The True Story of the Welsh Godfather

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My first contact with a Mafia boss was when I was in my primary school in Wales, and just 8 years old. At that time, I knew nothing about mafias or how the world operated. I knew nothing of politics, corruption or the real ways of the world.

The school which Johnny and I attended. We learned, years later, that the Godfather made significant contributions to the school.

The photo was taken about the time I attended the school. I might even have been one of the boys shown playing in the yard.

My best friend in school was Johnny Illsley. He was one year younger than me but he had been moved up to my class.

Johnny’s family lived in a large house in the coastal village of Ogmore-by-Sea in Wales and, one day, we were playing in the gardens. We ran up to meet his grand-dad on his return from his office in Pencoed, South Wales, from which he ran his many businesses.

Neither of us knew at the time that his grand-dad was the Mafia godfather, J.O.Williams. A rich and very powerful businessman with international and government connections dating back to the 1930s.

J.O. was born on 28 March 1886 and died on 6 July 1963 aged 77. His wife, Ethel Kate Williams (née Cobb) died on 20 March 1956 aged 69.

J.O.Williams and his eldest son Eric Williams

Although J.O. and his family were well respected locally, no-one knew much about the family members. The “respect” was at a distance. There was an aura around them, particularly “J.O.”. You never spoke first. You instinctively “knew your place”.

Mafias can be philanthropic.

They were generous to the local community without getting overly involved. You always felt there was a “barrier” between you and the family, as if they lived on a different plane from non-members of the family in the community. It wasn’t an unpleasant barrier, but it certainly existed.

The family were, and remain, understandably secretive about its past. That is true of many families, whether mafia or not. The tendency is for later generations to use their wealth, in whatever way it was obtained originally, for charitable donations within their community.

Certainly, that was true of the godfather’s daughter, Doreen Illsley née Williams, and in later years, true of Johnny Illsley himself. Mafia families are often philanthropic, once they’ve made their fortunes.

Definition of philanthropy. Mafia families can often be philanthropic.

To appreciate that this was a mafia family, we need to look at how J.O. grew his successful businesses, and to see how his actions and strategies were, in truth, those of a mafia family. Despite some archive material being released there are still unanswered questions. They are likely never to be answered. In many families, mafia and otherwise, the veil of secrecy is never lifted.

The role of governments in J.O.’s businesses.

The UK and Newfoundland governments are, even today, tight-lipped about certain events about the Godfather’s activities in Newfoundland. Some documents have been released under Freedom of Information requests, some have not. You can check for yourselves.

Since the story is complex, we need to pay close attention to how the business started, how and why J.O.’s plans started to go wrong, and how and why he, in the end, won the day.

The Godfather’s son, Eric Williams

There are no photos of his wife, Olga.

In the early hours of 3 February 1940, J.O.’s son, Eric Arthur Williams, his daughter-in-law (Olga d’Anitoff Williams), and their daughter (Erica d’Anitoff Williams) died in a house fire in Port Hope Simpson, Newfoundland. The cause of their deaths was never fully established.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Serious Crimes Unit opened their investigations as late as August 2002, 39 years after J.O.’s death. It was always suspected that the fire and the deaths resulted from the grievances that the godfather’s employees had over his treatment of them. Correspondence confirming this is in the UK National Archives.

No reports on the deaths have ever been found. No medical report from the doctor who apparently attended to Olga at the scene of the three deaths has been found. No death certificates have ever been found.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police

It may well be that my friend, Johnny Illsley, had access to the family’s papers and photos only long after J.O.’s death. They would have thrown more light on this.

J.O. Williams had directed that the original tombstone with his daughter-in-law’s name on it be removed. He had a new stone shipped from South Wales many years later.

After the deaths, he forbade any talk of his daughter-in-law. She was the grand-daughter of a Russian count. There are letters in the UK national archives stating he considered her to be of poor character. The fact that the UK government collected so much information on Williams shows how much they were scared of him.

Williams’ affairs in Newfoundland were hushed-up. In the lead up to the Second World War, a climate of trust in our political leaders was vital and good for morale. The last thing the United Kingdom and Newfoundland, its steadfast ally, wanted was to be distracted from the war effort. They regarded what J.O. was doing as a relatively trifling business dispute.

I mentioned secrecy in the J.O.Williams family. And it persists to this very day in Wales. The word used by the mafia is Omertà, the term describing the Southern Italian code of honour and code of silence. It places importance on silence and non-cooperation in the face of questioning by authorities, law enforcement officers and outsiders.

Officials in both the U.K. and Newfoundland were turning blind eyes to J.O.’s activities. They did not want to rock the boat. They did not want to draw attention to the complicity of their own governments.

I suspect that the Welsh Godfather often reminded them how much they themselves were gaining from his activities. He would have reminded them of their own involvement in his business dealings. He was out-smarting them at every juncture.

What set the Godfather apart from others was that he countered the criticisms being made against him at the time by playing them at their own game. And he played by his rules when he found current laws were not in the family’s interests.

There was never any direct retaliation. People did not “push” J.O.Williams. He was very much his own man, rarely if ever swayed by the wishes of others. He was respected and, in that sense, feared. There was an aura about him which stopped any suggestion of questioning his judgment.

We can see how J.O. manipulated politicians in the UK and Newfoundland. He sought friends and influential contacts and avoided making enemies whenever he could. This mafia Godfather wanted people on his side. We see how politicians had difficulty in dealing with or controlling him. They claimed the cover-ups were in the public interest. But, was it not also in their interests to construct a cover-up?

J.O. Williams had a sharp business-like and analytical mind. He had a gift for clear thinking. He did things his way. He did not suffer fools gladly. He outclassed most people with whom he came into contact.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

It was only much later that I pieced together enough facts from my childhood contact with the family that I realised that this was a traditional mafia family. They were not considered gangsters or criminals. They just operated and lived their lives in a different way from the rest of us.

But what of the “uncle” who worked with J.O. in his company operations in Wales, and lived in the family residence, The Cottage, Ogmore-by-Sea. Always referred to as “Uncle John” by childhood friend, John Illsley, and myself. I have no photos of him, but he bears a striking resemblance to Eric Williams, the Godfather’s dead son.

Remember, I spent all my primary school years in Wales, in close contact with this family.

If ever there was a misnomer for a house, it is for “The Cottage”. It was the largest house in Ogmore-by-Sea. J.O. and Uncle John had the entire upper floor while J.O.’s daughter, Doreen, and her husband, “Lofty” Illsley, lived on the ground floor of the house. Her lifelong friend was Bunty James but I never met her.

The Godfather’s home in Ogmore-by-Sea

The house has not altered much since the time I knew it. The garage doors have been changed and the gate is new. The gardens have more lawn areas now than previously. The beautiful shrubberies and flower beds have gone.

The Godfather’s only daughter.

Doreen’s full name was Katie Doreen Illsley (née Williams). Born in 1910 and died in 1996 aged 86. Johnny would have been about 47 years old when she died. It was probably only then that he had access to family correspondence and photos.

If you google the address, The Cottage, Ogmore-by-Sea, you will see a rear view of the house from the main road. The house was much larger than it appears. In the 1960s there were uninterrupted views from the front of the house, over their extensive gardens and land, to the Bristol Channel.

The land between the house and the coast was owned by the Godfather but rented out to a local farmer. However, they retained right of access. The Godfather’s son-in-law, “Lofty” Illsley installed a small changing facility near the boundary wall for their use when they wanted to bathe in the sea.

They would drive down from the house quite often in the summer months. It was too far to walk. We would then cross the wall and within two minutes Johnny and I would be playing on the sand or bathing.

The sands we played on. There was an unobstructed view from the big house.

The Godfather did allow one house, but only one, to be built on his land before most of it was sold off, much later, to build an extensive housing development, (Marine Walk, Marine Drive etc.).

It was the house of “Boss” Williams, the local headmaster (and not a relative). It was set well back from the Godfather’s residence. At the same time, Johnny Illsley was moved up a class.

Some Moments I Can Remember

Johnny and I being taken to a local rugby game by his grand-dad. While the Godfather parked his Armstrong Siddeley car, we dutifully queued up for tickets to the field. He called us over and bypassed the queue. Johnny’s granddad just said “J.O.Williams, J.O.Williams” as we all walked through the turnstiles unchallenged.

After watching the game in the directors’ box, we all went into the teams’ dining area for lunch. Johnny and I noticed that the usually rude and loud joking and banter from the players was absent. They were all aware that they were in the presence of the Godfather.

“I’ve got a banger. I’ve got a banger.”
At a bonfire night party, Uncle John running through the crowd with a lighted firework in his hand, throwing it only seconds before it went off. Johnny and I were scared stiff. The J.O. family often invited friends and locals to festivities such as this. The family did not make close friends outside their circle. But, they were happy to put on events to which villagers were warmly welcomed and made to feel at ease.

Firework “bangers”. The trick is to throw them before they explode in your hand, Uncle John was an expert at this.

“I don’t want the fish. We only need chips” Johnny’s parents took Johnny and I for a weekend break in their campervan. “Lofty” Illsley, Johnny’s Dad, went to the local fish and chip shop to get some chips to accompany the fish that Doreen Illsley had prepared. They wouldn’t serve him chips on their own. So, he paid for the fish and chips and threw the fish away.

Doreen Illsley with her lifelong friend, Bunty James on the right of the photo. Taken in 1935 but looking very much like I remember.

Does this tell us anything about mafia families? I think it does.

The rugby game incident, described in a previous episode, showed J.O.’s supreme confidence and realisation of his powerful godfather position. He commanded and received respect.

Uncle John and the rest of the family showed how a mafia family creates a presence within a community without getting overly involved but coming across in a friendly and positive way. Gaining respect for the family which people knew would help them if they asked.

“Lofty” Illsley, by just throwing the fish away showed, in a curious way, a steadfastness and unwavering of purpose. Totally confident in himself. All are mafia traits.

This is how mafias are run in the everyday world. They are businesses like any other. As we see in Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, the methods used were sometimes justified in order to keep the family’s reputation and respect intact against what they saw as an unfair society run by a rich establishment that only looked after their own interests.


In the context of the Godfather’s family and my personal observations and experiences, I see a mafia as a benevolent dictatorship run essentially as a “family” concern. The violence has been overplayed.

The only deaths in this true story were that of three family members of J.O.’s family in the 1940 fire, and they were probably committed by the loggers who had grievances over working conditions. They took the law into their own hands. That in itself is a typical mafia strategy.

The Godfather wanted to create a wealthy and powerful family. There is no evidence that he ever used violence. He was, as far as I am aware, not involved in drug smuggling, protection rackets, human trafficking, illegal gambling, bootlegging or the other oft-quoted activities of mafias.

It’s not illegal to outwit international governments and make a great deal of money doing so.

J O Williams and his son, Eric. Photo taken before the fire and Eric’s death in 1940. He looked exactly the same when I first met him in the 1960s. His face had not changed at all.

Provided that you showed him respect, the Godfather would be benevolent towards you, and you would be regarded as a member of his extended family. Although he was open to discussion and would listen, his decisions were final. The Godfather saw the crookedness and unfairness of much in society. He knew and experienced at first hand the corruption, bias, and self-serving of the political and judicial establishment.

He had a sharp business-like and analytical mind and a gift for clear thinking. He did things his way. J.O. Williams did not suffer fools gladly. He outclassed most people with whom he came into contact.

We think of mafia as a corrupt organised crime family not following the law as we know it. In that sense, mafias are examples of a dysfunctional and broken system. The mafia businesses themselves, of course, have a different view. To them, it is the establishment, the government, which is corrupt and dysfunctional.

As portrayed in film, we are told that they are violent crocked criminals with no redeeming features. We need to view them in a different perspective when reading the narrative of the Godfather’s family.

Some perspectives of what a mafia is like in other countries, including Thailand.

Thais are fully aware that there are mafias in their country but do not openly call them by that name. They talk of them as organisations that are corrupt and cheat other people.

There is no stigma in being called a mafia man. In fact, the Thai for a mafia godfather is poo mee ithipon, a man of respect. Having respect for those better than oneself in the hierarchy are cultural traits of the Thai.

Comparing Western Mafias with Thailand and Singapore.

Thailand’s layback attitude, mai pen rai, is conducive to the creation and maintenance of mafias. Thais believe it is wrong to challenge the mafias that exist here.

They want to avoid any conflict with their “betters”, the élite, and the government. For that reason, most Thais generally accept government propaganda, and even accept what they read on social and mainstream media.

The concepts of mai pen rai and avoiding open conflict are cultural traits that are well established in Thailand. Because Thais have a strong sense of “knowing their place” in society’s hierarchy, they do not challenge the mafias.

A small bribe or gift can make the machinery of business and bureaucracy move more quickly. Receiving bribes is regarded as part of one’s salary, a job perk. Big international corporations and politicians in Thailand are regularly accused of giving large sums to secure lucrative contracts.

Although not a purely Thai phenomenon, it has been present throughout Thai history and is culturally accepted in the Far East.

Handing over a bribe in a brown envelope. In Thailand, the transaction is completed discreetly, “under the table”.

There are mafias in Singapore despite the country having a reputation for zero tolerance towards corruption. You cannot bribe your way out of a traffic offence. Even with the lowest rate of corruption in South East Asia, organised crime is accepted as an inevitable way of life in this island state. And cannot be changed.

Zero tolerance on Corruption cartoon. Note the guy with the Loot racing past.

The Western Mindset.

In the West, corruption is seen as wrong and unacceptable. That does not stop some politicians and business owners in the West indulging in the practice. Lobbyists giving “cash for questions” in parliament to sway the opinions of governments elected by the voters who put them into power.

Expensive all-in holidays for business leaders whose favours are being sought.

The question is not whether corruption exists or should exist. The question is whether it should be seen as acceptable in a nation’s culture. And if it is accepted, to what extent? Should only “minor” corruptions be allowed? And who makes that decision?

Fear or Respect?
I do not think Thais live in fear, as has been suggested by some foreign observers. It is worth repeating that they do not oppose the élite establishment, the hierarchy.

They are brought up with a high regard for the respect of elders and “betters”. That’s not a word I like using, but it accurately reflects that Thais do not believe all people are equal.

If you listen to a subordinate speaking to a superior in the work environment, you will immediately observe the difference in rank that is being shown. Both the gesture of the wai and the actual words used in speaking will clearly show who is who in the pecking order. The respect given to the elder or superior is very visible.

A good summary of the “pecking order” in Thailand. It’s rigourously followed.

An employee will be careful in making a suggestion if he or she disagrees with the boss. There will be no direct refusal of his instructions. As one of my Thai friends said, the employee may use a different approach later and will no doubt gossip about the incident, but there will be no disobedience. That may be misguided respect but it is not fear.

Contacts, Money culture, and Merit.
Thais understand that many of their compatriots get their positions through whom they know and not always through merit. Moving to a fuller meritocracy is slow.

This explains why men of respect and mafias are tolerated. It explains why, because of the strict acceptance of status and hierarchy, mafias will always be with us.

Political instability has been a common feature in Thailand from the early days of this fledgling democracy. I don’t imagine Thais like the concept of coups d’état any more than any other nation, but coups aren’t quite the same here. It’s business as usual and part of the culture. The foreign media do not appreciate that. Democracy in Thailand is about respecting a higher authority.

Reform and a more open education system is needed for democracy to become effective and to allow ballot boxes to determine governments that act for the benefit of all Thailand’s citizens. Provided, of course, that the electoral candidates have the welfare of the total population in mind. A benevolent elected government or a benevolent totalitarian government (akin to a mafia) may be the best solution for Thailand’s future.

A coup in Thailand. Tanks and soldiers on the streets.

In the West, we do not have military coups but do the big banks, oil companies, and powerful lobbyists influence the running of elected governments? Are they behaving as if they are coup leaders bent on thwarting the views of the majority electorate? Are they mafias in all but name?

Democracy or Totalitarian Rule
Churchill made a number of quotes about Democracy, the most famous being, “democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

A benevolent but authoritarian dictatorship can often work better as it provides permanence and decisiveness other than short term fixes. Mafias, like dictatorships, don’t rely on elections. Their systems work precisely because the “electorate” has trust that the family will look after their better interests provided that there is mutual respect. The downside of course is that the system discourages thinking about or questioning the mafia’s rulings and actions.

Mafias play a strong role in Thai society. The Godfather in Wales is, as we will see, in good company with Godfathers from other countries.

In Thailand, it is customary to invite your superior to speak at your son’s wedding, to ask him to be the guest of honour at the opening of a new building, or to sit with the family in the front row at a funeral. A great opportunity for ordinary people to be influenced by these mafia cliques.

The poloi, the plebs sometimes referred to as the uneducated masses, are easy prey for the mafia godfathers of the élite.

There is an example in my book, A Thailand Diary. Khun Sompanya, desperate to re-gain some popularity, tried inviting a senior government official to open an extension to the main office building. More specifically, to open the new toilet block.

He politely declined. It reminded me of the story of the French mayor in Gabriel Chevalier’s Clochemerle when he planned to construct a urinal in the town square of his village in Beaujolais.

Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevalier. A fictional town but relevant to this story.

The ceremony of the loo would have attracted a lot of formal white uniforms being worn and the taking of many photographs. The younger generation, and indeed even middle-aged Thais, are beginning to shy away from such functions requiring this show of uniforms.

At a recent event, it was noticeable that some key people were absent. Many people were not wearing their full insignia. This tradition of showing your position in public is not now always observed.

But national events, especially those associated with royalty and Buddhism, continue to attract high numbers of participants.

Sometimes your judgment can become suspect if you try too hard to impress or show off. The Thai love of ceremonial and dressing up can, if repeated too often, become a little overbearing and boring. Showing one’s rank and status in society is a Thai characteristic that the élite particularly do not always get right. It can backfire on them. Khun Sompanya is going to have to think of another way to be noticed in the district.

The toilet is in use, but nobody was privy (sic) to any opening ceremony.

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Let’s look at some world mafias.

While the Italian authorities and media attention were focused on the Sicilians, the Calabrians were able to slowly but steadily expand into Italy’s wealthy north. Al Jazeera reports that the crackdown, which was accompanied by a flood of grass-roots anti-Mafia campaigns, led to major changes in the crime syndicate’s culture.

But the rise of the Calabrian Ndrangheta only proved to be the trigger that enabled the state’s successful war on the Sicilian mafia, and many arrests followed.

A police mugshot of a Calabrian Ndrangheta godfather

In the 1990s, a spate of assassinations across Sicily targeting anti-Mafia judges, police chiefs and politicians prompted a public backlash against the Mafia. The huge government crackdown did indeed curb the power of the Sicilian syndicate.

The prosecutor, Piero Grasso, argued in his 2001 book The Invisible Mafia that the days of the celebrity mob boss flaunting flashy cars and expensive cigars have long gone. Today’s Mafiosi keep a low profile. By disappearing from public view — no more dead policemen or kidnapped journalists.

Actually, mafias are businesses, not gangs of hoodlums. They have board meetings, as we see above, in order to run their empires.

But elsewhere, the Mafia has lulled opponents into complacency. Grasso wrote that “the myth of the Mafia as a defanged beast could not be further from the truth, especially in the south of Italy, where organised crime “occupies the entire territory”.

According to anti-Mafia prosecutor Federico Cafiero De Raho, legitimate businesses across Calabria, particularly those involved in construction and public works, are frequently controlled by gangs.

Italy’s “Rai News” reported that in some hotbeds of Mafia activity, the line between organised crime and the state is far from clear-cut. A few years ago, police arrested 169 people in Germany and Italy over suspected connections to Mafia organisations, more than a dozen of whom were local Calabrian government officials, including three mayors and a deputy mayor.

The Daily Telegraph wrote that, despite a stream of arrests and prosecutions, the mafia has proven very adaptable to new scenarios, preying on weakness and looking for economic crises as sources of opportunities. The bombing of the Twin Towers is a good example. Many law enforcement officers were taken off anti-mafia duties.

A mafioso arrested by Italian police. He’s smiling because he probably knows some judges who will find him not guilty.

The EU and beyond.
During the twenty-first century, the Mafia has extended its operations across Europe and beyond. Thanks mostly to the global drugs trade, Italian crime families now operate “from Armenia to Australia”, as The Sydney Morning Herald puts it. Common rackets include extortion, prostitution, counterfeiting and arms sales But, drug trafficking is by far the most lucrative.

A 2014 profile of the Ndrangheta by the Demoskopika research institute found that the organisation had raked in a total of €53bn (£47bn) over the previous year — “more than Deutsche Bank and McDonald’s put together”, says The Guardian, and equivalent to 3.5% of Italy’s GDP.

Even in the heavily regulated EU, mafias are able to infiltrate legitimate businesses. A 2015 report funded by the European Commission found evidence of Mafia investment in “a large number of European countries… in particular, in real estate, construction companies, bars, restaurants and the wholesale and retail of food products”. The Ndrangheta can now call upon up to 60,000 foot soldiers scattered across 30 countries, says Quartz.

The U.S.

In 2011, a raid dubbed the “largest Mob round-up in FBI history” brought in 127 suspected Mafiosi, members of the mafia, on charges of corruption, racketeering, extortion, drug trafficking and murder. Despite this, the head of New York’s FBI office acknowledged that the best efforts of the justice system had not “eradicated the problem”, telling The New York Times that the idea of the mafia mob as a thing of the past was “a myth”.

Later, in 2016, Selwyn Raab, an authority on the US Mafia, wrote that the 9/11 attacks had proved an unexpected gift to the syndicate, as the majority of the FBI’s organised crime agents were reassigned to the war on terror.

This reduced scrutiny has allowed US crime families to regroup and revive in recent years. “They are shipping more blood over from Sicily and Southern Italy,” Raab told Rolling Stone magazine.

Arriving in Italy from Sicily. I’m not suggesting they are all Mafia recruits.

Obviously, the Mafia does not advertise their new recruits arriving from Sicily. And I’m not suggesting the Sicilian arrivals in the photo above are all fresh recruits.

However, one sign that the Mafia remains far from regaining its heyday is the group’s current lack of political clout, says Raab. Until well into the 20th century, “they were so influential in politics and the court system, and with that influence they could fix elections”, he says. “That was the scariest aspect.”

The true story of the J.O.Williams family can now be seen in perspective.

Mafias are all around us.
As we saw in the way J.O. treated his workers in those early days in Port Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, mafias have harmful effects on societies. We also saw that it was not only the greed of entrepreneurs which caused the emergence of mafias, but also the political maneuverings of foreign governments.

The essential feature of a mafia is its firm belief that it can do good for those who respect the mafia family and become a part of its extended family. More than for those in society who kowtow to people in a corrupt and greedy real world that has no respect for them as individuals.

Here are five definitions of Mafias.

• An organised international body of criminals, operating originally in Sicily and now especially in Italy and the US, and having a complex and ruthless behavioural code.
• Any organised group of criminals resembling the Mafia in its way of operating.
• A group regarded as exerting a hidden sinister influence.
• A hierarchical structure, a secretive organisation often involved in smuggling, racketeering, trafficking in drugs and people, protection, prostitution, and other illegal activities.
• Businessmen and politicians operating outside the law.

Members of a Mafia run their businesses in the same way as big international companies — decisions are made in regular board meetings.

This is what a mafia board meeting might look like.

The following quotes give a better understanding of what a mafia is. The first is written by a Sicilian.

“It seems everybody has their personal view of what mafias are and how they developed. I am Sicilian and the study of the Mafias (we prefer plural vs one single mafia) is one of my interests as a Sicilian and as a student. Also… I’m no member of any “family” you may think of.

“The word itself has rather obscure origins, and its history and meaning are totally unrelated to the modern concept of the mafia. Modern Mafias have so many different aspects I couldn’t say if one is less accurate than others.

“Nowadays, the term “mafia” can, sadly, relate to almost every socio-political aspect of our lives. We could say the word itself has gained a more general and complex meaning since its migration from Sicily to other countries.

“As regards the word itself, its origin can be traced back for centuries. Sure, it had something to do with the many invasions Sicily was exposed to. Sicily had been invaded by pretty much all of the peoples in the Mediterranean Area: Greeks, Romans, Normands (French), Arabs, Spanish, and Italians.

“This gave the island’s culture an immense richness but, as a side effect, created among Sicilians a silent “brotherhood” against anyone coming from the outside world.

The start of an initiation ceremony for the Hong Kong Triad mafia.

“This later degenerated into the oppression and control of those not part of the mafia family. The word Mafia had become a synonym for organised crime.

Mafia godfathers believe that their regimes can run a fairer society for people than current “democratically elected” governments and élites. The godfathers argue that those in power put their own greed and corruption above the wishes of the people who elected them.

Mafias do not kowtow to those who are corrupt and greedy. They believe that their methods result in a fairer society based on respect.

Background to J.O.’s rise to power and influence. 1900–2003

We describe below the complex history of J.O.’s career from junior clerk to mafia boss. Most of this is gleaned from the writings of Llewelyn Prichard, a travel writer who sold tours to tourists and who has written books on Pope Paul II and on the town of Gloucester in England. I have edited the script only to correct ambiguities and to improve readability.

Pritchard’s writing has been fact-checked as much as possible. I have changed only obvious errors based on my own personal knowledge of the family between 1954 and 1970 and have verified some facts with members of the local community who knew the family more closely than he clearly did.

John Osborn Williams (28 March 1886–6 July 1963) was the owner of the logging and pit-prop exporting business known as The Labrador Development Company Ltd based in Port Hope Simpson, Newfoundland and Labrador from 1934–1948.

Workers in the logging operation loading a ship. Labrador Development Company

Most readers and followers prefer to read on a tablet.

It’s easier on the eye to read a story with wrap-around text.

The Godfather’s time in Newfoundland became the basis for his wealth and power. With his skill in negotiating with governments and his ruthless business methods, he was establishing his position as founder of his own mafia family.

Williams was born at 46 George Street, Cardiff, Wales, his parents’ home, and was the youngest son of Silas and Mary Williams. He was one of eight children and known as “Jack” within the family. He left school at age 14 in 1900 and entered the timber-exporting business.

“J.O.” as he was usually known, became a commercial clerk at the age of fifteen, as did two of his brothers, Hiram and Arthur. This experience was the background for at least two other logging, trading, and shipping agency companies he set up.

In 1908, at 22 years of age, he worked for Evans and Reed, Cardiff coal exporters and importers of pit-props. In 1914, during the First World War, he worked in the Baltic area, and in August of that year, he went to Montreal, spending September to December 1914 in the Dominion of Newfoundland. In 1921 he obtained a loan from Franklin Thomas and Company of Cardiff to develop his business interests, setting up the J. O. Williams Company.

J.O. also had shares in the British and North American Trading Company but lost a great deal of money when it went bankrupt. In the future, J.O. was careful to use other people’s (and government) money to fund his business expansion.

J.O.’s Big Break
His big break came when on board the S.S. Sylvia sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia to St John’s, Newfoundland.

The S.S.Sylvia would have sailed up these straits to reach St. Johns

Williams discussed his ambitions with Sir John Hope Simpson, the Commissioner of Natural Resources and Acting Commissioner of Justice 1934–36, and Thomas Lodge, Commissioner of Public Utilities from 1934–1937. He won them over with his enthusiasm, optimism and experience and convinced them he was just the sort of entrepreneurial man they were looking for.

For their part, they could not believe their good luck in having met him. They viewed Williams as somebody who could help them make an impact in their new posts. Lodge described Williams to the Dominions Office in London as 1/3 visionary, 1/3 speculator and 1/3 businessman.

Nevertheless, time would tell that Simpson and Lodge had made a grave error of judgment about entering into a business relationship with Williams. They believed he had deliberately misled them and was only interested in ensuring the business would benefit the mafia family he was creating.

Both Simpson and Lodge would sometimes have difficulty in distancing themselves from Williams. He had manoeuvred them into positions where they had to accept how he intended running the Labrador Development Company.

He was too charismatic and ruthless a businessman for them to ever have a chance of controlling him. They were both gaining financially from working with him. In that sense, they too were part of this extended mafia family. A mafia family is not solely comprised of blood relatives.

J.O. starts business in Port Hope Simpson.

In June 1934 the first party of managerial and administrative staff landed at the site on the Alexis River. Williams had hired 520 men, including southern Inuit men from nearby communities and unemployed men from the island of Newfoundland who came on government passes to work.

Williams showed that some sort of permanent employment in addition to the cod fishery was possible in the area. Even though he brought the southern Inuit and other workers together, most Newfoundlanders did not stay for more than two or three years. It was reported that there were almost 70 families in Port Hope Simpson in 1934.

The government’s view was that Williams was helping to “develop” Newfoundland by creating jobs for those who would otherwise be unemployed. They thought he was working in the interests of the Newfoundland economy.

Things start to go wrong for J.O.
Workers were paid from $1.75 to $2.00 per cord (48 to 55-cent/m³) of pit-props, using a bucksaw for 12 hours per day. They were put on rations of mostly beans and porridge and bought deteriorating food at high prices from the company store.

Men had to go out hunting to obtain sufficient food for themselves and their families. Many of the non-Inuit, not accustomed to the way of life, came with dreams of prosperity. They soon realised that conditions were the same as in the fishery sector. They were always in debt! Eventually forcing most of them to move back to other parts of Newfoundland.

By 26 July 1934, 225 lumbermen of the Labrador Development Company had already returned to St John’s. Although the men were keen to work, they found poor accommodation and little food.

Williams prohibited any buying and selling outside his store and controlled food prices. However, one enterprising local did bring a boatload of goods upriver to Port Hope Simpson, moored offshore and proceeded to do a brisk trade before he was stopped.

An image of a company store, where workers had no choice but to buy from the store owned by the company. This is the U.S.Coal and Coke Company’ store in 1945.

Williams’ son, Eric, was sent out to report on the selling of goods by employees and ordered that those goods be returned to St John’s. No-one would be allowed to compete against William’s monopolistic high prices.

Blind eyes are turned.
Police Superintendent O’Neil had investigated the complaints of the 225 lumbermen but declared that there were no valid grounds for their grievances.

Although that appears to be a biased conclusion, it is understandable given that the government’s concern was to get people into work, whatever the conditions. It was admitted that the preparations for the 500 men were totally inadequate when they arrived, but J.O. was never reprimanded for that.

J.O. knew he was holding all the cards in this game. He was aware that any criticism of him would reflect adversely on those in the UK and Newfoundland who had not carried out any due diligence on his plans, actions and previous business background.

A Company Town is Born.

Large-scale commercial development of the woods around Alexis and Lewis Bays for the export of pit-props to South Wales had begun. By the winter of 1935, building development at Port Hope Simpson only consisted of a community hall and a seven-room medical clinic. A general store, a hall — also used as a church and a school — had also been erected at adjacent Mill Point Cove.

Some photos of the Godfather’s workers loading pitprops at the docks.

Pitprops stored at the docks after arriving from Newfoundland.

In November 1934, Sir John Hope Simpson, who had agreed to Williams’s suggestion that the settlement be named after himself, returned to England to meet with officials at the Dominions Office. It had become apparent that J. O. Williams had lost his government’s support.

When the Dominions Office found out that the 400 houses were not being built at Port House Simpson and money had effectively been borrowed under false pretenses on Simpson’s say-so, it brought about a complete change in their attitude towards Simpson and Williams.

Simpson faced a reprimand for not insisting that Williams repaid his debts. He countered by saying that he feared that Williams would carry out his threat to pull out of Labrador and Newfoundland altogether. Williams was calling the government’s bluff.

Sir John Hope Simpson hoisting the flag naming the port Hope Simpson.

By using borrowed government funds, J.O. proceeded to make money hand over fist from 1934–1940. At the time, few people saw that he was doing that. When they did realise what was going on, it was already too late.

Efforts to Control J.O.
By 29 January 1935, it was clear that the Labrador Development Company was taking maximum advantage of exploiting the woods in an unregulated way. This state of affairs carried on from 1935 to 1940. It was only after a government director was appointed to its board in 1940 and a Public Enquiry into its affairs ordered in 1944 that Williams’s activities were finally controlled.

Pitprops were used to stop the roof of the mine falling down.

On 4 June 1935, in a confidential letter marked “secret and personal”, Sir John Hope Simpson wrote that 200 families were being settled at the Alexis River site. Less than two weeks after Simpson wrote that letter, the government took over complete financial control of all properties in both of Williams’ companies.

In a letter on 5 July 1935 to the Dominions Office, he told senior officials, Bridges and Clutterbuck, that J.O. was planning a permanent settlement. Simpson wrote that the loggers were earning great wages of about $3.00 per day. In fact, they were only earning about $1.30 per day.

By September of that year, Simpson revealed he was looking for excuses to leave the scene in Newfoundland altogether. But, he was too entrenched in the family and gaining so much financially. He did not leave.

Showing John Williams, Eric Williams, Thomas Lodge, and the Godfather (J.O.Williams).

By the end of 1936, the Company had arranged for the men to build themselves about 60 small houses for rent, but most Labradoreans chose not to live in company housing due to the high rental costs, living instead about a quarter of a mile away on the opposite side of Black Water Brook.

Thomas Lodge, the Commissioner of Public Utilities who had so emphatically praised William’s abilities after meeting him on board the S.S.Sylvia, was sacked in 1937 and the publication of his book “Dictatorship in Newfoundland in 1939” put him out of favour in London. Nevertheless, he became a government director of the Labrador Development Company in 1940!

A reminder of the main players in this saga. J.O.Williams and his son, Eric.

The Blame Game Begins

Lodge concluded that it had been the Secretary of State for Canada who had failed to give guidance to the officers of the commission. In his view, they were a collection of individuals running their own departments as an experiment in a dictatorship.

He claimed he left his post because he could no longer carry on working with people who completely failed to agree on a positive policy and because he could not convince the Secretary of State to adopt his own point of view. So, was he dismissed by the Dominions Office, or did he leave for his own reasons?

Disaffection with the Labrador Development Company representatives on site quickly set in whilst J. O. Williams was 3,000 miles away in Britain living in luxury in Cardiff city centre next door to his son, Eric.

To justify the good works done by Williams, his counsel emphasized, at the public enquiry in 1945, that the company had rendered every possible service at considerable cost to himself to provide work for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Godfather hired a top barrister to present his case.

He claimed that J.O. had adhered to the agreement made with the government on 30 April 1934. Williams’ counsel claimed that after years of work; the company had stabilised and had built up an efficient unit of workers who took an interest in their work and respected their employers.

It was also noted that between 1934 and 1939 not less than $800,000 in wages had been paid to Williams’ employees when they might otherwise have been unemployed. Williams’ counsel was putting up a strong case. No-one questioned how much J.O. was making or that he was using government (taxpayers) money.

For their part, the governments did not want to admit their failures to control J.O. or their lack of careful scrutiny of his original proposals and plans. He knew he had outmaneuvered them and they would not want to lose face.

The First of Several Mysteries

In the early hours of 3 February 1940, J.O.’s son, Eric Arthur Williams, his daughter-in-law (Olga d’Anitoff Williams), and their daughter (Erica d’Anitoff Williams) died in a house fire in Port Hope Simpson. The cause of their deaths was never fully established.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Serious Crimes Unit, which suspected foul play, opened their investigations as late as August 2002, 39 years after J.O.’s death.

An investigating officer said in 2003, “Williams…betrayed the people and no doubt this would have stirred the pot enough for someone to have taken drastic measures by their own hands and started the fire at the house that led to the deaths of Eric, Olga, and Erica, his infant daughter.”

They found out very little. No reports on the deaths in the Port Hope Simpson district for February 1940 have ever been found. No medical report from the doctor who apparently attended Olga at the scene of the three deaths has been found. No death certificates for Arthur Eric Williams, Olga d’Anitoff Williams and Erica D’Anitoff Williams have been found.

Sir John Hope Simpson

A consistent effort had been made over the years by Sir John Hope Simpson to keep the Newfoundland Rangers under the jurisdiction of the Natural Resources Department instead of under the Department of Justice.

Claude Fraser, Sir John Hope Simpson’s loyal secretary of Natural Resources, had been appointed to the post of Government Director of the Labrador Development Company Limited on exactly the same day as the deaths in Williams’ family occurred.

According to original correspondence held by the 1945 enquiry, Keith Yonge, J.O.’s store manager, ordered that the bodies should be quickly buried, and a concrete headstone inscribed and erected.

J.O. Williams directed that the original tombstone with Olga D’Anitoff’s name on it be removed. A granite memorial stone, cut from the Preseli Hills of South Wales, and without mention of Olga, was shipped out by Williams, replacing the smaller original headstone.

The replaced tombstone naming Eric Williams and his baby daughter. Eric’s wife, Olga d’Anitoff Williams, who also died in the fire, was deliberately excluded.

It is confusing that this newer tombstone shows the family address as Labrador House, Southerndown. This must have been J.O.’s residence prior to The Cottage, Ogmore-by-Sea. An extremely large and impressive house only a few hundred yards from The Cottage but technically in Southerndown and not Ogmore-by-Sea. Labrador House was destroyed before the 1950s when Johnny and I lived in the area.

After the three deaths, J.O. forbade any talk of his daughter-in-law. She was the grand-daughter of a Russian count and, there are letters in the UK national archives stating he considered her to be of poor character.

The fact that the UK government collected so much information on Williams shows how much they were scared of him.

The Welsh Godfather’s home, The Cottage, Ogmore-by Sea.

Pritchard had, it would seem, only spoken with the sole surviving family member, John Edward Illsley. When J.O. died in 1963, both John and I were living in Wales. I was 15 and John Illsley was around 14. My friend would not have known anything about the deaths and the mysteries. I certainly did not and neither did the family’s neighbours in the community.

Dominions Office Deceived by J.O.

The Dominions Office claimed they had been hoodwinked by Williams and had failed to get to the bottom of what he was up to. A group of six civil servants at the Dominions Office wanted to show that Williams was an unreliable character.

John Chadwick, one of the civil servants, believed he had seen a way out of the mess via a proposed public enquiry that would enable the government to cut all ties with Williams once and for all despite the blunders of their representative, Sir John Hope Simpson.

The Investigation.
An investigation into the affairs was held in 1945 by Chief Justice Dunfield. He emphasised that J.O.’s personal qualities of drive and persistence were outweighed by his numerous deceptions.

Some of the participants in the trial.

When Chief Justice Dunfield’s report on the public enquiry came out it meant the Dominions Office’s plan to discredit Williams’ character had seriously backfired. The government wanted the report buried after local publication in order to cover up its own involvement.

As J.C.Chadwick of the Dominions Office said on 29 June 1945, “on the whole, I should imagine that the Commission will be content to bury the main bodies of both reports as deeply as their publication locally permits.”

Judge Dunfield found that Williams had run out of liquid cash reserves that were essential to scale up the operations. He considered that the government was also at fault by pressing Williams to cut more timber merely to provide work for the people and to repay the capital and interest on the government loans.

Dunfield’s conclusion was that neither Williams nor the government fully appreciated how much the Port Hope Simpson project would cost and so the company was under-funded right from the start. It found itself in a vicious circle where it did not have sufficient funds to expand and, without the expansion, its overheads could not be carried.

Dunfield clearly implied that he was not exactly confident about the financial health of the company from the outset. His judgment was that the government went from being a supportive partner to being a strict creditor.

Then the Second World War came and stopped the free export of pit props. Dunfield acknowledged Williams’ particular line of skill but thought that he was not experienced in other fields. J.O. had already admitted as much in conversations.

Judge Dunfield held that J.O.’s venture in Newfoundland needed a much greater capital investment and a larger working capital than had been provided and laid the blame firmly on the Godfather. However, he did admit that the government was also negligent in failing to fulfil its side of the agreement.

The judge said the government lacked the type of officials who could work successfully with Williams. He turned out to be a shrewd businessman; they showed themselves as being very naïve and not capable of applying due diligence to Williams’ background and ruthless character.

They did not realise that he wanted to get as much money as possible from the UK and Newfoundland governments, not using his own considerable wealth from his operations in Cardiff, South Wales. Dunfield went so far as to say in his final report that the mafia Godfather should perhaps be given another chance. He seemed sympathetic towards J.O.Williams.

He knew that the Government had gained more than it had lost on the venture, and he did not swallow the vitriolic anti-Williams propaganda. He had found no evidence to justify the bad impression about Williams that he and other people had held before the start of the enquiry.

Dunfield was not going to take part in any sort of rigged public enquiry to attack Williams’ character and discredit him. Instead, he recommended that the Government and Williams should try again.

In 1945 the population of Port Hope Simpson had been 352 which comprised 119 children. One year later the situation started to look desperate.

As J.O. himself said in a letter in 1945, “when I restarted at Hope Simpson in 1946, I was faced with a derelict township, everything that could be turned into cash was sold, or stolen, down to the office furniture. I had already spent over $20,000 putting the place right. The argument that we could not get the labour was absurd.”

Port Hope Simpson today. A scenic part of Newfoundland.

It was only after Williams and the Labrador Development Company had left Port Hope Simpson in 1948 that the people could set about bettering themselves, but by this time many had moved away in search of work.

J.O. taking advantage of the British government.

On the one hand, the British treasury was trying to ensure that the UK taxpayer would not have to bear any loss incurred if the company went into liquidation and could not repay the government loans. On the other hand, it also wanted to make absolutely certain the government were not going to be liable for any claim made by Williams for special compensation.

Therefore, wanting to appear generous in public, within the modified terms of their final settlement, they offered to waive the interest on their loans from 30 June 1940 to 20 November 1945.

Loading pitprops.

The export of timber by J.O.’s company would be free of all tax from 1946–1955 inclusive and then subject to an export tax of 0.25 cents per cord (0.07-cent/m³) from 1956–1966. (J.O. was in Ogmore at this time). Royalties on cutting were not payable and Williams was offered a fresh timber contract in 1946.

Obviously, Williams accepted. He probably could not believe that he had outwitted the U.K. authorities yet again. As early as 1941, in a confidential letter from J.O. to Keith Yonge (the company store manager), Williams admitted that he had enough money to continue operations but wanted to get as big a concession from the government as possible before disclosing his financial strength.

The existence of this letter was unknown at the time. Its contents were revealed only at the enquiry. It is not clear if Judge Dunfield saw this letter. His remarks suggest he had not.

The Godfather was very confident that the old Labrador crowd were ready to go back to work for him. However, in a press interview on 24 December 1945, he was quoted as saying that, although 165 men were logging at Port Hope Simpson, 572 men who had been sent there in November had refused to work.

The Foreign Office in London. The former Dominions Office is now administered from here, as Canada is part of the Commonwealth.

The treasury had been consistent over the years in its unwillingness to allocate Williams any more money because of his unreliability. Nevertheless, Williams was still granted a further $100,000 loan on 15 October 1946 that included excellent terms by the government for his last timber contract — despite the fact that about half of the final contract of wood was left behind.

As Chadwick said in January 1947, “…about the Labrador Development Company’s contract with the Ministry of Supply to ship timbers to this country…Eales indicated that he expected production to be nearer the minimum figure of 8,000 fathoms than the maximum of 12,000, but it appears to have fallen much short of that. We seem to have been badly bamboozled.”

By the time the contract was completed, Williams had definitely made up his mind not to continue with his business any longer. Despite the very generous terms, he was still claiming that the evidence entitled him to a fair settlement, and he had been thinking about progressing into the fishing business in the area.

Chadwick’s view from the Dominion’s Office about the Labrador Development Company was that “our aim was to end this sordid history one way or the other rather than allow matters to drift on as they have done for the past five years.”

Another photo of the opulent Foreign Office.

The original correspondence from the Public Enquiry shows Chadwick was very eager to cut his losses from the Dominions Office’s long-running affair with Williams and in the end, Williams did not make a claim for financial compensation against the British government.

In 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador were moving towards joining the Confederation of Canada. The Godfather was, therefore, deliberating on whether to continue operations and secure a deal with the Canadian government. As he would have to have paid federal taxes on the wood, he chose to close down his operations completely at Port Hope Simpson.

The Cover-Up

The affairs of the Labrador Development Company at Port Hope Simpson were hushed-up because it would not have been in the public and national interest to have done otherwise. In the lead up to the Second World War, a climate of trust in our political leaders was vital and good for morale.

The last thing the United Kingdom and its steadfast ally Newfoundland wanted was to be distracted from the war by a relatively trifling dispute about what was going on at Port Hope Simpson.

Newfoundland had already suffered from a lack of available work and low wages following the Great Depression. It needed work for its population and The Labrador Development Company appeared to be offering just that.

The political shenanigans of Sir John Hope Simpson, John Osborn Williams, the Commission of Government and the Dominions Office only showed how much all the parties involved were taking advantage of the local workforce for their own ends.

Matt OwensRees. profile of a writer on Thailand

Matt Owens Rees in his doctoral robes.

My focus group took time to develop but is now paying dividends. I can bounce ideas off Thais from varying social classes. From poor farmers and construction workers to those working in offices and shops. From bankers to well-off business owners.

The group includes members of the so-called hi-so elite as well as military and police officers. Interaction sometimes needs to be one-to-one as Thais are cautious expressing their views in front of their other countrymen.

To understand Thailand and to integrate better with the Thai people and their culture, it’s important to observe and listen rather than doing all the talking oneself. After all, God gave us two eyes and two ears but only ONE mouth.

Through field research and discussions with Thais, either in normal conversation or in the lecture theatre, Matt presents a rich picture of the real Thailand, warts and all.

The lantern festival in Chiangmai.

He has written extensively on Thais and Thailand with 20 published books already available in ebook and print format.

Despite not being similar in style, his books reflect on some of the observations in “Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind.” ln his opinion, the best introductory book on Thais and Thailand. Written by Carol Hollinger in 1965, its insights are still very revealing and up to date.

Sadly, Hollinger passed away at 45 years old before she could see her best- selling book in print. Matt also then lost an opportunity to collaborate with her on a new book on the concept of Face in Thailand.

Most readers like to read short pieces with some photos. So, this article on a Welsh mafia godfather is published on

As well as on my website,

For professional photos on Thai traditions and people culture, I strongly recommend looking at
the images often support the articles on my own website.

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