Author: South Wales Miners Library, Swansea University

Provider: South Wales Miners' Library

Rights: Copyrighted

Interview of Lewis, Jack Alfred by Morgan, Alan on 23rd March 1972.
The interview forms part of Swansea University’s South Wales Miners’ Library collection.

1 audio file (19 m 45 sec.)



Morgan, Alan: And then you come back to Merthyr and the next really traumatic experience in your life is the outbreak of the First World War, and I wonder if you could tell me your reactions to this and the developments which took place after that?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: Yes, well very soon, when I came back from London I became a teacher under the Merthyr Education Committee, and I joined the I.L.P, and the war broke out as is known in 1914, but I was, before this time, actively engaged as a member of the I.L.P and the war broke out, and the I.L.P. and myself with it, started an active opposition to the war, which in our own way, we thought was morally wrong and was a capitalist war and should be opposed by every power that we possessed and a tremendous campaign to that effect {unclear} started in Merthyr and the anti-war movement grew to considerable proportions and the conscientious objection movement in Merthyr developed, people who were going to resist, partly because they wished to oppose the war and indeed to, in effect to {hinder its promulgation} and to show the powers that be that there were people profoundly opposed to it. And, also to say that they would not, under any circumstances, engage in it, even if it meant that they were severely punished or put to death.

Lewis, Jack Alfred: And I became, with about a score of other people in Merthyr Tydfil, a member of the no conscription fellowship and also the conscientious objection movement in Merthyr. And after some time, as the war went on its way, we had orders to report at a certain military depot, I think it was Maindy Barracks, Cardiff and we refused to go, and of course in the course of very very short time, we were arrested and marched through the streets of Merthyr, masses of people lining both sides and we were taken to Maindy Barracks. And after incarceration there for some time, we were taken to Wormwood Scrubs, in London and there we were subjected to trial by tribunal and Max {Saldry} , if I remember rightly was the chairman of the tribunal and in the course of time, whilst we were still in incarceration, we were informed, some of us, not all, that we were genuine conscientious objectors and it meant that we were still under a sort of surveillance. And as a conscientious objector, I was removed with others to Warwick Prison, where conditions were lightened and improved and we were engaged in various forms of work and after I had been there for about 12 months, we became navvies, laying down foundations of the {pelgrin} Reservoir and I was there for over 12 months and the attitude of the authorities as the war was going on its way, curious enough, was lightened, so far as conscientious objectors were concerned and I was permitted, with others to leave the scheme as a genuine conscientious objector, and I got work in the brickyard, as a matter of a fact, my father’s brickyard in Merthyr. But I should tell you, of course, that during this period, I served six months hard labour in Cardiff jail.

Morgan, Alan: This was simply for being a conscientious objector?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: This was simply for being a conscientious objector and I found the conditions there, well, very very strict indeed. The food, though adequate from the point of view of living was nutritious, but absolutely monotonous and one was in a perpetual state of hunger. We were one in a cell and the monotony of life because it was to a very large extent solitary confinement was absolutely deadening. And I shall never forget the experience of living in a cell for six months. It had a very profound effect upon my mental attitude and when I left the prison, I was really for some time, getting nightmares and I was afraid that I would commit an act of foolishness, which would mean that I would have to go back to prison. I found that prison conditions, although they were adhering to the regulations, I have no doubt, but so far as I was concerned and others too, that the solitary confinement, the removal from all contact with other people except the warder, or the occasional visits from the curate or the parson, who was minister to, religious relief to people in the prison, was to me an experience of such pain and {folly ness} that I shall never forget it. And realistically speaking when people talk today of length of service and they say, he only had three years, I recall I had the upmost of severest pain for serving for, what they would say was merely a weekend and I found that the period of time, six months, was to me, in prison, was an appallingly long period of my life.

Morgan, Alan: Cardiff was a lot worse than Wormwood Scrubs or Warwick as some of your experiences in Cardiff…

Lewis, Jack Alfred: Oh, Cardiif was severity itself.

Morgan, Alan: How much exercise would you be allowed a day?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: About an hour.

Morgan, Alan: And what about books and writing materials?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: As far as writing materials, we had no writing materials that I can recall, but we had about two books a week and a bible, and a fiction and a non-fiction, but we had so much time on our hands, of course, that the supply of literature had to be rationed out and, otherwise we’d be left to hopelessly out of position to do anything to occupy ourselves with.

Morgan, Alan: So you had to ration it out virtually?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: We had to ration it out and so far as the work we had to do, sometimes we’d be engaged in manual work on the boilers or the garden, but mainly it was making mail bags for the postal authorities and it was a monotonous procedure, but six months in prison, to me, was an experience I shall never forget and I think that even today, although I don’t know the conditions to the same extent, I think that to be punished by a long period of imprisonment is indeed, in effect, oftentimes a very dreadful thing and can completely alter the personality of the person concerned.

Morgan, Alan: What about the attitude of the warders to you because you were in effect a political prisoner?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: They were non-committal really and quite passively good so far as their relations was concerned. The difficulty of this sort of thing when it arose, occurred from contact with other prisoners. When we were put {possibly, in, say} at work in the garden or in the boilers, we’d get a {spill out} of denunciation or swearwords and all that sort of thing and indirect threats of physical violence. This was the sort of, an occasional prisoner who would really make objections and express animosity to your position.

Morgan, Alan: What about the temperature in the cell and your sleeping arrangements, this type of thing, you know?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: Well so far as that was concerned, they were adequate. And the cell, of course, merely had a wooden bed, a pillowcase, and a pillow and a few blankets, a pot for urination, and a few books and a chair, nothing more. All the furniture actually had been taken out with the exception of those articles.

Morgan, Alan: Why do think that it was after six months then, that they’d inflicted this severe punishment upon you that the authorities then placed you in a rather less, {unclear} risk conditions, you know?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: Well, I really don’t know, except that in the House of Commons at this particular time, of course there were socialist representatives and one of the most considerable influences was Phillip Simmons and the I.L.P was concerned with the movement, which it regarded as a great social influence and it was concerned to see that it was not damaged in any way, but fostered and questions {were being} asked and war was well on its way, as I said, and although I couldn’t say exactly why the conditions were made easier, there was the {gradation} , there was a whole {office} scheme, having left prison, went to Warwick, in Warwick the conditions were easier, but they were a form of prison life and then later of course there was work of national importance and we were sent, without having any choice in the matter to places in various parts of the country, where heavy work, of a manual kind was being undertaken by the authorities and manned by the people, like conscientious objectors and as I said, we found that we were working in the clay beds, that was necessary as treated as construction of a reservoir and we were working eight hours a day, and there was the usual rest and weekend, but to work as a navvy, shovelling clay and building waterworks was work of the most arduous nature, in fact, to people like ourselves and although we stuck it we found it very very burdensome. We were not allowed at this particular time, of course, to travel by train at all and wherever we went, we either had to walk or go by bicycle or some conveyance of that sort.

Morgan, Alan: Were you allowed on public transport at all?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: No.

Morgan, Alan: And what was the supervision like, was it again, did you find victimisation because of the stand?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: No the supervision, we were under no direct supervision. Reports were going in, I’ve no doubt about the position, but we were employed on the waterworks and we were accommodated so far as housing was concerned in Penderyn which was almost on the site of the wall of the waterworks {and there was close contact between} the water work authorities and ourselves as a {consequence}

Morgan, Alan: Were you allowed any privileges in the village, could you go out for free movement?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: Oh yes, yes. But we rarely did it. Of course we lived in Merthyr. What actually occurred was that we cycled over the mountain and spent some hours of the weekend and we were sent home.

Morgan, Alan: The tribunal that you spoke of at the beginning of the war, what was your prevailing memories of this?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: I think personally though that, oftentimes, when we were tried, I mean say the military tribunal for example, in Mainy Barracks, there were officers in charge, and when we were putting our case, and some of the chaps were extremely educated, well-educated and they could put the case in first class style and so far as I can recollect, I went there and there were several of us present, I doubt very much whether the presiding military person was {aware} of the nature of our objections to {unclear} extent. And I used the word pacifist and there was some difficulty about understanding what it meant and how it was spelt. I remember that quite well. But I don’t think they were interested in the ideology of the movement of which we were a part.

Morgan, Alan: Do you think they’d made up their mind before the tribunal began even about the punishments?

Lewis, Jack Alfred: I suppose that this was decided, yes. But of course, I went to two tribunals, and others did too, a military one and the one at Wormwood Scrubs and the final judgement, upon my attitude and on that of others, was genuine conscientious objectors. And so far as this stand that I took in those days and hours, I have never on a single occasion had any cause or doubts as to the rectitude to my attitude. I think that fundamentally to oppose a war of this nature and wars of other natures for that matter is a necessity on the part of the people. I think at the present time, that people are not prepared to be involved in resistance and resistance to evil in society is a fundamental obligation of any person who’s got the capacity to think. I was in that position then, I am in this, the same position so far as social evils are concerned today. And my philosophy is socialism is what religion, Christian religion and various religions are to other people. I am a dedicated socialist, I can say on my record and on my philosophical outlook today and the consistency with which the princilples I hold and have been followed throughout my life.