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JONES, Bertram Alfred (1885-1969) – master ivory carver of Vine Cottage, Badsey

“Mr & Mrs Bertram Jones were the gift to Badsey of Hitler’s blitz.”  This was the final sentence in the obituary in the August 1968 parish magazine for Mrs Ellen Marie Jones.  She was the widow of Bertram Jones, a master ivory carver from Hackney, London.  They had been bombed out of their home during the Second World War and had sought refuge in Badsey, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Bertram’s family for several generations had been involved in the ivory trade.  This is his story.

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Bertram Jones’ family background

According to an article in The Birmingham Daily Post of 7th September 1963, Bertram Jones, who was born in London in 1885, could trace his family’s association with ivory craftsmanship back over 200 years.  

Bertram’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him had certainly all been ivory turners, but if the claim made in 1963 is correct, then two generations before that would also have been involved in the trade, going back to the latter half of the 18th century.  

The first ivory turner in the family that we know of was Bertram’s great-grandfather, James Jones, who was living in Walsall, Staffordshire, when his son, George was born in 1817.  Walsall at that time was known as “the town of a hundred trades”.  At the beginning of the 19th century, one of the principal trades in the town was bone and ivory turning.  The work would have involved making combs, boxes, billiard balls, buttons and piano keys, but also involved hardwood.  James was married to Mary, but nothing more is known of his life, or how long he remained in Walsall.

Bertram’s grandfather was George Jones, who was born at Walsall, Staffordshire, in 1817, the son of James and Mary Jones; he was baptised at Bridge Street Independent Chapel, Walsall.  By 1841, George had moved to London, where he, too, was working as an ivory turner, though whether the whole family had moved there or George had gone of his own accord is unknown.  George married a widow, Eleanor Reynolds (née Brewer) at St Giles without Cripplegate on 7th February 1841.  He was then living at Milton Street, City of London, but his whereabouts at the time of the census in June 1841 are unknown.  By 1843, they were living in Birmingham when their first child, George, was born.  Two more sons followed, Charles and Lewis William, who were also born in Birmingham. George was carrying on the business of ivory and bone turner in 1851 whilst living at 160 Upper Windsor Street, Aston.  By 1861, the family were living at 12 Fletchers Row, Clerkenwell, London.  All three of George’s sons were described as bone turner journeymen.  George died in 1870.  In 1871, Eleanor was back in Birmingham living with two of her sons, George and Lewis.

Bertram’s father was Lewis William Jones (1849-1916), who was born in Birmingham in 1849.  The family seemed to move between Birmingham and London.  Like his father, grandfather and brothers, Lewis became an ivory and bone turner journeyman.   By 1881, both Lewis and his brother, George, had moved permanently to London.  In 1881, aged 28 and unmarried, he was lodging at 17 Cyrus Street, Clerkenwell, London, with 42-year-old widow, Charlotte Sparrow and described as an ivory turner.  Lewis married Charlotte Pellett at Holborn on 31st October 1881.  Bertram was the third of their seven children.  Lewis died at Islington in 1916.  His widow, Charlotte, died at Islaington in 1927.

Bertram Jones’ life before Badsey

Bertram Alfred Jones was born in Islington on 8th October 1885, the third of seven children of Lewis William Jones, an ivory turner, and his wife, Charlotte (née Pellett).  Bertram was baptised at St Saviour, Hoxton, on 15th November 1885.

At the time of the 1901 census, Bertram was living with his family at 21 Campbell Road, Islington, working as an errand boy.  He then served a three-year apprenticeship to become an ivory turner.  By 1911, he was working as a bone turner and boarding with the Westbury family in Walsall, Staffordshire.  It was in Walsall that he met his future wife.  In the first quarter of 1913 he married Ellen Marie Brown at Walsall.  Whilst living in Walsall, their first child, Charlotte, was born later that year.  A second daughter, Dorothy, was born a year later, but by that time the Jones family had moved back to Islington.

It is not known whether Bertram served during the First World War but, in 1919, after the war was over, he established his own ivory workshop at Englefield Road, Dalston.  He described himself as an ivory craftsman, involved in cutting, turning and carving.  He made a range of articles from ivory including paper knives, necklaces, stop knobs for church organs, and also did wood turning.  According to the 1963 article in the Birmingham Daily Post, in his early days, Bertram made shaving brush handles in bone, for 7s 6d a gross, and bread-knife handles of boxwood at 2s 3d a gross at the rate of three gross a day.  In the same article it says that, in 1929, against numerous competitors, he took second prize working in ivory, at the annual competition in turnery at the Mansion House, London, which was promoted by the Worshipful Company of Turners.

By now Bertram had become proficient in carving chess sets.  Macy’s Department Store in New York ordered handmade chess sets from him. One of the family trade secrets was a method of dying ivory a blood-red tint; this colour was used on early billiard balls.

chess setHe also occasionally made wooden chess sets.  This Staunton chess set (right) was offered for sale on the Antique Chess Shop website and was attributed to Bertram Jones, c1930-1940, noting that it was “a rare example, as most of the chessmen made in the Bertram Jones workshop were ivory”. 

After the war, Bertram and Ellen had two more children:  Alfred William Lewis (1920-2011), known as Bill, and Robert (1927).  In 1921 they lived at 42 Barretts Grove, London, and later moved to 81 De Beauvoir Road, Hackney, where they lived in September 1939.  By now, 18-year-old Bill had become an ivory turner and had joined his father in the family business.

Bertram Jones’ life in Badsey

For eight months, from 7th September 1940 to 11th May 1941 during the Second World War, the Luftwaffe dropped bombs on London.  It is likely that it was during the Blitz that the Jones’ home in De Beauvoir Road was bombed and they subsequently moved to Badsey.  But why Badsey is unknown; as far as we know, there were no connections with the area.  Their elder son, Bill, married in 1941 and was in the Royal Air Force, but it is likely that their younger son, Bob, moved with them  (the two daughters had already left home by 1939).

The Jones family moved into Vine Cottage, 8 Chapel Street, as Mrs Gladys Batchelor, who had been renting the property, vacated in September 1941.  Bertram was able to use as a workshop, a building which was at the rear of the cottage.  It was the first in a short row of cottages known as Sharps Row which had stood empty since the 1930s.

Bertram was popularly known in the village as “Ivory Jones” as he was one of very few ivory carvers still working in England at the time.  For a few months in 1947, his son, Bill, came to work with him, making catheter plugs and turned ivory items. 

Brief biographical details about Bertram Jones on the Christie’s website reveal that, despite the pressures of his traditional trade diminishing around him, he adapted and later worked for the chess dealer, A E Mackett-Beeson (1904-1993), during the 1950s.

Chess setChristie’s has a photo (left) of a turned and carved ivory chess set, attributed to Bertram Jones, c1950 - the rounded and stepped bases, acanthus leafy detail and beading were notable traits of his work.  It was sold in 2006 for £18,000. described as:  “In the Turkish style, the kings and queens with elongated baluster finials with beaded banding, the bishops, knights and rooks with stiff-acanthus finials and knops, on stepped circular bases, one side stained green.”  

News items in the local press reveal that, in March 1957, Bertram needed to find a new workshop, as the one he had been using behind his cottage had been issued with a demolition order by Evesham Rural District Council.  At the time, Bertram was working on decorations for the royal palace at Baghdad.  Local people rallied round and, within no time, he had received two offers of alternative accommodation for his workshop.  He gratefully accepted the offer made by Harry Stewart.

Midland News picked up on the story and, on 11th March 1957, there was a brief item on the local TV news, lasting just under a minute.  The film clip may be seen on the Media Archive for Central England Archive (though unfortunately with no sound available).  It begins with Bertram walking along the High Street to the fountain, holding the hand of a small child.  He then walks through the churchyard to his cottage in Chapel Street.  He is next seen holding an ivory task and waving goodbye to his wife, Ellen, and talking to a man with a bicycle by glasshouses along Badsey Fields Lane.  Finally, there are images of some of the ivory carvings he has created.  

In 1962, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr L M Charles-Edwards, visited Badsey when he began his annual walking pilgrimage in the Evesham Deanery.  During his visit, he met Bertram Jones who had retired by this time.  The following year, together with Dick Caswell, Badsey’s blacksmith, Bertram was featured in the Birmingham Daily Post, where it was stated that ornamental turners who had seen his beautiful work, considered it remarkable that he had been able to make such masterpieces with a small plain lathe.

Bertram Jones
Bertram and Ellen Jones outside Vine Cottage showing an elephant tusk and an ivory chess set. Second from the left is the Vicar of Badsey, Peter Braby.  On the left is the Bishop of Worcester, Dr L M Charles-Edwards, and in the middle is the Bishop's Chaplain.  Photo loaned by Anna Tucker.
Bertram Jones headed notepaper
Headed notepaper still being used by Bertram Jones after he retired.

Bertram and Ellen lived out their days at Vine Cottage on Chapel Street.  Ellen died in July 1968 and Bertram died 13 months later on 8th August 1969.  His obituary in the September parish magazine said that he had been a lonely man since the death of his wife.  The report described him as “a small, unpretentious figure, and rather shy”, and concluded by saying:

Bombed out of their house and the workshop in Dalston in the blitz, Mr & Mrs Jones came to make their home in Badsey, and, with their warm friendly natures, made themselves at once socially acceptable.  Mr Jones, among his other accomplishments, was a teacher of ballroom dancing, and could claim that several happily married couples first came to know each other at the school of dancing which he held in the Wheatsheaf.  His great hobby was fishing.

Bertram Jones graveBertram and Ellen were buried in Badsey churchyard, just yards away from their Vine Cottage home.  This was the newest section of the churchyard which had been consecrated in 1965.  Their tombstone in Badsey churchyard reads (NB – the birth date for Bertram is incorrect, as he was born in 1885):


The end of an era

Bertram Jones’ elder son, Alfred William Lewis Jones, known as Bill, also became an ivory turner.  Like his father, he made fine ivory chessmen, winning him many prizes in the competitions of the Ornamental Turners Society and of the Worshipful Company of Turners.  Both he and his father could produce a 3-inch tall knight in about an hour.  When he died in 2011, a tribute to him by John Edwards in The Society of Ornamental Turners Bulletin, said:

The passing of Bill Jones brings to an end the era of the “ivory turner”. Bill was probably the last of this old school of skilled hand craftsmen, his career ending simultaneously with the curtailment of the ivory trade [there was a worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1989].

Most of Bill’s work was from another era, as were many of his techniques. Many of the skills he used and demonstrated are now a lost art; he could pretty much make anything held in one of his chalked jam chucks and join anything together in a blink of an eye, with threading.

Maureen Spinks
April 2024

Sources of information

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