Well, we said that our blog was going to be about ‘All Things Georgian‘ and so far we have written about relatively mainstream topics. However, as well as historians we are also both keen gypsiologists so we could not resist writing about a group of people who remained largely ‘under the radar’ during the Georgian era – the gypsy community.
Today and throughout history gypsies have received ‘bad press’, in part due to the nomadic lifestyle they led, but also for the fact that when things went missing the finger was immediately pointed at the local gypsies, often quite rightly so, as the press of the day confirmed. Given the amount of publicity their antics had it could be argued that it should make these nomadic people easier to trace for gypsiologists, sadly though, on the whole, quite the contrary is true as they prove to be a complete nightmare to track down.
Gypsies were renown for changing both their forenames and their surnames as well as using names that were almost unpronounceable making tracing their family history even more complex and difficult to track down than tracing your average family. There were several main groups that travelled around the countryside using the surnames Smith, Boswell and Grey (Gray), changing their names as quickly as the weather, presumably to avoid detection.
Many of the men were given biblical first names such as Elijah, Nehemiah, Absalom, Moses and Wisdom whereas the women had some beautifully exotic sounding names such as Cinnamenta, Trezi Ann , Lamentana or names taken from nature such as Ocean or Evening. One thing we have learnt about the gypsies through the numerous years we have spent researching our own families apart from their unique lifestyle, culture and language was their propensity for the re-use of first names which helps greatly when trying to link members of the same ‘tribe’ but equally provides gypsiologists with an immense headache when trying to untangle who the possible parents were.
Baptisms – the vast majority of gypsy children were baptized and it was quite common for them to be presented for baptism on more than one occasion and at more than one church. The reason for this being that it was accepted tradition for the ladies of the parish to give the children gifts, so the gypsies soon learnt which were the best parishes to get their offspring baptized at, having had the child baptized and received gifts, they swiftly moved on to another parish where they promptly repeated the exercise, thereby receiving more ‘goodies’ – a crafty scam if you could get away with it!
Their marriages were of course a great cause for celebration and equally their funerals were treated with much pomp and ceremony.
FAREWELL TO THE KING OF THE GYPSIES
Died on the 15th inst of February 1826 aged 60 Absalom Smith better known in the neighbourhood of Nottingham as “King of the Gypsies”, leaving behind him a wife and 13 children (to whom he is said to have left 100 pounds each)and 54 grandchildren. He was attended in his last illness in his camp in Twyford Lane, by doctor Arnold and two surgeons. He was followed to his grave in Twyford churchyard by a large retinue of gipsies on Friday last. He was interred in his coat the buttons of which are silver and marked A.S, lest his circumstance should be a temptation to disturb his body. His followers caused alternate layers of timber and straw to be put into the grave with the earth.
As well as their often unusual names their ‘occupations’ remained largely unique to their community – basket maker, besom maker, bone gatherer, cutler and grinder, clothes peg maker, cane chair mender, skewer maker. The vast majority made objects they made were created from things produced by nature, they then sold them around the towns and villages, making their other occupation that of hawker or seller of goods.
They were also renown for being horse dealers, though quite where they acquired these animals remains something of a mystery, or at least better left unsaid! At the beginning of June each year gypsies would travel from far and wide to the village of Appleby, Cumbria to trade their horses, this small village having being granted a Royal Charter to do so by James II in 1685.
Gypsies were and still are today regarded by many as ‘curiosities’ for their nomadic and seemingly unorthodox lifestyle, none more so than by the Georgian poet John Clare (1793 – 1864), also known as ‘ The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’ who frequently met up with and wrote poems about the gypsy community. Clare was not judgmental about them, but merely described their nomadic lifestyle through his poems such as this one:
The Gipsy Camp
The snow falls deep; the Forest lies alone:
The boy goes hasty for his load of brakes,
Then thinks upon the fire and hurries back;
The Gipsy knocks his hands and tucks them up,
And seeks his squalid camp, half hid in snow,
Beneath the oak, which breaks away the wind,
And bushes close, with snow like hovel warm:
There stinking mutton roasts upon the coals,
And the half roasted dog squats close and rubs,
Then feels the heat too strong and goes aloof;
He watches well, but none a bit can spare,
And vainly waits the morsel thrown away:
‘Tis thus they live – a picture to the place;
A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.
Clare also noted in his diary on 3rd June 1825:
‘Finished planting my auriculas – went a-botanizing after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever – Got the tune of Highland Mary from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without a name as he fiddled it’. As Wisdom Smith was a direct ancestor he warranted specific mention.
This is an excerpt about Ryley Boswell, born 1798 from the book by George Smith, ‘Gipsy Life, being an account of our Gipsies and their children.’
Ryley, like most of the Bosvils, was a tinker by profession; but though a tinker, he was amazingly proud and haughty of heart. His grand ambition was to be a great man among his people, a Gipsy king (no such individuals as either Gipsy kings or queens ever existed). To this end he furnished himself with clothes made after the costliest Gipsy fashion; the two hinder buttons of the coat, which was of thick blue cloth, were broad gold pieces of Spain, generally called ounces; the fore-buttons were English “spaded guineas,” the buttons of the waistcoat were half-guineas, and those of the collar and the wrists of his shirt were seven-shilling gold-pieces. In this coat he would frequently make his appearance on a magnificent horse, whose hoofs, like those of the steed of a Turkish Sultan, were cased in shoes of silver. How did he support such expense? it may be asked. Partly by driving a trade in “wafedo loovo,” counterfeit coin, with which he was supplied by certain honest tradespeople of Brummagem; partly and principally by large sums of money which he received from his two wives, and which they obtained by the practice of certain arts peculiar to Gipsy females. One of his wives was a truly remarkable woman. She was of the Petalengro or Smith Her Christian name, if Christian name it can be called, was Xuri or Shuri, and from her exceeding smartness and cleverness she was generally called by the Gipsies Yocky Shuri—that is, smart or clever Shuri, Yocky being a Gipsy word signifying “clever.” She could dukker—that is, tell fortunes—to perfection, by which alone, during the racing season, she could make a hundred pounds a month. She was good at the big hok—that is, at inducing people to put money into her hands in the hope of it being multiplied; and, oh, dear! how she could caur—that is, filch gold rings and trinkets from jewellers’ cases, the kind of thing which the Spanish Gipsies call ustibar pastesas—filching with hands. Frequently she would disappear and travel about England, and Scotland too, dukkering, hokking, and cauring, and after the lapse of a month return and deliver to her husband, like a true and faithful wife, the proceeds of her industry. So no wonder that the Flying Tinker, as he was called, was enabled to cut a grand appearance. He was very fond of hunting, and would frequently join the field in regular hunting costume, save and except that instead of the leather hunting cap he wore one of fur, with a gold band round it, to denote that though he mixed with Gorgios he was still a Romany chal.
In this series we will recount some of the stories of gypsy life, so watch this space.
Header image: Gipsy Camp; George Morland; The Stanleyand Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds