Major Boswell was a gypsy – he was born in 1780, and baptized on the 6th August, in the Oxfordshire village of Bloxham where he was recorded as the son of John Boswell.
A noted fiddler, as a young man he earned his living by playing at different venues and one day he arrived at Longton in the Staffordshire Potteries – where ‘he was engaged to play for the dancing classes held at a young ladies’ academy’. This episode of Major’s life dates to the very end of the eighteenth- or the dawning of the nineteenth-century, as it must have occurred between 1798 and 1801.
The first and the second of these [classes] at which he was present passed without incident, but at the third or fourth a big bouncing girl answering to the name of Mary Linyon persisted in treading on his toes. She did it on purpose quite clearly, and Major recognising this, and attracted no doubt by her handsome face and wilful demeanour, was not slow to take the cue she afforded him. He spoke to her afterwards, ostensibly about her behaviour, but what the really said to one another is better judged from the fact that a night or two later Mary, who was no more than fifteen, jumped from a bedroom window into his cart drawn up beneath it, on to a thick pile of straw surmounted by blankets and a feather bed.
The couple eloped together and stayed hidden in the countryside whilst, it is said, a hue and cry was raised and a reward offered for any information which led to Major Boswell’s arrest. Perhaps this inducement worked because, supposedly, Major was eventually arrested and charged with Mary’s abduction, although he protested his innocence. The story as it was told around the campfires of their descendants places Major in a courtroom to answer the charges against him and there Mary took to the witness box, telling the judge loud and clear that it was she who had insisted on the elopement. Because of her testimony Major was acquitted and the spirited and determined Mary chose to remain by his side rather than return home to her parents.
Some say she was a gamekeeper’s daughter, and others that her father was a farm bailiff or steward. No matter, she was, by all accounts, a woman of strong character, as Major, her children and more particularly her daughters-in-law, seem to have discovered when they crossed her will; a great lover of order and cleanliness, of fine clothes, old china, and shining silver; an expert needlewoman, who taught the craft to her daughters and granddaughters with considerable success…
We have yet to turn up any information which confirms that Major Boswell did indeed elope with Mary, or that he was charged in a court of law with her abduction. But Mary had certainly received an education somewhere, so perhaps the story that she trod on poor Major’s toes in the dancing class where they first met is true, and she did indeed run away with him. In 1837 Mary (as Mary Linion and recorded as 55 years of age) was arrested for ‘fraudulently obtaining half-a-dozen silver teaspoons, the property of Mr Thomas Shepherd, of Barrow-upon-Soar, on the 1st April 1835’ along with Major Boswell (aged 60 years), their 16 year old son Alfred and daughter Edingal, 21 years of age. The case was never brought into court but, in the calendar of prisoners for trial, it was recorded that while Major, Alfred and Edingal Boswell could neither read nor write, Mary could do both well.
Mary took to her new way of life with gusto, providing Major with seventeen children, becoming expert at telling fortunes and described as the ‘best Gypsy of the lot of ‘em’. They stayed mainly in the Staffordshire area but travelled into other parts of the country too. A daughter named Tieni (or Teany) was baptized at Beoley in Worcestershire on the 8th March 1801. They were in Lincolnshire during the first two decades of the nineteenth-century for the baptism of Charles Augustus, son of Major and Mary Smith at Stamford St Michael on the 27th June 1803 is likely to be them, with Major described as a tin plate worker. The next year Mary daughter of Major and Mary Boswell was baptized at Ewerby near Sleaford on the 7th October 1804 (a William and Mary Lovil, ‘traveller & gipsy’ baptized a son, William, on the 28th of the same month at Digby, less than ten miles away from Ewerby, and perhaps they were travelling in company with Major Boswell and Mary Linyon). And then on the 7th March 1819, at Rauceby again near to Sleaford, we find the baptism of Alfred, son of Major and Mary Boswell, traveller. The couple also had a daughter whose name is transcribed as ‘Elopeh’ on the baptism records for Quainton in Buckinghamshire (she was baptized on the 22nd October 1802) – does her name refer to her parent’s reputed elopement, and provide some confirmation of it?
A Major Boswell had married in 1798 at Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire, to Lucy Boswell (a short lived son had been the product of that marriage), and if this was the same man it may explain why Mary continued to use her maiden name (as at her 1837 arrest), and could not legally marry her husband although they lived as man and wife. The couple are to be found at Willenhall near to Wolverhampton in Staffordshire in the 1861 census, living in a caravan parked in a field on the High Street; Major Boswell was aged 87 years, a tinman born at Bloxham in Oxfordshire and Mary, his wife, was 82 years of age and gave her birthplace as Gravesend in Kent.
Major Boswell ended his long life in Longton in Staffordshire, the village where he reputedly met his wife, his age exaggerated by a good few years at his death.
Major Boswell, who for the last seven years has made a tent on the Stone-road, Longton, his principal place of abode, died on Sunday, at the advanced age of 108 years. The body is ‘laid out’ in characteristic gipsy style. He ‘lies in state’ on a bed on the ground, covered with a white sheet, and a tuft of grass on the chest. The part of the tent where the body lies is lined with white, decorated with flowers, a picture of the Saviour, and wax candles on either side. The old man has not a wrinkle on his face, had only lost three teeth, and never consulted a doctor during his long earthly pilgrimage. He was twice married, and had by his second wife seventeen children, amongst whom he numbered fifty-nine grandchildren. His remains will be interred in Dresden churchyard to-day, and will no doubt be followed to the grave by an unusually large number of relatives.
Leicester Chronicle, 11th March 1837
Staffordshire Advertiser, 21st May 1870
Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Third Series, Vol III, 1924
Potteries Landscape by Henry Lark I Pratt from The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery via Your Paintings