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.

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!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - The Public Man

In the early 1930’s, backed by the owner of the Standard Check Book Company, he started a weekly newspaper, “The North Somerset Independent”, printed and published in Frome with himself as editor. It lasted just a year and a half, but these were the worst days of the Depression, and a newspaper, like a football club, is ever a toy for very rich men. Later in the 1930’s, after his wife’s tragically early death, he moved into the quarrying and cement business, founding the Mendip Stone and Concrete Company. Although it failed to make his fortune, the business continued into the War before he sold it, himself remaining as the manager. Significantly, papers show that at this time he still had managed to hang on to the Crossway, which he leased to a man who finally drowned himself in the lake at Mells Park!
In March 1945 he speculated in a letter that he soon would have to leave the concrete company, “I may soon be looking up another business to be nearly successful in.” “To be nearly successful,” it might have been his epitaph, but cometh the hour, cometh the man, and real financial success finally blessed Will Jones, after forty years of sporadically successful endeavour, in a most unlikely form – scrap! When the War ended in 1945, there was a desperate shortage of building materials, which hampered old and new businesses alike as they attempted to return to peacetime normality. Where there was plenty of roofing, windows, and galvanised iron was in the army camps, many of which had been redundant since D-Day in 1944. Will Jones had a lorry and he had a workforce, and they were soon at work, dismantling and reclaiming material from the old military bases. In a superb moment of irony, he acquired the site of Newbury pit, closed since 1927, from which his father had been locked out fifty years previously, to store his goods. My own father was one of his customers. He bought a Nissen hut, which stood in the yard of our butter packing factory at Hallatrow for sixty years, with the unpainted metal interior still as bright as the day it was erected.
With the profits Will Jones went back into the concrete business in a period very different from the 1930’s. The blitzed cities of Britain were being rebuilt, and concrete blocks were big business. He invested in a German machine which moved up and down the old pit yard laying blocks like eggs. He developed a process in which a paste of crushed Bath stone, salvaged from the bomb sites of the city, faced the blocks. These proved enormously popular and gave the new company its name, Reconstructed Bath Stone. It remained a prosperous business until after his death, but a building slump, joined with increasing statutory regulation of production, brought about the sale of the business in the mid 1970’s.
Like some of the characters in his books, Will Jones was never backwards in coming forwards with an opinion. In the circumstances it was inevitable that he should become a public man, and by the end of his life he had accumulated a long list of public offices, in local politics, the church, and football even. A cause celebre of the Great War in Coleford was the eccentric behaviour of the Reverend John Henry Evans, who had become vicar in June 1914. In February 1916 the national daily, the “Morning Post”, and the “John Bull” magazine, reported that Evans, stung by a perceived whispering campaign in the parish that the clergy were “cowards and shirkers,” announced that he had been a talented boxer in his youth and was “ready to put on gloves with any of these unknown persons if they will reveal their identity in public.” Evans obviously thought that it was his parishioners who were ducking military service as he also offered to work the shifts of any miner, with a dependent like a “widowed mother”, who joined up, and Evans would pay the wages earned to that dependent – as long as it did not interfere with “clerical duties”. Presumably no one embarrassed the vicar by taking him up on his dotty and impractical offer. Will Jones, however, who one suspects spent more than a little time browsing through all the newspapers and magazines on his counter at the Crossway, immediately took up the metaphorical cudgels, if not the vicar’s boxing gloves, on behalf of the village by writing to “John Bull” himself. He pointed out that 85 of the total population of Coleford of 1,291 had already joined up. “All the others are working in the coalmines here and risking their lives daily for that which is necessary to the nation for carrying on the war.” A local concert had raised £15 for Belgium. The vicar had suggested that the money should be given to him, and in return he would take in Belgian refugees at the vicarage. Will Jones reported with relish to “John Bull” that the unfortunate Belgians, a stationmaster and his family, were obliged to use the servants’ entrance, that supper consisted of an onion each with bread and cocoa, and that their lavatory was in the garden with the floor in standing water. Despite a welcome bath at the Crossway, the Belgian family “cleared out as soon as possible,” and relief money raised then went straight to “Belgian headquarters.” Will Jones so disliked the Reverend Evans that he had resigned from his beloved church choir in November 1915 after twenty four years service. His letter of resignation was written with such feeling that, when he signed his name, the pen went straight through the paper. The Evans story, and much more, may be found in “A Good Foundation”, an excellent history of Coleford church by Valerie Bonham and Julie Dexter, published by Church Window Books.

Still choirmaster in the 1950's

It was not the last time that Will Jones would appear in the pages of “John Bull”. By 1928 he had become a member of Frome Rural Council and, with unemployment rising, the magazine reported his scheme for public works, in which a local council would recruit a gang of unemployed workers from a labour exchange for road works, receive the workers’ dole money from the exchange, and then top it up from council funds to make a proper wage. “John Bull” was fully in favour of the Jones scheme, but it brought down on his head the accusation that the unemployed, because previously they had contributed to a national insurance scheme, were being expected to earn their money twice.

Chairman of Frome District Council

Despite the privations of his early life, like many self-made men he was profoundly conservative with a small “c” in his politics, but without losing sight of the needs of those less fortunate and less motivated than himself. In wartime correspondence with his son, Dick, he claimed, “My sympathies are with the workers and I can only hope the Coalition will be continued until ranks of the Socialists have become more amenable to disciplined action.” Aneurin Bevan and Manny Shinwell were the Labour activists which he loathed most. He saw supporters of the Labour party as concerned only with selfish party interest.. Writing on the 1945 General Election he commented, “the Tory party is not what I want them to be,” foreseeing if it won, “strikes all over the country.” Even so he worshipped Churchill, and for years a little novelty statue of the great man, which once had smoked real, miniature cigars, stood on a table in his house. “I must perforce remain an onlooker rather than a player in this game where ankle-rapping and fouling is its most distinguishing feature,” was his final judgment on politics.
He was instinctively toff-proof. He relished a wartime comedian’s opening gag when faced by two rows of officers, two of NCOs, and finally the other ranks, “Officers, sergeants, and gentlemen!” He was as suspicious of local worthies as he was of politicians. “My experience of doctors, parsons, solicitors, and the professional classes generally makes the contact with the labourer in the local a sort of recuperative treatment for my faith in human nature.” It didn’t stop him from mixing easily with all classes in his dedication to public service. Will Jones went on to become Chairman of Frome Rural District Council from 1940-1946, Chairman of Frome National Savings Association, a member of Frome Board of Guardians and Public Assistance, of the Town and County Planning Association, and Commander of the Norton-Radstock Divisional Special Constabulary. During the Second War he recorded a visit to the workhouse in Frome, “Yesterday I was shown over the Frome Union where 208 patients are cared for. The latter term is correct for they are much better off than thousands of their class outside. All wards and bed-dormitories scrupulously clean, all rooms steam heated, and food of really good quality and quantity. The master knows every patient and is very kind. I believe the Workhouse Infirmary at Temple Cloud is on similar lines. From Frome I went to the Hill family opposite the Anchor with six blankets I had been able to get for them. They have eleven children and the father and mother are mentally deficient. It was most depressing after the clean wholesome wards of the Frome home. There was a sickening smell, the kids were all filthy, mucky food on a table bare of any covering. We inspected the place some months ago and frightened the parents into keeping it cleaner but it has evidently reverted to the dirt lice and fleas etc we found on the previous occasion.”

Coleford football team of the early 1900's

One hopes that his responsibilities in local football administration were more pleasurable. He was chairman of the Senior Football League for many years, and was made an Honorary Life Member of the Somerset Football Association for his services to the game. Certainly the meetings of the Somerset FA were lively affairs to judge from a report of one which he chaired in February 1947. He adjudicated on an incident in a game between Shelton Mallet and Langford Rovers at Winscombe when spectators invaded the pitch and one “struck the referee a violent blow in the face, felling him to the ground, and causing the match to be abandoned after 80 minutes.” In another game “supporters of the Henstridge Club came on the ground and interfered with a game and pelted him (the referee) with mud and orange peel. It was also alleged that lady football fans ruffled the referee’s hair.” Henstridge replied in its defence that orange peel was thrown by only one small boy, “who was in the happy position of being the possessor of such a luxury.” Significantly in those grim days of food rationing he only chucked the peel and not the fruit itself.
In 1939 Will Jones had left Coleford to live at “The Firs” in the nearby village of Leigh upon Mendip, which was much closer to his concrete business, although he continued to own the “Crossway”, an indication of his satisfactory financial position of the time. In the early 1950’s, with his business interests back at Newbury, he built himself a new house on the edge of Coleford, at the side of the lane which leads down to Vobster. You might be forgiven for thinking that a dialect writer, given the opportunity of building a house reflecting his own tastes and aspirations, would have come up with some vernacular folly, all thatch and inglenooks. It is one of the contradictions of his character that Will Jones built an aggressively modern house in his own blocks with a flat roof. The house turns it back on the road and the village, and faces south with a stunning view over open countryside from a terrace which runs the length of the building. The view is even better from an eyrie in the roof, in which he intended to write in retirement, and which led out on to a balcony.

Mendip Ho!

Will Jones had always been a progressive in all sorts of ways. He was one of the first in the village to own a car, remaining a driver of rare incompetence and a lifelong danger to man and beast. “Mendip Ho!”, his new house, boasted an American refrigerator and electric washing machine when they were almost unknown in English homes. He loved television, or perhaps more accurately he loved fiddling with it. In the days when the signal from the Wenvoe aerial was capricious to say the least, he had a pouffe permanently stationed next to the set so that he could twiddle with the tuning, to the exasperation of everyone else watching. The bathroom boasted a shower, which he took cold every morning. A health fanatic, he was much given to deep breathing in the morning in front of open windows and other exercises. When we sorted through the house after his death, we found an ancient stiff cardboard sheet titled “Swedish Naval Exercises” of photos of a gentleman, with a huge moustache and dressed in a pair of trunks, illustrating all sorts of actions once known as “physical jerks”. He ate yoghurt when no one else knew what it was, and in his late seventies took himself off to a health farm. The experience put him in hospital for a week.

On the terrace at Mendip Ho! Sally & Charlie Blanning (standing), Will Jones, Gwen Blanning, Jack James, and Dick Jones (sitting)

Towards the end of his life he prepared a reprint in paperback of all his books. These in particular are still in circulation and, together with some of the original editions from the 1920’s and 1930’s, can be found on internet book sites like Abebooks and Alibris as well as on Amazon.

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd

In his spare time the young Will Jones was making a name for himself as a popular singer and comedian. The earliest entry in his press cuttings book is for December 1908 when the Radstock Observer noted that “Mr WM Jones of Coleford scored a great success on his first appearance in Radstock with his humorous songs,” but no doubt the performance of the twenty four year old had been well polished previously at more local concerts and at home. Indeed, at this period no concert in the area seemed complete without a turn from Will Jones. “The comic effusions of Mr WM Jones met with tumultuous applause, and were undoubtedly the most popular items of the programme…Mr WM Jones, the Coleford comedian, brought both portions of the programme to a close, and as usual, scored an unqualified success…Mr WM Jones, the popular comedian, of Coleford, who concluded each part of the programme with comic effusions, met with ovations. His songs were “The bootblack” and “Buying a house”. These were so fun provoking that the audience would scarcely be satisfied with the encores.”
His collection of sheet music included piles of songs made popular by the music hall stars of the day, like Sam Mayo and Dan Leno, who wrote and first performed "Buying A House".

On his home turf in Coleford he was adored. “It was the excruciatingly funny impersonations of the latter (WMJ) which moved the crowded house to the wildest demonstrations of delight. We are sure, however, that the appreciation of every item of the programme was real if not noisy. The only criticism which we heard was that the public had too small an opportunity of contributing themselves to the entertainment. One chance, however, which they had they did not avail themselves of. Mr Jones especially invited them to assist him by “joining in” the choruses of one of his songs, and gratuitously offered to conduct them by the aid of a shoe brush, but everyone was so convulsed at the comicality of the invitation that they were for the moment incapable of speech.” Will Jones obviously knew how to work a crowd. The mining families had been treated to “expert instrumentalists”, “a brace of splendid sopranos”, even “an elocutionist of rare charm in Mrs Baxter”, but it was Will Jones they wanted. Significantly, his act often closed each half of the concerts. The roar of the crowd, if not the smell of the grease paint, held him fast, and once he even wandered away with a band of strolling players. The company collapsed in Gillingham and he was soon back in Coleford.

As Iachimo in Cymbeline at Mells

It was his first brush with commercial disaster but not the last. In the same period he went into business on his own account, in partnership with his friend, Harry Howell, who owned a photographers’ in Frome. The business did not prosper but the fascination of photography lingered for a long time. It left behind a legacy of images of life in the area which still turn up as old post cards, and which illustrate and enrich more than one volume of local history. His photographs taken underground at Newbury pit before the First World War, and his extraordinary images taken from the top of the Mackintosh colliery chimney, will appear elsewhere on this site.
Mabel May James came from Wells where her father owned a hairdresser’s shop in Broad Street. She spent holidays in Coleford where she met the redoubtable Will Jones. A photograph of him as a young man shows him as a real “masher” with bowler hat, sharp suit with narrow trousers, and a louche cigarette dangling from his lips, but the star of many a concert party was much less forward in real life than he was on stage. A letter of proposal to Mabel May survives, and its delicate and gentle courtesy seems to come from another world to our own.

Will Jones, the masher, left

“Dear Miss James,
I am afraid that I am going to surprise you with the contents of this letter – and yet I hope not.
Since last Sunday I have been unable to get thoughts of you out of my head, and at last I feel bound to sit down and tell you my feelings towards you.
You doubtless remember that little trip of ours to Cranmore, - it was practically the first time I had been in your company, but since that time I have been unable to think seriously of any other girl.
You will probably think I have waited a long time before telling you this, but as a matter-of-fact I have been on the point of doing so several times, both verbally and by letter, but various thoughts have detained me, chief among them being that you did not reciprocate my feelings, and that it would only mean a discontinuance of our friendship.
Probably I have been foolish but now I feel I must know whether I may hope or not. Do not think less of me for not speaking before.
I had more than one reason which I will explain if my answer is favourable. I do not ask you to give one an answer that will be either binding or committed but if you can give me just one word of encouragement you will make me indeed very happy.
I only wish that I could prove in some way how deep is my regard for you. I have a good outlook up here but hitherto I have not worked with the energy I might have done, owing no doubt to the feeling that I had no one to consider but myself. I have got opportunities but lack motive power, and there is no one in this world, Mabel, can inspire me with it but you.
To know that you felt concerned about my future welfare would be sufficient to urge me on to my greatest efforts besides helping me in a great many other ways.
Will you trust me? If you do I must solemnly swear never to give you cause to regret it. You are my ideal of what a girl should be and it is by no means a passing fancy with me.
I have never written a letter of this character before as I have never cared for any other girl enough to do so.
My reasons for writing instead of seeing you are first because I can state things more clearly, and also to give you a fairer chance of replying.
If you think its contents rather matter of fact, allow me to assure you I do not feel so and to plead two excuses first, inexperience, and secondly, I determined to say nothing but the simple truth without suggestion of any kind.
I shall say nothing of this to Fred & Miss James as I think it only a matter for our selves. Whatever your answer, I beg of you not to let it interfere with your holidays up here as I should be the last to press unwelcome attentions on you, and should probably keep away for my own sake, if they were so.
I must now leave the matter in your hands hoping most earnestly for a favourable reply

Will M Jones

The reply was favourable. If Will lacked “motive power”, Mabel May James had more than enough for both of them. A milliner at Clare’s of Wells, after their marriage she established her own draper’s shop in Coleford at Crossway House. The hats in these photographs of herself, one with her little daughter Gwen and the other with her own sister, come from a time when no one felt dressed without a hat – and what hats!

Her sister, Emily Maud James but always known as “Jack”, completed an innocent ménage a trois at Crossway House from the beginning of the marriage. Mabel ran the drapery and Jack ran the house. Will meanwhile on his side had a newsagent’s, tobacconist’s, photographer’s, and even a barber’s shop, as the following handbill proudly announced in 1912.

“I have not worked with the energy I might have done,” he had written to Mabel May. Haunted possibly by the spectre of his father’s indolence and failure, he found himself swept up in his wife’s whirlwind. The accepted myth with which I grew up was that Mabel did all the work while Will frittered away his time on his writing, performing and futile business schemes. Certainly he probably failed to match her cyclonic work ethic, but then the only person who could was their daughter, and my mother, Gwen. Both workaholics, both magicians with a needle and thread, both ruthless in their ambitions for their children, neither lived as long as they deserved.

Fancy dress competition in front of the Crossway 1921

The family myth has probably treated Will too harshly. No one could have accused this natural entrepreneur of being short on ideas. In the early 1920’s at the Crossway he added a garage, from which he also ran a taxi business. A business card of the period describes him as a “Photographer and Press Agent”, a member of the “Professional Photographer’s Association”. He was “local correspondent for news reports and advertisements for the following papers:- Bristol Evening News, Bristol Western Daily Press, Bristol Times and Echo, Bristol Times and Mirror, Bristol Chronicle and Herald, Yeovil Western Gazette, Wells Journal, Frome Somerset Standard, and Radstock Somerset Guardian.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Jarge Balsh & WM Jones - The Early Years

Author and actor – journalist and newspaper editor - stand-up comedian and singer - professional photographer and shopkeeper - public servant and manufacturer – William Marchant Jones was a remarkable man. He was all the more remarkable for being born into hard times. Will Jones was born on 26th March 1884, in the Somerset mining village of Coleford, into a family which was already slithering helplessly into dire poverty.
It had not always been so. His father had been born John Marchant in 1857 in Camden Town, London, and subsequently was adopted by a cabinet maker, John Hobday Jones, and his wife, Hannah. The couple had been married in 1833 at St Mary-le-Bone church, as soon as the young Hobday Jones finished a six year apprenticeship with his father, and so the marriage had been childless for many years before they took John Marchant into the family. When John Hobday Jones died, his widow decided to return to the place of her birth, Coleford, and she took her adopted son, now known as John Marchant Jones, back to Somerset with her.

Coleford in the early 1900's

Hannah set up a shop on the corner of High Street and Norton’s Hill, and the building is known to this day as “Camden House”. “Somerset” conjures up an image of rural idyll, all green fields and thatched cottages, cider and Cheddar cheese, but the reality of Coleford is very different. Although Coleford had its picture postcard corner south of the church, the main part of the village, which in the late 1800’s boasted a population of over a thousand, was a grey, utilitarian strip of stone-built miners’ cottages. This was Highbury, from which the dusty lanes led northwards towards the pit heads of Mackintosh, Newbury, Coal Barton, and Luckington.
John Marchant Jones, to judge from photographs taken of him with his children in later years, was a debonair, handsome man with a luxuriant moustache and a taste for snappy clothes. The worldly cockney must have cut quite a dash in the backwoods of Somerset and, predictably, he made a good marriage to Millicent Martin. Her father, Benjamin Martin, was a man of some substance, a mining surveyor and the first parish clerk of Holy Trinity, Coleford. Millicent brought with her the considerable dowry of three cottages and, as they moved into Brook Cottage, opposite the old Temperance Hall, John Marchant Jones could congratulate himself on having made a very good match.
John Marchant Jones with his children
Will Jones is top left
No one remembers how John Marchant Jones lost their money, but it wasn’t long before he was reduced to working as a sawyer in the pit yard at Newbury. The coal industry was weathering one of its periods of depression and falling prices, and in 1889 there was a strike throughout the Somerset coalfield. An iniquity of the time was the payment of wages on a sliding scale dependent on the price of coal. This led to the formation of a Miners’ Federation whose militant campaign for a minimum wage caused the great lock-out of 1893, when over three hundred thousand miners were out of work across the country for sixteen weeks. Jones was not a union man, and so his growing family was left without any form of income. Alma was the eldest, after whom came Will, Reg, Percy, Mabel and Cliff.
Pit villages are odd places. The cottages frequently were built by the colliery companies, the streets often radiating out from the pit-head and sometimes arranged in a deliberate hierarchy, the larger houses being intended for managers, supervisors, and so on. In the North Somerset coalfield the dwellings were built from the local stones, white and blue lias, which have the quality of looking rather grubby even when clean. Pit villages, however, are not always part of some industrial conglomeration but, like Coleford, sometimes exist incongruously in the middle of glorious countryside, an irony which pervades much of the writing of DH Lawrence.

Haymaking - Dick, Will Jones's son, is on the horse

Will Jones knew and loved the Somerset countryside - the deep, winding lanes, the thick woods and rich pastures - from which the tall chimneys and the winding wheels of the pit-heads remained often invisible. His early life revolved around the church school and the church of Holy Trinity where he was a chorister and, like so many village boys of the time, he helped to pump the organ during services. It was to give him a lifelong love of music.

Coleford church school in the 1890's
Will Jones is top left, next to his brothers Cliff, Percy & Reg

His childhood, however, ended abruptly when he was eleven. Since his father had lost his work at the pit, the family had existed on parish handouts of bread and tea. His mother had become bed-ridden, weakened by malnutrition and probably already suffering from the tuberculosis which would kill her four years later at the age of forty one. Will left school to look after his mother and siblings while his father, armed with a reference from the vicar of nearby Kilmersdon, tramped the neighbourhood seeking employment as a French polisher, a skill learnt in the old days with the Hobday Jones family.

Will Jones with his mother

Will took away with him from school a glowing reference from Mr. F Close, the Head Master. “I have much pleasure in recommending William Jones for any position requiring intelligence and diligent application in a boy. I have always found him most willing and obliging, thoroughly honest, and he would, I am sure, do his best to carry out the wishes of those over him.”
A year later matters at home had improved sufficiently for Will Jones to go to work for the first time, in the pit yard of the Mackintosh Colliery. He toiled on the batches, the smoking and flaming spoil heaps, recovering the usable coal from the slag, and sometimes did duty on the gates of the cage which took the miners and trucks to and from the bottom of the pit shaft.

Mackintosh pit yard

He loathed the work, and within a few months found something more congenial, an apprenticeship at the Coleford Co-Operative Society grocery stores. He served for three years, earning four shillings a week for the first year, five shillings for the second, and six shillings for the third. These wages would have been worth over a hundred pounds a week in today’s money, and would have made a considerable difference to the fortunes of the Jones family. With his apprenticeship completed, he went to work at Styles’s grocery shop in Paulton, riding home each weekend to Coleford on the pony which usually pulled the delivery cart. Subsequently he worked for the Star Tea Company in Frome.

Will Jones top left as an apprentice grocer