Paul Steffan Jones 1st


 

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Like many men, I have always been fascinated by tales of courage especially in the theatre of war. I was thrilled when, at an early age, my father gave me the barest bones of a story concerning a member of his Treherbert family who was apparently executed in the Spanish Civil War. My father didn’t know how this man had been related to us, didn’t even know his name, and believed this unlucky ancestor to have been a journalist. When I began to become interested in my family history, my research, in the main, was to corroborate this tale but was to uncover a much more intriguing account.

Thomas Isaac Picton was born in Treherbert in 1896 and came from a family of Pembrokeshire miners. His father, also called Thomas, shows up, aged 18, in the 1881 census living at 8 Tynewydd Huts in the Rhondda Valley, with his uncle John Coles who had been born in Landshipping, Pembrokeshire. Landshipping was a heart-breaking landmark in the journey of the Picton family for on Valentine’s Day 1844, forty miners including women and boys died there in the Garden Pit Colliery when the eastern Cleddau river (Cleddau Ddu or Black Cleddau) burst into the shaft 67 yards below. Included on the monument to the dead erected by local people are the names of six Pictons and five Coles. Four of the Picton dead were a father and his three sons. Such bad luck doesn’t always encourage you to stick around.

Thomas Isaac Picton was also a miner. When The Great War broke out, he enlisted and stayed working with coal, becoming a stoker on the mighty battleships. He was twice decorated for his bravery including during the Battle of Jutland where he spent some time in the water. His Royal Navy service record measured him at 5 feet 4 and a half inches with blue eyes and dark brown hair and swarthy complexion. It noted that he had a tattoo commemorating his mother in a cross on his right arm. He was discharged with “defective teeth” and had spent 24 days in cells during his war years and 14 days in detention. The crammed calligraphy of a busy war observes in brackets that he “broke out” of the latter.

He was an avid boxer who was Wales amateur middleweight champion and he had also been the Navy light heavyweight champion. He managed to get a small number of professional bouts but was primarily a bare knuckle mountain fighter. At least one of his confrontations led him to prison. On one occasion, he left Cardiff jail after serving a short sentence for assaulting a police officer, wearing the boots of a prisoner who had recently been hanged.

As was the case with large numbers of working class people of the inter war years, he became radicalised and was a close friend of Communist Councillor George Thomas of Treherbert. In his early forties, Tom joined the International Brigade, older than the typical volunteers, most of whom were also swapping the uncertainty of their blighted industrial zones for the uncertainty of the Spanish Civil War. In common with hundreds of his fellow miners of the South Wales coalfield, he made the choice to illegally leave his country to fight the rising tide of Fascism in a country he had never previously visited. For entertainment on the journey through France, he was put into a ring to wrestle a bear. This seems an almost cartoon-like scene to the modern mind, a form of larger-than-life existence we have almost forgotten.

On their arrival at the barracks of the International Brigade, they were issued with ill-fitting uniforms and ancient firearms with ill-fitting ammunition. Some would go on to fight Fascists in another war, facing opponents who had honed their skills in killing machines above Guernica and other memorable places. Tom, due to his First World War experiences and his prowess as a boxer, may have been better equipped for the fight than many of his comrades.

He fought in the Battle of Teruel and was captured soon after and imprisoned in Bilbao. He was murdered by his jailers in April 1938 after he had punched to the floor a guard who was beating a fellow prisoner with his rifle butt. The Rhondda Leader newspaper of 29 October 1938 reported that he had been “put up against a wall and shot”. His body was never found.

These warriors are still remembered, still commemorated. Their sacrifice and their willingness to enrol in “the march of History” are still revered by those on the Left and their selflessness continues to haunt our unconfident, cynical age. I am proud that a member of my family was among them. Before I fully knew Tom’s story, I wrote a short poem, “Icons”, whose third line seemed to aptly describe his stance :

Not game footage

but I’ve outlived Stanley Baker

as non-pacifist fist anti-fascist

in humidity following Biblical rainfall

we all rust


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From The Loquacious Usk


By Paul Steffan Jones AKA, 2017-05-11



Son of Pillgwenlly

in the former domain of

Gwynllyw Farfog

on the loquacious Usk

and the tongue-twisting old tongue

you sacked conventional work

unless to pay for your passage

eschewing the teeming path

of the Empire’s Christian soldiers

to sleep under the forever stars

in a vastness with railway arteries

and waning bison heart

you were

transatlantic

transamerican

transhuman

you wondered at Nature

the great outdoors

as you wandered

the Great Dominion

and the Great Plains

that reverence for

the unmanufactured world

always walked with you

the lines in a weathered face

telling so many histories

the detail in the hedgerow dazzling

that moment’s contemplation

of the search for

the next coin

the next smile

the next shelter

the next stanza


from you tramping and your courage

in living with physical trauma

to your single-minded campaign

to become a man of letters

the story of you is a lesson

to us in our hours of doubt

and cruel but needless isolation


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Free Wales Army Manoeuvres


By Paul Steffan Jones AKA, 2017-05-11



Far from London’s Swinging Sixties but feeling the full force of the gravitational pull of its lawmakers, financiers and Armed Forces, Wales endured a number of traumas in that epochal decade that led the country down an unfamiliar path. The insensitive way in which our people and resources were being treated by the British Government had caused a feeling among many that their country was being oppressed and in danger of losing its defining identity. In the vacuum left by non-representation by a toothless and treacherous political mainstream, many young people felt they needed a different approach to creating an independent Wales. Precursed by White Eagle of Snowdon graffiti on walls, road signs and rocks, units of the Free Wales Army seemed to emerge spontaneously in all parts of the land, an important component in awakening the population’s sense of the nation’s destiny and of the resistance against encroachment of its land, water, people and language.

They adopted the White Eagle as their emblem and wore their homemade uniforms in public. They had a sense of internationalism and met representatives of the I.R.A., the Brittany Liberation Front, the Scottish Liberation Army, and other groups fighting to defeat occupying powers. They marched in Dublin with like-minded activists to commemorate the 1916 Rising. They also marched in Machynlleth, the site of the first Welsh parliament.

Away from the gaze of Special Branch, this group conducted armed training manoeuvres and bomb-making instruction in remote moorland areas. However, its armament was largely antique or the weaponry of the countryside. They claimed that they had “7,000 men” and were “ready for war”. Much of the energy of the F.W.A. was expended in propaganda including claiming responsibility for acts of violence which it did not commit. Their main objective was to achieve independence for their country.

Its commandant was Julian Cayo Evans, a product of the English public school system, who had fought Communist guerrillas in Malaya with the South Wales Borderers. He bred horses at his farm near Lampeter and his father was a former High Sheriff of Cardiganshire.

For an army, its paramilitary actions were few and, in the confusion of having a number of different groups and individuals planting bombs in the same period, difficult to definitively attribute. They were involved in the failed bombing in March 1967 of an Elan Valley water pipeline supplying Birmingham. Ironically, another type of warfare, the bouncing bombs of the Dam Busters, had also been practised in these same reservoirs. It is possible that the F.W.A carried out the bomb attack on the main administrative centre of the Welsh Office of the Secretary of State for Wales in Cardiff on 25 May 1968 in a joint operation with Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defence of Wales).

They made their public debut at the vociferous protest at the official opening of the controversial Llyn Celyn reservoir in 1965 but arguably their greatest victory was during the aftermath of the Aberfan tragedy. The large sum of money that had been raised by voluntary donations to assist the devastated families had been become mired with sloth-like bureaucrats, showing little inclination, and even less sensitivity, in allocating the money to those for whom it was collected. With tensions mounting and the establishment acting in its usual cavalier manner, a journalist, John Summers, asked the F.W.A. to intervene and to exert pressure on the fund committee. In September 1967, 50 uniformed F.W.A. men marched through Merthyr Tudful with banners flowing, drums beating and singing battle hymns. At the post-march press conference, Dennis Coslett, a senior commander, issued an ultimatum that, if £5,000 was not paid to each affected family within the week, Merthyr Town Hall, the offices of the Disaster Fund and those of the solicitor acting as treasurer and secretary of the Fund would be bombed. The money was paid on time.

The F.W.A. and another nationalist group, the Patriotic Front, were invited to appear on David Frost’s TV programme. Coslett, who had lost an eye in a mining accident, wore an eye patch due to an infection. This led the celebrated broadcaster to refer to Coslett as “Dai Dayan” as he believed he resembled the Israeli general Moshe Dayan, an indication of how they were regarded by the media. However, despite their penchant for uniforms and self-publicity, the authorities were beginning to increasingly take them seriously.

The F.W.A. had plans for an uprising in Caernarfon to prevent the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. To support this rebellion, they planned to take over the Welsh Office building they may have previously bombed and try to hold out for as long as possible. This campaign never got off the ground as 9 members including Cayo Evans and Dennis Coslett were arrested and charged with Public Order Act offences in the authorities’ drive to suppress protest ahead of the investiture. The trial in Swansea lasted 58 days and ended, with uncanny coincidence, on Prince Charles’ big day in Caernarfon Castle. Coslett refused throughout to speak English. He and Cayo Evans were sentenced to 15 months imprisonment mainly on the “evidence” of the interviews they had given journalists and regarded the experience as a show trial.

This was effectively the end of the F.W.A. and the drive for greater self-determination took on alternative tactics as a new decade dawned. Much of the story of the Welsh radicals and their confrontations of the 1960s has been airbrushed from the record and from the minds of those whom they sought to serve. It is important to acknowledge the struggles of those who precede us, to listen to the beat of our history, and to be curious enough to want to follow rivers from their sources to the ocean.


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Those who of us who live in Wales in these first decades of the 21st century can count ourselves lucky not to have witnessed terror attacks or heard the terrifying sounds of bomb explosions in our homeland. I don’t know what that says about us as a people: it’s true that we have our tensions, our divisions, our differences, but we have not succumbed to the tactics of the terrorist or experienced such retribution in our peaceful land as a result of the cynical foreign policy of the Kingdom that rules us.

It was not always this way. In the 1960s there were bomb attacks at the following sites among others: the construction site of the Clywedog dam (1963 and 1966); a pipe carrying water from Lake Vyrnwy to Liverpool (1967); the Temple of Peace and Health, Cardiff (1967); a tax office and the Welsh Office building, also in Cardiff (1968); a water pipe at Helsby, Cheshire; a tax office in Chester (1969).

These attacks were attributed to Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (M.A.C.)-Movement for The Defence of Wales-a paramilitary nationalist unit that was created in response to the drowning of the Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn in the Tryweryn valley in order to create a reservoir to supply water to Liverpool. One of the group’s founding members, Aberystwyth University student Emyr Llywelyn Jones, was convicted of blowing up a transformer at the dam construction site on 10 February 1963. He refused to name his accomplices who, on the day of his conviction, retaliated by blowing up an electricity pylon at Gellillydan near Blaenau Ffestiniog. This in turn led to the arrest and imprisonment of Owain Williams and John Albert Jones, the two other originators of the organisation.

One would have thought that M.A.C. would have ceased to exist at that time but a new leader, John Barnard Jenkins, a serving Non-Commissioned Officer in the British Army, moved into that position in the shadows to take their fight to different battlefields and potentially more spectacular targets.

The investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle on 1 July 1969 caused M.A.C. to plan to detonate a number of bombs in Gwynedd, in an attempt to disrupt the event and to promote its agenda of Welsh independence. The night before, two of its members, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, were killed when their weapon prematurely exploded near government buildings in Abergele. These were the only fatalities of a 6 year armed campaign. On the day itself, a bomb exploded in a Caernarfon policeman’s garden providing some competition for the 21 gun salute. A device that was planted near the castle failed to go off as did another that had been placed at Llandudno Pier with the objective of preventing the Royal Yacht Britannia docking.

Charles was invested as the 21st Prince of Wales on that fateful day, cementing centuries of royal charades, unjust power and unwanted connections, an outsider unaware, in the pomp and euphoria of ceremony, of the actions he was inspiring.

John Jenkins was arrested in November of that year and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in April 1970 after being found guilty of 8 explosives offences. His Prison Letters was published by Y Lolfa in 1981.

Liverpool City Council issued a formal apology for the flooding on 19 October 2005.

Wales is a much different place than it was in the 1960s. We have a devolved assembly government serving a much-changed population, a Welsh language TV channel, and the Welsh Language Act 1993 put that language on an equal footing with the English language as far as the public sector is concerned. The treatment of our country by the British state in that decade in such dark incidents as the Capel Celyn flooding and the Aberfan disaster must never be allowed to be repeated as it could once again provide ammunition to desperate and motivated citizens to plan violent acts against the buildings, infrastructure and symbols of the ruling system.


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