Roberts John (Jack Russia)

John Roberts (Jack Russia)


Born on the 1st May 1899 in Penrhyndeudraeth, Caernarvonshire, the son of John Roberts senior, a miner, and Mary Jones, the daughter of a blacksmith from Harlech, Roberts was brought up by his grandparents in Penrhyndeudraeth.  


He left the area in 1913, when his grandmother Sarah Jones arranged for him to travel to his parents' home in Abertridwr, near Caerphilly, where he found work at the Windsor Colliery. This was just two months before its sister-pit, the Universal Colliery in nearby Senghenydd, exploded claiming 439 lives. He attended the local Welsh Independent Chapel, where he met May Jones and on 3rd April 1920 they were married at Eglwysilan Parish Church. They lost their firstborn daughter in infancy during the 1921 miners' lock-out.


Roberts was moved to join the Communist Party after the campaign in the Caerphilly constituency by election of the Party’s candidate, Bob Stewart (see separate entry); almost certainly it was the righteous fortitude of the Communist that inspired the young Jack. For a start, Stewart was in prison at the start of the campaign for his part in a miners’ demonstration. Whilst no effort was too much for the authorities in making life difficult for the Party’s campaign; for example, quite illicitly, Caerphilly’s town clerk refused the Party’s agent election documents and a copy of the electoral register. Although Stewart polled 2,592 votes compared with Labour’s 13,699, Jack decided on the night of the election, 24th August, to join the Communist Party, which he would stay in for life.


Jack Roberts spoke so forcefully during the 1926 General Strike about Soviet Russia's support of workers that he became widely known for the rest of his life as ‘Jack Russia’, in that way the Welsh have of giving a personal nickname that refers to some personal characteristic, as a way of distinguishing between one Dai and another – or Jack in this case! 


He stood as a Communist candidate in the local council elections in Abertridwr in November 1932, to the initial derision of the local press. But he amazed all and sundry by coming second, a close loser to the Labour man. 


Shortly after, on 31 December 1932, sadly, his wife May died of pernicious anaemia, leaving him to bring up their ten-year old daughter, Margaret, alone (she later became a school-teacher). This tragedy coincided with his sacking from Windsor Colliery.


In February 1933, he was fined for taking coal (worth £3-2s-0d) and two wooden planks (worth 4 shillings) and fined ten shillings for each case. It wasn’t the only time he was arrested; he and the local police seemed almost destined to fall out. Most seriously, Jack took part in March 1933 in the disturbance at Bedwas between the miners who supported the scab Spencer Union, and the South Wales Miners Federation. Twenty-four of the men were sent to Monmouthshire Assizes and subsequently imprisoned, including Jack, who served six months in Cardiff Prison.


Jack stood as a Communist candidate in Abertridwr again in 1933 and came within only 11 votes of winning. Only in 1935 did he finally win, after using a soap box to speak at every single street in his ward, over and over again. For the next eighteen years, he served as a hard-working Communist Councillor on Caerphilly Urban District Council. Along the way, he had become a local legend to the inhabitants of Abertridwr. His fortitude and steadfastness in all he did made him a local hero; he cycled from the village all the way to London in 1936 to show his solidarity for a national hunger march.


Jack was then fired by the thought of showing solidarity in Spain in the most intense way possible, by joining the International Brigade. Having attempted to volunteer at the Cardiff office of the Party, and been turned down as he was not an ex-serviceman, he was only finally able to leave for Spain on 1st January 1937. He was accompanied by Alun Menai Williams, of Penygraig, son of the Anglo-Welsh poet, Huw Menai. But both men were arrested by French police at Perpignan and put on a train to Marseilles and then on a boat home. Undaunted, he tried again in May 1937, this time in the company of an Abertridwr miner and fellow Communist, Leo Price. They crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and he was accepted by the British Battalion.


Jack showed tremendous courage in July 1937, during the battle of Brunete. He was appointed Battalion Commissar in the XV Brigade in August 1937, on the eve of the Battle of the Aragon. Having been wounded in the shoulder at Quinto, he spent time at Benicasim hospital, before being sent to the XV Brigade Officers' Training School at Tarazona de la Mancha, in itself, alone, a remarkable achievement.


Jack was sent home from Spain in January 1938 to contest his seat in the council elections, only to find when he reached Abertridwr that he had been returned unopposed. He worked hard to gain support for Spain within the Council and through the village Spanish Aid Committee, almost his first act on reaching home being to collect the tidy sum of £7 6s for Spanish Relief.


With the arrival of world war, Jack was finally allowed to start work again at the Windsor Colliery, after seven years on the dole.  In his `spare’ time, he became a lecturer in first aid and civil defence techniques. In 1944 he was appointed manager of the Abertridwr Workmen's Hall and Institute and in 1946-7 he became Chairman of the Caerphilly Urban District Council and, by virtue of his office, a magistrate for the year.


Jack took an active part in issuing an invitation to the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales to Caerphilly in 1950. He was the Vice-Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Eisteddfod and was thrilled with the Ode to the miner which won the Chair, learning large portions of it by heart. He had a high regard for ministers of his denomination, and he spoke often of the contribution of Reverend T. H. Griffiths, first full-time Secretary of the Lord's Day Fellowship in Wales, who had been his minister.


He held the singer Paul Robeson in enormously high regard, having heard him singing in Spain in January 1938 in Tarazona de la Mancha, and again at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in Ebbw Vale in 1958. His favourite film was ‘Proud Valley’ in which had Robeson had starred.


Surprisingly, Jack Roberts was also a deacon in the Welsh Independent Chapel at Abertridwr. He described himself as a disciple of Reverend T. E. Nicholas (see separate entry), standing in the Christian-Communist tradition. So, when he retired in 1966, he would spent the rest of his life in supporting both his chapel activities and the literature and activities of the Communist Party.  He never lost his allegiance to the Soviet Union, or to Communist ideas.  


Jack married for the second time in July 1957, joining with his new wife, Elizabeth Preece, in enjoying the comforts of home-life. He died on 30 January 1979 at the Caerphilly Miners' Hospital and the funeral was held at Abertridwr Welsh Independent Chapel, followed by cremation at Thornhill Crematorium, Cardiff. Obituaries to him appeared in the Morning Star, South Wales Echo, Western Mail and Rhymney Valley Express.


Source: Richard Felstead “No Other Way – Jack Russia and the Spanish Civil War: A Biography” (1981); National Biography of Wales



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