” column was something different. The writer seems to have realised this himself as, although he did not paste the cuttings into a scrapbook, a fat bundle of them survives, carefully cut from each weekly publication. It’s possible that he meant to collect them into a book.“Erbit Opkinses Artickel” affects to have been written by the Independent’s office boy, an aggressively illiterate youth who offers his personal world view on a wide range of subjects from love, education, and parents to football and the Irish Hospitals Sweep. He appears in a rather splendid caricature at the top of his column, in a flash three-piece suit, tilting back in his tall office chair with a Woodbine dangling from his lips. As with Jarge Balsh, the language provides most of the fun, outrageously misspelled in a tidal wave of phonetic Somerset cum cockney.

No doubt Will Jones wrote Erbit Opkins with the same effortless fluency as Jarge Balsh, but it must have given his typesetters a nightmare in hot metal. Even now in the days of mega fast keyboards, Erbit would test your stamina, but here are a few scraps of the Opkins world view.

“Krismis partees is aul Rite so long as they last but oh! That thair mornin after the nite befoar! Last nite I ad rubarb wine, mins-pies, parsnip wine, 2 binanas, the Leg o the turkey, pikled waulnuts, plum poodin, Kaufee, sicks kind of nuts, Cowslip Wine, trifil, 2 appils, a norinj, jinjer-wines, and Abowt a poun a choklits.
I aulso smokt 10 Seegrets but wat took aul the Interest out ov the perseedins for me was a big Blak seegar, I was chalinjed to smoak. I kum to a Fool-stop after smoakin a ninch, and fell into a Comma. Too ov the Mail guests karrid me oam with Allis follerin up Behine. Praps I may be able to – you moar Necks weak. Yu must Eckscuse – still taist that thair seegar – feal I am goin to Be – sined, ERBI -

I av dun with wimmen. Finily, an konclewsivly, I av desided to av nuthink moar to do with the seck witch as been the dounfaul of man evir sinse she went into the rong orchurd an pinched a fig-leef ful ov Tom Puds and then temtid man to becum an aksessiry after the fack – as the lawyers put it

At the momint the Leeg of Nashins hav on its side 180 per cent rite, an 20 per sent Mite. Wot thay wants is 100 per sent Mite and 100 per sent rite. Then thay mite do Somethink. Havin maid the Faur Eest problim cleer I will leev the Grayter kwestchun of “How to maik munny bi folloin orses” til necks weak.

It is not genrily noan that “partee politicks” is an afeckshin of the brane and in its acute staijes maiks the victim appeer to be dementid. Wun of the laws ov this kuntry is that 600 odd districks shall pick out a man who shall sit in a fine big hous an get £400 a yer for doin ov it. Aul he got to do is to wauk out into a lobbee now and then an voat for his partee’s bills”

Those who still remember Will Jones wonder at his “never speaking the way he wrote in his books.” In his own introduction to “Discovering Somerset” he recalled that up to the age of fourteen he spoke only in dialect “when outside the village school and away from the influence wielded, and made absolute, by the parental rod of correction. In those days one had to speak standard English at home and at school, but to do so abroad would certainly have secured condign punishment from one’s play-fellows for ‘biggetyness’.” In a photograph of Will as a little boy with his mother, he stands, dressed in a smart suit and holding a straw hat, while his mother sits with her hand marking a page in a half-open book. The picture encapsulates Millicent Jones’s aspirations for her eldest son; a life of respectability and learning. Will Jones certainly grew up to realise all her ambitions for him, even though it was often a struggle, and even if, at a moment’s notice and with a change of voice, he could become Jarge Balsh, and mount Back-Fire Jim’s charabanc for a journey into a world of comic mayhem.

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - A Walk Around My Grandfather


It was a sullen August day, heavy with the threat of rain. Here, where three roads met, was the Crossway, the hub of Coleford, the old North Somerset pit village where my grandfather, WM Jones, lived for virtually all his life. For thirty years, at Crossway House, he ran a business which included a newsagent and tobacconist, a barber’s shop, a photographer’s, a garage, and a taxi service, while on the other side of the building my grandmother found room for a draper’s emporium.














I parked at the side of Crossway House where his garage once had stood. The building now houses the local Co-op Store, itself an irony as at the age of thirteen my grandfather was an apprentice grocer’s boy at the Coleford Co-op, then at different premises.
I walked eastwards down the High Street in search of Brook Cottage, the house where he had grown up with his parents, John and Millicent, and his three brothers and two sisters. It wasn’t difficult to find. On the corner of the street and a little lane, it was announced by a wooden sign, next to a post box let into the wall of the house.“Cottage”, for its place and period, is something of a misnomer. Brook Cottage is quite a substantial house, and John Marchant Jones and his bride, Millicent Martin, must have been considered a fortunate young couple when they went to live there after their marriage. There was money on both sides of the match, from John’s adoptive mother, Mrs Hobday Jones of “Camden House”, and from Millicent’s father, Benjamin Martin, a mining surveyor and Coleford’s parish clerk. I stood in the street and wondered how the family, with such a promising start, could have foundered so spectacularly, reduced to hand-outs of bread and tea from the parish. The handsome, dashing, John Marchant Jones perhaps was no better than he should have been, and one family legend tells that Millicent was pregnant when she went up the aisle of Holy Trinity church. On the other side of the street to Brook Cottage stands the old Temperance Hall, now a private house but still with an improving text from the Book of Habakkuk over the door. Was it the demon drink that sank my great grandfather?
Whatever the reasons for the shipwreck of the Jones family, at the age of eleven my grandfather was forced to leave school to nurse his mother, bedridden with consumption. A year later he started work at the nearby Mackintosh Colliery. Footpaths spin a web around Coleford, many of them leading to the legion of old colliery workings where the villagers once worked. The map promised the possibility of reaching the site of Mackintosh by the lane at the side of Brook Cottage. A concrete road led down Harris Vale past some bungalows until, at the final gateway, a stile led into a copse.
I walked on, through the trees and up through a field, wondering if this might have been the way Will Jones had taken to his work at the colliery. He said later in life that he loathed the work, particularly on the “batches”, the heaps of smoking slag and spoil. I had no idea if any trace of Mackintosh, closed for some ninety years, still existed. As I topped a rise, I could see a hillock covered in trees in front of me. A new farm lane had been driven around it, cutting back the soil around its base – except it wasn’t soil. Even from a distance the blue-black sheen of slag was obvious. Here was the old batch of the Mackintosh colliery, where Will Jones had toiled at sorting scraps of coal from the waste.
I walked up round the new roadway. On my right, just before some farm buildings, there was a line of ivy-covered ruins.
That brick archway once had led to the top of the shaft, beneath the winding tower, where my grandfather had banged shut the cage doors on the squatting pitmen before they were lowered seven hundred dizzy feet below the ground.
Nothing else remained of Mackintosh. I made my way down the lane towards the public road, once an incline, threaded by rails and points, and busy with trains hauling wagons of coal off to Mells Road Station. On my right were two ranks of old colliery cottages, and before me the entrance to Newbury pit yard where in 1949 my grandfather had established his Reconstructed Bath Stone business.
The yard today is a sprawling mass of buildings and works, owned by the Vobster Cast Stone Company. The receptionist kindly sought permission for me to wander around the site. The tall building which once housed the Cornish Beam Engine to pump the water out of the pit galleries still survives.
Near to it stood my grandfather’s original offices, built in his own blocks and now abandoned.
I regained the footpath which took me round the edge of the site through woodland thick with the scent of the buddleia which run riot there. Where the yard ended, a hard path ran away eastwards.
This was the track of the old railway which connected Newbury and Mackintosh with the sidings at Mells Road. The track is bordered by fields, and above it stands a handsome building, Page House, and below it the vale which leads to Vobster.
Eventually the track became a metalled lane at Upper Vobster Farm and a little further on, at St Edmund’s House, I turned down a path into the fields. At a stile into a road, I turned right and walked down into the hamlet of Vobster.
My grandfather must have wandered this way often as a boy. Vobster has been identified by some people with “Springfield”, the village where the Jarge Balsh books are set. It would be safer to say that Springfield is a purely imaginary creation but that it is one more like Vobster than Coleford. The cottages and gardens of Vobster are the stuff that such rural dreams as Springfield are made on.
You may be forgiven, however, for claiming that the Vobster Inn was the model of the “King William” in my grandfather’s books. After all, he spent every evening possible in the place, putting the world to rights with his pals.
He wouldn’t recognise the pub today. I hadn’t been through the door since he died, and felt completely disorientated until I realised that the old front door had disappeared, and that I had entered by the side of the building. An old photograph on the wall of the bar was there to remind me of how things had been, and part of the room was signed as “George’s Snug”, while another board declared this area of the bar to be the “Village Parliament”. Was it merely coincidence that this recalled the title of Will Jones’s last book, “Our Village Parliament”? I took one look at the very young, and very pretty, girl behind the bar, and decided to keep my memories to myself. The “Vobster” – the inn bit gets dropped in some of its publicity – is more restaurant than pub these days but that’s the reality of making a living from a boozer today. Pints of cider and hours of chat and whist wouldn’t pay many bills. I had a good pint of Butcombe bitter, a pricey cheese sandwich, and some of the best chips I have ever tasted, arranged in a little vase for all the world like a bunch of flowers.
I walked past some cottages along the road towards Coleford and then climbed a stile on the left of the road into a field. I took a path to the left which led to a bridge across the Mells Stream.

There was a flash of blue over the water downstream – a kingfisher! “A spell is wov’n by Somerset,” wrote grandfather, and he must have loved this country between Coleford and Vobster. Even so, as the path took me westwards, there was evidence that even here the pits had left their mark. A stone building standing apparently without purpose in the middle of a field had been part of the Vobster colliery, and some old low arches half-concealed by nettles in woodland further on might have been remains of the coke ovens which existed here.

Half way along the valley leading back to Coleford are some coarse fishing lakes. I walked round and round them, sweating in a waterproof coat and slouch hat as the thunder banged about me, without finding the path which should have taken me to Hippy’s Farm. After half an hour of this, I gave up and got south of the lakes to take a well-defined path westwards, despite a stile installed by the local ramblers which promised far more than it delivered.
The buildings of Coleford were now visible on the ridge to the north and, like some sinister watchtower, above the trees loomed the top of my grandfather’s house, “Mendip Ho!” Sadly, darkness of the gathering storm made it impossible to photograph, but later the present owner of the house very kindly gave me permission to take pictures from his garden. Where my grandfather had his eyrie on the flat roof, there is now a proper penthouse.
The views from the house remain completely unspoilt. From here at least you can see the “Springfield” countryside of his imagination.
I walked into Coleford past the “King’s Head”. Even today Coleford boasts three pubs, a legacy of the thirsty miners who once drank in the village. Just above it I came across Camden House where John Marchant Jones had lived when he first came from London to Coleford as the adopted son of Hannah Hobday Jones. Hannah, the widow of a cabinet maker in Camden Town, North London, had returned to her native Coleford to start a shop at Camden House, the name which the property bears to this day.

Climbing a steep hill, I came to Holy Trinity Church, opposite to the old Miner’s Welfare Institute which Will Jones bought and gave to the village as a church hall. In the church is the controversial window designed by Keith New which Will presented. There is a plaque in Will’s memory below the window, now sadly darkened by the growth of the trees outside.
On the northern edge of the churchyard is the group of family graves, including those of Benjamin Martin and his wife, and John Marchant and Millicent Jones, the latter’s’ memorial placed there by their eldest son many years after their passing.
Below the church and the hall stands the old National School, now a youth centre but not much changed since the Jones boys were photographed there in the 1890’s.
A short walk uphill took me back to the Crossway where the automatic door of the Co-op swished backwards and forwards. Friday evening shoppers passed in and out with laden bags and clambered into their cars. Opposite, the Crossway Fish Bar was beginning the weekend fry. I thought of my great grandmother dying quietly of disease and malnutrition, I thought of the spinning of the colliery winding wheels, the steam from the pump houses and the clatter of the coal trucks, I thought of my grandfather behind the counter of his shop, scribbling away between selling Woodbines and copies of the News of the World – and I fled with my ghosts.

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones – Benefactor

Will Jones lives on in Coleford to this day in two gifts to the village. In 1958 he gave a new stained-glass south-east window to Holy Trinity church. A typically radical Will Jones project, the window is no exercise in Victoriana, all halos, flowing robes and little lambs. It is glaringly modern in concept and design, and depicts the story of David and Saul. Keith New, a pupil of his artist son, Dick, was commissioned to create the window on a theme chosen by Will Jones himself. Keith New went on to design some of the windows for the new Coventry Cathedral.
Keith New described his work in the “Coleford Parish Paper” of October 1958 thus. “The subject is taken from I Samuel xix 9-10: ‘And the evil spirit from the Lord was upon Saul as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with his harp. And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul’s presence, and he smote the javelin into the wall: and David fled, and escaped that night.’
In the left-hand light Saul is shewn with his javelin raised ready to strike at David. He is robed in royal purple, and wears a crown upon his head. Above him a full moon lights the sky across which scud dark clouds, suggesting the evil spirit troubling Saul.
The right-hand light shews David kneeling with a harp looking up at Saul, trying to assuage the evil spirit afflicting his master. He is robed in blue, this colour signifying sincerity and godliness. Above him, coming from the clouds, is the Hand of God, holding a white dove from which stream golden rays. This symbolizes God’s special care for David, in view of his importance in the scheme of things leading to a point beyond the old order to the Birth of Christ in the new.
The main tracery light is filled with a pattern of three angels, sweeping down playing trumpets.”
In the same issue the vicar, Father John Sutters, did his best to justify the radicalism of the window to a sceptical congregation. “ For most of us in Coleford this window is a completely new experience, to which time will be needed to adjust ourselves. To begin with, it is stained, not just painted, as are our other windows, and so the colours are deeper and heavier. In the second place, in the central figures and the details of the background the artist has not been content simply to copy the stock ideas of what things and people look like to which we have grown used, but has expressed what the story of Saul and David means to him in the style of a young artist of 1958. But I think that the greatest shock for most of us, as we look at this window, is to realize that the Bible story, like whatever else deals with the whole of human nature, has to face the hideous wickedness of which human beings are capable. That, after all, is what the Crucifix has to tell us, if we were not hardened by seeing it so often. People often want to find comfort and soothing in Church: we like pretty-pretty pictures, soft sugary hymn-tunes, nothing to make us think or to stir us up; we want an escape from the harshness of life into a dream-world. But the religion of the Bible, and the Church, the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ, has to face and deal with ugliness and wickedness, not to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
The window hits us. It is ugly; and its excellence is in its ugliness. It speaks of jealousy, hatred, spite and cruelty, and they did not die with Saul. I have seen them in Coleford: there have been times when I have been tempted to them in my own heart. This window stands to remind us of the devilish force of evil in our own lives, which we may never ignore or forget: but over against it God’s power to deal with it. It stands above the Confessional, the place where, if we will, we may face our worst selves, and by the self-giving love of our Saviour be forgiven and made clean and fit to serve Him. But so often we prefer to pretend that there is nothing wrong with us. This window challenges us whenever we look at it. I could wish that the artist had brought out in more striking contrast the answer to human wickedness which is given in the right had side of the window: but after all, we have only to turn our eyes to the Crucifix on the Altar and the light by the Aumbry which speaks of our Lord’s Presence to know where we may find forgiveness, peace and goodness.”
There may have been an element of “talking a good fight” in Father Sutter’s apology, considering the hostility which the new window aroused at the time. Even so, read over fifty year’s later, it deserves to be seen as a convincing and sensitive meditation on the qualities of a remarkable window. Sadly, Time itself has masked any opposition that the window might meet today. The trees outside the window have grown to shadow it, darkening the images which once were thought so controversial.
In 1962 it appeared likely that Coleford’s Miners’ Welfare Institute would be sold for building. It had opened in 1927, and this substantial building had provided two ground floor rooms, one used as a reading room and the other for two billiard tables, and a large upstairs room which, with a stage at one end, was used for meetings and concerts. Will Jones would have celebrated its arrival in the village. In “Discovering Somerset” the narrator in Chapter V suddenly mounts the high horse to declare, “A Government of vision would make it possible for men to follow an agricultural occupation in these villages and, at the same time, participate in the social amenities and opportunities for mental improvement now mostly confined to the town dweller. Each village would be provided with a building that contained a lecture or concert room, a good library and reading room, and smaller rooms for indoor games during the deadly dull winter nights.” This sounds more like a Will Jones letter to “John Bull” magazine than the young toff narrator of “Discovering Somerset”.
By the early 1960’s the Miners’ Welfare Institute was redundant. All the pits had closed, and the social needs of the area were well-served by the lavishly-appointed Coleford British Legion Club, opened in 1956. In its early years the Club’s weekend dances provided a popular battleground for some memorable punch-ups between gangs of lads from Pensford and from Peasedown.
When the abandoned Miners’ Institute looked likely to go for auction, Will Jones stepped in and bought it for the parish as a Church Hall. His negotiations with the Coal Board to purchase it as cheaply as possible were labyrinthine and ill-tempered, but in October 1964 at Harvest Festival he could hand it over to the Church and Parish. They sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and gave him three cheers, and in return at the entertainment which followed he gave them some of the old sketches.
The village meant a great deal to him. He could take Coleford out of his books but he couldn’t take Coleford out of the man.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - A Somme Letter

The following letter was written to Will Jones by his younger brother, Cliff, from a military hospital in October 1916, shortly after he had been wounded on the Somme. He had been hit in the leg and the wrist after “going over the top” with his Grenadier Guards platoon on the first day of the Battle of Morval. Promoted to sergeant, he survived the war, only to die of meningitis in 1926.
Cliff Jones (left)

20242 L/Cpl C.M. Jones, 1st GG.
F.I. Ward,
Queen Marys Military Hospital, Whatley,
Lancashire
4/10/16

Dear Will,

Thanks very much for your letter dated 30/9/16, which I received yesterday. (Mon.) Yes I am sure you should feel glad, rather than otherwise to know I am in England, I am nearly off my head with joy to be away from that fearful place in France, and when I see the awful gashes which some poor fellows have, I cannot term my wounds, as anything but slight, it is really a miracle how I escaped. You say you want a long newsy letter, well if I can possibly remember, I will describe to you what happened to me from the time I was at Church Service on the Sunday, the 24th until I reached St Mary’s here in Lancs. Well to begin with we had a very touching service in “Trones Wood”, just about 2 miles behind the actual firing line, or it might have been less, and I don’t quite know what the matter with me but I had a lump rise in my throat, and also my eyes become rather wet, but at any rate we finished the service about eleven o’clock, and the next thing was “dinner” bully and biscuits.

Dressing station at Trones Wood under fire

After dinner the Sergt of our sapping platoon called us out on parade and made a list of ammunition which we should have to carry into action with us:- 3 Bombs & 220 rounds per man. He then sent me in charge of 8 men to draw this Ammunition from a dump about a mile away. When I returned I handed over the Ammo, to the Sergt, and went back to the shell hole, where my kit was to have a rest as we were going into the trenches that night to prepare for the advance next day. It appears that whilst I was on this fatigue in the afternoon the Sapping officer had given the platoon a lecture on how we were going to go on in the advance and what we were to do, well of course I did not know anything about that until later on. The officer, at the end of the lecture warned the platoon to parade at 9.30 p.m. and I and the 8 men who was on the fatigue thought we were parading with the Batt at eleven o’clock. Well we had some rum served out to us at 9 p.m. and I had just settled down again after drinking my rum when I heard someone shout “Cpl Jones”, I answered “Hallo” and the man shouted that the platoon was on parade waiting to move to the trenches. That did it, I got up and was on prde in about two shakes and had a good chewing off by the Sergt, but he sang a bit small when the officer came along and asked him if he had told us what time to parade. He tried to shuffle out of it but the officer wouldn’t let him “Did you warn these men what time to parade.” The Sergt replied “No Sir, not your time.” And then you should have heard the officer let drive, my word a decent navvy would turn green with envy to hear it

The communication trench up which Cliff Jones passed after being wounded

Well we started off and on the way we had to pick up some ammunition, 10 boxes, 1,000 rds in each box, and two men to carry each box, we were allright so far, but worse was to come, we went on and presently found ourselves on a main road leading up to “Ginchy”, but at the same time it led us right away from the position we had to take up, and the officer did not know it until we had gone about a mile out of our way, and when at last we found our way, we saw the Batt just going into the trenches, so that we had been wandering about for an hour and a half. We followed behind the Batt and eventually we reached our position, which was a trench just behind our second line, which had been dug by us about two nights before. After making ourselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances we laid down in the bottom of the trench to get some sleep if possible. The next morning the bombardment was supposed to start at 9 and keep on until 12 noon when our 4th Batt and the 2nd Scots were to go over and take the German front line, and from there on and take the second, and then the 1st Grens had to pass right through and take the third line and a village “Le Boeufs”, perhaps you can find it on the map I think it is on the left of Combles. Well, I have told you what was mapped out, now I will tell you what did happen as far as I can. About 9 oclock our heavy guns started raining shells over on to what seemed to me to be the German reserve lines, but beyond that I did not notice anything out of the ordinary until about 12.15 p.m. when the whole of our artillery started sending a barrage fire over, and the Germans replied and I can tell you it was like hell let loose. Well we waited about a quarter of an hour, before we went over, as our work is to follow the Batt and consolidate the positions as they are taken.

British troops going over the top at the Battle of Morval

The word was passed down: “Get ready to go over,” and a few minutes after the officer blew his whistle and over we went. We went over in two partys the officer and myself with one party and the Sergt and another Cpl with the other. On our left was the 1st Div and on our right was the Welsh Gds. After we got over the top we advanced through the most terrible machine gun and shrapnel fire it is possible to imagine, and it is marvellous how any man possibly got through it untouched. We passed over our 2nd line, and then over our front line before I felt anything and then I felt a stinging sensation in my left thigh, when I looked I found a three cornered tare (sic) in my trousers. I went on thinking it was a bit of dirt had touched me, the next thing I saw was our officer with a part of his hand blown away, but he did not stop, he went on shouting “Come on, come on,” and the next thing, I caught one bang through my wrist, and then my trouble commenced. As soon as I was hit I dropped into a shell-hole, and as luck would have it, there was a fellow in the hole that was in the same squad as myself at Caterham. I shouted “Hallo Jack” he replied “Hallo Jones where are you hit” I told him and he bound up my wound, and then we both went out from hole to hole as best we could until we reached the communication trench, and then we had to go through it, of course communication trenches are just what the Germans shell more than anything else, and we had whizz-bangs, big black shrapnell and every kind of shell bursting all around us in fact I could feel the heat of them, but it seemed as if we had some super-natural protection over us, as we came out safely when we had got back by “Guillemont” and “Ginchy”. I met two officers who were in charge of the “Land tanks”, those armoured cars you have read about, and they stopped me, and a Cpl of the 2nd Batt GG who was coming back with me, to ask us how things were going on, so we told him we had reached the 2nd objective and I asked him he could give us a drink of rum as we felt done up, well as a matter fact I could hardly get along by myself, so the officer said he would give us a drink, and pulled out a half-pint flask of rum, and we had a drink each, which put new life into us.

"Those armoured cars you have read about." Tanks.

We went on until we reached “Trones wood” where there was a Soldiers Club which provided hot tea and cake and cigs for the wounded only, so we had a little refreshment there and went to a dressing station near by and was dressed and sent on in motor lorries near “Happy Valley” where we were enochulated (sic) and sent to a place called “Groovetown” by train. We stopped there the night and then were sent on by train to “Eataples”. By the way, at Groove town while I was waiting to see the doctor, I heard someone say “Halloa Whacky” and when I looked round I saw to my surprise Cpl Evans who has been one of my closest chums ever since I went to France. Just fancy we went out with the same draft, slept together we were in the same platoon up to about a couple of months ago, and we got wounded in the same fight, and we are now occupying the next bed to one another in this hospital. But I am afraid I shall have to leave here before he does as his wounds are worse than mine:- shrapnell in the shoulder, but I suppose I must be thankful for small mercies. To go on with the yarn, when we arrived at Eataples we were taken from the station to the hospital in char-a-bancs and got straight to bed after a splendid supper. The next morning we had a hot steam bath with a cold shower afterwards, and I can tell you we enjoyed it A.1. We then had to go before the doctor to know whether we were for blighty or Convalescent Camp. I went in and the doctor told the orderly to shave my arm, and then he wrote on my card, destination England. I cant describe my feelings when I saw it at any rate you can bet I was more than glad. Well it was Friday morning when we reached Calais by train from Eataples and there we took the boat for Dover, and I enjoyed the crossing very much. When we reached Dover I hung on to try to get in a London train, but they only sent Officers and Colonials to London, so I had to put up with Lancs, and I find it is allright here, the only thing is we cant get any writing materials, so should be glad if you would send me on a pad. It is a pity about the watch, but as you say someone may return it but I shouldn’t expect it if I were you. I received the cigarettes and note for 10/- quite safe, I will write Mr Goddard as soon as I can. I don’t think it would be worth your while to come up as it would cost too much, and as I shall have ten days leave later on I think it would be waste of money so don’t do it. I am afraid I shall have to stop now, I shall be able to tell you more about it later on. No I have not kept that Diary, perhaps you don’t know that it is a crime in the Army to keep a diary? We had an exhibition here on Sat about 7,000 people came and there were dummy trenches on view 3d a time dancing in the evening, and simply ached to start but my slippers werent suitable. Well old chap I must dry up as it is nearly dinnertime so give my love to all,

Yours affec,
Cliff

P.S. I have just received the shaving kit;- Celmax safety razor, Brush and Soap, many thanks for the same, if you show this to Mr Goddard and he wants to put it in a report, tell him to leave out the part I have underlined and put in brackets.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - The Colliery Photographs


The Mackintosh Colliery where both Will Jones and his father worked. It was opened in 1867 and closed in 1919 because of flooding. The shaft was 1,620 feet deep, one of the deepest in the North Somerset coalfield.


The Mackintosh pit yard. In the foreground is the timber shed where John Marchant Jones worked as a sawyer.

The forge at Newbury. The man in the left foreground with the axe is John Marchant Jones.

Will Jones went down the Newbury pit in the early 1900's to take the following pictures of life at the coalface. It should be remembered that he was using a primitive box camera which employed glass plates, not film. The flash bulb was not invented for another thirty years, and so he would have used explosive flash powder, ignited on a metal plate as he opened the shutter.

Notice in the above picture that the man on the left is wearing the notorious guss and crook, a harness which passed under his crutch to draw a "putt", a sledge laden with coal.





When it was decided to build a new chimney at Mackintosh, much higher than the old, on completion Will Jones climbed it with his camera on his back to take photographs from the top. He used the iron rung ladder set into the chimney and, when he reached the top, set up his equipment on a few planks of wood. He was assisted by a Mr Bellis, the steeplejack who had supervised the building of the chimney. Perched a hundred feet above the ground, because of the wind Bellis had to hold steady the cloth which covered Will and his camera as he exposed the plates.



Will Jones on the chimney. The following two views of the pit yard were taken from there.


Sadly Will Jones was no sentimentalist. When he acquired the Newbury pit yard after the Second World War for his concrete block business, he wiped all his priceless glass negative plates and used them to repair the windows in the buildings!