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 - 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.