‘Her Vagrant Majesty’ of Puddletown, Dorset

Puddletown, Dorset

Sporting Magazine, volume 21 dated 1803 reported:

A short time since, the youngest son of the late Peter Stanley, commonly known by the appellation of King of the Gypsies, started from the town-pump in Dorchester, to run to the town-pump in Weymouth for two guineas; the distance is about eight miles and a quarter, and the time allowed was an hour and two minutes, but he performed it with the greatest ease one minute and a half within the time.

The person who made the bet was a young spendthrift of the neighbourhood, who, fearing he should not be able to see fair play himself, hired a horse for his favourite Cyprian to accompany the light-footed prince, but she not having attended Astley’s Lectures on Horsemanship, and finding it impossible long to retain her seat in the usual way, immediately crossed the saddle, and in that state entered Weymouth, at full speed, by the side of her infatuated adorer, to the no small gratification of a numerous assemblage of spectators.

Having read this story we thought we would see if we could find anything more out about the family. Henry, records show, was the youngest of at least nine children born to Peter and Sarah Stanley, a  gipsy family who were renown in Puddletown (formerly known as Piddletown) in the county of Dorset and the surrounding area. Seven of the nine survived to adulthood and were named Selbea, William, Sabra, Aaron, Peter, Paul and Henry.  The family spent most of their lives travelling around  Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire and ultimately Peter (senior) became known as the King of the Gypsies, a term applied to the respected elders of the community. According to a 1792 settlement document, Peter’s occupation was a razor grinder and tinker.

As was commonplace amongst the gipsy community they occasionally found themselves on the wrong side of the law, in particular, Henry, the runner, who managed to acquire a one year spell in the old Dorchester prison for assault.

Peter died in 1802 and the parish register of Puddletown confirms that he was aged 75 and buried on the 18th November 1802.  However, his headstone tells a different story and gives him as being five years younger leaving us unsure as to which is the more accurate.

In memory of Peter Stanley, King of the Gypsies, who died 23rd November 1802, aged 70 years.’


Sarah allegedly reached the grand old age of 101 years when she died, which, if you do the maths on that, would have made her some 12 years older than her husband and 58 years of age when she gave birth to her youngest child Henry in 1778 at Winterbourne Kingston, which seems highly unlikely.

Travelling Gypsies by Thomas Barker c.1787 (c) The Holburne Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Travelling Gypsies by Thomas Barker c.1787
(c) The Holburne Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Whilst researching the gipsy community we have noticed that it was quite a common practice for gipsies to add a few years on to their ages at death.  Perhaps this was done to make them appear to be more important?

Sarah died at Wareham in Dorset and was buried at Puddletown alongside her husband on the 22nd of February 1821 and as such an important person in the community her death was noted in the newspapers and a large number of people attended her burial; the extract below is from Jackson’s Oxford Journal.

At Piddletown, Mrs Stanley, the Dowager Queen of the Gipsies, of the counties of Berks, Wilts, Hants, and Dorset. Her vagrant Majesty was in the 101st year of her age.

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




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