History: ‘Honest’ John and Grangetown’s first election

14 April 2016

Part 2 of our series on the first councillors in Grangetown….

The first election to the newly-created Grangetown ward saw a man who would later become mayor and one of the first Labour MPs win the popular vote.

Samuel Brain and Samuel Mildon were sitting councillors – and in 1890 not up for election – so simply switched to represent their new local ward. However, one councillor stood down which meant a run off.

Robert Upham, a joiner from Jubilee Terrace in Penarth Road, stood for the Conservatives, the protege of Brain. But his opponent – John Jenkins – would claim the backing of the working man.

In November 1890, the 38-year-old Jenkins was a union activist with Cardiff trades council and had an office in Bromsgrove Street. George Dobson, the owner of the Grange Alkaline Works, who came to Grangetown 12 years before, intended to stand for the Liberals but was persuaded to put his weight behind Jenkins’s campaign. Jenkins was hailed as the “bona fide working man candidate”.

It included an open-air meeting in The Square in Holmesdale Street. The poll was held on a Saturday – but as most men were working until the afternoon, it was late before most of the votes were cast at what is now Grangetown Primary School.

The result saw Jenkins win comfortably by 484 votes to 260.

Who was he and what happened to him?

John Hogan Jenkins was a native of Pembroke Dock – the son of a dockyard worker and part-time preacher. He started work at 14 in the shipyards there before his employer went bankrupt. He arrived in Cardiff as a 16-year-old, lodging at Oakley Street in Grangetown with a family from back home. He had little education but got an apprenticeship under shipbuilder and radical Liberal John Batchelor – “the friend of freedom,”. Jenkins became a shipwright at Charles Hill and Sons at the Docks, who had taken over the Batchelor shipyards after they went into liquidation. After the end of his apprenticeship he formed a trades society (effectively a union branch) and became its president within a year.

Looking back at his working life he said: “It has not by any means been plain sailing for the shipwright’s calling is particularly liable to ups and downs; but I inherited a thrifty and saving nature from my parents and so was always able to tide over the inevitable periods of unemployment.”

Jenkins married Sarah Dallin Williams at the age of 22 and the couple lived for a time in Christina Street in the docks but moved to 110 Clive Street and later 165 Pentrebane Street. They had 11 children, nine of who survived.

His union activities locally can’t be underestimated – not just with his own, the Associated Shipwright’s Society, where he was president of the Cardiff branch for 10 years before it was amalgamated with others around the Bristol Channel. He also played a prominent role in the formation of several unions, representing labourers, seamen and firemen, dockers, bakers and shop assistants and waggon and carriage lifters. Jenkins became a JP in 1893 and continued as radical Liberal councillor and later Liberal and Labour councillor. The Wesleyan was also involved in roles on bodies such as the Ragged School Mission in the Docks.

Jenkins has been described as “fearlessly independent” and having a “contempt for self-serving cliques.”

His crowning moment as a union activist was becoming president of the Trades Union Congress and to chair a difficult conference when it met in Cardiff in 1895. “Honest John” was praised for his work, particularly for docks workers. “Few men have done more solid and enduring services for the organisation of the skilled worker and especially the unskilled worker,” wrote one Welsh newspaper.

The degree of his local popularity can be seen from the 1902 local election result in which he beat the Conservative candidate by more than 300 votes. A year later he was created an alderman and served as mayor – his year including entertaining wild west showman Buffalo Bill to lunch in the Mansion House. The shipyard workers – and managers – had a collection to present him with £100 and a gold watch to mark his accolade. But he was already having to divide his time because of wider political ambition.

John H Jenkins and 28 other Labour MPs pose for a photograph on the Commons terrace in 1906. It’s not certain which is Jenkins! © National Portrait Gallery

Jenkins was elected to Parliament in 1906 – one of 29 MPs who would rename themselves Labour Party MPs under Keir Hardie. Jenkins was part of an independent Labour grouping and he said he saw Hardie as chairman but not his leader and he would vote as he saw fit. The election in a Conservative-held seat was only possible because of an anti-Tory pact with the Liberals which saw the Labour men free to fight 50 seats. Jenkins was elected in the port town of Chatham in Kent and must have felt at home. Despite his Westminster commitments, he continued to be involved as alderman with the council in Cardiff.

In his four years in the Commons he spoke mostly about the dockyards and the workers – and became known as “Admiral Jenkins” by colleagues. He campaigned for more accommodation for Dreadnought ships in the yards and his opposition to naval disarmament was evidence of his independent spirit and the commitment to the workers in his constituency. Jenkins said he advocated the nationalisation “of everything” providing work can be done better of more cheaply than by private enterprise. He had “unremitting agitation” for 30 years for trades union wages in all Government works, and was delighted it had finally been accepted by Parliament. He lost the seat in the 1910 election to the Conservatives and that was the end of his political career.

Jenkins and his wife moved to Canton. She died in 1919 and Jenkins – who became the oldest magistrate in Cardiff – resigned from the shipwright’s association in his 70s. He lived to the grand age of 84, until his death in December 1936.

His personal motto he said was “whatever you do, do it with all your might, with the necessary qualification that this should apply to what is right.” Although he’s a slightly obscure figure now, perhaps he’s more deserving of being remembered as one of Cardiff’s unsung political personalities and a champion of the ordinary man in Grangetown and beyond?

Next time: SA Brain – more than just a brewer

See part 1


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