History of Jones Bros.
here are probably more Henrys in the Jones family than you will find in all of Shakespeare’s History plays. The enterprising gentleman pictured up above in the apron who founded the venerable dairy in Stoney Lane, off Middlesex St, was the first recorded Henry Jones in this particular branch. His proud grandson on the right of my portrait of this current incarnation of the Jones family business (now based around the corner in Middlesex St) is another Henry Jones and the grinning great-grandson standing behind him on the left is the most recent Henry Jones, a fourth generation dairyman, who is destined to carry the line onwards into the future with his sister Lucy. Henry senior with his wife Catherine (in the centre) and brother Trevor (on the left) are the current partners in Jones Bros, where Catherine and Henry’s children Henry and Lucy work today.
The first Henry Jones had eleven children, so it is not impossible there were other Henrys along the way but, as a consequence of all those siblings, the Jones family is not unlike Rabbit’s family in “The House at Pooh Corner,” with so many cousins and uncles and aunts that the margins of the clan blur into obscurity, which means we cannot ascertain for sure the exact number of Henrys. What is certain is that during the marathon that was the twentieth century, it was Henry Jones and his family dairy who stayed the course – through two World Wars and negotiating all the obstacles history threw in their path – running a relay over successive generations, and still delivering pints today after more than one hundred and thirty years when other Welsh dairies fell by the wayside. No-one else, it seems, could keep up with the Joneses. In Middlesex St alone there were once Morgans’ and Lewis’ Dairies, and at least two other Jones Dairies in Puma Court and Ezra St (no relation) have gone – not to mention Barker’s Dairy in Toynbee St where Isabelle Barker grew up and which is believed to have closed in World War II, Henry had never even heard of that one.
Out of all the Welsh family dairies in the East End, only Jones Bros exists today, which is a triumph for the family. What is the secret of their longevity and of those eleven children? Is this the source of the myth of the legendary virility of the milkman? Dare I say it, perhaps there really is something in the milk?Today, the resultant Jones dynasty comprises its own hereditary monarchy of dairymen and women. They are the kings and queens of dairy and, should you require confirmation of this, the current Henry Jones senior is also a freeman of the City of London and you will see Jones Bros marching in the Lord Mayor’s Parade this year.“I even think of myself as English now,” admitted Henry with startling candour.
It was my pleasure to meet Henry in his office up above the shop in Middlesex St where he runs the business and keeps the family photograph collection in a large album. Originally, the Joneses were dairy farmers who saw the opportunity to drive their cattle from Wales to supply fresh milk. It seems incredible now to even imagine the drovers bringing cattle from all over the country to London, but you only have to look around the streets of our capital to see the evidence of this in the form of the old stone cattle troughs that remain today on all the major roads.
When the first Henry Jones died in 1921, it was up to his wife Sarah to run the dairy with the help of her eleven children. A task that cannot have been easy, witnessed by the 1929 letter reproduced below from the clerk of the Public Health Department complaining about the behaviour of her young ones – a document that is a comic anachronism now but which must have caused heartache to Sarah. No wonder she chose to take a break from the arduous task of being a lone business woman and single parent to eleven children, by sitting on a milk churn to catch her breath while a photo was taken. Yet Sarah was a popular and magnanimous figure, who became an East End legend when two hundred people turned up at Euston Station to sing hymns, giving her an honourable send-off when she finally returned to Aberystwyth in her coffin.
Once Sarah died in 1937, the legacy was divided between all eleven children, but sons Eric and David bought out the business, becoming Jones Bros. It was Eric who married Nellie and fathered Henry and Trevor Jones, who were born on the premises and run the business today. But once World War II came, Eric and David were sent off to fight in India and Africa, and it was up to the Jones sisters Gladys, Bessie and Elsie to step in and do the milk rounds for the duration, which brought unexpected glamour to the dairy and became a national news story.
Then, forty years ago, Stoney Lane was demolished and a monolithic concrete housing development was built on the site, in which Jones Bros opened their new shop in Middlesex St. Henry and Trevor both joined the business at fifteen years old, once they left school. “When I started, we got up at four to do the milk round and then work in the shop, seven days a week. Sunday trading was very big then and we used to open until midnight on Saturdays too.” explained Henry. It was touching to hear Henry speak of Jones Bros because it was always personal, the business and the family are one and the same for him. In one moment, he spoke of how the transition from iron to lightweight plastic crates doubled the capacity of a milk float and, in another, of waking up in his mother’s bed at five years old to discover she had died.
In Henry and Trevor’s time as dairymen, both the trade and the nature of their lives have changed as residential deliveries diminished, dairy products became widely available at other shops than dairies and supermarkets sold cheap milk as a loss leader. In the eighties, the business could have folded but instead they expanded boldly, opening a warehouse in Stepney and widening operations to cover Canary Wharf, the City of London, the West End and South Bank too. Yet still there are obstacles, Henry remembers the IRA bombs at St Mary Axe and Bishopsgate, which took away his customers in a flash. Then last year, the dairy’s major supplier went bankrupt in the recession and Henry had to find a replacement overnight, only to discover that without a credit rating he would now have to pay weekly, creating a cash flow crisis that again might have brought the business down.
With all these crises safely in the past, Henry junior and his sister Lucy came in to join the family photo shoot and were excited to see their father had brought out the old photo album, envelopes of pictures and boxes of ancient round books. It became an impromptu party as we all crammed into the office, turning over these artifacts in shared fascination and choosing which ones to show you. Then we walked out together into the dazzling sunlight of a happy April morning to enjoy taking the photos that comprise the next chapter in the long-running family drama of Jones Dairies.