Obituary: Major Francis Jones

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The Independent Online
Francis Jones, genealogist and historian: born Trevine, Pembrokeshire 5 July 1908; Archivist, National Library of Wales 1936-39; Military Narrator, History Section, Cabinet Office 1945-58; County Archivist, Carmarthenshire 1958-74; Wales Herald Extraordinary 1963-93; CVO 1969; married Ethel Charles (died 1985; two sons, two daughters); died Carmarthen 14 December 1993.

FRANCIS JONES, who dedicated much of his long life to unravelling the mysteries of early Welsh heraldic and genealogical pedigrees, was created (uniquely) Wales Herald Extraordinary in 1963, both in recognition of that scholarship and, more pertinently, to prepare for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969. Though his field was rarefied, he remained the most popular and approachable of men. His work has given lustre and coherence to aspects of Welsh history that will always be important.

Sir Anthony Wagner, late Garter King of Arms, has summarised this best in his introduction to essays presented to Jones upon retirement as Carmarthenshire archivist in 1974: 'To lead in a special field of knowledge is a great, but not inordinately rare distinction. But to have conquered for oneself from scratch a whole field is rarer; and that is what Francis Jones has done for the system of Welsh heraldry.'

Had Wagner added that Jones was from remote Pembrokeshire farming stock, knew no English till the age of seven, nor had higher education or private means to aid his studies, then the career that took him to exalted circles and earned him many honours acquires something of the hues of local folklore that he also strove to capture, to great effect, in his first book, The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).

His conversion to his life's vocation was triggered by an incident of almost biblical comparison. Being taken for the first time to a town, aged six, in his father's horse-drawn wagon, he wandered from his parents into the great church of St Mary's, Haverfordwest, to be transfixed by the brightly tinctured heraldry on the old memorials. Encouraged by an intuitive mother, he mastered the rudiments of heraldry and began his lifelong odyssey among the ancient gentry families of Wales, ironically then a class in headlong collapse from taxation, war and agricultural problems.

He was fortunate too that Pembrokeshire then held a clutch of older antiquaries (notably Francis Green and Herbert Vaughan) keen to guide and to put their libraries at his service. Jones proved to be the heir not just to their labours, but in time triumphantly to the great Elizabethan Welsh bards and heralds such as Lewys Dwnn, whose work Jones was for the first time to analyse in depth and moreover to vindicate to a great extent for accuracy, when much had been dismissed as fantasy.

Having progressed immediately from Fishguard schoolboy to schoolteacher, he put down his marker in 1936 in a report to the county council on their archives. This won him a post at the National Library of Wales, where he began working on his seminal essay 'An Approach to Welsh Genealogy' which, when published in 1948, established him as expert in the field.

By then he had shown stern mettle with the Royal Artillery in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. He was mentioned in despatches but the story best remembered is of how in the lull before a major Allied push in Italy, he drove out into no man's land to record the monuments in a tiny rural church. This earned him a tremendous rocket from his CO, but the church, as he had foreseen, was destroyed.

In 1945 he was appointed to compile the official history of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, a long task for which he was well suited, not least by a deep respect for the Army and its life. His TA days stretched from 1931 to 1956.

The years in London were a blessing for Francis Jones, with all spare time devoted to Welsh archives in the Public Record Office, the Society of Antiquaries and, most valuably, the College of Arms. In 1826 the college had purchased a large collection of Welsh material but the boxes had never since that day been opened, English heralds regarding them with apprehension. Jones entirely mastered these, producing a comprehensive catalogue in 1957 (published 1980).

He returned to Wales in 1959 as the first archivist for Carmarthenshire, an office he filled with great distinction. As old manuscripts poured in, so a stream of learned (but always readable) essays and lectures, in both languages, flowed out, with much on the Investiture in 1969, including a book The Princes and The Principality of Wales. His range was wide, but it was in the early history of old families that he excelled. His last book Historic Carmarthenshire Homes (1987) is redolent of all the qualities and quirks of a senior hand who preferred things as they used to be.

It was, however, on occasions of conviviality and conversation that, as a raconteur, remembrancer and rural scholar, his simple and endearing mastery shone through. No one stirred as Jones, warming to his theme, hopped deftly from genealogical twig to twig, the vast web of interconnected Welsh families revolving round the ordered storehouse of his mind, each stepping forward to take its bow with anecdote and claim to fame. It inspired immense affection and regard.

He lies quieted now, at the tiny Welsh chapel of Reheboth, near his birthplace of Trevine, his devoted wife, Ethel, beside him and a few yards from a notable eisteddfod bard. He sought in life the origins of others; it was impossible that, though risen far, he would not return among his own.

(Photograph omitted)