My father, Robert Cecil Jones, died on Friday 8 September 2023. His 90 year life spanned a childhood and youth in Aberystwyth, 16 years service in the Royal Air Force, a spell as an adult educator in Birmingham and a second career as a priest in the Church in Wales. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Sheila, and me, his only child, Richard.
Robbie’s mother, Gladys Jones (née Williams), was from Yspyty Ifan, in the Conwy valley; Len Jones was a journeyman butcher from Conwy. Robbie was born in Colwyn Bay in 1932, but the family soon moved to Aberystwyth, where Len carried out his trade for Dewhurst the Butchers until his death in 1971. The family lived without interruption in the same house on Dinas Terrace, where Gladys took in visitors for Bed and Breakfast.
Robbie was an only child, and for much of the war he was brought up by Gladys alone – Len was conscripted in the Royal Armoured Corps. He was a tank crewman who was captured at the Battle of Tobruk, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, first in Italy, then Germany. Robbie attributed his close bond with his mother (and, less plausibly, his love of ice cream) to this wartime period.
He was educated at Ardwyn Grammar School – there, in 1949, he first met Sheila Howell Lewis, the love of his life. They married in 1956. He did well at school (except at maths, which in those days didn’t seem to matter so much), and was offered a place at Oxford. He couldn’t afford to take that up, but instead studied geography at the University College of Wales Aberystwyth, living at home, alongside the other students Gladys took in as lodgers.
He’d talk about his university years with great affection – he was active in student politics, in amateur drama, in entertaining visiting dignitaries to the university (a rowdy night out with Dylan Thomas being something he recalled with particular pleasure). He was involved in many high spirited pranks at the expense of the town and university authorities. He’d recall these with all the more amusement for the fact that some of his co-conspirators went on to become pillars of the Welsh legal and political establishment.
Robbie always spoke with enormous gratitude for both his parents, who had had very little education themselves, but never hesitated in their support for his studies. After his BA, he trained as a teacher, and then started research for a Masters in historical geography, working with the great Welsh geographer Emrys Bowen, while supporting himself working as a journalist on the Cambrian News. But he concluded that the academic life wasn’t for him.
Faced with the need to do National Service, he chose to apply for a short-service commission in the RAF instead. After officer training in the Isle of Man, he was posted to the V-bomber base, RAF Wittering, near Stamford, moving there with Sheila. At the end of the commission, he and Sheila stayed in Stamford, where Sheila had a teaching job. Robbie got a job teaching in the same school. This didn’t really work out – it didn’t do a lot for his self-confidence that his wife had to intervene to maintain discipline in his classes. But it was in their short stay in Stamford that their only son, Richard arrived.
The solution was to rejoin the RAF, which accepted Robbie for a full 16 year commission. His first posting was back to the Isle of Man, turning from trainee to trainer at the Officer Training Unit at Jurby. This was a happy time for Robbie and Sheila, who made some lifelong friends there.
Robbie’s RAF service continued, with postings to Feltwell and Brampton in East Anglia. A less happy time followed in 1967, when Robbie was posted to Aden, to assist with the UK’s chaotic and violent withdrawal from this outpost of Empire. Aden, in the grip of a bitter insurgency, was too dangerous for families, so he had to leave his behind, to live in Pwllheli close to Sheila’s parents. Better times came with a move from Aden to Sharjah, in what’s now the United Arab Emirates; still without his family, but without Aden’s bloody conflict. There he enjoyed roving across the deserts and mountains of Arabia, training with the RAF’s Mountain and Desert Rescue Team.
Back in the UK, and back with the family, postings followed to Cosford, near Wolverhampton, and finally to Bicester. Then the time came to leave the RAF, and adjust to civilian life. He took up a position in adult education in Birmingham, a rewarding time.
Christianity was always important to Robbie. He’d considered entering the ministry as a young man, but had been discouraged by his mother (though she herself was always a devout churchgoer), and had followed the advice of an important mentor that he should spend some time in a secular career first. While he was in Birmingham, he became a lay reader. Finally he decided that the time was ripe for him to enter the ministry full time, and he was accepted as a trainee priest by the Diocese of St Davids, in the (Anglican) Church in Wales.
After 2 years in theological college in Birmingham, he returned to Aberystwyth as a curate in the beautiful and historic church of Llanbadarn Fawr. His mother Gladys was thrilled to have him back close, and he spoke with huge admiration and respect for the Vicar he served under and learnt so much from, Hywel Jones. With his return to Wales came a refreshing of his Welsh language. Welsh was Robbie’s mother tongue, but as was very common in those times, his education was exclusively in English. Expressing the subtleties of theology in Welsh was a challenge at first, but he soon found his feet for preaching in his native tongue. Whether in Welsh or English, some who knew his quiet-spoken everyday manner could be surprised by the passion of his public speaking – real hwyl.
His first parish was the Ceredigion coastal resort of New Quay/ Cei Newydd. Before long he was offered the opportunity to move to Newport/ Trefdraeth, in Pembrokeshire. This he gladly seized; Sheila was born and spent her early childhood in North Pembrokeshire, so this was a return to the family homeland for her. The position of Rector of Newport wholly suited Robbie, who took very seriously the idea that an Anglican priest should serve the whole of the community whenever there was a need, whether they identified as churchgoers or not. He could relate equally to the Welsh speaking rural communities of the Gwaun Valley, with their deep traditions, as to those who had retired to this charming seaside village. He was proud to be appointed to the traditional position of Mayor of Newport.
After retirement, Robbie and Sheila moved a few miles down the coast to Fishguard. But the arrival of grandchildren persuaded them to relocate once again, to Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, to be closer to their son Richard, daughter-in-law Dulcie, and grandchildren Rosie and Thomas.
But retirement, for Anglican priests, is a relative concept, and Robbie was soon drawn in to frequently helping out with services in the local churches, supporting the overstretched rural vicar. He continued serving the community in this way well into his 80s, until deteriorating health finally forced him to retire for good.