John Eaton Williams
ABGS 1919 - 1921
Capt John Eaton Wynford Williams RE
A tribute written by his son Roger.
John Eaton Williams was born in Albert Street, Aberdare in March 1907. He was educated at Ysgol y Comin and entered the Grammar School but failed to obtain a Scholarship which would have given him free secondary education. He did sufficiently well in his first year to be awarded the form prize by the Headmaster W Carlton Cox, which was a copy of ‘My Climbing Adventures in Four Continents’. The building business run by his father Samuel Williams collapsed in the following year due to wage cuts and strikes in the local collieries: the fees could not be met, so John left the school at the age of fourteen.
The family owned an unoccupied farm at Cilhepste Coed in Ystradfellte at that time and John and his elder brother Glyn lived there for three years felling timber and transporting it by horse and cart to collieries in Hirwaun. The farm was eventually sold and John returned to Aberdare to be apprenticed as a carpenter to his brother-in-law DJ Morgan who had a workshop in Green Street, Aberdare.
In the year of the General Strike in 1926, John moved with the family to Finchley in London to find work. He started as a carpenter with Gee Walker and Slater, and realised that he had the potential to attend university if he studied hard enough. He attended night school and obtained his matriculation. His abilities were not unnoticed with Gees and he was promoted to Foreman Carpenter, and then General Foreman on prestigious buildings in Central London, notably St Martin’s School of Art and Berkeley Square. Promotion, however, and marriage to Marian (Thomas) and a young son Hugh, put paid to university ambitions. John and Marian had met at King’s Cross Congregational Chapel and it was here that Dr Elvet Lewis, ('Elved'), was minister, with whom John learned to speak Welsh fluently.
When World War II started in September 1939, John was seconded from Gees to the Air Ministry to supervise construction work at aerodromes, at South Cerney and Brockworth in Gloucestershire, and then at Diss in Norfolk. On completion of these in 1943 John realised that he was likely to be called up, and so he volunteered for a short service commission in the Royal Engineers because he ‘did not want to spend the war peeling potatoes’. He was now 35 years old. After basic training he was posted to North Africa, and followed the advance into Sicily and mainland Italy.
His principal task was bridge reconstruction and Bailey bridging, but in addition his duties included defusing and blowing up live ordnance and booby traps left by the retreating Germans. John was successful in his three-month stint insofar as he survived to the end of it, whereas those who preceded him and came after him did not, and perhaps his skill in working with his hands as a carpenter stood him in good stead. Like many soldiers after the war he would not talk of his experiences, and one can only appreciate what he was doing by seeing the film ‘The English Patient’, where the Indian Sapper is down in the hole wondering which wire to cut; where the piano in the convent might have been booby-trapped; and the blowing-up of the statue in the town square near the end of the film. It was as a consequence of this expertise that John was posted to the School of Military Engineering which the British Army had set up in Ancona. It was while he was in Ancona that John learned to speak Italian fluently by reading the bible in Italian and English.
John was a good and straight-forward communicator and in Italy he developed a new skill as a Defending Officer. All soldiers when Court Martialled are entitled to an officer to defend them. John was given as his first case a seemingly hopeless affair, and with his usual attention to detail, he prepared a defence and cross-questioning which resulted in the case being unproven. Thereafter he was in great demand as his reputation spread.
At the end of hostilities in 1945 John still had one year to go of his commission, and so he was posted for one month to Shotover Hall, near Wheatley in Oxfordshire to be briefed on returning to the Middle East, which meant another year of separation from Marian, and a new son Roger, born 1942. (Hugh had died from Meningitis in 1941).
This was now the Army of Occupation and John was promoted to the rank of Acting Major. With his background in timber he was sent to Egypt to set up factories for the manufacture of furniture, which would be manned by Austrian prisoners of war. It is difficult to believe nowadays that these prisoners were not returned to their homeland immediately after the war, but of course Europe was starving, and at least in Egypt they had accommodation, food and work. In 1946 John was posted to Palestine and here, though separated from his family, he had the consolation as a devout Christian of seeing the principal biblical sites in that country.
In September 1946 John was finally demobbed with the rank of Captain and returned to London and Gee Walker and Slater, who were obliged to find him a job. There was no work in London however, as the new Labour Government was pouring money into post-war regeneration, with South Wales as an example. John brought his wife and son to his home town of Aberdare, travelling daily to Bridgend where he was Agent for the building of several factories on the site of the former Ordnance Factory, now the Industrial Estate.
John had always had a yearning to be a farmer and when Fforchneol Farm in Godreaman came up for sale he bought it for £1200, with the mortgage provided by Marchant Harries and Co., Aberdare. (Coincidentally, Fforchneol had been formerly occupied by the Aberaman colliery manager, WJ Heppell, who had subscribed £5 towards the building of the school in 1896, and with two of his children in the first intake.) John sank all of his demob money into this pipe-dream, but a poor harvest was followed by the severe winter of 1949/50, and he admitted defeat: the animals were sold and he returned to the building trade. He joined the staff of Rhondda Borough Council and supervised the building of Council housing and a school at Maerdy, and then in 1952 he became Building Supervisor for the Pontypridd and Rhondda Hospital Group, where he remained until his retirement in 1970.
In 1962 John and Marian moved from Fforchneol to the Gadlys, and John regularly visited Mrs Gambarini’s sweet shop at the bottom of Gadlys Hill so that he could converse in Italian. Mrs Gambarini looked forward to these visits but was usually reduced to tears of hiraeth for her beloved Italy.
John was always active in the community. He became a lay preacher for the Methodist Circuit; he campaigned against the Glamorgan County Council Aberdare Town Plan in 1957 which would have seen wholesale demolition of the town centre and Maesydre; became a Protectionist Councillor for two terms as a result; became an active member of Plaid Cymru ; stood for Parliament in the 1966 General Election and raised the profile of Plaid Cymru in Aberdare. With typical thoroughness, John visited every street in the constituency during the campaign. His final appearance at a Public Inquiry was for the opposition to the proposed gas tanks on the outskirts of Hirwaun, where his evidence on the consequences of an explosion at the site, benefiting from his army experience, persuaded the authorities to take the gas tanks elsewhere.
John was always conscious of the sacrifices of people around him: his parents; his army colleagues; the doctors and nurses in the hospitals where he worked, especially during the Smallpox outbreak in 1962; and anyone who worked for the good of the community. He was a true son of Aberdare and very proud of his roots. He died after a long illness, bravely borne, in July 1975.