Jones is one of the most popular surnames in Wales, and it also happens to be the name of a well-known Welsh firm of agricultural implement makers, namely Jones Balers Ltd. As the name suggests, balers were the company’s main line, but it did produce other farm implements too, such as muck spreaders, loaders, roller mills, hay tedders and even combine harvesters, though it is through balers that the company gained worldwide recognition. Jones balers went all over Europe and as far as Australia, and it is said that even Her Royal Highness the Queen bought and used a Jones baler.
In the late 1930s, it is fair to say that Britain had one foot firmly in the past. We were a poor nation, and many farmers were still dependent on horse power. However, we knew full well that mechanization was here to stay and that there was no doubt that it was the way forward. The world was changing and everyone was looking for labour-saving devices, and not just in agriculture, but in the home too.
Two enterprising brothers, David and Glynne Jones, decided that the time was right to set themselves up in business designing state-of-the-art farm implements. David and Glynne were the sons of tenant farmers who had lost their land, which meant that they had to take whatever agricultural work they could to keep the wolf from the door, so to speak. Starting at the very bottom rung with manual work like ditch digging, they managed to climb the ladder until they were successful small-time agricultural contractors. By having to make, mend and adapt machines, the Jones brothers became self-taught engineers.
Seeing the failings in machinery they worked with, they began to design and build their own. Those first few machines that the brothers made were built outside, as they had no facilities of their own. Neither did they have any real capital, which meant that they had to sell their first machine in order to finance the second one, and that’s how the operation continued until they were able to get some money behind them. Another pressure that Jones faced in the early years was a lack of available raw materials. During and just after World War II steel was in short supply, and the company’s output was often restricted by difficulties in sourcing essential materials.
The brothers were lucky enough to fall in with George Williams, a brilliant engineer who had worked as a blacksmith at a nearby mine in North Wales. Having worked as farm contractors, the brothers were full of plans of how best to maximize agricultural productivity, and with George Williams’ skills they were able to put those ideas into reality. Jones Balers Ltd. soon took over an old lead works in Rhosesmor, North Wales, not far from the brothers’ home, and the first project that they really became known for was the manufacture of the Tiger stationary baler in 1942. Like most large farm implements of the era, the Tiger was aimed at farm contractors rather than private landowners. Later, in a bid to sell to farmers themselves, Jones brought out the Cub, a smaller and more affordable version of the Tiger.
Bales produced by these early balers were tied manually, which meant that the baler was little more than a packing machine. However, improvements were very soon made, and with the advent of the Panther, Jones took a big step forward. The Panther was a large self-tying baler. It was designed to sit next to a haystack and have the hay forked onto the large pick-up area, or better still to sit behind a threshing machine and bale the straw as it fell from the threshing box. The fact that it could be powered by the threshing machine meant that one tractor, or traction engine, could power both the threshing machine and the baler.
The Invicta, launched in 1947, was an even more revolutionary machine. Jones claimed it to be the world’s first self-propelled baler that could pick up hay or straw and tie its own knots. Unfortunately for Jones, the Invicta never really caught on, and indeed self-propelled balers per se have never really appealed to U.K. farmers, mainly for the reason that no one really wants to invest so much money into a machine that is only to work for a few months of the year.
Many of these early Jones balers have long since gone to the great scrap yard in the sky, as once they became obsolete they were much too large for most people to consider preserving. However those that remain are in surprisingly good condition, probably because they were rather over-engineered in the first place. Jones did have a reputation for producing robust and well-made machines, and many farmers would claim that Jones balers were the best of all balers. I remember baling with my Massey Ferguson baler a few years back, and it kept misbehaving, most infuriating as I could see dark clouds gathering on the horizon. Eventually my older brother came to the field and said, “Shall I go and get a proper Welsh baler here for you?” He promptly returned with his rusty old Jones baler, which still had last year’s final bale sticking out of it with grass growing on top, and it finished off the hay for me without a problem!
The early Jones balers were large machines that appealed mainly to the agricultural contractor, but by the 1950s more and more individuals started wanting their own balers, which is when Jones realized that the days of large, cumbersome balers were over, and that in order to forge ahead they needed to “think small.” We were a nation of people with small tractors and small fields, so of course we required small balers! Jones’ most successful balers were the smaller models of the late 1950s, and many of these balers are still at work today on small farms throughout Britain.
So we in Wales are rather proud of our Welsh balers, and it is probably for that reason that several collectors local to me have made shed space for a Jones baler in their collection. Some of the 1940s balers have made more than £5,000 ($7,760) in recent auctions, which is amazing, because over here in the U.K. implements never normally fetch anything like the prices that tractors do. We think fondly of these balers not simply because they are Welsh products, but also because they are British products, and they remind us of a time when Britain led the way in industry, and of a time when we made so much of what we needed right here in our own country. Jones Balers, along with much of Britain’s industry, no longer exists, and I suppose by hanging onto an old remnant from that tradition we are also fondly recalling a more productive past.
Jones even produced a combine harvester. It is thought that only a couple of examples remain, as unfortunately the machine was never a huge success. John Bumby of Penygroes, North Wales, used to work as a tester for Jones Balers, and he remembers driving the various combine models produced by Jones. Although the Jones brothers owned their own farm, they also baled hay and cut corn for individuals, and in that way they were like any other agricultural contractor, except that as they worked they also tested the performance and output of their machines.
So for John it meant that he had to work long hours in the summer months, getting the harvest in for farmers, and then in winter balers could be tested by baling haystacks. It seems that early models of the Jones combine had some teething troubles, but John recalls that by 1961 the problems had been ironed out. However, the company had sold out to Allis-Chalmers, which was interested in the Jones baler technology but not the combine harvester technology. Whilst the balers lived on through Allis, the Jones combines died a death right there and then. The only surviving example I’ve ever seen of a Jones combine harvester is in the Greenfield Valley Heritage Centre in North Wales. It is, certainly by American standards, quite a small machine!
John is a mine of information when it comes to Jones balers, having worked his way up through the Jones company from the factory floor into the experimental department, and finally as a driver/tester. He also has some remarkable photographs of his time at Jones Balers, and he regularly shares his knowledge by giving talks to clubs throughout Wales.
Last year for the first time I met Noel Jones, who is the son and nephew of the original Jones brothers. Noel owns the original farmland where the Jones family tested its machines. He also owns a few Jones balers, including a 1947 self-propelled Invicta.
Like many of us, Noel is saddened that Britain produces only a fraction of what she once did, but at the same time he thinks that his father and uncle did the right thing in selling when they did. Rather than die a gradual death, which is what many British businesses did, Jones went out on a high note in 1961 when it sold at the peak of its success to Allis-Chalmers.
Noel is surprised and pleased to see renewed interest in early Jones balers. “I’m hugely proud of the success that this little firm from North Wales had, and the recent wave of interest in these balers is phenomenal,” he says. “These days people phone me up to ask me what shade of red they should paint their restored Jones balers, which is great!”
At its height, Jones Balers Ltd. hired about 400 people, and the phenomenal success of Jones seemed to have come as a surprise even to David and Glynne, who, as Noel recalls, knew nothing about international export and really had to learn on their feet.
What is clear when looking at the Jones story is how the success of a business can affect the entire neighbourhood. As Noel explains, as well as those hundreds of people, Jones also employed the services of vast numbers of smaller industries, like foundries and hauliers. Even the local railway station was kept busy, as Jones balers would be packed on trains and sent off around the country and farther. It wasn’t long after the Jones factory closed that the station also did. Hearing a story like this makes one realize how crucial industry is not just to the economy but also to the heart, soul and the very pride of a nation. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.