John Roberts' daughters
John Roberts' eldest child, Mary Ann, was born in 1840. She inherited nimble fingers and became an accomplished harpist with a sweet voice, winning Eisteddfod prizes at the ages of 10 and 18. She and her father formed a partnership from when she was a child. Mary Ann married her relative Edward Wood, and they had two children before she died, aged about 29.
Edward was comforted by her younger sister, Sarah. She had eight children with Edward but eventually separated from him. Sarah died in 1919. The third sister, Ann, did not marry and died in 1897.
John Roberts' sons
John Roberts and Sarah had ten sons between 1844-65. All of them (except Abraham) were fine musicians who performed with their father as The Cambrian Minstrels around Wales.
The eldest son was Lloyd Wynne Roberts. Lloyd played the English harp and won the main prize at the Aberystwyth Eisteddfod 1865. He was harpist to Theresa, Lady Londonderry, who was one of the foremost hostesses of her day and had a country seat at Plas Machynlleth in mid Wales. The next son, Abraham, died whilst a young child.
Madoc played the English harp and won a prize at the Llandovery Eisteddfod. He married Mary Wood (a descendant of Abram Wood), whilst one of her sisters married his brother Reuben. John won prizes for harp-playing at the Eisteddfodau of Birkenhead, Harlech, Llanover, Llanrwst, Llanwrtyd, Mold, Port Madoc, Rhayader and Towyn.
James England was a twin to Reuben France and played the flageolet and piccolo. Twin Reuben France married Ellen Wood, and they had fourteen children. Reuben made his living from playing the English harp and still performed on Rhyl promenade in North Wales when he was 70. His eldest son, Ernest France, was the father of Welsh harpist Eldra. Reuben died in 1949.
Albert continued John Robert's success with the Welsh harp. He won many prizes at various Eisteddfodau and earned himself the title 'Pencerdd y Delyn Deir-Res' (Chief Musician of the Triple-Stringed Harp).
In 1881 he and his father played for the Empress of Austria when she visited Shropshire. Charlie Wood (a relative who had been brought up by John) went with them and sang penillion (traditional singing to the harp). Charlie reminisced that "she wasn't much to look at" and complained that he had to carry John's harp for him between a line-up of footmen.
Ernest was a twin to Charles and played the double bass viol or Welsh harp. He married a farmer's daughter and eventually moved to Wilmcote in Warwickshire to run a post office. He lived to be 100 years old. His twin Charles played the harp or cello.
William was the youngest son. He played both the harp and violin and won a prize at the Llanrwst Eisteddfod of 1878. Later on, he played the harp in the Eugene Magyar band when they performed at the London Palladium during the 1932 Royal Command Performance. He also played at the Pheonix Theatre in London.
Ernest France Roberts
Ernest France was Reuben France's eldest son and John Roberts' grandson. He joined the band of the South Wales Borderers as a harpist and served in the Boer War (1899-1902). Ernest married Edith Howard, who was the daughter of Eldorai, a descendant of Abram Wood.
After the war he worked as a game- and river-keeper for Lord Penrhyn at Penrhyn Castle, Bangor and lived nearby in Bethesda. Ernest taught his daughter, Eldra, to play the harp, and the neighbours would come round for an evening of singing and dancing.
Eldra Roberts (Jarman)
Eldra was born in 1917 and was the daughter of Ernest France and Edith Howard. She inherited John Roberts' (her great-grandfather's) skill and, like him, she became a well known player of the Welsh harp. Eldra in turn passed on her musical knowledge by teaching Robin Huw Bowen the Gypsy tunes she had learnt from her father, plus her own compositions such as Eldra's Polka. Today Robin is an acknowledged authority, lecturing and performing Welsh harp music around the world.
Eldra married Alfred Jarman, who became Professor of Welsh at University College, Cardiff, and they had two daughters, Teleri and Nia. Her husband wasn't Romany but they jointly wrote Y Sipsiwn Cymreig (UWP, 1979) and its English version The Welsh Gypsies: Children of Abram Wood (1991) about the Wood and Roberts Gypsy families.
Shortly before she died in 2000, Eldra collaborated on a television script aired on S4C in 2001. Called Eldra, the drama was loosely based on her life as a child in Bethesda. Fittingly, the score was composed and played on the harp by Robin Huw Bowen. The film won five awards at the BAFTAs (Cymru), including the prize for Best Original Music. A newly released DVD of the production is available from ValleyStream.
Information from The Welsh Gypsies and Teleri Gray.
Photographs courtesy of Teleri Gray copyright 2006.
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