David Bowie

David Bowie

The Family History of

David Robert Jones

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)

Aladdin Sane was the title of an Album and single released by David Bowie at the height of his fame in the 1970s.  The title was said to have been inspired by both his regard for his brother who suffered from schizophrenia, and by the decadence and hedonism he saw amongst young people in the 1970s.  The dates in brackets represented the theme of the song, the eve of the two World Wars, when decadence was at its height, and the 197? date represented what Bowie saw as the coming World War in the 1970s (which most of us who can remember, believed was more likely than not against Russia and China at the time).

But his family had a more personal tie to these dates.  Many of us now in our 50s and 60s had vicarious experience of the Wars through our parents and grand parents, and Bowie was no exception.

A South London Beckenham/Brixton Boy whose History came from Yorkshire

Although born and breed a South Londoner, Bowie (Real name David Robert Jones) had his family roots much farther North.  The earliest verifiable records of his Jones family come from the village of Wykeham just inland from Scarborough in Yorkshire.  The Joneses were Agricultural Labourers, the most common, and poor, occupation of all British working class ancestors in the 19th century.  They were on the bottom of the social heap in Wykeham right through the 1700s and into the mid 1800s.

Some of the family managed to get themselves a little land and farm it, and this helped David’s line as it meant that his Great Great Grandfather, Charles Jones, could find employment on his brother’s farm, where, hopefully, he would be less exploited than with another farmer.  However, by the 1860s Charles was working on the roads, hard unforgiving work for hard strong men, and an odd choice in a county where there was generally plenty of agricultural work, so Charles probably took up road building for short term gain when the parishes and local landowners decided to upgrade and maintain the local road system and needed to compete on wages to find men to do the work.  Charles lived out his life in Wykeham apart from a short time in Hutton Buscel the village in walking distance where his wife Elizabeth Marriner came from.  Charles never rose above a Labourer’s level on the roads and fields around Wykeham.

Go West Young Man- LEEDS!

Joseph Jones 1851 – 1918 (David Bowie’s Great Grandfather)

Charles son Joseph  got a break in the early 1870s, he became apprenticed to a shoemaker, and shoemaking would be the making of the family lifting them out of their breadline precarious existence.  After serving his apprenticeship in Wykeham, Joseph moved to the industrial magnet of Yorkshire; Leeds.

Joseph married Ann Haywood, a Power Loom Overlooker’s daughter.  This was a step up in the world, Joseph Haywood was effectively the foreman in a weaving factory, and Joseph Jones must have shown some promise to have been able to marry the man’s daughter, and sure enough this is reflected in the fact that Joseph Jones is no longer a Boot maker, he is by 1881 a Boot maker’s cashier, the first of his line to have lifted himself above low wages and manual labour.  The indication is, that for all he was a labourer, Joseph Jones’s father Charles Jones, had made sure his son got an education, even before it became compulsory in 1871, he could read, write, and do arithmetic, very unusual for a labourer’s child born in a rural area in the 1850s.  That one fact would make all the difference to how the family would develop in all the coming generations.

Charles worked for decades in his Cashier’s job, he rose from cashier to a Management position in the company.  he was able to provide very well for his family, living in the same nine roomed detached house, Townend House in Bramley for or 35 years, with his Mother-in-law living alongside them after the death of her husband, and the family being able to afford a live in maid for all that time.  No doubt the Jones family were good to work for as one maid, Edith Watkin, stayed with the family for over a decade.  Joseph lived long enough to retire by the time he was 60 in 1911, none of his immediate ancestors had come that far.9townendhouse

His life seemed settled, successful, and fulfilled, but that was on the eve of The Great War.

Success and Tragedy

Robert Haywood Jones 1882 – 1916 (David Bowie’s Grandfather)

Robert was the third child of Joseph and Anne Jones, growing up in Townend House Bramley with his parents, three brothers and three sisters, and his maternal Grandmother in a strong and stable middleclass family environment.  His parents believed in education the way his Grandfather had, and Robert went to the Central School, and progressed further to the Central Higher Grade School, so he was destined for white collar work like his father.

Robert went into Boot dealership on the sales side rather than making boots the way his father had started, and worked for a number of years for the Mansfield & Sons Boot Dealers of Leeds, but he was ambitious and successful, and moved on to become proprietor of his own company The Jubilee Boot Company of Doncaster.

Robert married a local Doncaster girl, Zillah Hannah Blackburn, a millwright’s daughter, in 1909, she would be the love of his life, and he of hers. The following year they had a daughter called Roma, and in 1912 a son called Stenton Haywood Jones (David Bowie’s father).

Everything in the couple’s life was good, good prospects, two children, a boy and a girl, and close family on both sides.  Then a shot rang out in Sarajevo that rocked the world, The Great War had begun.


Up until 1916 there was no conscription in the British Army, but with the ever burdening loss of life brought about by modern weapons and poor leadership at the front, conscription was needed to stop the Allies being overwhelmed by the Germans.  Initially in January 1916, only single men were conscripted, but within a few months conscription was rolled out to married men as well.  Robert was therefore in a position where despite his settled life with a wife and two young children, he like thousands of others would either need to enlist and have some choice in the regiment they went to, or be conscripted and sent to any Regiment that was short of men.  So Robert enlisted on 5th July 1916 into the 2nd Battalion of The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI).

The KOYLI put Robert through two months of basic training, let him kiss Zillah and his babies goodbye, and shipped him to France on 27 September 1916 with the British Expeditionary Force.  less than two months after this, on 18th November 1916, Robert’s unit was thrown into the very last offensive of the Somme Campaign.

At 6.10 on that dark winter morning the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry stormed up a ridge to try to capture the German trenches code named “Munich and Frankfort”, about a mile north east of Beaumont Hamel.  Robert and his Yorkshire Pals attacked headfirst into a mire of shell holes and mud, through sleet and snow that turned to driving rain as the temperature of the day rose above freezing point.  They hit a reinforced German strong point in the Munich Trench, and were cut down and forced to halt their advance and open a fire fight with the defending German units.

So confused was the situation in some sectors that one party of British soldiers pushed past a German strongpoint without seeing it in the mist, only to find themselves attacked in the rear by the surprised German defenders, who surrounded them, and called for their surrender.  Although cut off and outnumbered the Tommies refused to surrender and fought to the death, their bodies were found after the battle in a small concentrated heap where they fell in their last stand.

About a hundred and twenty British troops, including two Privates and an officer from Robert’s Battalion of the KOYLI, did managed to reach and take part of the Frankfort trench, where, completely cut off and surrounded by counter attacking Germans, they held out on their own for an incredible eight days, fighting off determined German attacks, with scavenged weapons and ammunition and a couple of Lewis guns, resorting to hand to hand combat with bayonets and rifle butts towards the end.  On the seventh day of the siege, the Germans approached with a white flag, and offerred to take their surrender, the offer was refused, so the Germans shelled the position, and followed this with a massed assault from all sides and overran their position. The survivors only contained fifteen men who weren’t seriously wounded, and most of these were too weak to stand.

Robert was probably cut down by German machine gun fire during the initial attack up the ridge, where he was seen by his comrades wounded, but still alive . By nightfall on November 18th 1916, the survivors of the British attacking force largely fell back to their own original lines, leaving their dead and wounded behind.  Robert was left with the other wounded and dieing on the muddy slopes of the ridge.  Death came to these men in the mercifully quick form of bleeding to death if they were lucky, or in the more agonising form of thirst and cold over many days if they were unlucky.  The wounded would have tried to crawl back to their own lines, but the ground was appaling, one officer was quoted as saying that this was the only engagement he had seen during the whole of the war where men were literally dieing from exhaustion of trying to haul themselves out of the mud.  It was just under four months since Robert had been happy at home with his wife and children.

Despite the incredible bravery shown by British soldiers of all ranks in the assault, through mud, mist, sleet. snow, driving rain, and a hail of machine gun bullets, the operation ended in a costly failure.  The British had lost over 400,000 casualties in the Somme Campaign for the gain of a strip of land six miles deep and twenty wide.beaumonthame1

The news when it arrived back in Doncaster to Zillah with young four year old Haywood and six year old Roma was devastating.  The love of her life was dead on a muddy slope, due to a futile attack, on a bitter cold morning.  It was too much for Zillah, and she died three months just before Valentine’s Day in 1917, her heart broken. She was thirty years old.

Orphans with an inheritance

 Haywood Stenton Jones (David Bowie’s Father)

Because he was still listed as missing rather than dead, Robert’s effects weren’t finally disposed into administration until 1920, when he was declared officially dead by the War Office.

The children’s guardian was Frederick Blackburn, Zillah’s Father, he had received a small pension of just over £2 per from the War Office for looking after the children, and in 1920 £225 7s as the sum of Robert’s worldly goods, the equivalent of about £23,000 in today’s average earnings.

Once he reached 21 in 1933, Haywood received an inheritance of £3,000 from a trust fund that had been set up for him by his Father’s family.  £3,000 in 1933 was the equivalent in  average earnings of £500,000 in today’s value.

The 1930s were a period of old endings and new beginnings for Haywood, his guardian Fred Blackburn had died in 1923, passing on a small inheritance and much responsibility to Rowland Blackburn his son who worked in the Boot making business.  Joseph and Ann Jones their other Grand Parents on their father’s side of the family were gone, Joseph in 1918, and Ann in 1933.  So Haywood Stenton Jones, having been given an inheritance decided that there was little to keep him where he was, and instead decided to follow his hearts desire; Show Business!

The Smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.

The money was burning a hole in Haywood’s pocket, and he fell in with an Irish Impresario, James Sullivan, with an attractive daughter Hilda Sullivan, who sang, danced and played the piano, a natural performer.  One thing led to another, and Haywood got himself a Theatre Troup, that went bust, followed by a marriage to Hilda, and the purchase of a West End Nightclub in Charlotte St, named the “Boop-a-Doop” club to show off Hilda’s talents.  This venture also failed, and the pair had to seek employment.  This put a strain on the relationship, Haywood turned to drink and had an affair producing a daughter called Annette, who, remarkably, Hilda agreed to raise as their own.  Finally the drink affected his health and Haywood was forced to consider the mess he was in.  The result, apparently inspired by a dream, was for Haywood to get a job working for Dr Barnardo’s Charity, caring for orphaned children,  Haywood would successfully remain in their service from the next 35 years.


But during his time with Hilda World War Two happened, Haywood, like his father Robert, left his Family and went to war, in his case in the Royal Fusiliers, serving in North Africa and Italy.  The difference this time was that Haywood would survive.

On his return, he lived with Hilda, but met a girl named Margaret (Peggy) Burns, with whom he started an affair.  Peggy had a colourful past, already having had two children through affairs, the eldest, her son by a French Jewish émigré, (David Bowie’s half brother Terry), was idolised by Bowie as he grew up.  The couple carried on their unconventional relationship, by actually living with Haywood’s wife for a while, before Hilda had enough of the situation, told them to leave and granted Haywood a divorce.  On the back of this Haywood and Peggy married in 1947, a few months after David Robert Jones (David Bowie) was born to the couple.

Aladdin Sane

Which brings us full circle. Knowing the intimate background of David Bowie’s family life through three generations, explains his fixation with in the Aladdin Sane Album of hedonistic young people being plunged into the hell of war, it had happened to his Grandfather and his Father, and he probably believed that the same would happen to him in the 1970s.  Thankfully it didn’t, and we were blessed with a further  40 years of his brilliance.


2 Replies to “David Bowie”

  1. This is terrific but you seem to have got a bit lost in your subheadings as to whether David’s great-grandfather was Charles or Joseph Jones.


    1. Well spotted Tom, yes, typo heading corrected, David Bowie’s Great GrandFather now “Joseph Jones”.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.


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