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Through Riot and Duel to Parliament


No man of all those who have appeared on Carmarthen's ancient political stage achieved more eminent heights of popularity and then lived to suffer the anger of the mob than John Jones of Ystrad in Johnstown on the outskirts of Carmarthen.

John Jones first saw the light of day on 13th September two hundred years ago in the year 1777 at 38, King Street, Carmarthen, being the son of solicitor Thomas Jones of Job's Well (Carmarthen) and Capel Dewi, four miles outside the town. A well-to-do birth ensured an education at Eton, followed by entry to Christ Church, Oxford. In 1803 he was called to the bar from Lincoln's Inn and quickly established himself as a successful barrister, ultimately becoming the leading counsel on the South Wales circuit and recorder of Kidwelly. Frequently, "unsolicited and unpaid, he espoused the cause of the undefended accused with an amount of forensic skill that made his benevolence triumphant, too often perhaps at the expense of justice".1 This kindly consideration in court was matched by forbearing generosity at home, for the picturesque grounds of Ystrad were always open to the public and at holiday times accommodated the Carmarthen throng; that this hospitality was sometimes abused seemed to worry him not.2 Such professional competence, together with a generous charm of unusual abundance won for him unstinted admiration and popularity.

As rivers run to the sea, so riches gravitate towards wealth, and this phenomenon Jones experienced by inheriting the worldly accretions of several relatives. He was thus more than adequately provided with the wherewithal to ensure the creature comforts of his time, but that he was also a man of culture is evidenced by his handsome library of some four thousand volumes.

In the early phase of his political awareness he was a disciple of Charles James Fox and his radical views naturally led him to the Whig cause in Carmarthen, which early in the nineteenth century was led by Lord Cawdor, who nominated Jones to succeed him as mayor of the borough in 1809. That he would become a Tory champion is one of the ironies of circumstance that had less to do with party philosophies and more to do with local power blocks, for it was still a time when party allegiance owed more to the influence of local factions and family considerations than to political ideology.

It was considerations of such a local kind that persuaded Jones to espouse the Tory cause in the parliamentary election of 1812, for it was his avowed intention "to prevent Carmarthen becoming a Family borough" and to "establish the Freedom of the Town beyond the attacks of any powerful Individual or his adherents". He was therefore not only leading the Tory reaction against a Whig dominance that had endured for something like three-quarters of a century but also seeking to overcome a family monopoly exercised by the Cawdors over the political affairs of the borough. This explains why he emerged first and foremost as the champion of "Independency" rather than the representative of the Tory interest. In the event, his candidature in the 1812 election failed and the Cawdor candidate, George Campbell, was returned yet again for the third time since 1806. Indeed, the Cawdors were to hold on to the seat for almost another decade and Jones's antipathy continued to smoulder long after, as evidenced in 1830, for example, when he led the opposition in the Commons against Lord Cawdor's Bill to abolish the Courts of Great Sessions, though, as a lawyer, it is possible, too, that Jones had a vested interest.

Thwarted in Carmarthen for the time being, Jones took advantage of the next opportunity that presented itself and got himself elected as the Member for Pembroke, Tenby and Wiston on 3rd July 1815 in succession to General Sir Thomas Picton, recently slain at Waterloo. But in 1821 another opportunity came to enter the lists at Carmarthen. John Frederick Campbell, who had been elected for the borough in 1813, following the resignation through ill-health of his uncle, George Campbell, and again in 1818 and 1820, was called to the House of Lords as the second Baron Cawdor. John Frederick Campbell was not the dedicated political animal his father had been and his indifference gradually resulted in the Tories winning over the borough machinery. In the 1821 election Sir William Paxton emerged from retirement to make his last effort for the Whigs, but he was not the man to withstand the tide now flowing for the Tories and John Jones found himself elected Member for his native borough by 312 votes to 281. Jones's success was the occasion for great celebration and rejoicing, which was commemorated according to the custom of the time in a song entitled 'The Glorious Carmarthen Election', the first stanzas of which went:

Behold the glorious day is come,
'Squire Jones is our Member;
The lovely rose in season's come,
It is July and not December:
And all that did against him stand,
Their names I'll not relate, sir
He won the day through real fair play,
They raised him to the chair, sir.

The fifth day of July, sir.
The like was never known, sir,
The nobility of counties three,
Came flocking to the town, sir,
The Red and Blue they triumphant wore,
To celebrate our Member,
All windows lin'd with Ladies gay,
To magnify his honour.

When he ascended to his chair,
The town did roar like thunder,
St. Peter's Boys with one assent,
Cried, "Jones is our Member".
His own footman before him rode,
In sailor's dress, indeed, sir,
A gay-drest may-pole in his hand
Mounted on a warlike steed, sir.3

So popular was Jones that all his election expenses were met by his supporters who were to afford him similar financial aid during his successful elections in 1826 and 1830 and during the following decade he largely succeeded in removing the deep party differences in the borough, so that by 1830 the High Sheriff of the County was moved to say that "men have found in him a common resting place for their views". A tangible expression of the high esteem in which he was held during this period was the presentation of a service of silver plate to him in Carmarthen's Guildhall in October 1827.

Election Riots
But in the new decade his popularity began to wane as the demand for Parliamentary Reform swelled in full tide. Although he may have retained some of his early Foxite views he was officially a Tory and opposed to full-blooded reform. In the new climate of feeling, he must have found it difficult to maintain his popularity and only just succeeded in keeping a perilous balance along the political tightrope he was obliged to walk. The Reform Bill was introduced in March 1831, but its controversial content precipitated a dissolution of Parliament during the following month and in the election he found himself confronted by J. G. Philipps of Cwmgwili, the Whig reform candidate whose father had been the Member from 1784 to 1804. Polling had barely started on 29th April when disturbances broke out and Philipps's supporters, impatient of the result, chaired their candidate and bore him in triumph through the town. To cope with the riot thus incited, special constables were sworn and troops of the 93rd Regiment were brought from Brecon, with the net result that fourteen Reformers found themselves in gaol, a contemporary rhymester complaining that they had been

Committed by Jones or his minions
Because they declared in the crowd
With boldness their honest opinions
Too long and a little too loud.

Because of the disturbances, which were not out of keeping with a tradition of electioneering violence in Carmarthen, the poll was suspended and the sheriffs reported to Parliament their failure to execute the writs. Allegations were freely exchanged, Jones being accused of rigging and supplying voters with liquor. Jones refuted the accusations by complaining of a "disgraceful conspiracy, intimidation and riot, violence and threats".

The interval before a fresh election could be ordered afforded opportunities for the printing of condemnatory leaflets, the chief target being Jones, who, in one of these, was described as a "Pretended Reformer. Derives his support from the Tithes of Carmarthen". What has been described as a "gross impropriety" of the times was the "sale of spiritualities", and it is true that when Jones died there was offered for sale, in addition to the tithes, his proprietorship of the north chancel of St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen, which entitled the purchaser to the pew rents and fees for burial therein. Jones's share of the tithe had been 971-12-6, whereas the vicar received only 7!4

In another of these election squibs, "One of the Dear Little Boys" (as he described himself) alleged:

"John Jones has imprisoned me and got me tried as a Rioter at the last Assizes, for doing nothing more than crying out REFORM! He has thus shown how he would use you if it was in his power. He was very glad of my services at one time, but as soon as I began to think for myself, he sent me to Prison and would have transported me if he could. I am a hard working man, but I think a little Reform would do us all good. John Jones told us last Election that he was something of a Reformer too, but I said then that we could not trust him, and now I find that I was right, for I am told that all the time he was in London he was in company with those wicked wretches called boroughmongers".5

This was a time when any disgruntled citizen, under the cloak of anonymity, could find a ready printer for verbal ammunition, fair or foul, that would damage the cause of any candidate important enough to be the object of personal grudge. In yet another of these leaflets, this time signed by "A Burgess", Jones is criticised not only for his political record but for his manners, too:

"Everyone knows that he has talked us over pretty well for some years, but I have been often wondering why he can't make a speech in Parliament. Is he thought of no more there than I of him, and as you all thought of him at our Slave Meeting the other day, where (in spite of the wishes of every lover of humanity) he insultingly sneered at the proceedings, although Chairman at the same time? Now the Boroughmongers and the Slave holders, with John Jones in the middle of them, were joined together to oppose Ministers in the great work of Reform fine company indeed for our Member, after being returned three times free of expence . . . Witness how very friendly he is during, or a little before, Elections; I almost supposed him to be the pattern of humility, but as soon as that business is over, goodbye friendship, goodbye (I was going to say manners) but stop, I will give you a sample of manners. Some of us were giving vent to our feelings in a real way last evening in Spilman Street, when who came out of the Ivy Bush, but the good John Jones himself who blackguarded us offered to fight any of us and at last told us to (decency forbids) there's manners for you . . . ."6

But Jones retained sufficient popularity to survive this onslaught, for in the fresh election which was held between 21st and 25th August he emerged the victor by 274 votes to 203. The result, however, far from meeting with popular approval, provoked yet more riots and Jones suffered severe injury to the head from a stone, hurled at him while he was being chaired in triumph through Dark Gate, with the result that he was unable to attend the celebratory dinner the same evening. But in expressing his thanks to the burgesses Jones declared his "contempt of those who with pretence to the denomination of Gentlemen have under the name of Reform been the stimulation to excesses as cowardly as they have been atrocious". Philipps hotly rejected the allegation by blaming Jones's injury on the injudicious conduct of those who insisted on chairing him in defiance of public feeling.

Pistols For Two
The Pembrokeshire election of the same year, 1831, was also bitterly contested and when Jones went to Haverfordwest to support Sir John Owen of Orielton he was spat upon and insulted by one of the Carmarthen Reformers who had been arrested in Carmarthen and who, for this later offence at Haverfordwest, was fined 5. Jones, in turn, insulted the opposition candidate, Robert Fulke Greville, though in this instance redress was sought not in court the place for lesser mortals but in the abitrament of arms, which was still felt by those of superior station to be the proper means of satisfying bruised honour. Jones's courage was equal to Greville's challenge and a duel was arranged between the two at Tavernspite on 22nd October 1831. Presumably Tavernspite was chosen as the venue because it was a mid-way point in the nature of neutral territory between Haverfordwest and Carmarthen. Jones received his adversary's shot, but he refused to apologise and fired his pistol into the air. Thus honour was satisfied without the interference of the law.

Soon the country was brought to the brink of revolution and it was the realisation of this danger that ultimately ensured the passage of the Reform Bill in 1832. To the general surprise, Jones, perhaps influenced by the fear of dreadful consequences if the Bill were not passed, voted for Reform and, ironically, sealed his doom as the Borough representative, for in Carmarthen the majority of those enfranchised by the Act were Whigs, who in future would be able to overcome the power of the non-resident freemen admitted by the Tories since 1821. Retribution came quickly, for in the election of 1833 Jones was turned out by the Whig candidate, the Hon. Wm. Henry Yelverton of Whitland Abbey, and his career as the borough Member was at an end.

Even so, his parliamentary career was not yet over. Another consequence of the Reform Act was the award of two Parliamentary seats to Carmarthenshire, which doubled the previous representation, and in the election of 1835 Jones thought it prudent to transfer his political activity outside the borough. But he was unsuccessful, for the elected members turned out to be Sir J. H. Williams of Edwinsford, who had been the member from 1831 to 1833, and George Rice Rice-Trevor. Not to be denied, however, Jones got himself elected in 1837 along with Rice-Trevor and retained the seat until his death, being re-elected in 1841. It was during this period that Jones played a hand at the outset of the Rebecca Riots. After the Efailwen toll house and gate were destroyed in May 1839, the magistrates, on the motion of John Jones, overruled the Whitland turnpike trustees and revoked the order establishing the gate. It has been suggested that Jones acted thus to gain popularity for election purposes, but the suspicion is unproved.

Because of his endeavours to secure the abolition of the salt tax he became known as Jones yr Halen, but the sobriquet has not survived in the public memory, for now he is affectionately remembered by Carmarthen people simply as John Jones, Ystrad and most are content with the received knowledge that Johnstown is named after him, despite the avowal of Prof. David Williams that such a belief is erroneous.7 Although he spoke Welsh fluently he shared a widespread feeling among the upper classes of the time that deplored the continuance of the language.

John Jones died on 10th November 1842 and was buried with his forbears in St. Peter's churchyard, Carmarthen, south-east of the church on 17th November. The mile-long funeral procession, stretching back to Johnstown, demonstrated the persistent esteem in which he was held; beside a concourse of people on foot there were forty-seven private carriages "all of which with one exception were occupied by their owners".8 He is commemorated by a simple tablet on the north wall of the chancel in St. Peter's and by a painting, given to the County of Carmarthen in 1844, which hangs in the Jury Waiting Room of Carmarthen's Guildhall. This three quarter length portrait by Thomas Brigstocke shows him in a black suit beside a table, with his left hand resting on what appears to be a lawyer's brief, suitably bound with red tape, and an inkstand and quill nearby.
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