Wednesday, 11 April 2012

An International Workers Day Tribute to Jem France

A May Day Tribute to Jem France:
Born in the Rhondda Valley, October 25th 1940 - Died in Huddersfield, April 8th 2012

Alice Jemima France: Aged 18
On Easter Sunday 2012, my Mother, Alice Jemima France [nee Jones], died in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary. Jem was only 71 years old. On Friday 27th April 120 family, friends and comrades sang the Red Flag at her funeral... on May Day 2012 this is my personal tribute to her.

Jem was born in Treorchy in the Rhondda Valley on the 25th October 1940, the second child of Dolly Jones [nee Poulton] and Morgan Douglas Jones. Jem's dad was a Miner, trade unionist and anti-fascist and despite the 'protected' status of his employment he volunteered to fight fascism at the start of the War that was engulfing Europe. Jem's mother took the decision to leave the Rhondda and move to Birmingham. - The family lived in squalid conditions in Birmingham town centre and while Jem was still a baby in arms and her older brother Idris just 3 years old they narrowly escaped death when part of William Street was destroyed by the bombs of the Luftwaffe. At the very end of the War the news came through that totally devastated the family - Morgan Douglas Jones had been killed in action, when a German anti Tank missile destroyed the Tank he was driving, on the 1st April 1945.
William Street, Birmingham circa 1945
The trauma of losing her husband, affected Dolly deeply, and life in Central Birmingham with its bomb sites, Post War Austerity and Rationing was hard to cope with. The Attlee Labour Government was establishing the framework of the Welfare State but it would take a years to tackle the entrenched poverty and slum housing that blighted the centre of Birmingham. Dolly moved on in her personal life and gave birth to a baby boy in 1947 called Edward so Jem now had a younger brother and, in 1953 Jem's sister Delia was born. The family  lived in William Street, close to Birmingham City Centre and Jem became life long friends with her neighbour, Josie Everral and her sister Annette they all attended  St. Thomas's School. Dolly went on to have two more girls, Jacqui and Linda and the growing family moved to nearby Owen Street and were on the City Council waiting list to move to a new larger home. As the Eldest Daughter Jem took on a great deal of caring responsibility for all her younger siblings while she was still a child herself. Back in Wales Idris followed his late fathers footsteps, becoming a Miner in the Rhondda Valley, Jem could never afford the expense of travelling to Wales to visit her older brother.  As soon as Jem finished school in 1955 she found industrial work to help support her family, as a result of the extra income Jem was able to organise the first holiday the family had ever had, staying in a caravan, with a 'bucket and chuckit' toilet in Stourport. To this day Jem's siblings have fond memories of this first Holiday and a photo shows smiling faces of a family group outside the Stourport Caravan who were blissfully unaware that inside Jem's Brain a Tumour was growing. In 1957  Jem's friend Josie's family moved to a new Council House in Leach Green Lane and Jem spent every weekend in Rubery with the Everral Family. About the same time Jem began experiencing distorted vision and blinding headaches, at first it was assumed this was a form of migraine. It was Dolly's partner, Peter Green, who first suspected that something more serious was happening and he insisted that the local GP refer Jem. After investigations carried out at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Jem was diagnosed with a Brain Tumour. Although, the prognosis was very bad, Jem tried to get on with life and one weekend in early 1958 Jemima Jones, Josie and Annette Everral decided to dig out the bridesmaid dresses they had worn at Jean Everrals Wedding a few months earlier.
The Billberry Tea Rooms circa 1957
Where Jemima Jones first met Barry France
Dressed 'up to the nines' they walked from Leach Green Lane, Rubery to Rose Hill up the Lickey's.  The three teenagers walked into the Bilberry Tea Rooms, and soon caught the eye of Barry who was at the Dance with workmates from the Longbridge Car Plant. That night Barry nervously asked the Girls if he could walk them home because the 10.15pm deadline to return home was fast approaching, Barry did get to walk the Girls home but there wasn't even any holding of hands let alone doorstep snogging. Barry and Jem met again at the Billberry Tea Rooms the following weekend and this time Barry Danced all night with Jem. Although the music was a live band playing Rock and Roll couples were not allowed to 'Jive' or engage in lewd behaviour and the strict No Alcohol policy and vigilant Tea Room Stewards ensured that no hanky panky took place. At the end of the night Barry France asked Jemima Jones if he could take her home [Assuming she lived at Leach Green Lane] Jem said "yes" and led Barry on a 9 mile trek to Owen Street in Birmingham City Centre. Barry was due at work the next morning and the last bus had gone so he had to get back to Kingswood Road, West Heath, 8 miles away on foot, but being a young man filled with testosterone and excitement he ran the entire distance in 45 mins. Fortunately, for Barry's legs Jem's Mom, Dolly gained a tenancy on a 4 bed Council House with Gardens front and back on the tree lined street, Allens Croft Road, Stirchley. 
The Shops at the Top of Allens Croft Road
Stirchley/Kings Heath circa 1960
Jem, despite her constant pain from the tumour, could breathe a sigh of relief, at long last her siblings now lived in a modern easy to manage and heat home with good schools and shops  nearby. Eddie was now old enough to help with some of her caring duties and she could concentrate on her own health and her new love. At first it looked like a Doomed Romance.... Jemima Jones had a life threatening Brain Tumour and Barry France had just got his call up papers for two years National Service. Jem and Barry became living proof that true love is capable of overcoming all obstacles.  Jem was to go on to have several operations at the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre in Selly Oak, over the next five years. NHS Brain Surgery was in it's infancy in the late 1950's and early 1960's and Jem France was one of the first patients to survive experimental techniques and surgical procedure's. After every operation surgeons would still be uncertain of success and told Jem to "prepare for the worst". While Barry was away at Castlemartin Tank range in Pembrokeshire learning to drive Centurion Tanks -  Jem took an extended visit to the Rhondda to spend time with her brother Idris and other family members who she had not seen for many years. Jem, loved being back in the "Land of my Fathers". Jems, Uncle Cyril used to sit with Jem next to the cast iron range in the little Terraced House in Treorchy and as dusk fell he would start singing songs. Jem's favourite was Kevin Barry. Perhaps the lyrics which speak of about bravery and dignity in the face of certain death actually helped Jem recover from her first major Brain Surgery faster than anyone one expected? The song certainly has a special poignancy for me as my mother used to hum the refrain as a Lullaby for me as a small child.

Whether Barry was stationed in barracks in Pembrokeshire or West Germany, they wrote to each other at least 3 times a week during his two years of National Service. Their love for each other grew stronger and Jem was able to survive further invasive Brain Surgery and cope with extended periods in Hospital. Jem and Barry were always grateful to the Welsh Socialist Leader, Nye Bevan, who established the NHS and clearly without Nye Bevan and Barry France, Jem would have never lived see the 1960's or wear the mini skirts she loved so much. 
Queen Elizabeth Hospital in circa 1958
However, grateful for the NHS they were, Jem and Barry did not take the medical advice to "prepare for the worst", they were too busy being in love and sharing a faith in a brighter future. After Barry completed his National Service and returned to work at "The Austin", they prepared  for the best. They got married in St Chads Church in Rubery on 25th November 1961 and Jem gave birth to me in the summer of 1962. They moved into their own home, 99 Cloverdale, Stoke Prior, Bromsgrove in 1963 a brand new 3 bed semi detached house overlooking open fields to the rear. Jem faced another  major operation at the end of this year which was made potentially more risky because  Jem was over 5 months pregnant. Jem and the baby survived, my sister Michele was born in March 1964. After nearly 6 years of struggle Jem had finally cheated death, defeated the Tumour and she settled down into a blissful home life with her husband and kids. The icing on the cake was that Harold Wilson and the Labour Party were back running the country and Barry bought a 'stereogram' to play their growing collection of six inch singles. Barry and Jem had their own house, a car, a fridge a TV, twin tub washing machine and two nice kids. 

Jem and Barry were loving parents, my childhood was free from the violence and brutality that so many children suffer in their own homes. Our home was filled with love and tenderness , peace and security. As a couple Jem and Barry shared everything as equals and both worked hard to ensure that me and Michele never suffered the deprivations they endured in their own childhoods.  In 1968 our family moved to Stirchley to be closer to Dolly, Eddie, Delia, Jacqui and Linda. In the early 70's Jem and Barry were both strikingly attractive and they dressed very stylishly, I was always proud that my parents seemed so vibrant and full of joy in comparison to the parents of many of my school friends. Although they may have been 'Glamorous' Jem and Barry were not 'Shallow', by 1974 Jem and Barry, were active members of Hall Green Labour Party. They worked hard for the return of a Labour Government in both the February and October General Elections of that year. I remember helping out with leafleting and poll station duty, we also went as a family to a Mass Rally in Birmingham Town Hall where the best bit was singing 'The Red Flag" and "Jerusalem" at the end. In 1975 our family moved to Rubery and Jem and Barry continued, activism in Bromsgrove and Redditch Constituency Labour Party. Jem worked as a machinist at Jet Filter's on an Industrial Estate in Rubery and helped unionise the workforce into the AUEW [Engineers Union] bad workplace Health and Safety led to Jem loosing a finger in an Industrial Accident at the Factory and she fought to improve conditions for her fellow workers to prevent anyone else suffering as she did. Jem supported Barry when he was successfully elected as a County Councillor in May 1981. The following year, Barry accepted the offer of a job working full-time for the Labour Party in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. They were well liked and respected as a couple and really enjoyed their new found freedom, as me and Michele stayed up in Brum. Jem and Barry rapidly gathered a wide circle of new friends and comrades and they were universally admired as a loving couple who were generous and open hearted. In the middle of the Tory Party Heartland, Barry and Jem stood up to Thatcherism and rallied people towards the alternative.  Now in the Prime of their Life and just like their hero Tony Benn, Jem and Barry became more radical the older they got and never gave in to the cynicism or despair that affected so many people in Thatcher's Britain.

When they moved to Huddersfield in 1985 Jem worked in Care Homes, often doing night shifts and becoming an expert in the palliative care of the elderly. Jem was appalled by the management of one Care Home she worked in and fought to expose the disgusting 'granny farming' mentality of the private sector management. Jem was targeted by Management as a trouble maker when convinced fellow workers of the need to join a Trade Union to prevent their own exploitation and the exploitation of the vulnerable elderley people they cared for. Barry worked hard to transform the fortunes of the Labour Party in Huddersfield and Colne Valley most noticeably by working closely with comrades in the Sikh and Muslim communities in Huddersfield whose needs had until then been ignored by all political parties. As a couple they made lasting friendships, despite their 'Brummie Accents' and 'Comer  In' status. Jem and Barry's, good humour broke through the sometimes grumpy and miserable exterior of the native born Yorkshire folk they encountered. Over the decades Jem put massive amounts of energy into supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, The Peoples March for Jobs, Anti- Apartheid and, above all spent an entire year between March 1984 and March 1985 raising funds to support Striking Mineworkers and their families. Jem was heartbroken when she watched the Welsh Miners march back to work, but also proud that they were the last back. In 1990 Maerdy Colliery - the last pit in the Rhondda Closed Down. Her brother Idris had worked at Maerdy pit as did his father Morgan Douglas Jones. For nearly 20years after the end of the Great Strike, just outside their bedroom door, stood a corner cabinet in the hall, this was a 'Shrine' to the National Union of Mineworkers, constructed by Jem and Barry to preserve the memory of the struggle. As a committed but impoverished revolutionary political activist myself, I rarely saw my Mom and Dad except on Labour Movement Demonstrations. Jem used to say "we just used to turn up and listen out for the 'loudest voice' shouting out the slogans of the day... we walked in that direction and always found you!"
Spring Grove School - Huddersfield
It was in the 1990's in Huddersfield that Jem discovered her true vocation. Jem became a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant at Spring Grove School, a Multi-Cultural primary school in the centre of Huddersfield. Jem also established a functioning Library in the school and carried out many hours unpaid voluntary work to ensure every child mattered as well as acting as a mentor to newly qualified Teachers struggling with the Job. If Jem did not have responsibilities as a carer and surrogate mother, while she herself was a child, then I feel sure that Jem would have discovered her vocation earlier on in life. Jem really enjoyed her work at Spring Grove and planned to carry on Voluntary work at the school after her retirement. Instead, these plans had to be abandoned, while on a family camping holiday in Pembrokeshire with Barry, she was struck down by a stroke in July 2001.

Over the next decade Jem struggled with further strokes and illness and always at her side was Barry who became her primary carer. No matter how ill Jem felt she always took time to nurture her grand children Jordan, Conor and Calum. No matter how ill Jem felt she also continued to fight for a peaceful, fairer world. On 23rd September 2006 Jem France attended her last Demonstration. Barry dismantled Jem's mobility scooter and stowed it in the luggage compartment of the Coach  waiting opposite the statue of Harold Wilson in St George Square Huddersfield. Jem with Barry at her side joined the Thousands of Stop the War Coalition Protesters Marching past Labour Party Conference shouting "Time To GO! Tony Blair Terrorist!".... Many times in the past Jem and Barry were Delegates or Guests at Labour Party Conference. Now, despite her disability and age Jem was an 'Outsider'.  Jem was not just calling for an end to the Unjust Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she was also venting her anger at the Blairites who had not only abandoned the principles of Nye Bevan but also forced Barry into early retirement in 1998. Barry, loved his job as a Labour Party Organiser for Huddersfield and Colne Valley, but the new regime could not tolerate his independent mind. To have given so much for so long to the Labour Party and to be stabbed in the back by the traitors who attempted to brake the spirit of her own husband, was a difficult cross to bear. Jem would never again be an active member of the Party.
Dawn and Mark alongside Jem and Barry 26th July 2008
at All Saints Church Bromsgrove
No matter how ill Jem felt she always rallied and found the strength to smile. On July 26th 2008 Jem travelled down from Huddersfield to Bromsgrove with Barry to celebrate my Wedding to Dawn. It was confirmation and proof that Love does eventually conquer all obstacles... In brilliant sunshine under Blue Skies Our Happiness was Perfect.

In my last two telephone conversations with Jem, we talked of hopeful signs of Change in both Wales and Yorkshire. Leanne Wood a young Socialist from the Rhondda had won the Leadership of Plaid Cymru and two weeks later George Galloway had won a stunning victory for RESPECT in the Bradford West By Election. Jem seemed pleased that the tide was at last turning. I never got to hear my moms voice again. The next time I saw Jem she was unconscious in a hospital bed...The best memorial we can construct for Jem, is to make sure that tide keeps turning until it is unstoppable and sweeps away all injustice, violence and oppression.

 After 6 decades of personal and political struggle, Jem  spent another decade battling to recover from a series of strokes, falls and infections. Through everything, Jem and Barry carried on and it was their love for each other that enabled them to maintain a sense of pride and dignity. It was only when Barry himself was struck down by two strokes, that removed his capacity to speak and weakened his body, that Jem accepted the need for daily visits from carers, as Barry could no longer physically care for his wife. Jem, a woman of great courage and dignity finally lost the strength to fight any longer. Jem passed away peacefully, after spending several days surrounded by those she loved the most. Jem has left a lasting legacy in the hundreds of children she helped to educate in Huddersfield, in the thousands of people whose lives she has touched during her long and often painful Journey. Gentle and sweet Jem was never judgemental and always helped heal conflict, she will always be remembered. REST IN PEACE JEM

Jem France
Funeral 2pm, FRIDAY 27th April 2012, Huddersfield Crematorium...the 'Humanist' service will be followed by a 'Wake' at 'The Field Head Pub', Quarmby Road, Huddersfield.

All comrades and friends of Jem and Barry are welcome to attend... during the service participants will sing Jim Connell's 'The RED Flag' as Jem's parting hymn...

"It waved above our infant might.....
... this song shall be our parting hymn."

MayDay Update...Over 120 people saluted Jem's Coffin by singing the Red Flag ... many through a "vale of tears"... the Wake was beautiful experience as people separated by the trials and tribulations of life reconnected, remembered and became whole again.


  1. This is a marvelous tribute to your mum and I'm sure everyone of your friends and family will appreciate it. Jem was one of life's characters and we were enriched for knowing her. Tell Barry and all that your friends are thinking of you at this sad time. Remember that she'll always be alive in your hearts and memories.

    Paul Cooney

    1. Thank you so much Paul... I hope to see many old comrades and Friends at Jem's Funeral and Wake on 27th April... maybe a few Red Flags would be appropriate...

  2. Hi Mark, that is a lovely tribute to your mum, she would be proud. She comes across as a real fighter, both politically and personally (have much admiration for her regards to literally taking on the brain tumour). Fitting tribute to a strong and dedicated woman. Solidarity comrade! x

    1. Thank you very, very much mom would be overwhelmed, as I am now, by all the supportive messages from comrades from all over the UK.... Love and Solidarity Mark x

  3. Commiserations Mark, a terribly sad time for you and your family, but a wonderful and fascinating tribute to a strong and principled woman.

  4. Condolences. Your mother truly was a great fighter and an inspiring personality. We need more like her.
    Let's hope that the tide has turned and that it becomes a tsunami which washes away all the traitors who have tried to turn your mother's beloved Labour Party into a middle class [non-socialist] club.

    1. Thank you Tony.... i feel it in my bones the tsunami is building and will take wash the tory vermin into the sewers of history... it's a shame Jem is not here to witness the sea change.

  5. Wow!! What a moving tribute to your Mum. She clearly made a huge difference to a lot of people. Thank you for sharing her story.

    1. Thanks Mark... even the local paper 'the Huddersfield Examiner' is carrying an Obiturary tomorrow Tuesday 23rd - a further indication of how many lives my mom touched during her time in the town. Thanks for reading her story too.

  6. Dear Mark,

    Deepest sympathy on losing your Mum. I love that generation born in the 1930s and 40s. Such wonderful fighters, a spirit we're in danger of losing. It's beyond vile what the Tories are doing them, with the granny tax, and viciously propagandising against their tiny benefits while grabbing tax relief for themselves. Thanks to your mother and her generation for making this world a better place.

    1. Thank You Madam Miaow... you are so right there is a fighting spirit in my Moms Generation that is needed now in the struggle to defend the Welfare state and the NHS.

  7. I was very saddened to hear of your mum's death. I got to know her and your dad when I was married to Jo (Josie Everall). In those days they were indeed a glamourous couple, as you say. Jem always seened so cheerful whatever the problems, and also so committed to the cause. I know whe was vey proud of you and how you kept the faith. You have written a marvellous tribute to her. If you can, please pass on my condolences to Barry. they were such a devoted couple, so full of life.
    Geoff Moss.

    1. Thank you so much Geoff - over 120 people attended Jem Funeral Ceremony on Friday and sang all the verses of the RED FLAG as 'a parting hymn'... very moving.

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