WAYNE DAVID recounts the life of Morgan Jones, an ILP councillor and anti-war activist who emerged from the hardship of prison to become the first conscientious objector elected to Parliament.
Morgan Jones was born on 3 May 1885 in the village of Gelligaer at the foot of Gelligaer mountain. His birthplace was the small Rhos Cottages, close to the ancient parish church of St Catwg. The cottages were to remain his boyhood home.
Jones’ father, Elias, was a local collier, born in the hamlet of Llanwonno, near Mountain Ash. He was known for his sobriety, his dependability and his hard work. His mother, Sarah Ann, originally from the village of Llanfabon, was a strong and formidable woman with an earthy sense of humour and bright blue eyes. It is said that Sarah Ann had worked as a young woman in Llancaiach Fawr, the local Tudor manor house. What is certainly true is that she had a far from easy life at her own home, tending livestock as well as carrying out her other domestic chores.
In the Jones household, Welsh was the language of the hearth, liberalism was its politics and Protestant non-conformity, of the Baptist variety, was its religion. Sarah Ann was especially devout and helped imbue in the young Morgan a strong religious belief. Indeed, of the seven children – two girls and five boys – it was Morgan who became the main focus of her attention and her encouragement. She recognised that of all the children it was Morgan who had the greatest ability and potential.
After attending Gelligaer and Hengoed Elementary Schools, Jones won a scholarship to Lewis School, Pengam. He matriculated from Lewis School in 1901 and began training as a pupil teacher in Gilfach Boys’ School, Bargoed. From there he gained admission to Reading University and studied ‘Education and the Arts’.
In 1907, Jones returned to the Rhymney Valley. He went back to Gilfach Boys’ School as a teacher and continued the lay preaching which he had begun as a student in Reading. But if Jones’ religious non-conformity had been reinforced by his university experience, his politics had now firmly moved to the left. In 1908 Jones joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and helped establish the Rhymney Valley’s first branch.
In South Wales the political dominance of the Liberal Party and its working class offshoot, Lib-Labism, was now under threat from a new radicalism which was sweeping the South Wales coalfield. It was the ILP which was at the forefront of the challenge.
In March 1911, Jones threw his hat into the political ring and stood for election to Gelligaer Urban District Council (UDC), describing himself as a ‘socialist’. With a majority of only 11 votes Jones was elected and soon proved to be an effective and committed councillor, making housing his pre-occupation. In fact, due largely to Jones’ efforts, Gelligaer UDC became one of the most forward looking local authorities in South Wales, building quality council houses throughout its area, but especially in Bargoed.
On Gelligaer UDC Jones put municipal socialism into practice. His democratic socialism was firmly based on a materialist analysis of capitalism, combined with a strong sense of moral purpose, which drew much from his religious nonconformity. In essence, Jones was a Christian socialist.
Equally central to his beliefs was his conviction that nations and peoples ought to live in harmony with each other, respecting difference and celebrating diversity. For Jones it followed that international disputes must always be solved through diplomacy and dialogue rather than through armed conflict. As a pacifist he believed that warfare could never be justified.
World War I
When Britain entered the First World War in August 1914 Jones was in no doubt that this was a conflict which was wrong. Like many in the ILP, Jones believed that war generally, and this war in particular, could not be justified. True to his convictions, he argued that the disputes between the European powers should be resolved through discussion without resorting to arms.
From the beginning of the war Jones therefore linked up with the likes of Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway, and when the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF) was formed in late 1914 Jones was appointed to its national committee. He later became chairman of the South Wales Anti-Conscription Council.
During the first half of the war, until 1916, the army consisted entirely of volunteers. The country was awash with jingoism and the leadership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) was amongst the most enthusiastic for the war effort. In Bargoed Labour Exchange alone there were 1,315 recruits in the first three months of the war. In such a climate, by opposing the war, Jones was seen by many as nothing less than a traitor.
By the end of 1915 there had been half a million British casualties and the horrors of the war were becoming increasingly clear. With the declining number of volunteers the government felt that it had to introduce conscription to maintain the war effort. Accordingly, in January 1916 the government introduced the Military Service Act. This meant that all unmarried adult men up to the age of 41 were regarded as being enlisted in the armed forces, even if they had not received their call-up papers, and therefore subject to military law. In May 1916 the measures were extended to cover married men as well.
A hierarchy of tribunals was set up to decide if an individual who was a conscientious objector to the war could be given ‘alternative’ employment or if they should be given a custodial sentence if they refused. Gelligaer UDC was informed by the Government in January 1916 that it would be expected to convene a local tribunal. At roughly the same time Jones received his call-up papers. It soon became clear that the Council Tribunal would be expected to consider the case of one of its own members.
At a full council meeting in February 1916, with Jones present, the council voted by only ten votes to eight to uphold the law and give the chairman and the clerk powers to convene a special council meeting as necessary. A special meeting was in fact called soon after, but it was inquorate; it seems that the ‘Labour’ councillors deliberately boycotted the meeting. But not to be thwarted, those councillors who did attend formed themselves into a ‘committee’, augmented by a local doctor and a Justice of the Peace, and this body became the local Tribunal.
Jones was summoned to appear before this tribunal after he refused to respond to his call-up. As happened throughout the country, after the war the government ordered that the records of the tribunals be destroyed. This was the case with the Gelligaer Local Tribunal and explains the gap in the otherwise unbroken minutes of Gelligaer UDC in the Glamorgan archives. However, the local press covered the meeting of the tribunal at which Jones appeared and provided an account.
In a packed courtroom in Bargoed, Jones told the tribunal that he was a “socialist” and was “resolutely opposed to all warfare”. He went on to say that, in his view, the war was the product of “wrong-headed diplomacy”. The local tribunal came to the conclusion that Jones could be excluded from military service, but not from alternative service. Jones was not prepared to accept this and therefore appealed to an Appeals Tribunal in Cardiff. His appeal was unsuccessful and on 29 May 1916 Jones was arrested at his parents’ home in Bargoed.
At about 8:30am the local police inspector called and asked to see Jones. According to Jones, the police officer was “most courteous and polite” and made him feel “quite at home”, although Jones was concerned that his mother “was somewhat alarmed” when the police officer arrived. After being arrested, Jones was taken to Bargoed police station and later that day the police raided the ILP offices in the town.
From Bargoed, Jones was taken to Cardiff where he appeared before the Magistrates Court. He was fined 2/- and sentenced to four months imprisonment for refusing to obey military orders. He was taken to Cardiff Gaol.
At the same time as the police took action in South Wales, the leadership of the NCF was also the subject of a police crackdown in London. As Jones was waiting to be arrested in Bargoed, other members of the NCF national committee were appearing before magistrates in the Mansion House in London.
Eight members of the national committee, including Jones in his absence, were found guilty of prejudicing recruitment by circulating a leaflet calling for the repeal of the Military Service Act. They were each fined £100, the maximum possible, plus £10 costs, and if they did not pay the fines they were each to face 61 days imprisonment.
A month later, the national committee members appealed against the judgement and Jones was brought up to London from Cardiff Gaol, escorted by two policemen. He appeared before the court with his fellow committee members and although he “looked white and worn”, he presented his case and responded to the questions asked of him “with great spirit and determination”. Jones explained to the court that he had been kept in solitary confinement for three weeks, but despite the hardship he had faced he had “no doubt” about the stand he was taking.
As expected, the appeal was rejected and the convicted were given 14 days to pay their fines or face imprisonment. Most of them went to prison.
On the day after his arrest in Bargoed, as well as appearing before Cardiff Magistrates, Jones was also brought before Caerphilly Magistrates’ Court. Here, on 30 May 1916, he was found guilty of being an ‘absentee’, was fined £2 and it was decided that he would be placed in the hands of the military. He was kept in detention of one form or other until the end of 1917.
After Caerphilly Magistrates, Jones had to face a military court martial. Even though he had never served in the armed forces, under the Military Service Act he was found guilty of “desertion” and sentenced to a period of “sheer hard labour” with the military. He began his sentence at the Kinmel Park Army Camp in North Wales, but was then transferred to join other conscientious objectors in Wormwood Scrubs.
It is difficult to appreciate the hardship which Jones experienced while in prison. There were periods of solitary confinement and throughout Jones survived on a poor diet and was the subject of constant personal abuse.
Within a few months Jones’ physical and mental health deteriorated, and in November 1916 he re-evaluated the nature of his conscientious objection. As a result, he no longer felt able to uphold the ‘maximalist’ position as an absolute conscientious objector and instead he became an ‘alternativist’. This meant that he was breaking ranks with the leadership of the NCF by being prepared to accept ‘work’ which did not involve bearing arms but which, nevertheless, could be seen by some as indirectly contributing to the war effort. Jones’ view was that it was important to differentiate between armed conflict, which he remained opposed to, and the legitimate functioning of the state.
From his prison cell in Wormwood Scrubs, and then from his room in the Home Office Work Centre at Warwick to which he was transferred, Jones made an effort to explain and rationalise the change in his position. During 1917 he engaged in correspondence with Mansell Grenfell from South Wales who remained a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs, and before that Jones corresponded with Clifford Allen, the chairman of the NCF, who also remained in Wormwood Scrubs.
In an undated letter to Allen, which seems to have been written in late November 1916, Jones, however, did not make any real attempt to defend the alternativist position which he had adopted. He stated that “it would be pointless and profitless for me to enter a discussion of the ‘Alternativist and Absolutist’ business now. We will not emphasise differences. Let us rather emphasise agreements. And in one way at least we are certainly at one – to work together each in his own way to realise the Co-operative Commonwealth of the future.”
The letter to Allen also is interesting because it explained that the experience of imprisonment had reinforced Jones’ religious beliefs. “More and more,” he wrote, “I am compelled to recognise and appreciate the value of individual character and the formative influence of religion.”
The second reason why the letter is of interest is because it contains Jones’ heartfelt concern about his family back in South Wales. One of his brothers had received his call-up papers and there was very real worry that because of his ill health he would “fail to survive the war”. Another of Jones’ brothers was also a conscientious objector and had been forced to leave his teaching post. Jones was always very close to his mother and he was extremely concerned that the pressures that his family were facing would “prove too much for her”. A final worry for Jones was whether his engagement to his fiancée would last. In fact, it did not.
An earlier letter to Catherine Marshall, the secretary of the NCF, written soon after Jones had been transferred to Warwick, shows even more clearly the psychological strain which he had been subjected to in Wormwood Scrubs. In the letter he explained that “the effect of prison” had been to take away his ability to concentrate “upon any subject for any length of time”. He said that his mind was in a “nebulous condition” and that sometimes he felt his scalp was “about to fly off”.
In the Warwick Work Centre, Jones’ health continued to worsen and because of this he was released at the end of 1917. But this did not mean the end of his agitational work and in April 1919 Jones appeared before Bargoed Magistrates charged with desertion, even though the war had ended some five months earlier. Even more bizarrely, he was charged with deserting from the Lancashire Fusiliers. It appears that after granting him bail at £10, the Magistrates handed him over to the military and the authorities contrived to keep him under lock and key for a further three months. This time he remained in detention until 2 August 1919.
Jones’ conscientious objection to the war meant that after the conflict had ended he was prevented from returning to school teaching. Despite his ill health, he worked for a time as a labourer in a local colliery before becoming the ILP’s Welsh Organiser and joining the National Council of the ILP. He remained a member of Gelligaer UDC throughout the war and following the Armistice, when he was able, he returned to his council work.
Labour support for Jones
In March 1919, Jones unsuccessfully stood for election to Glamorgan County Council when he contested the Bargoed ward. But in December 1919 he was elected in a by-election following the death of a councillor who was a local congregational minister. At the first meeting of the county council after his election, Jones was collectively and individually snubbed with no welcome or congratulations being offered to him by the chairman of the council or any of his fellow councillors.
Jones had taken a principled stand against the First World War. He and his family suffered enormously and Jones himself was subjected to terrible ill-treatment while in prison. Indeed, the physical strain which those years imposed on him was to remain with Jones throughout his life and almost certainly contributed to his premature death at the age of 53.
The huge trauma of the First World War left a deep scar on the country, not least in South Wales. The heady jingoism of the first few months of the war steadily gave way to a sense of resignation as the death toll mounted. But this did not mean that the public hostility to Jones diminished. If anything it increased as the war dragged on. After the war there were inevitably raw emotions as so many had lost loved ones. Increasingly though, Jones’ contemporaries came to question whether such a conflict had been necessary and what it had achieved.
In July 1921, Alfred Onions, the strongly pro-war Labour MP for Caerphilly, died after a period of illness. Against the backdrop of economic crisis, Jones won the support of the local miners, who rejected their leaders’ advice, and secured the Labour nomination. The following month saw Jones win a stunning and overwhelming by-election victory, thereby becoming the first conscientious objector to be elected to Parliament.
Jones had made a courageous stand against an appalling conflict. He did what he believed to be right. His election showed that even those who had bitterly disagreed with his stance at the time, nevertheless, were prepared to support him as a man of principle who was determined to help create a better world, free from war.
Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly.
Author’s note on sources:
Much of the information for this piece has been gleaned from newspapers. The Caerphilly Journal and the Merthyr Express have been particularly rich sources, complemented by the ILP paper Labour Leader. These have been especially important because of the destruction of the documentation from the Tribunals and Gelligaer UDC.
John Sheaff, the son-in-law of Morgan Jones, has written an admirable introduction to Jones’ life and Dylan Rees wrote an outstanding article on Jones’ contribution towards education in Morgannwg (Vol. 31, 1987), the Journal of Glamorgan History. Both have provided very useful background information.
I have also been fortunate in the fact that correspondence from Morgan Jones has been reproduced in Llafur – the Journal of the Society for the Study of Welsh Labour History (Vol. 1, 1972 – 1975).
Wayne David MP
This article was originally published in the Labour Heritage bulletin.
More information about Labour Heritage, including membership forms and text from previous bulletins going back to 2001, can be found on the organisation’s website: www.labour-heritage.com