Lewis Jones was born in Clydach Vale in 1897. He started work underground at the age of 12 in the Cambrian Combine Colliery. Jones became active in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and in 1910-11 took part in the strike that culminated in the Tonypandy Riots.
During the 1926 General Strike he was imprisoned for three months in Swansea jail for his trade union activities in the Nottinghamshire coalfield. Will Paynter later wrote:"The miners' lock-out dragged on through the months of 1926 and really was petering-out when the decision came to end it. We had fought on alone but in the end we had to accept defeat spelt out in further wage-cuts." By October 1926 hardship forced men to begin to drift back to the mines.
Lewis Jones, like many union activists was blacklisted and found it difficult to find work. He eventually checkweighman of the Cambrian Lodge of the South Wales Miners' Federation. In 1929, he resigned, refusing to work with non-unionised labour.
Jones eventually became the Welsh organiser of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. He toured the country making speeches and Douglas Hyde was one of those who was converted to communism after hearing him speak in Bristol. Hywel Francis argues that Jones "was even capable of holding an audience of over a thousand people for two and a half with his lecture" on the "Social Significance of Sin".
Billy Griffiths, a fellow member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, later claimed: "His main quality I think was love of people and compassion, it superseded everything else. I have seen Lewis... sitting down listening to two old people telling him about their troubles, and tears running down his cheeks. That's the kind of man he was, he felt it, it was for him more than logic... You see it was more important than the politics, [it] was the humanism and compassion... it was this that people loved about him."
In 1935 Jones was sent by the CPGB to attend the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. Jones rejected the "cult of personality" and refused to join in the standing ovation when Joseph Stalin entered the hall. Jones was sent home in disgrace and was later disciplined by the CPGB.
Jones led several hunger marches to London. Jones led the anti fascist demonstration against Oswald Mosley and fellow members of the British Union of Fascist speaking at Pontypool town hall in April 1936. Later that year he was elected along with another Communist councillor for Rhondda on Glamorgan County Council.
On 8th November 1936, Lewis Jones was involved in organising a protest march from Wales to London against unemployment. Will Paynter later wrote about the demonstration in his book, My Generation (1972): "The march converged on Hyde Park on Sunday, 8 November and again the composition of the Welsh platform testified to the unity that had been achieved. The Speakers were Nye Bevan, Jim Griffiths and Bill Mainwaring for the Labour Party and Arthur Horner and Lewis Jones for the Communist Party. On the following day, a petition with a million signatures was presented to Parliament; the marchers' leaders addressed an all-party meeting there and won considerable support for the proposal that marchers' representatives should be allowed to put their case from the floor of the House."
During the Spanish Civil War Jones was one of the most important figures in recruiting people to fight for the British Battalion. Jones was considered for the role as political commissar to look after the British Battalion's interests at the International Brigade headquarters at Albacete. As Hywel Francis pointed out in Miners Against Fascism (1974): "In the District Committee discussion, a number of candidates were considered although no great enthusiasm appears to have been shown by any of them except Lewis Jones, but he was physically unfit and was indispensable as a propagandist."
It was later reported that there were "170 volunteers from Wales, and 116 of them came from the mining industry, around 25 per cent of them union officials at pit level... The average age was over thirty and 18 per cent of the Welsh volunteers were married." The South Wales miners provided the largest regional occupational group in the British Battalion.
Arthur Horner, the President of the South Wales Miners' Federation and fellow member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, suggested that Jones wrote about his experiences in the form of a novel. Cwmardy was published in 1937. It is claimed by Hywel Francis that the main character in the novel is based on Will Paynter.
Jones' close friend, Harry Dobson, was killed on 28th July 1938. During the battle of Ebro the Nationalist Army had 6,500 killed and nearly 30,000 wounded. These were the worst casualties of the war and it finally destroyed the Republican Army as a fighting force.
Lewis continued to campaign for funds but he refused to continue to recruit men to fight in the British Battalion. He told his friend Billy Griffiths that he no longer had the right to "get the young boys to go there and die."
In 1938 the Communist Party of Great Britain joined forces with the Independent Labour Party to campaign on a broad programme of action against "fascism, reaction and war". Paynter toured the country making speeches with political figures such as Harry Pollitt, Will Paynter, Stafford Cripps, Lewis Jones, James Maxton, D. N. Pritt, Arthur Horner, John Strachey and Aneurin Bevan. As Paynter pointed out: "It was a period of political revival created by this movement of left-wing unity."
On 27th January 1939 he addressed 30 meetings supporting the fight against fascism in Spain. That night he died of a heart-attack. Some of his friends later claimed that he died of a broken-heart because he knew that the International Brigades were heading for defeat.
Lewis Jones' second novel, We Live, was unfinished. It is believed that his partner, Mavis Llewellyn, wrote the last two chapters, "A Party Decision" and "A Letter from Spain". The book was published later that year.
His main quality I think was love of people and compassion, it superseded everything else. I have seen Lewis... sitting down listening to two old people telling him about their troubles, and tears running down his cheeks. That's the kind of man he was, he felt it, it was for him more than logic. The rules that could do nothing for these people had to be broken, understand? .... I remember recruiting people, we had a meeting here for some people to go to Spain. We used to have a long table here and Lewis sat in by there, by the fire, and I was trying to interest people to go to Spain.... And when they had gone out, Lewis got up in the end, he couldn't stand it any more, he said: `You've no right, to do that, to get the young boys to go there and die...' You see it was more important than the politics, [it] was the humanism and compassion... it was this that people loved about him.
The South Wales District of the CPGB was asked in March to choose a suitable member of their Committee with a thorough trade union background as a political commissar to look after the British Battalion's interests at the International Brigades' headquarters at Albacete and also to handle personal and other related problems." It appears however that the major task was to sort out the problems existing in the Battalion leadership and to make recommendations for the reorganisation of the Battalion. The CPGB in particular was disturbed by reports of disobedience and desertion among the British volunteers, some of whom were captured and imprisoned at the Albacete base."
In the District Committee discussion, a number of candidates were considered although no great enthusiasm appears to have been shown by any of them except Lewis Jones, but he was physically unfit and was indispensable as a propagandist... Len Jefferies was almost chosen, but in common with Phil Abrahams (imprisoned in 1935), it was probably considered unfair to ask for a further personal sacrifice when he had only been released from jail in June 1935 after three years of penal servitude. It was ultimately considered that Will Paynter had the "necessary qualifications". He was a former Cymmer Colliery checkweighman, political prisoner in 1931, three times a Hunger Marcher, trained in Moscow's Lenin School and elected the first unemployed miner to the SWMF rank-and-file executive in 1936, he appeared to be the obvious choice. He did however accept "without any great enthusiasm", as he had only recently married. His wife was nevertheless a deeply committed Communist, and had been involved in the anti-fascist disturbance in Tonypandy in June 1936. He stayed for some time in London where he was more thoroughly briefed on his tasks in the Battalion." He arrived at the front with Ted Bramley of the London District of the CPGB early in May.
The march converged on Hyde Park on Sunday, 8 November and again the composition of the Welsh platform testified to the unity that had been achieved. The Speakers were Nye Bevan, Jim Griffiths and Bill Mainwaring for the Labour Party and Arthur Horner and Lewis Jones for the Communist Party. On the following day, a petition with a million signatures was presented to Parliament; the marchers' leaders addressed an all-party meeting there and won considerable support for the proposal that marchers' representatives should be allowed to put their case from the floor of the House. On 11 November, the petition we had delivered came before Parliament, with Attlee, then leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party, moving the adjournment to consider "a definite matter of urgent public importance". The motion was defeated, but not before a number of Welsh miners' members had pressed the case of the unemployed and forced a reply from Prime Minister Baldwin. A week earlier the marchers from Jarrow, led by Ellen Wilkinson, MP, had presented their plea to the government which had accepted it entirely differently from the way in which it received thee national march. The South Wales marchers, it was said; represented a
"political agitation designed to discredit and overthrow the government'. Their own policies were discrediting them but the likelihood of their overthrow, however desirable, seemed remote even to those of us who wanted it.
He was a maverick in the best sense of the word. Born illegitimate, he was shaped by riotous and cosmopolitan Tonypandy. He married young, enjoyed the company of men and women, could never be a party 'apparatchik' and would never jump through other people's hoops. His was a discordant revolutionary voice like that of Federico Garcia Lorca, Aneurin Bevan and Antonio Gramsci...
His powerfully evocative speeches painted such vivid pictures of his people's individual and collective struggles it was thought that he would make a natural novelist. That was the view of Arthur Horner, the President of the South Wales Miners' Federation. Lewis acknowledged this in his foreword to Cwmardy, referring to Horner as "my friend and comrade... whose fertile brain conceived the idea that I should write it". According to Lewis, Arthur Horner "suggested that the full meaning of life in the Welsh mining areas could be expressed for the general reader more truthfully and vividly if treated imaginatively".
And that, expressed in Lewis' own words, is the essence of both the work and the man for us today. He was the "people's remembrancer" who had also contributed actively to the people's chronicle. In that sense Lewis Jones is unique in the political culture of Wales in the twentieth century, standing alongside only Saunders Lewis (and what an intriguing contrast) in combining political activism with literary aspirations and, indeed, with literary achievement. The difference between the two, however, was that Lewis Jones was directly of the Welsh working class and gave voice to their pain and suffering. For that reason he stands apart from all other activists and writers in that remarkable generation of self-educated working class men and women, the organic intellectuals who provided local and national leadership for communities broken by economic depression. He was the organic intellectual of the South Wales valleys in the inter-war period.