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Emlyn Davies - Sir Thomas Artemus Jones

(September 01, 2015)


Sir Thomas Artemus Jones (1871-1943)

Syr Thomas Artemus Jones, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones, 28 April 1919
by Bassano Ltd, whole-plate glass negative
image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

The subject of this article was a fervent campaigner for the Welsh language; he fought long and hard to secure a worthy status for it in the law courts, and his utmost dream was to see a separate legal system for Wales. Unfortunately, he is remembered for one of those unexpected twists of fate that some people encounter on their journey through life. A very unpleasant episode in his life brought him universal fame for all the wrong reasons. In some circles, he remains a laughing stock because of this.

Thomas Artemus Jones was a native of Dinbych, born in a street called Lôn Abram, notorious for its poverty and excessive drinking. He was the sixth son of Jane and her husband Thomas Jones, a stonemason at Chwarel y Graig, a local quarry. When one considers his lifetime achievements, his early life beggars belief. He left school when he was eleven years old and went to work in a newsagent's stall on the platform at the local railway station. He taught himself English by reading newspapers and developed an interest in journalism. In the evenings, by the light of a paraffin lamp, his mother taught him shorthand, and he would be up at the crack of dawn to practise this new skill.

When he was sixteen he started working as a reporter on the local paper, the Denbighshire Free Press and became renowned as a keen and skilful journalist. His tour de force was his coverage of the Tithe War riots in Llanefydd. The young Artemus decided to spread his wings and left his home town to work on local papers in Hereford and Manchester. By 1896 he had joined the Daily Telegraph as a parliamentary correspondent, but he was obviously unsettled and moved to the Daily News before finally deciding that journalism was not his first love after all. During his frequent visits to the law courts as a journalist, he had become enamoured of the legal system, and joined The Middle Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1901.

In a comparatively short time, Thomas Artemus Jones had been involved in many high profile cases, such as the famous slander lawsuit brought by Lord Penrhyn in 1903 against W. J. Parry, the secretary of the North Wales Quarrymen's Union.

In 1909, however, he became famous for a completely unexpected reason. In July, 1908, an article was published in the Sunday Chronicle, by Charles Dawbarn, its Paris correspondent. This was more a satirical piece than a factual report, but that was not made sufficiently clear, and it contained a description of misdemeanours by certain people who drank heavily, womanised and gambled during the motor races in Dieppe. The author went on to say: "There is Artemus Jones, with a woman on his arm who is not his wife, and who must be - you know - the other thing! He is the life and soul of a gay little band that haunts the casinos and turns night into day. Who would suppose by his goings-on that he was a churchwarden in Peckham."

Thomas Artemus Jones was shocked to read such words, and there was no real reason why any of his acquaintances in Dinbych should doubt the veracity of the report. Everyone knew that this particular Artemus had never been a churchwarden in Peckham, but the harm was done, he was a laughing stock, his character maligned forever. He decided to file a libel lawsuit against the owner, Edward Hulton, who happened to be one of the most powerful men in the British Isles at the time, and he secured the services of George Hewart, a distinguished barrister, to represent him.

The Sunday Chronicle insisted that neither the columnist nor the publishers knew of the existence of our Artemus, and therefore could not be guilty of libel. How on earth could an author commit libel against someone he did not know? After all, Artemus Jones the barrister was not a churchwarden and did not live in Peckham.

It is interesting to us today that Artemus Jones brought the case against the paper's owner, and not against the author of the piece. Yet there are strong grounds for believing that Dawbarn did know of Artemus, and that the article was deliberately malicious. It is widely believed that they had crossed swords some years previously when Artemus was working on the Daily News. Indeed, had the publishers bothered to investigate such an unusual name, they would have discovered that Thomas Artemus Jones had himself previously written for the Sunday Chronicle. It is probable that Gordon Hewart's advice to him was that it would be easier to win the case by ignoring the malice and proving that his character had been defamed, be that deliberate or not.

And that is what happened. When the case was tried by jury in a Manchester courthouse, the course of the hearing was set by the judge, Mr Justice Channell, who said: "The question for the jury to consider is whether people who happen to know Mr Artemus Jones, and who happen to read the article, would, as reasonable men, believe it meant him? If people understood the article to refer to the plaintiff, it does not matter if it's one or fifty." We do not know whether that statement influenced the verdict, but the jury found in favour of Artemus and awarded him £1,750 in compensation. Despite Hulton insisting on dragging the case to the Court of Appeal, and even to The House of Lords, the verdict and the award stood.

There was a far-reaching, serious implication to the verdict. This meant that publishers could commit libel against a person they did not know and had never intended to malign. A nightmare for journalists and authors alike. Following this, publishers and film producers began to include a disclaimer to the effect that the characters and events portrayed in their work bore no intentional resemblance to any living person. For example: "All the characters depicted in this novel are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental." It is amazing to think that novelists such as Dan Brown and film producers like Steven Spielberg still have to include these words today because of what happened to the man who was born in Lôn Abram, Dinbych.

As a result of this episode, and due to the fact that his name was so uncommon, Thomas Artemus Jones became a laughing stock to many people, and there is no doubt that even today, he is mainly remembered in this context, which is a great shame. He made substantial contributions in other fields, but those achievements are in danger of being forgotten.

He was knighted in 1930 and appointed a county court judge in north Wales, where he came to be regarded as a warm and extremely generous person. It is true that some people were critical of his decision to accept the position of chair of the North Wales Conscientious Objectors’ Tribunal during the Second World War, a position which he held until his death in 1943, but the stories of his concern for the needy are numerous. One example of his caring nature for vulnerable families was his work as a judge of the county court in the Wrecsam area, where he heard applications for financial support from widows following the Gresford Disaster in 1934. He was always considerate, gentle and just.

He was very enthusiastic about promoting the Welsh language within the legal system, and would always allow those who wanted to speak Welsh to do so in his court. He campaigned vigorously for a body of professional translators to serve the law. One example of the sort of problems he encountered was the unfortunate occasion when a witness was told he was going to be crucified. The poor man was frightened out of his wits until Artemus, as the judge, explained to him that the interpreter meant to say "croesholi" (cross-examination) and not "croeshoelio" (crucifixion).

He was also one of the first people to call for the appointment of a Secretary of Statefor Wales, and was very active in the movement Cymru Fydd (Young Wales). He stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberals three times, unsuccessfully.

Artemus Jones was a man ahead of his time. It is a shame that he is mostly remembered for an unfortunate reason, rather than because he was one of the great benefactors of the Welsh language.

Emlyn Davies, September 2015

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Robert Owen; June 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
The two redheads; June 2015

cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2015

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