Monday, 21 July 2014

Out Of Their Trees : Digging Up The Judas Tree

The family tree I’m digging up today is that of the heavy metal band Judas Priest. Or, more accurately, its openly gay lead singer Rob Halford. As usual it’s a tale of varied fortunes. Along the way we’ll be putting on our boots, rolling out the barrel, and having a pint with the founder of California. And we even get to meet some real priests.

Rob Halford was born in 1951, the son of Barrie Halford and his wife Joan, née Elsden. Most of his recent ancestry is based in the West Midlands around Walsall. Rob is rightly proud of his working class background, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any money or influence in the family.

Up until the early part of the last century the Halfords were boot makers by trade, with Rob’s great-great-grandfather William becoming successful enough to set up a business as a boot manufacturer in Walsall employing 20 people and having several shops. But William Halford was not a native of Walsall. He came from Nottingham and he didn’t come from a boot-making family.

William’s father, another William, was a cooper with 2 shops in Nottingham. After William senior’s death in 1864 the business was taken over by his widow Elizabeth. William junior had moved to Walsall by then and had set up his boot business and was married.

There was enough money in the family for William senior to send his youngest son to the local grammar school. This son was an earlier Rob Halford, born in 1840, who was to become a leading civil figure in Nottingham. This earlier Rob – properly Robert Halford – became an estate agent and valuer, and later chairman of the Nottingham Banking Company. He also became a magistrate, and died in 1910.

The Halford Nottinghamshire roots go further back. Through William Halford senior’s wife, the aforementioned Elizabeth, we can go back to the Savage family. Records are pretty scant from this period, around 1700. It looks likely that Rob’s ancestry can be traced to some very real priests! There’s nothing to confirm this, but evidence suggests Rob is descended from father and son Rev. John and Rev. Thomas Savage, both Rectors of Sutton Bonington, south of Nottingham. Other evidence of them being descended from Sir Thomas Savage of Elmley Castle in Worcestershire is even harder to verify.

William junior’s son, Henry Wyatt Halford, married Elizabeth Flavell in 1893. Her grandfather founded California. Not California, USA, but California, a suburb of Birmingham in England.

Legend has it that Isaac Flavell (1792-1870) went to America to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. However, in 1842 he bought a farm near Birmingham. There’s no record of him in the USA and the Gold Rush didn’t begin until 1847, but he made his fortune quarrying red clay on his farm estate and setting up a brick making business. The Industrial Revolution was in full flow and many cities and towns were in desperate need of bricks to build factories and homes.

By 1851 Isaac was also owner of a brand new pub (maybe one built from his own bricks). The name of his pub was The California Inn. Perhaps he had spent time in America before the Gold Rush and (like my own grandfather and Newton Brook in Toronto) named his home after a place where he previously spent some time. This was probably before his rather late marriage at the age of 40 in Birmingham cathedral in 1833. Isaac got the beer for his pub from his brother-in-law Henry Chinn who had a barley farm near by and was a brewer. Henry took over running the pub when Isaac retired. The pub became so popular that the whole area was named after it. Which is why there’s still a California in Birmingham.

We’ll turn now to Rob’s mother’s family the Elsdens. Joan Elsden was the daughter of Arthur Augustus Elsden (1899-1937). In this centenary year of World War I it seems appropriate to mention Arthur. During the first months of the war many young men, like my other grandfather, rushed to sign up in the army. Rob Halford’s grandfather Arthur was another. Some were so eager to sign up that they lied about their age. Arthur Elsden was one of them. In 1915 he signed up in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was sent for training on Bodmin Moor. He gave his age as 17. As you can see from the dates he was actually 16. The Ministry of Defence found out and, because he had been absent from several parades, Arthur was discharged. Perhaps he realised too late just how hard it was to be a soldier at such a young age. He didn’t re-apply and went to work as a railway fireman. The story has an unhappy ending. In 1937 Arthur caught meningitis and died at the age of 38 leaving a young family behind him.

Wartime tragedy touched the Eldsen family again less than 5 years later. Arthur’s son (Rob Halford’s uncle) Raymond Elseden, a sapper in the Royal Engineers, died in 1941 at the age of 18. Florence, Arthur’s widow, died in 1944 at the age of 40, and his father died in 1945.

I don’t want to end on a sad note so I’ll go back 2 more generations to Arthur Elsden’s widowed grandmother Emma, a laundress. Despite having a low-earning job and being from a working class background, on her death in 1922 she left an estate which today would be worth £30,000. Quite a legacy. I wonder where it went?

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