The Boss family, notorious gypsy horse thieves and dealers, plied their dubious trade across throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, into Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire and further afield into Yorkshire.
The family used various aliases, including Heron (Hearne) and Jones. The best known was Riley Boss who had three wives, Charlotte Hammond, Lucy Boswell and Shurensi (sometimes Susannah) Smith. Also of the travelling party was Riley’s reputed half-brother, James Venus, who had taken for a wife Trinity Boswell (sister of Elijah Boswell, a notorious rogue) along with her children by George Boyling, her previous husband.
James Venus and Riley Boss had a sister named Clara. In the latter half of the 1820s, the party met Samuel Roberts (1763-1848) of Park Grange in Sheffield, the son of a local manufacturer. It is likely that this was during the summer of 1827. James and Trinity Venus had baptised a son, named Newcombe Venus, in Bowdon Cheshire on the 22nd April 1827 as James and Traineth Venus of Dunham (a neighbouring village) with James’s occupation being described as cutler, a traditional gypsy occupation; he would have travelled with a grinding machine sharpening blades.
In the summer of 1827, the party were on their way back to Lincolnshire where young Newcombe Venus was buried at Mablethorpe on the 5th August 1827, the burial register recording him as the son of James and Trinity Venus, gypsies, aged about nine months. At some point between these two dates, whilst travelling from Cheshire to Lincolnshire via the Sheffield road, the gypsy party met with Samuel Roberts. In his own words:
In taking my accustomed ride into the country, I met with a tribe, or rather family, of Gypsies, consisting, as I then supposed, of the father, mother, and five children; it, however, proved, that the older of the children, a girl apparently about thirteen, was an orphan, and sister to the man, though probably nearly twenty years younger than he. I saw them several times and at length asked the man if he would have any objections to leaving his sister with my family, at any rate till he called again, which I understood to be in about eight days . . . The man said his name was James Vanis. His sister’s Clara Vanis. I have since heard that it was Hearn and not Vanis.
From this description, we seem to have James and Trinity Venus, together with his sister Clara, the baby Newcombe and three of Trinity’s children from her previous marriage. Samuel Roberts was a religious man, a keen slavery abolitionist and he published several books, some on the subject of the gypsies and their culture and he was also known as the ‘Pauper’s Advocate’. His reason for wanting Clara to stay with him and his family was to become better acquainted with the language and habits of the gypsy people. With both James Venus and Clara being agreeable to this she returned to Park Grange with Roberts. Clara was, from Roberts’ description, a slight, well-formed girl, not strongly gypsy looking and not handsome but strikingly intelligent.
She spent the eight days with the Roberts family and they seem to have been as delighted with her as she was with them, becoming a firm favourite with two of Roberts’ daughters. She and the Roberts wished to extend the visit but James Venus came at the appointed time and insisted that Clara leave with him immediately. Clara was in tears but agreed to go with her brother, even though Samuel Roberts entreated her to remain. James Venus had told Samuel Roberts that Clara was needed as his wife and one of the children was ill, but after Clara had quit his house Roberts encountered the wife, Trinity, who told him that she was as well as usual and did not wish for Clara’s return. No further mention is made of the sickly child but seeing as the infant Newcombe Venus was buried shortly after this, James Venus was probably right to be concerned and to want his sister to help.
The Victorian gypsiologist, Rev. George Hall (1863-1918), so well known to the Lincolnshire gypsy fraternity, later talked with Clara’s family. Hall knew her as a full sister to Riley Boss and a half-sister to the slightly shadier James Venus, whose identity has always been unsure. Indeed, many authorities have decided that James Venus was simply an alias used by Riley Boss and that the two men were one and the same. George Hall had this to say, referencing the opinion of another, earlier, gypsiologist, George Borrow.
Concerning the dramatic termination of the Sheffield episode, two versions are extant. According to Mr. Roberts, it is James Vanis, otherwise Hearn, who comes of Clara with a lying pretext on his lips. In Borrow’s statement it is Ryley who snatches his young sister away in a characteristic spirit of violence. It is true, the girl had a half-brother named James, yet seeing that Borrow obtained his facts during lengthy conversations with Clara herself, it may be presumed that ‘James Vanis’ was after all only one more of Ryley’s many aliases.
However, it seems unlikely that James Venus was purely an alias; certainly Trinity, after leaving George Boyling and taking up with her second husband, consistently uses the surname Venus, or a variant thereof, as does James during several court appearances for vagrancy and theft, and not once do they use differing forenames or surnames.
The year after this Sheffield episode, in Burton by Lincoln, the name Newcombe was given to a son of Riley Boss and Shurensi (as an adult he would be transported to Australia under the name of Barthey Jones for the crime of horse stealing).
28th September 1828, Burton by Lincoln, baptism of Newcome son of William and Susan Boss, at Burton, gypsey.
A month later James Venus (as James Vanus) was sentenced to a week in prison for the crime of larceny at the Doncaster Sessions, possibly tried alongside an Abraham Herring, but he was back in Lincolnshire in November for the baptism of a child named Aswerly at Upon cum Kexby near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, the register there recording the parents as James and Trinity Venus, travelling tinker.
Riley at least remained in the Lincolnshire area as a double baptism of his children took place at the end of 1832, one which was not all that it seemed. For Riley had a son named Adness with Shurensi and a daughter named Naomi with Lucy; polygamy was common amongst these people, and it so happened that Riley had two children born within days of each other by two of his wives. Not wanting to shock the local vicar by proclaiming himself as the father of both children, a relative stood in as the father of Lucy’s daughter. The baptisms took place in the village of Wootton.
30th Dec 1832 – Agnes daughter of Ryley and Susannah Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy
30th Dec 1832 – Naomi daughter of Thomas and Lucy Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy
The Vicar then added a note at the bottom of the page of the baptism register, “N.B. I was afterwards informed by report only, after their departure, that the child whom they named Agnes was a boy. The persons who call themselves Bos are probably Boswells”. The child was not only a boy but was Adness rather than Agness, but he also, in later life, used the names Isaac and Haggi.
James Venus made a further appearance in the dock, this time in Derbyshire for stealing an ass, along with his stepson Absalom Boyling, the two men were recorded as James Vanass aged 50 and Absalom Vanass aged 16, both gypsies. James received four months imprisonment.
At Attercliffe, Sheffield, on the 20th February 1844, Trinity Venus, wife of James Venus, brazier, died of typhus fever aged 54 years. Her death was registered by Hesilla Venus, possibly her daughter Asella by her first husband George Boyling, who had been present at the death; we can find no other trace of Hesilla/Asella. Trinity’s son Absalom, or ‘Appy Boswell, was known for his ‘Lying Tales’. Perhaps though there was more truth in them than has yet been supposed?
The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Journal (1925) has this on ‘Appy.
Among them was Trenit Boswell, a daughter of the Absolom or Appy Boswell who is famous all over the North Midlands and the northern counties for his Lying Tales, and about whose origin and ‘breedipen’ there has been as deep and seemingly impenetrable a mystery as any in Gypsy genealogy. Appy himself would declare that he was born at Wickersley, near Rotherham, of respectable gorgio parents, his father being a small farmer and dealer. As a boy he attended Sunday School, where he learned to read and write; after which, he said, his parents apprenticed him to Rogers of Sheffield, ‘to have him put in the way of the grinding business.’ The workmen, however, used him harshly, so he ran away, and ‘listed as a sailor’; and was shipwrecked, and lived for a week at the bottom of the sea — ‘ a beautiful tem in no mistake, only vittles wasn’t to say plentiful there, and it took you all your time to get a bit of fire going.’ Various adventures followed, bringing him back at last to England, where one day he fell in with a widow who had five children, and was so sorry for her that he married her forthwith. But, as will be seen, this is one of Appy’s Munchausen-like efforts, not sober autobiography; and so, having indicated its nature, I must pass it by now, hoping that on some future occasion I may be able to tell it, and one or two more Appy Boswell tales not printed as yet, in something approaching their original form. Here I can only add that Appy once took a sceptical listener to Wickersley, and convinced him of his parents’ residence there, for no sooner had they set down their grinding-barrows in front of the kicema than the door of a house opposite flew open, and a voice inquired : ‘ Is that you, Absolom? Your mother wants to see you. She’s bin took badly, poor old lady.’ This is what Appy said, at all events; and I know of Booths and Claytons nearly related to him who believe that things happened so — by previous arrangement or otherwise.
It seems plausible, having seen Trinity’s death certificate, that the story about his sick mother at Wickersley which is close by Sheffield may have some truth in it after all and relate to Trinity Venus. Incidentally, Absalom (or ‘Appy) was baptised at Scawby in Lincolnshire in 1821 as the son of George and Trinity Boyling, wandering gypsies.
James Venus was buried at Harewood in Yorkshire, as James Veanas, under coroner’s orders.
Header image: The Gipsy Camp by Walter Tyndale