Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 12 Sep 2016

The Archaeology of Working Class Writing : Part Five – Lewis Jones

The short but eventful life of Lewis Jones ( 1897 – 1939 ) deserves to be more widely celebrated than it is.  Jones was, in many respects, the archetypal radical, autodidact and novelist and although he produced two remarkable novels of working class mining community life – Cwmardy (1937) and the unfinished We Live (1939) – his books remain largely neglected by all but scholars of proletarian writing.

Jones was radicalised early in his life and had the chance to develop his political views as a student at the Central Labour College between 1923 – 24 and it was during this time that he joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain. He was always a believer in direct action and was active in the Nottingham coalfields during the General Strike of 1926 – so active in fact that he was arrested and spent three months in Swansea prison.

Jones took a principled and high profile stance on what he saw as key issues – he joined anti-fascist campaigns, resigned from jobs rather than work with scab labour and helped organise a series of hunger marches. Graham Stevenson on his blog describes Jones as arguably the Communist Party’s “most effective organiser in Wales, and considered a veritable patron saint of the Welsh unemployed who wore poverty as a cloak.”

Jones was also a determined egalitarian and when on a visit to the Soviet Union he famously refused to stand for Stalin when he entered the room – for Lewis words and action had to be all of a piece.

Jones’ first novel, Cwmardy, tells the story of  the Rhondda Valley mining community on the eve of the Second World War and employs a social realist or even documentary approach to his subject matter. We see the trials and tribulations, the strikes, the fight for justice of Big Jim and his redoubtable wife, Sian. Their son Len grows up, by the end of the novel, to be a thinker and political organiser – and also becomes the subject of the second book, We Live.

Jones had planned a trilogy of books but his passionate commitment to the Spanish Republican cause got in the way. On the day he was due to pick up the print draft of We Live the city of Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces and in an effort to raise public sympathy and awareness of this disaster he addressed over 30 public meetings about the events in Spain -and appears to have died from sheer exhaustion. Stevenson comments that  “according to folk memory in the Rhondda he died of a “broken heart” the result of the defeat in Spain.”

Although the manuscript of We Live was technically incomplete, the final chapters were finished by a combination of family and friends and so we have two completed parts of the projected trilogy – what he would have done with the third part is unknown. However, what we can say is that his early and tragic death certainly robbed us of a fine working class novelist, a splendid and committed activist and a politician of real principle.


Terry Potter

September 2016