Romany Gypsies of Georgian England

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.

Gypsies in a Landscape by George Morland, c.1790 (c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery;
Gypsies in a Landscape by George Morland, c.1790
(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

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.

Gipsy Encampment by George Morland, c.1790-1795.
Gipsy Encampment by George Morland, c.1790-1795; Walker Art Gallery.

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.

The Gypsies by William Simpson (c) Dumfries and Galloway Council (Kirkcudbright)
The Gypsies by William Simpson
(c) Dumfries and Galloway Council (Kirkcudbright)

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.


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. 

Travelling Gypsies by Thomas Barker c.1787 (c) The Holburne Museum;
Travelling Gypsies by Thomas Barker c.1787
(c) The Holburne Museum

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.

NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton
National Portrait Gallery NPG 1469; John Clare by William Hilton

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.

Gypsies in a Landscape by Alexander Fraser (c) Paisley Art Institute Collection, held by Paisley Museum and Art Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Gypsies in a Landscape by Alexander Fraser
(c) Paisley Art Institute Collection, held by Paisley Museum and Art Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

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.

Gipsy Camp; George Morland; The Stanleyand Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds
Gipsy Camp; George Morland; The Stanleyand Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds

17 thoughts on “Romany Gypsies of Georgian England

  1. Have you seen the 16th century book by Thomas Harman – “A caveat or warning for common cursetors, vulgarly called vagabonds”? It contains a lot of information about the peripatetic classes, most of whom were gypsies.
    You can find it free online (just Google it – there are various copies available) or, ahem, I also cover it briefly in my book on Thieves’ Cant, which you can find at my website


    1. All Things Georgian

      We hadn’t seen that book before, but will enjoy having a read of it. Many thanks for the additional information.


  2. I haven’t read Stephen’s book and he may point out that Harman is not a reliable reporter. His book advertises itself as a guide to gentlemen and I suspect that the original canting/rogue literature was similarly a literary fashion rather than ethnographic or criminological research.
    Much of his material is repeated from Awdesley. Harman has not been subject to much historical, as opposed to lexicological, research. The most convincing analysis I have seen suggests he was fed stories by passing travellers, although Nicholas Jennings the counterfeit crank is a real character. Harman’s stories, and his cant lexicon, were reproduced by later writers, including Bampfylde Moore Carew (1693-1770) another real person but whose popular autobiography (1745 onwards in numerous editions) was very largely fiction.
    Moore Carew includes a ceremony in which he installed as the King of the Beggars to replace “King Clause”, in a ceremony similar to that in Harman. However, the ceremony, the song and the character Clause are lifted directly from the play ‘The Beggars Bush’ (1822) by Fletcher & Massinger. The relationship between the literary and real gypsies is complex and influences are likely to have been in both directions.
    There are records of similar ceremonies at the burial of a Boswell Gypsy King. Although some of the activities of gypsies and rogues can be confirmed from legal records I think it far more likely that this was adopted from the stage or literature than that educated writers were close enough and trusted enough to have discovered such secret ceremonies.
    I did attempt a few years ago to collect together all the references I could find to Kings (and Queens) of the Gypsies and posted those in Wikipedia but it was messy and incomplete.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so much for such fascinating information, we’re sure ours readers will be really interested in learning about Bampfylde Moore Carew – he was quite a character! 🙂


    2. Agree absolutely about Harman. As you say, it seems likely that he did have some contact with the peripatetic classes but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find he made a lot of it up.


      1. The most comprehensive re-examination was a series of articles in English Literary Renaissance, Volume 33, Issue 2, May 2003, of which I found Linda Woodridge’s the most convincing, though still incomplete.


    1. All Things Georgian

      Thanks Sarah, your comments have prompted us to go on the hunt for some more gypsy images, so duly updated and sourced 🙂


  3. Pingback: Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew – Wild West Country

  4. Pingback: Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew – Precast Reinforced Concrete Heart

  5. Cai Heath

    Sorry to comment on an old post but I wanted to say that I found the piece very interesting as I am a descendant of Absalom Smith mentioned here as ‘King of the Gypsies’, are you too based on the Wisdom Smith comment? If you have any advice on how to trace back the Smith family tree then I would be grateful, I have found some of the resources at the RTFHS useful so far.


  6. Celeb

    I Know this is an older post but i just wanted to say that these people groups don’t like to be called G*psies, its considered a slur. The most accepted name among all the sub groups is I believe Romani or Roma, but there are several different names for groups in certain areas, like the Kale people in Wales


    1. Sarah Murden

      Hello Celeb. Thank you for your comment and I agree that today people prefer the label Romany/Romani/Roma and I have amended the title accordingly. However, in the 18th century they were simply written about as either gipsies or gypsies. The use of term is not used to offend people, rather, it is simply using the acknowledged terminology of the 18th century.

      Liked by 1 person

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