John Thomas MA, PhD, FRES, FSS, RSA
(Aberdare Intermediate School, 1902-1908)
John Thomas was a man of great resourcefulness whose career was many faceted. In the course of his professional life, he was an Adult Educator, Miners Agent, College Principal, broadcaster, Civil Servant, and an Industrial Adviser with a large building contractor.
He was born in Aberdare on 27 May 1890, the son of Thomas Thomas, a collier, and his wife Eleanor, both parents having come to Aberdare from Llanfrynach in Pembrokeshire. Initially the family lived at 95 Cemetery Road, Trecynon but later moved to 14 Ebenezer Street, Trecynon when John’s mother became caretaker of Ebenezer Welsh Independent Chapel, and where John became in due course an active member. Mrs Thomas, who was widowed in 1910, bore eight children of which four survived, from eldest to youngest: William John Thomas, John Thomas, Mary Ellen Thomas, and Waldo Rhydwen Thomas (b. 1903), all of whom were brought up as Welsh speakers.
Thomas gained a scholarship to the County School, entering in September 1902 from the Park Board School. Whilst at school his potential as a writer was signalled when in 1905 he gained a significant school prize for an essay he had written. On leaving the sixth form in 1908, he entered U.C. Cardiff, again with a scholarship, from which he graduated in 1911 with a B.A. honours degree in Economics and Statistics. Such was the quality of his degree work that he was awarded the Cobden Prize.
During his formative years he attended meetings in both Merthyr and Aberdare where he heard Keir Hardy and other prominent speakers addressing gatherings on political and social issues of the day. Thus, Thomas himself became a passionate adherent of social justice and reform of the social order, convictions that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
On leaving university in 1911 he was appointed full-time secretary of the Workers Educational Association, (WEA), for Wales, this being the first such appointment. Consequently, he came into contact with national figures such as Albert Mansbridge, J.M. McTavish, R.H. Tawney and others who were in the vanguard of the movement for adult education and social reform. The Wales WEA headquarters were not in sumptuous offices in Cardiff, but in Thomas’s house, Penlan, Mount Pleasant Street, Trecynon, where his mother helped out by providing secretarial services. During the period 1911-16, Thomas travelled extensively in the valleys as a WEA lecturer visiting many towns: Neath, Briton Ferry, Port Talbot, Maesteg, Caerau, Bridgend, Aberdare, Mountain Ash, Treharris, Abertillery, and Penrhiwceiber where one of his students was George Hall, (1881–1965), later to become M.P. for Aberdare (1922-1946), cabinet minister and later, in 1946, a member of the House of Lords, as Viscount Hall. In 1913, Thomas organised the first WEA Residential Summer School held at U.C.N.W. Bangor.
A pacifist during the First World War, John Thomas was granted exemption from military service by the Tribunal at Aberdare1, and was obliged to become a schoolteacher at Hirwaun Boys Elementary School, although he also continued with some of his WEA work. However, due to his appearances on public platforms where he spoke as a pacifist, he was further ordered to take up work of national importance at a location not less than fifty miles from his home. Consequently, he became a farm labourer at Singleton Farm, located where Swansea University now stands2.
As the end of the war was approaching, and when his war work had ended, Thomas married Annie Longton3 in Chorley, Lancashire in the summer of 1918. The couple set up home in south Wales and Thomas initially became a checkweighman, and secretary at the Diamond Colliery Lodge of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, (SWMF), at Ystradgynlais. By 1920 he was elected Miners’ Agent for the Anthracite District: The Gwendraeth Valley and Pembroke, to which was later added Swansea Twrch and the Dulais Valleys. At the same time, he resumed his work as an adult educator working under the extra-mural department of UCW Aberystwyth (1922/25) giving classes at Ystalyfera, and organising weekend schools at the Mumbles. He also won a prize at the Ammanford National Eisteddfod (1922) for his essay: "The Anthracite Industry: its past history and future possibilities." It was during this period that he successfully submitted (in 1923) his M.A. dissertation: “The History of the South Wales coalfield under Government Control.”. John and Annie had strong political views, and they were both active on Labour political platforms in the Neath and Llanelli constituencies in the period up to 1925.
In 1925, Thomas left south Wales, never to return, as he had accepted the post, (1925-39), of Resident Tutor for North Staffordshire under the Oxford Delegacy for Extra-Mural Study. The area inspired the Thomas’s to become immersed in the history of the Potteries, resulting in a considerable number of publications from both partners. In 1933, Mrs Thomas was awarded an MA (Manchester) for her dissertation: "Transport in the Potteries in the 18th century affecting the Pottery Industry," for which she was further awarded the Lynam Prize, the first woman to gain this accolade. Her husband meanwhile, submitted his doctoral thesis to London University: “The Industrial Revolution in the Potteries” for which the PhD was awarded in 1934. In 1936, he too was awarded the Lynam Prize, as well as being honoured with the Silver Medal of the RSA. In the middle of their period in Staffordshire, the couple undertook a tour of the USSR and, in 1931, they were the British representatives at the Conference of the International Student Service, (ISS), in Massachusetts, USA. Whilst there they also visited the American coalfields and toured Canada.
From the beginning of the Second World War, Thomas became involved in a variety of positions of responsibility. In 1939, the Thomas’s moved to Manchester where John Thomas became Director of Education for the Co-operative Union and Principal of the Co-operative College in Manchester. When the college was badly damaged by aerial bombardment, he became Director of Talks at the B.B.C. (Northern Region). There he continued the theme of adult education, in the broader sense, and broadcast to audiences at home and in North America.
After the war ended he relinquished his post at the B.B.C., and in 1946, he became a civil servant in The Ministry of Fuel and Power, directing recruitment in the north Wales, Cheshire and Lancashire coalfields. He then moved to The Ministry of Works as Assistant Director of Controls (No 70 Region) where he directed building and civil engineering projects associated with the reinstatement of public buildings destroyed during the war. He retired from the Civil Service in August 1952, aged 62.
His final position was with Leonard Fairclough Limited, at that time a regional building contractor, where he was an industrial adviser; he remained with this firm until his retirement at the age of 70. The company specialised in bridge building in the 1950s and tackled projects in Manchester, the Preston by-pass and the Runcorn-Widnes crossing. He continued as a consultant to this firm after his retirement.
John Thomas was a prolific writer5, publishing a variety of material for over 50 years, from 1918 to 1970. In addition to scores of newspaper articles, including several for the Western Mail, and many for the BBC’s weekly magazine ‘The Listener’, and various art journals, he also wrote on the coal industry, the trade unions, the Co-operative movement, and was the author of four books on the Staffordshire Potteries and Josiah Wedgwood. He also edited the Fairclough Magazine, 1954-60.
From the mid 1930s, John Thomas became friendly with his Aberdare Intermediate School headmaster, William Jenkyn Thomas - the first headmaster of the school. Thereafter they met occasionally at conferences, and when the old headmaster died, John Thomas wrote an appreciation of him for the Aberdare Leader.
John Thomas died in 1980, aged 89, in Chorley, Lancashire.
This account of the life of John Thomas is drawn from two main sources: the notes entitled “Dr John Thomas: Pioneer in Adult Education”, (1971), held at the The South Wales Miners’ Library, Swansea University; and, from the W.W. Price Biographical Index held at The Aberdare Central Library, and the NLW Aberystwyth. We gratefully acknowledge these sources, and the Reference Librarian at Aberdare, Mr Steven Graham, for bringing our attention to the wealth of information about John Thomas held at the library there.
CR, November 2012