In 1850 a young harpist named John Roberts, with his wife and three children, moved into a tiny house in Frolic Street, in the heart of the old Ladywell district of Newtown. Over the next forty years he was to achieve fame for himself and his family as the nation’s leading performers on the Welsh triple harp, playing for town and country dances, public concerts, eisteddfods, gentry parties, even Royal visits. His unique upbringing as the son of a Romani mother and a Welsh father endowed him not only with an instinctive talent for music but a deep and abiding knowledge of Romani culture, folklore and language of which he was very proud, and which remained with him all his life.
John Roberts was born in 1816, to John and Sarah Roberts. The exact date of his birth is not known but he was baptised on 24th November 1816. John was brought up as a gypsy, travelling the roads, hearing the Romani language spoken all around him, absorbing the old legends and folk tales, and learning to play the violin and the triple harp. His talent as a performer on the triple harp developed during the years he spent as a drummer with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers; he began to win Eisteddfod prizes and performed three times in the presence of the young Princess Victoria. In 1839 he married his Romani cousin Eleanor Wood, and the young couple became travelling musicians, playing, singing and dancing in village halls, inns, and gentry drawing rooms.
During the Frolic Street years nine more children were born to John and Eleanor Roberts, including two sets of twins. Nearly all of them grew up to be musicians, playing not only the Welsh triple harp but the English harp, the violin, the cello and many other instruments – even the piccolo. By the 1870s John Roberts and his sons Lloyd, Madoc, John Jnr., twins James and Reuben, Albert, twins Charles and Ernest, and the youngest boy William, were calling themselves the Original Cambrian Minstrels, and were in demand as performers all over Wales, and winning countless eisteddfod prizes, gold medals and prize harps. But they were always happy to play for the people of Newtown, at concerts and dances – including Pryce-Jones Warehouse balls.
It was from 1884 that John Roberts was persuaded to adopt the style of Telynor Cymru or Harpist of Wales. With his proud bearing and his immense white beard, he still took central stage for performances by the Original Cambrian Minstrels when in 1889 they performed at the great St David’s Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In August that year came the high point of John Roberts’s career when he and his sons were engaged to play for Queen Victoria during her visit to Palé Hall near Llandderfel, Merioneth.
By the early 1890s John Roberts’s health was failing, and he ceased playing his harp in public. In December 1893 he suffered a slight stroke, and, coming to the sad realisation that his life as Telynor Cymru was at an end, he gave his triple harp to his old friend Nicholas Bennett of Glanrafon. He died on 11th May 1894 and was buried in the churchyard of St David’s Church, Newtown, where his grave can be seen to this day. His wife Eleanor died in 1910. His sons and grandchildren were to continue to play the harp well into the 1930s. We owe a great debt to his great-grandson, E. Ernest Roberts, who felt moved to write down the story of John Roberts and the enormous contribution he made to the musical and cultural life of nineteenth century Wales.