In our earlier post about the gypsies of Georgian England, we said that we would revisit the topic and today we have decided to look at one example of the prejudice this group of people suffered.
When Elizabeth Mary Kellen presented herself at the door of a gentleman’s house at Southend near Lewisham in the June of 1802, dressed in little more than rags and quite obviously starving, her tale of being stolen by the gypsies was readily believed.
She looked to be around ten or twelve years old, and it was clear that she had previously been educated and well brought up. The gentleman took her in and an investigation was put into place.
Elizabeth Mary Kellen told the benevolent gentleman that she was the daughter of Captain Kellen of the Plymouth Marines. About seven months before her father had sent her on an errand to a person living at Stoke near Plymouth and, just outside Plymouth, she met a gang of gypsies, five men and six women, who forcibly seized hold of her and carried her to their camp some distance away. There the gypsies stripped Elizabeth of her clothes, giving her some of their rags to wear instead. Elizabeth, by her account, was not alone as a prisoner; two other girls about the same age as she were already held there and Elizabeth heard them cry every night for their mothers. A boy by the name of Tommy soon joined the three captives.
When taken before the Bow Street magistrates and questioned by Sir Richard Ford, Elizabeth could give no further information about Tommy other than describing him as being of ‘genteel appearance’ as the gypsies had kept them apart and not allowed them to converse. The children had been forced to travel around the country with the tribe, helping them in their nefarious habits of stealing poultry and milking cows at night. The gypsies intended, claimed Elizabeth, to darken the skin of the children with walnut juice when it was walnut season to make them appear as real gypsies.
Elizabeth told the magistrate she had managed to escape when she was sent to a nearby farmhouse for a light. Instead of going there she had run, scrambling over hedges and through ditches for many miles until she reached Southend where, tired out and hungry, she stopped and asked for help.
Whilst officials sent to Plymouth for news of Elizabeth’s father, scouting parties were sent into the countryside around London to round up any gypsy found there. About fifty were taken, held and put to the bar two or three at a time in front of Elizabeth in the hope that she could identify her captors. Those she did not recognise were given a small sum of money to compensate them for the inconvenience of being held prisoner before being sent on their way.
The Morning Post newspaper noted that:
Never, perhaps, was there such an assemblage of this merry motley tribe in London, and who, whatever may be their mode of life, they exhibit the strongest outward marks of health and spirits. Their children are extremely fine in general, and many of the girls very beautiful.
The gypsies Elizabeth did identify, a married couple together with another woman and six children, had been apprehended at Wandsworth and were held in the House of Correction before being questioned by Sir Richard Ford and Mr. Thomas Robinson Esquire at the Public Office in Bow Street.
Here Elizabeth’s story slowly began to unravel.
The gypsies did not deny knowing Elizabeth, or that she had lived with them for a time, but they did deny meeting her near Plymouth six or seven months previously. Instead, they had met with the girl on Kennington Common just ten days earlier and, seeing she was on her own and in distress, they had allowed her to travel with them and had given her food and shelter. Elizabeth stubbornly refuted this and stuck to the veracity of her own story but more witnesses were called in.
Andrew Dew, a Sergeant of Marines belonging to the Plymouth Division arrived and he knew Elizabeth. He told Sir Richard that she was not the daughter of Captain Kellen, but the daughter-in-law [possibly meaning step-daughter in this case] of John Killings, not a Captain but a Sergeant in the same Division.
In the January of 1802, Andrew Dew had seen Elizabeth at Stonehouse Barracks near Plymouth selling apples and nuts for her mother. Elizabeth disliked having to stand in the street at the Barracks during winter selling produce and she had run away, John Killings assuming she had gone to her relations in Taunton, Somerset. A letter was then read from the Mayor of Plymouth who had been asked to make enquiries. He confirmed that the person in Stoke she claimed her father had sent her on an errand to on the fateful day she had been kidnapped did not exist, that Elizabeth’s story was false.
Finally, the overseers from the parish of St. Mary Rotherhithe attended the Public Office and identified Elizabeth as a girl who had been in their care since the 31st March 1802, when she had arrived with a pass dated from Plymouth and a settlement examination attached to it in which she claimed that her name was Elizabeth Mary Hibbins and that she belonged to the parish of Rotherhithe; she also said her father was dead. She was taken into the workhouse there and, although no record could be found relating to her dead father by which means her settlement could be confirmed, she behaved so well that the overseers did not like to turn her out and allowed her to remain in the workhouse, giving her leave to work in the surrounding fields for her own benefit. On the 4th of May, she had left the workhouse to work in the fields but had never returned.
The gypsies were brought from their confinement in the House of Correction and instead of being charged with the abduction of the girl they were instead thanked for their humanity and kindness in trying to help her. In gratitude for this, and in compensation for their wrongful arrest and confinement, they were given some money and several gentlemen who were present added silver from their own pockets to the total. The authorities accepted that Tommy and the other two girls supposedly held captive were merely figments of Elizabeth’s imagination and the gypsies were then set free and sent on their way.
Elizabeth wept a little but then refused to answer any more questions. She was sent to the House of Correction so lately vacated by the gypsies whilst the authorities tried to establish exactly who she was and where she should be sent. Although it was noted that she was ‘very little, and plain in person, and cannot be above eleven or twelve years of age,’ Elizabeth now claimed that she was, in fact, seventeen years old.
Elizabeth Mary Kellen’s story illustrates the attitudes and prejudice of people against the gypsies at the time. They did commit many petty crimes but the oft repeated tales of them kidnapping children which are found so frequently in contemporary reports of the day invariably turned out to be nothing more than ‘urban myth’ with no basis in fact. That Elizabeth was so readily believed when she pointed to gypsies as her kidnappers was a sad fact of this perception when they had actually behaved extremely well and charitably towards her. The story was reported in newspapers the length and breadth of the country, even appearing in the American newspapers when the story reached those shores, and much more tabloid space was giving up to the initial telling of the kidnap than was given to the final conclusion of the affair.
As for Elizabeth, she faded into obscurity after this, whether as a seventeen-year-old taking advantage of her small stature to prey on peoples sympathies by posing as a helpless young child or as a runaway youngster dependent upon parish relief.
Morning Post, 11th June 1802
Staffordshire Advertiser, 12th June 1802
Oxford Journal, 12th June 1802
Sussex Advertiser, 14th June 1802
Oxford Journal, 19th June 1802
Header image: Gipsy Camp; George Morland; The Stanleyand Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds