Scrapbooks, letters and other personal papers belonging to the late Clement Jones, former editor of the Express and Star, are being donated by Nicholas Jones to Wolverhampton Archives. The collection reveals how seventy years ago the challenge of reporting events in war-torn Bilston by a conscientious objector helped launch the career of a celebrated Wolverhampton journalist. His reports of the famous war-time parliamentary by-election in Bilston in September 1944 attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook - but Jones turned down the offer of a job on the Daily Express
Bilston in the mid 1940s was unquestionably at the heart of the Black Country: smoke particles were falling at the rate of nearly 1,400 tons per year per square mile over the whole town.
This was just one of the telling war-time statistics unearthed by my father Clement Jones, then an idealistic young journalist, who became the Express and Star’s Bilston reporter in June 1943 and whose reports highlighted what must have been some of the worst living conditions in the West Midlands
The pall of smoke from steel works and factories was so bad – and prevailing winds deposited so much soot, dust and grime on nearby houses – that Bilston became the setting in May 1944 for what Jones reported was a “unique” investigation into atmospheric pollution and the most comprehensive survey of its kind conducted anywhere in the country.
Gauges and dishes were placed around the town. Deposits were collected every two days and by using six different instruments Bilston’s salvage officer Eric Sheldon was able to weigh them to an accuracy of one-tenth of a milligramme.
Jones described how any local housewife would have agreed immediately that the air of Bilston was dirty: if she went to the best room in the house she would be able to “draw her finger over the polished surfaces to show the grime and dust deposited from the air.”
His scrapbooks depicting life in Bilston during the final years of the Second World War provide a graphic story of the struggle both to get purer air and to start demolishing the town’s slums – a third of Bilston’s houses were unfit for habitation.
Jones, then in his late twenties, provided the Express and Star with the kind of campaigning journalism which local newspapers rarely had the space for due to the rationing of newsprint.
If letters to the paper were any guide, his focus on the efforts to clean up Bilston were much appreciated by local officials and residents.
In September 1944 Bilston’s sanitary inspector Fred Barnett thanked Jones for his “excellent report” on the urgent need for slum clearance: 2,655 of the 7,700 houses in the town were in disrepair or lacked proper sanitation and the borough council estimated 4,000 new houses would be required.
One respected housing expert he interviewed was Dr Otto Neurath who before the war had attracted international attention for his work on slum clearance in Vienna; he had escaped to England and was advising on how Bilston could be reconstructed.
As well as countless newspaper cuttings, photographs and images of Bilston in the 1940s, the scrapbooks also offer an intimate snap shot of family life for a young couple bringing up three small children amid war-time shortages.
Jones took the job because a house went with it – on Wolverhampton Road, Bilston – a home which he desperately needed for his wife and family.
Journalists were in short supply. So many of the Express and Star’s reporters has been called up for military service, that the paper had been left with what the then managing director Malcolm Graham said was “a small and somewhat ageing staff”.
Jones was available for work because he was a conscientious objector. On the strength of his beliefs he had become a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and had obtained an unconditional exemption from military service.
Having lost his own father in the First World War, Jones was prepared to make a stand: in February 1940 he was sacked by the editor of the Stourbridge County Express for refusing to report stories in support of the war effort.
Finally, after having acted as agent for the candidate of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1941 Birmingham King’s Norton parliamentary by-election, Jones, with a family to provide for, had to put finding a job ahead of his pacifism.
In the letter offering him the post of reporter for Bilston, Willenhall and Coseley, the Express and Star’s acting editor Leslie Duckworth, said that while fully respecting his “liberty of conscience”, Jones would have to give an assurance that his views would not prevent him discharging his “full duties as a reporter” which included “fire watching at the Bilston office” -- conditions he readily accepted.
Perhaps the greatest attraction of the scrapbooks is the insight they provide into daily life and the care of three war-time babies. Seemingly trivial entries provide a vivid commentary on the efforts being made in Bilston to improve the welfare of small children.
In January 1944 my elder brother was enrolled in the town’s first nursery class at Ettingshall Primary, the school (since demolished) which we three boys all attended. My parents were sent a letter of congratulation from the Central Health Clinic after an inspection showed my brother did not require any dental treatment.
My father’s love of politics shone through in his coverage of Bilston’s famous 1944 parliamentary by-election when the war-time National government led by Winston Churchill held on by a mere 349 votes against an Independent Labour candidate.
After his reports caught the eye of Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express, Jones was invited to London and offered a job. His diary entry records his meeting with the “Beaver”: “He stalked across the room...said that I had a brilliant future ahead of me... ‘You will go to future by-elections’ he barked... ‘You can become famous, you have it in you’.”
But Jones wrote back turning down the job out of “loyalty and gratitude” to the Express & Star and because he had “another baby on the way” back in Bilston.
He joined in the post-war celebrations by helping to organise “Bilston’s First Press Ball” at the Town Hall in October 1945, in aid of the widow and orphan fund of the National Union of Journalists of which he was branch chairman.
Much to his relief, when the paper’s previous Bilston reporter returned from war service, Jones was kept on the staff, moved to head office in Wolverhampton and began writing the gossip column.
Although he had turned down what for any journalist of his day would have been a dream job on the Daily Express, Jones fulfilled the promise which Lord Beaverbrook had identified: he became features editor, news editor and finally editor of the Express and Star, a position he held for ten years until 1970.
Nicholas Jones was a BBC industrial and political correspondent for thirty years. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Wolverhampton in 2005 in recognition of his books on the relationship between politicians and the news media.