We came across a book written in 1790 entitled The Universal Fortune Teller and concerning a gipsy, Mother Bridget of Norwood, one of the infamous Norwood gipsies who died in 1768. The Norwood gipsies lived in the area now known as Gipsy Hill. The book gives us a description of Mother Bridget along with details of fortune-telling, some of which we can share with you.
According to the book, Mother Bridget’s parents died when she was young and she was left to raise herself and managed to support herself by begging. She gained knowledge of the solar system by spending her nights, when it was clear, considering the stars as the greatest astrologers had done and this gave her a great knowledge of the weather, the alterations of the air and the effect it had. With her knowledge and understanding, she advised local farmers about growing crops and they would seek her out for her opinion as to when to they should sow their seeds for the best crop yield.
She was described as a solitary person, preferring to avoid noise and society in general which initially led to her being ridiculed, but eventually, she gained respect.
Her fame began to spread and her presence became universal, other people apart from farmers and her neighbours consulted her and the truth of her predictions made her veracity gain ground and she became the topic of conversation of the politest circles, many of whom came to consult her, and as she never asked for money so the unbounded generosity of those who applied to her oracle put her in possession of money more than sufficient to keep her.
As she grew older she became increasingly fond of animals, who were her chief companions and she was said to have hundreds of them. Dogs and cats were her main companions during her retirement. She was exceedingly fond of pipe tobacco and was continually smoking. Ultimately though, as a result of sitting for such long periods of time her body became almost doubled, which, together with her enormous length of nose and chin, her pipe and the number of animals about her, made her cut a most hideous figure and appeared rather terrifying to those who were not apprised of it.
Though this famous old woman had never been taught to write, yet by long practice, she had developed a system of hieroglyphics in which she recorded her observations, knowledge and remarks. The author of the book took Mother Bridget’s hieroglyphics and converted them into English. The remainder of the book consists of:
Fortune telling by use of the planets, cards and dice etc
Interpretation of dreams
A brief prognostication concerning children born on any day of the week
And amongst many other things the art of palmistry.
Now, be honest, you did look at your own hand after viewing this image didn’t you? We did! To find out more about any of these topics we recommend taking a peek at the book itself which can be read for free, online.
The Norwood gipsies became synonymous with that area, so much so that in 1777 a pantomime was written about them and was performed at Covent Garden Theatre for many years.
Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Monday, November 24, 1777.
Ladies and Gentlemen who have places for the 7th night of the new comic opera will please observe it will on Wednesday next. Tomorrow the tragedy of Sir Thomas Overbuy, to which was be added a new pantomime (never performed) called the Norwood Gipsies, which new music, scenes, machinery decorations etc.
We’re delighted that you have joined us for the second part of this post. So, following on from part 1 we have managed to tease out a whole list of names that Princess Victoria was given by the gypsies she met at Claremont, so we wanted to explore the family group in more detail to see if we could find out what became of them after their royal encounter.
Firstly, Princess Victoria confirms for us the family name – Cooper – and that a baby was due to a member of the family very soon. She also told us when the child was born and that she hoped they would name the boy, Francis. The couple in question were Matthew and his wife Eliza (née Lee and aged around 20-years) and sure enough in the baptism register for Cobham appears the child’s entry for 1st January 1837; Francis, son of Matthew and Eliza Cooper, travelling gypsy.
Checking through the newspapers and almost a year later the story of Victoria meeting the gypsies had become somewhat distorted with the child that was born becoming a Walter rather than Francis! Contrary to the newspaper report, as far as we can tell the gypsies did not tell Victoria’s fortune!
We followed Francis’ life and he lived to a ripe old age, married Alice Ayers and had children, but remained true to his roots living in a tent/caravan for the majority of his life. Princess Victoria would have been delighted to have known that probably through her kindness he survived, despite living outdoors through many a cold winter.
Secondly, Victoria provided information and drawings for another member of the family – Sarah Cooper who had a child, George, but no husband with her. Sarah was baptized at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire on 28th July 1805, the daughter of Richard and Mary Cooper, ‘a gipsey by name‘.
Her son George was baptized on 4th April 1824 at Upton Grey in Hampshire, the son of Sarah Cooper ‘a travelling woman of Chargrove [sic] Oxfordshire‘. George was known to use White as a surname in later life, so possibly this was his father’s surname.
Next we have Mary Cooper, who would have been born in the 1780s and was the wife of Richard/Henry Cooper (either the same man going by two different names, or possibly she successively partnered two brothers, something not unknown amongst these families) and pictured here as the matriarch.
She was mother of Sarah, Leonard, Nelson and Matty/Matthew, all of whom were camped at Claremont, and it was Matty’s wife Eliza who was due to give birth very soon. Matty would achieve renown as rat-catcher to Queen Victoria at Windsor; did the queen take a lifelong interest in this family, recognising him as the father of the baby who she had shown such an interest in?
We travel back to the early 1800s to a couple born shortly after the turn of the century – Leonard Cooper and his future wife Phyllis (Philadelphia Smith). The couple lived as man and wife for some considerable time but finally tied the knot on April 20th 1851, Leonard named at his marriage as the son of Henry Cooper, a horse dealer and Philadelphia the daughter of John Smith, a rat catcher; a Caroline Smith was a witness. Leonard’s brother was Matty/Matthew Cooper, rat catcher.
Leonard and Phyllis travelled around Surrey and Berkshire selling their wares, so would have been well-known within those communities. The couple produced several children including Job, Nelson (named for Leonard’s brother), Diana and Thomas, who was a young babe in December 1836. As the children grew up they too married and began to travel around the same patch along with their families.
Job married Selina, Nelson married General Buckland; Diana married a Henry Hazard and Thomas, a Sarah Coleman in 1855 at Christchurch St Marylebone.
Gypsy families are notoriously difficult to find in census returns as they were either ignored by the officials collecting the information, or they themselves chose to remain ‘under the radar’ so either conveniently disappeared on census day or gave inaccurate information. It is quite common to find a group of people at the end of a census return who don’t know their name, age or place of birth!
Of the children in the picture below with Sarah we have been able to identify Nelson, Job and Dinah (Diana) as children of Leonard and Phyllis, and Britannia was the daughter of Leonard’s brother Nelson and his wife Isabella.
We’re sure that someone out there will be able to help us trace Emmeline and the possible Helen (could she possibly be Misella, another of Nelson and Isabella’s daughters?).
Misella was born c.1832, possibly in London, Britannia was baptized 13th January 1833 at Putney and in the June of 1835 the couple baptized a son, Dangerfield. The young Princess Victoria doesn’t name Isabella in her journals, but did meet her and noted that she had a baby; possibly this was the eighteen month old Dangerfield.
If you have enjoyed this, why not check out our book, A Right Royal Scandal, which shows how, but for a young Romany girl, our present day royal family might look very different indeed!
So far we have written several pieces about Romany gypsies as their stories have popped up during our research when writing our book,A Right Royal Scandal (On Special Offer right now, follow the highlighted link), which is the true story showing the family connection between the Romany community and the British royal family.
In this, the first of two posts, we’re going to wander slightly out of our usual Georgian era to take a look at a specific gypsy family and their connection to Princess Victoria, just a few months before she became queen.
In this post, we will simply recount Princess Victoria’s journal entries from exactly 180 years ago this week and in the next, we will piece together more about the family she encountered and their Georgian origins.
Still today, gypsy communities can often have a ‘bad press’ or are people to be mocked for living a different lifestyle to most people and for speaking their own language, one unique to their community. This would undoubtedly have been the same in young Princess Victoria’s day, however, her own view was very different, she took the time to learn about the gypsy community and to spend time with them.
Whilst reading her journal it becomes very clear that these gypsies held a very special place in her heart. They were travellers who had set up camp near Claremont from December 1836 to early January 1837 just a few years before her coronation and then her marriage to Prince Albert. She records her every meeting with the family and even drew pictures of them.
Wednesday 7th December
We met the same two Gipsies as the other day accompanied by another very pretty one, who, the young one of the other day told us, was her sister-in-law, & was in daily expectation of her confinement; the old woman, she told us the other day, was her mother; her own name, she said was Cooper. They are encamped on the Portsmouth road now, where we walk every day
Sunday 11th December
At 2 we went out with dear Lehzen & Victoire & came home at ½ p.3. We saw our Gipsy friends peeping out of their frail abode of canvas. They certainly are a “Hard-faring race”.
Thursday 15th December
Since Monday, or rather more Tuesday, the Gipsy encampments have been enlarged by 2 tents. As we were walking along the road near to the Tents, the woman who said she was called Cooper, & who is generally the spokeswoman of the party, stepped across the road from the tents, & as we turned & stopped, came up to us with a whole swarm of children, six I think. It was a singular, & yet a pretty & picturesc (sic) sight. She herself with nothing on her head, her raven hair hanging untidily about her fine countenance, & a dingy dark green cloak hung on one side of her shoulders, while the set of little brats swarming round her, with dark dishevelled hair & dark dresses, all little things & all beautiful children. She spoke to Lehzen & said they were the children of her two brothers, & “I am aunt to all these”. She said her name was Sarah & she then proceeded to name all the children of which I remember only 5. Dinah, Job, Britannia, Emmeline, & I think Helen. Britannia is a beautiful little large black eyed thing, with a dirty face which was wiped to be shown off. Sarah, then pointed to her own boy, called George, her only child, who was carrying another little nephew named Nelson, on his back. The pretty sister-in-law is not mother of these children, for she is only 20 & has none as yet. We had not proceeded far before we met the old Mother Gipsy, the pretty sister-in-law, & two other sisters-in-law, each with a baby in her arms, one of whom is very pretty; they are the mothers of the children, “Aunt Sarah” was displaying to us. – The Gipsies are a curious, peculiar & very hardy race, unlike any other!
Saturday 17th December
As we passed the Encampment, the old Gipsy woman came out accompanied by Dinah & Emmeline, & produced from under her cloak the poor little baby, an uncommonly fine though small child for a day old only! – At a ¼ p.2 dear Lehzen, Victoire & I went out & came home at ½ p.3. One of the other Gipsy daughters-in-law was walking on the other side of the road, she is also very pretty though not the prettiest of the two new ones. Played on the piano. – Wrote my journal. – Read to Lehzen out of the Irish History. – Read in or rather looked over, (for I have read it through before) “The Gipsies’ advocate” by James Crabb. – It is a very pretty, pious little book, & is full of very curious, & some very touching anecdotes of these poor people. They have originally no religion, but many have been reformed by kind Clergymen & other people. – There are societies formed for reforming them. Their conjugal, filial, & paternal affection is very great, as also their kindness & attention to their sick, old, or infirm. Their morals too are almost always very pure, with the exception of an addiction to petty thefts & fortune-telling.
Saturday, 24th December – Xmas Eve
I awoke after 7 and got up at 8. After 9 we breakfasted. At a little after 10 we left Kensington with dearest Lehzen, Lady Conroy, and – Dashy! and reached Claremont at a ¼ to 12. Played and sung. At 2 dearest Lehzen, Victoire and I went out and came home at 20 minutes p.3. No one was stirring about the Gipsy encampment except George, which I was sorry for, as I was anxious to know how our poor friends were after this bitterly cold night.
Sunday, 25th December, Xmas Day
I awoke after 7 and got up at 8. At 9 we all breakfasted. Mamma, Lehzen, and I read prayers. Arranged my new drawings. At a little before 2 dearest Lehzen, Victoire and I went out and came home at 3. As we were approaching the camp, we met Rea coming from it, who had been sent there by Mamma to enquire into the story of these poor wanderers. He told us (what I was quite sure of before) that all was quite true, that the poor young woman and baby were doing very well, though very weak and miserable and that what they wanted chiefly was fuel and nourishment. Mamma has ordered broth and fuel to be sent tonight, as also 2 blankets; and several of our people have sent old flannel things for them. Mamma has ordered that the broth and fuel is to be sent each day til the woman is recovered. Lehzen sent them by our footmen a little worsted knit jacket for the poor baby, and when we drove by, Aunt Sarah, the old woman and the Husband all looked out and bowed most gratefully. Rea gave them directly a sovereign. I cannot say how happy I am, that these poor creatures are assisted, for they are such a nice set of Gipsies, so quiet, so affectionate to one another, so discreet, not at all forward or importunate, and so grateful; so unlike the gossiping, fortune-telling race-gipsies; and this is such a peculiar and touching case. Their being assisted makes me quite merry and happy today, for yesterday night when I was safe and happy at home in that cold night and today when it snowed so and everything looked white, I felt quite unhappy and grieved to think that our poor gipsy friends should perish and shiver for want; and now today I shall go to bed happy, knowing they are better off and more comfortable. – Arranged drawings. Wrote my journal. At 6 we dined. Sir Robert and Lady Gardiner and Victoire and Emily Gardiner dined here. Sang and also Mamma a little. Stayed up till 10. I heard that the poor Gipsies were in ecstasies at what they received, which consisted of broth and wood (which as I before said they are to receive every day till the poor young woman is recovered) and the bundle of things, the blankets not being quite ready. I went to bed with a light heart, knowing these poor good people were better off and would not feel the cold quite so much.
Monday, 26th December
… I heard that the Gipsy mother and little baby were better and very thankful for the blankets &c.,&c. they had got, and felt very comfortable with a large fire in spite of the deep snow and great cold. The baby is to be called Francis and was to have been christened on Sunday only they came too late.
Wednesday, 28th December
At 12 dearest Lehzen, Victoire, and I went out and came home at 2. Everything covered with deep snow, and we were compelled to walk in the middle of the road, and very slippy rough walking it was. Aunt Sarah came out of the encampment looking very handsome with the poor little baby in her arms, as also the old woman with nothing on her head, and were very grateful for the blankets &c. we had sent them. Whatever may be the faults of this singular and wandering people and of these in particular, ingratitude and want of affection for one another are not amongst them, for they are most grateful I must say.
Thursday, 29th December
At 12 we went out with dear Lehzen and came home at 2. Everything still looked very white and the ground rather slippery but not so much so as yesterday. It snowed part of the time we were walking. I saw Aunt Sarah and the least pretty of the two sisters-in-law, who has returned, in a shop in Esher. How I do wish I could do something for their spiritual and mental benefit and for the education of their children and in particular for the poor little baby who I have known since its birth, in the admirable manner Mr. Crabb in his Gipsies’ Advocate” so strongly urges; he beseeches and urges those who have kind hearts and Christian feelings to think of these poor wanderers, who have many good qualities and who have many good people amongst them. He says, and alas! I too well know, its truth, from experience, that whenever any poor Gipsies are encamped anywhere and crimes and robberies &c. occur, it is invariably laid to their account, which is shocking; and if they are always looked upon as vagabonds, how can they become good people? I trust in Heaven that the day may come when I may do something for these poor people, and for this particular family! I am sure, that the little kindness which they have experienced from us will have a good and lasting effect on them!
Friday, 30th December
After 12 we dear Lehzen and I went out and came home at 20 minutes to 12. When we passed the encampment the old woman came out and told Lehzen that she had called twice at the lodge yesterday and today and had got no soup. Poor thing! there have been some misunderstandings and confusions I am sorry to say. But they have got blankets, old clothes and some money and I trust and really think they are as comfortable as poor Gipsies generally are. She further said that the young woman & baby were going on well; that they were all Coopers and the young woman, who was her daughter-in-law, was called Eliza Lee before her marriage; and that her own daughter Sarah had no husband, which she said looking down sadly, and that little George was Sarah’s only child. She has a singular clever but withered countenance herself, with not one grey hair, and is very respectful and well-bred in her manner.
Thursday, 5th January
At a little after 12 dear Lehzen and I went out and came home at 20 minutes p.1. When we approached the spot where the Gipsy encampment was, all, all was gone, vanished, and the only trace left of them was their litter of straw! So sudden and mysterious are their arrivals and departures, that one day they may appear settled for a long while in their tents and the next morning there may be no vestige of them left. Poor people, I am so glad we have done them good; they were such a nice set of Gipsies. I am quite certain that they had settled their departure when they came out to see us last Sunday, and were therefore not so sorry when we said we should see them no more, which was too true! I hope I shall see them one day again and then be able to do more real good for them. We met in walking homewards a Gipsy and a boy both on horseback; the man was remarkably handsome and independent looking; had a grey hat, trousers and gaiters on, a green jacket and a bright red handkerchief tied loosely round his neck; he looked quite Italian like; the boy had a black beaver hat on with a pipe in his mouth. I should think they were some relations of our friends; probably of the same clan, the Coopers.
Sunday, 8th January
At 12 dear Lehzen and I went out and came home at 10 minutes p.1. It is today a week that we took leave of our poor good friends the Gipsies and I am quite sorry when I pass the spot so long enlivened by their little camp, and behold it empty and deserted and with almost no trace to be seen of their ever having been there. They had been there more than a month, for they encamped there about 5 days after we arrived here and have been there ever since until last Wednesday or Thursday. To my feeling, the chief ornament of the Portsmouth road is gone since their departure. But this is their life; they are happy and grateful and we have done them some good. The place and spot may be forgotten, but the Gipsy family Cooper will never be obliterated from my memory!
I forgot to mention that one of the nice qualities of my Gipsy friends was, their cleanliness; for they were to be seen almost every day drying their washed things, not only their linen, but their handkerchiefs, cloaks &c. I am sorry I did not see the pretty young woman who was confined, again; I should so have liked to have seen her. What a hardy race they must be, when I consider how this young woman and poor innocent little babe bore the late very severe cold; I really think the wood and blankets we sent them kept them alive. She seemed a very strong person, as they all are, for she used generally to go every day before her confinement to the village which was full a mile and a half from their camp, and back again, and the last time I met her, the morning of the day before her confinement, how pretty and well she was looking only a little tired; I saw her even about the camp (at a distance) in the afternoon too.
Tuesday, 14th February
I quite forgot to mention that when on Sunday I walked for the last time on my favourite nice Portsmouth road, that I still beheld the litter of straw which was the only vestige of our poor good Gipsy friends who will never never be forgotten. Aunt Sarah, Eliza Cooper, old Mary Cooper, the poor dear little baby, the host of children, and the two other sisters-in-law, are quite present in my mind; I can see and hear them!
If you have enjoyed reading this, please click on this link to find out more about this fascinating gypsy family.
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
In the December of 1796 work began on building a prisoner of war camp at Norman Cross on the border between Huntingdonshire and Leicestershire. Built to house French prisoners of war, it was the first such purpose built camp anywhere in the world.
The site was chosen carefully – it could not be too close to the coast (which would make escape attempts more likely), near enough to London to be reached easily but not too close and in an area in which food and water would be readily available. Norman Cross fitted the bill perfectly.
The numbers of men held in the camp varied, but on average the population was around 5,000, mainly from the lower ranks of soldiers and sailors (occasionally wives were also taken up, if they were captured at their husbands sides on board ships, but they were generally held outside the prison as were some officers and civilians of a slightly higher status who were trusted on their honour not to break their parole). Escape attempts by the rank and file prisoners were a regular occurrence, sometimes successfully.
George Borrow (1803-1881), author and friend to the gypsies, remembered the camp from his youth – his father Captain Thomas Borrow was, around 1811, one of the men guarding the camp and the prisoners along with his regiment, and his family travelled with him. From Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851), a mix of memoir and novel:
At length my father was recalled to his regiment, which at that time was stationed at a place called Norman Cross, in Lincolnshire, or rather Huntingdonshire, at some distance from the old town of Peterborough. For this place he departed, leaving my mother and myself to follow in a few days. Our journey was a singular one. On the second day we reached a marshy and fenny country, which owing to immense quantities of rain which had lately fallen, was completely submerged. At a large town we got on board a kind of passage-boat, crowded with people; it had neither sails nor oars, and those were not the days of steam-vessels; it was a treck-schuyt [trekshuit, a form of barge or narrowboat], and was drawn by horses.
Young as I was, there was much connected with this journey which highly surprised me, and which brought to my remembrance particular scenes described in the book which I now generally carried in my bosom. The country was, as I have already said, submerged—entirely drowned—no land was visible; the trees were growing bolt upright in the flood, whilst farmhouses and cottages were standing insulated; the horses which drew us were up to the knees in water, and, on coming to blind pools and “greedy depths,” were not unfrequently swimming, in which case the boys or urchins who mounted them sometimes stood, sometimes knelt, upon the saddle and pillions. No accident, however, occurred either to the quadrupeds or bipeds, who appeared respectively to be quite au fait in their business, and extricated themselves with the greatest ease from places in which Pharaoh and all his host would have gone to the bottom. Nightfall brought us to Peterborough, and from thence we were not slow in reaching the place of our destination.
And a strange place it was, this Norman Cross, and, at the time of which I am speaking, a sad cross to many a Norman, being what was then styled a French prison, that is, a receptacle for captives made in the French war. It consisted, if I remember right, of some five or six casernes, very long, and immensely high; each standing isolated from the rest, upon a spot of ground which might average ten acres, and which was fenced round with lofty palisades, the whole being compassed about by a towering wall, beneath which, at intervals, on both sides sentinels were stationed, whilst, outside, upon the field, stood commodious wooden barracks, capable of containing two regiments of infantry, intended to serve as guards upon the captives. Such was the station or prison at Norman Cross, where some six thousand French and other foreigners, followers of the grand Corsican, were now immured.
What a strange appearance had those mighty casernes, with their blank blind walls, without windows or grating, and their slanting roofs, out of which, through orifices where the tiles had been removed, would be protruded dozens of grim heads, feasting their prison-sick eyes on the wide expanse of country unfolded from that airy height. Ah! there was much misery in those casernes; and from those roofs, doubtless, many a wistful look was turned in the direction of lovely France. Much had the poor inmates to endure, and much to complain of, to the disgrace of England be it said—of England, in general so kind and bountiful. Rations of carrion meat, and bread from which I have seen the very hounds occasionally turn away, were unworthy entertainment even for the most ruffian enemy, when helpless and a captive; and such, alas! was the fare in those casernes. And then, those visits, or rather ruthless inroads, called in the slang of the place  “straw-plait hunts,” when, in pursuit of a contraband article, which the prisoners, in order to procure themselves a few of the necessaries and comforts of existence, were in the habit of making, p. 24red-coated battalions were marched into the prisons, who, with the bayonet’s point, carried havoc and ruin into every poor convenience which ingenious wretchedness had been endeavouring to raise around it; and then the triumphant exit with the miserable booty; and, worst of all, the accursed bonfire, on the barrack parade, of the plait contraband, beneath the view of the glaring eyeballs from those lofty roofs, amidst the hurrahs of the troops, frequently drowned in the curses poured down from above like a tempest-shower, or in the terrific war-whoop of “Vive l’Empereur!”
Borrow had his first encounter with the gypsies outside Norman Cross. In a paper given by David Nuttall at the Easter Conference of the George Borrow Society, he speculates that the gypsies Borrow met, probably Faden John and Morella Smith, were in the area specifically because of the money-making potential from the prisoner of war camp and carding straw plait ready to sell on for illicit use in the prison where it was turned into plaited objects which then could be sold.
Gambling was rife within the walls of the camp, with some men gambling away both their clothes and their food rations – some even died of starvation because of this. But generally discipline was good and the prisoners crafted various objects to sell to supplement their income. Fanny Chapman, whose diaries are hosted on our sister blog, recalled being given an ivory chess set in 1811 which had been carved by a French prisoner of war at Norman Cross.
As the war ebbed and flowed, so did the number of prisoners – by the summer of 1802, following the Treaty of Amiens, the prison stood empty and the government advertised the buildings for sale. This was swiftly countermanded just months later when it became obvious that, with hostilities resumed, the buildings comprising the camp would once again be needed for their original purpose. A year later, Dutch and French prisoners were being marched from the prison ships in which they had been held to Norman Cross.
After peace had been declared between France and Britain in 1814 the remaining prisoners were free to return home and most, although not all, did so. One Jean (John) Habart married a local girl and settled in Stilton near Peterborough where he worked as a malster and innkeeper and ‘bore an excellent character for honesty and integrity’. He died, aged 63 years, in 1846 when he was discovered, his neck broken, on the ground next to his cart on his return from Peterborough market. The inquest into his death returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ but it seemed to have been suspected that foul play might have been the cause.[i] He was possibly the Jean Hobart captured with two other men on the 26th June 1803 from a French fishing vessel off Calais, who was employed as a baker while in the camp and discharged in 1811.[ii]
[i] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (31st January 1846) and Stamford Mercury (6th February 1846).
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 on 19 August 1850, as James Veanas, under coroner’s orders.
SUDDEN DEATH NEAR HAREWOOD – On the 19th inst., Mr. Taylor, deputy coroner, held his first inquest since his appointment by Mr. Lee, at the King’s Arms, Wigton, near Harewood, on view of the body of James Venus, aged 44. It appeared that deceased was a gipsy, and by trade a knife grinder. He had been unwell for some time past, but had been travelling about in various parts of the country. He died somewhat suddenly, at Wigton, on the day preceding the inquest. The jury returned a verdict of “Died from natural causes”.
A rural, country lane in Lincolnshire, between the villages of Drinsey Nook and Saxilby and close to the county border with Nottinghamshire, bears the name of a murderer who was gibbeted there for his crime.
Tom Otter was the culprit: hanged on Saxilby Moor close to the scene of his awful crime, his name still resonates over two hundred years later.
He was a twenty-eight-year-old labouring banker (navvy) from Treswell in Nottinghamshire who had travelled across the border into Lincolnshire seeking work, leaving his young wife and infant daughter behind in Southwell. Described as a stout but handsome man, he stood five feet nine inches in height.
At Eakring in Nottinghamshire on the 22nd November 1804, Tom married Martha Rawlinson; their daughter was born just a month later, baptized at Hockerton near Southwell two days before Christmas.
In Lincolnshire, passing himself off as a widower and using his mother’s maiden name of Temporal, he seduced young Mary Kirkham, a local girl between twenty-one and twenty-four years of age, and got her pregnant. Forced by the parish authorities into marriage, the couple duly obtained a marriage licence and presented themselves, accompanied by the parish constables, at the parish church in South Hykeham to say their vows, Tom Otter naming himself as Thomas Temple [sic], a widower on the marriage licence if not in the marriage register, of St. Mary Wigford in Lincoln. Mary, eight months pregnant at her wedding, was a spinster from North Hykeham.
The marriage took place on Sunday, 3rd November 1805, and that same evening the couple found themselves near to Drinsey Nook, about nine miles distant from South Hykeham, after having stopped at The Sun Inn at Saxilby for a drink and a bite to eat. On the road between Saxilby and Drinsey Nook, Tom brutally murdered his pregnant bride only hours after their wedding, battering her skull with a wooden club and throwing her lifeless body into a ditch close to a bridge passing over the Ox Pasture Drain.
There poor Mary was discovered the next morning, her head almost beaten from her body, with the wooden club and one of her patterns located 40 yards away. She was carried back to The Sun Inn for an inquest to take place, following which she was buried in Saxilby on the 5th November 1805.
The burial register reads:
Nov 5th – Mary Kirkham, alias Temporel, aged 24, found murdered on the Moor. The jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against her husband, Thomas Temporel, or Otter.
Having been observed walking with a wooden club on the day of the murder, Tom was taken up at The Packhorse Inn in Lincoln as the prime suspect and stood trial at the Lincoln Assizes as Thomas Temporell, otherwise Thomas Otter, in March 1806. After a trial lasting five hours he was sentenced to death and to have his body dissected, but this was changed to rule that his body should be hung in chains on Saxilby Moor, at the scene of his crime. Tom had made no defence to the charge of willful murder, but twenty witnesses appeared against him, all giving circumstantial evidence but it appeared so plain and clear that after the five-hour trial the jury took but a few minutes to consider their verdict.
Tom carried himself with indifference at his trial, but on the day of his execution, 14th March 1806, he was measured for the irons in which his body was to rot, and at this point he faltered and approached the gallows adjacent to Lincoln Castle with his head bowed.
The Reverend George Hall, a friend of the gypsies and known as The Gypsy’s Parson, recounted in his book of the same name how his grandfather attended the gibbetting.
[He] was among the crowd of citizens who, starting from Lincoln Castle one March morning in the year 1806, followed the murderer’s corpse until it was hanged in irons on a post thirty feet high on Saxilby Moor. For several days after the event, the vicinity of the gibbet resembled a country fair with drinking booths, ballad singers, Gypsy fiddlers, and fortune-tellers.
The gypsies used to camp close to the gibbet, near Tom Otter’s mouldering bones; the local folk kept their distance from the place after dark and the gypsies knew they would be left in peace. Although it occurred a decade on from the Georgian era, we must recount the birth of one gypsy boy, as given in The Gypsy’s Parson.
Old Tom, whose patronymic was Petulengro, the Gypsy equivalent of Smith, was known as Tom o’ the Gibbet (he was also known as Sneezing Tommy because of his predilection for a pinch of snuff, but we’ll concentrate on the former nickname). His married sister, Ashena Brown, when an elderly lady, told the story to the Gypsy’s Parson.
The old lady, bowed and with long jet black curls, began her tale:
Wonderful fond o’ the County o’ Nottingham was my people. They know’d every stick and stone along the Trentside and in the Shirewood (Sherwood), and many’s the time we’ve stopped at Five Lane Ends nigh Drinsey Nook . . . Ay, and I minds how my daddy used to make teeny horseshoes, knife handles, and netting needles, outen the bits o’ wood he tshin’d (cut) off the gibbet post, and wery good oak it was. Mebbe you’s heard o’ Tom Otter’s post nigh to the woods? Ah, but p’raps you’s never been tell’d that our Tom was born’d under it? The night my mammy were took bad, our tents was a’most blown to bits. The wind banged the old irons agen the post all night long, as I’ve heard her say. And when they wanted to name the boy, they couldn’t think of no other name but Tom, for sure as they tried to get away from it, the name kept coming back again – Tom, Tom, Tom – till it sort o’ dinned itself into their heads. So at last my daddy says, “Let’s call him Tom and done with it,” and i’ time, folks got a-calling him Tom o’ the Gibbet, and it stuck to him, it did.
Her brother, Thomas Smith, was baptized at St. Botolph’s in Saxilby, the same church where poor Mary Kirkham lay buried, on the 1st November 1840, the baptism register recording that the boy, the son of Moses and Eldred (otherwise Eldri) Smith, gypsies, was born in Otter’s Lane.
Ashena Brown carried on her recollection of the gibbet and Tom Otter’s bones.
And whenever uncle and aunt used to pass by Tom Otter’s gibbet, they’d stop and look up at the poor man hanging there, and they allus wuser’d (threw) him a bit o’ hawben (food). They couldn’t let theirselves go by wi’out doing that. And there was a baker from Harby, and whenever he passed by the place he would put a bread loaf on to the pointed end of a long rod and shove it into that part o’ the irons where poor Tom’s head was, and sure enough the bread allus went. The baker got hisself into trouble for doing that, as I’ve heard our old people say.
The gibbet, with what was left of Tom inside, stood in its lonely spot, with only the occasional gypsy camp for company, until 1850, when a gale brought it crashing down.
Stamford Mercury, 8th November 1805
Stamford Mercury, 14th March 1806
Bury and Norwich Post, 19th March 1806
Northampton Mercury, 22nd March 1806
Northampton Mercury, 29th March 1806
The Gypsy’s Parson by the Reverend George Hall
Murder at the Inn: A Criminal History of Britain’s Pubs and Hotels, James Moore
When you picture gypsies of the past, do you picture them travelling in their gaudily painted horse-drawn caravans or vardos? In truth, this form of transport is a relatively modern invention, and the gypsy people generally sheltered in ‘bender’ tents, using donkeys and carts to transport and carry their tents and their belongings from place to place. A bender tent is formed from a covering of tarpaulin placed over flexible branches, usually willow or hazel, which are staked into the ground, a crude but very effective form of shelter.
For this reason, it was common for these people to ‘overwinter’ in lodgings in towns and cities rather than camp in the very coldest months. Sometimes though, they did find themselves living in their tents during the freezing temperatures. On the evening of the 17th February 1820, in the Lincolnshire countryside, a boy was born in such a tent in sub-zero temperatures.
The Stamford Mercury newspaper, dated the 25th February 1820, reported on the birth.
LINCOLN, FEBRUARY 24
At eleven o’clock on the night of the 17th inst. a poor woman of the gipsy tribe was safely delivered of a fine boy in a lane a mile distant from the village of Wellingore, in this county, under scarcely any other covering than the canopy of heaven. The thermometer that night was ten degrees below freezing point: but notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather then and since (the ground being covered with frost and snow), the mother and child are both doing extremely well in their humble camp.
The infant was baptised at the parish church in Wellingore three days later, on the 20th February, and given the name of Nathaniel. His parents were named as Joshua and Ann Smith, with Joshua’s trade in the baptism register listed as ‘beggar.’
In January 1786, in a small rural Lincolnshire village, an elderly gypsy died. Cornelius Blewitt was no ordinary gypsy though, he was a King of the Gypsies, and he was still remembered at the dawn of the 19th century. We think it is fitting that he is remembered once again now.
Cornelius was possibly born in Rochdale in Lancashire, baptized shortly afterwards at Davenham in Cheshire on the 26th February 1721, the son of Eliza Bluet, ‘a travailer‘ although at a baptism of one of his children he and his wife Phillis Boswell were described as being of Woolstone near Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire. Wherever he started his days he ended them at Thurlby-by-Bourne in southern Lincolnshire, where he was buried on the 7th January 1786, the burial register stating his age as 66 years.
Another gypsy also lies in the churchyard at Thurlby-by-Bourne, a girl named Lucia, daughter of Parcenos and Mary Bluet from Kentford in Suffolk who was buried there in 1754.
On December 19th, 1799, the Oracle and Daily Advertiser newspaper published the following article.
THE COUNTRY CHURCH YARD
“Ha! ha! My Friend!” said EUGENIO, interrupting me, “the wings of thy fancy have borne thee again into the Regions of Delusion – as far from the point as Morality from a canting Face. CORNELIUS BLEWITT was a Gypsy.
“And yet, perhaps, you have rather undervalued, than exalted, his importance; for with the alteration of no single circumstance, except the change of scene, from fertile England to the Desert of Arabia, the dust we now despise might, during Life, have been entitled to its seraglio of Beauties, and its guard of Eunuchs; and have ordered the Heads of a hundred Captives to be struck off, to appease his capricious spleen, whenever a tempestuous wind prevented an excursion of Plunder, or a cruel Fair one had neglected the mandate of his love.
Take Physic, Pomp! Ambition check thy rashness. PULTOWA’S loss sunk SWEDEN’S Madman nearly to this level, though BENDER trembled at his shattered greatness; and an unfortunate day on the Banks of the Ganges might have rendered the mighty Son of PHILIP (like him whose mouldering bones we are moralizing upon) the Monarch only of a wandering Tribe of Robbers, as much despised, though I fear, not so little detested, as CORNELIUS BLEWITT.
In short, CORNELIUS, was King of the Gypsies: and was used, every year, attended by his Royal Family, and Officers of State, to visit this Village. He kept his Court at the House of that same honest, grey-headed Farmer, or Publican, where we have left our Horses; and in that very parlour where we enjoyed our tankard of excellent Home brewed, was erected his rustic Throne.
I met the Wanderers there in one of my former excursions: nor ever beheld I a set of merrier, or, apparently, more harmless Beings. And, believe me, the venerable Majesty of CORNELIUS, the despotic Ruler of the mysterious Counsellors of Fate, was regarded with no little reverence by the Country Maidens. Nay, and what will surprise you, his arrival was hailed with no small degree of pleasure by the whole Village; for CORNELIUS and his Subjects spent their money liberally, and paid with punctuality, and it is an invariable rule with these people never to rob in the neighbourhood of their settled Haunts.
But the Majestic Nod and Imperial Frown Death values not. KING CORNELIUS sleeps in the humble Grave, and the Five Bells at Thurlby is no longer a Royal Residence. The Palace and the Empire have shared one common Revolution; though the latter, it seems, has been considerably the greater loser by the change, for not only the Family, but the Nation of our Hero is reported considerably to have declined from its splendour since it has been deprived of his wise Administration.
A solemn deputation is, however, annually, sent to visit the venerated Tomb, to pay it, as is supposed, some mysterious honours, and to keep it in constant repair, a practice which would do honour to more regular Societies; and the neglect of which is a disgrace to the surviving relatives of departed Grandeur; for what can be more ridiculous or irreverent, than, after immense sums have been expended on Sepulchral Monuments to let them moulder away in neglect, and mingle with that dust they were designed to immortalize!
Header image: Gipsy Camp; George Morland; The Stanleyand Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds
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.
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.
One of our readers last week mentioned the somewhat larger than life Georgian character of Bampfylde Moore Carew via some feedback on our Gypsies of Georgian Englandarticle and we decided to see whether we could actually find any new information about him. He was reputed to be ‘King of the Gypsies,’ ‘King of Beggars,’ a rogue and a scoundrel, but was, in all likelihood, simply a very well read travelling storyteller – but we will let you decide!
His is a romantic tale, if questionable in authenticity; after being sent to school at Tiverton in Devon at the age of 12 years he got into trouble for pursuing deer with hounds across the nearby land and, with his fellows, ran away to avoid getting into bother. They met with a tribe of Gypsies and Carew claimed that he travelled with his new companions for a year and a half. Returning home he commenced a career as an imposter and swindler and supposedly took in a journey to Newfoundland before eloping with a respectable girl who became his long-suffering wife.
Carew then took to the road once again and, when a Gypsy King named Clause Patch died, he was crowned as the new King. The authorities caught up with him and, after being convicted of vagrancy, he was sentenced to be transported to Maryland in Virginia. Various escapades and adventures followed in America, but, in short, he managed to escape back home where, once again with his wife and their daughter, he fell into a nomadic way of life, even reputedly having travelled with the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in 1745.
Where to begin with such a story! From our perspective as genealogists, we started by checking what sources of information were readily available and immediately came across entries for him on the usual websites such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) which is widely acknowledged to contain the most accurate and thoroughly researched information and Wikipedia. Here the confusion began; Wikipedia states his years of birth and death as 1693 and 1759 respectively as does the ODNB but other sources gave his birth as 1690 and his death as late as 1770.
The opening lines of a book written about him, ‘The Life and Adventure of Bampfylde Moore Carew‘ stated that ‘Mr Carew was born in the month of July 1693’ and that he was from ‘the parish of Brickley‘. The parish is actually Bickley, or Bickleigh as it is known as today, (there never was the letter ‘r’ in its name), a village in mid-Devon. So, right at the beginning, we have a discrepancy with the misspelling of his birthplace suggesting the book had been written by someone other than Bampfylde himself; clearly, we were not off to a good start. One would assume that in the first few lines of the account of his life that the basic facts were correct – not so!
So, without further ado let’s get the basics resolved.
His baptism took place at the parish church in the village of Bickleigh, Devon on 23rd September 1690, he was baptized Banfield Moore Carew, son of Rev. Theodore Carew and his wife Alice née Pearce (whom we found via the couple’s marriage record); quite possibly the vicar misspelt his name in the register. According to his ‘Life and Adventure’, he was named in honour of his two Godfather’s, the Honourable Hugh Bampfylde and Major Moore. Hugh Bampfylde was said to have died after falling from his horse, and this would seem to identify him as Colonel Hugh Bampfylde, eldest son on Sir Coplestone Bampfylde of Poltimore, Devon, who died in a riding accident in 1691, two years before the accepted birth date for Bampfylde.
The Bampfields are an old and established gentry family in Devon. Sir Coplestone Bampfylde (1637/8-1692) was the one who changed the spelling of the surname, possibly to distance himself from his direct ancestors who had fought on the side of Parliament rather than on that of the King during the Civil Wars.
Bampfylde’s marriage didn’t take place until he was in his 40s, when, at Stoke Damerel in Devon on the 29th December 1733, he married a Mary Gray; the name does tally with a Miss Gray named in the book, whether she was the daughter of an apothecary/surgeon from Newcastle-upon-Tyne (as claimed) or not, we simply don’t know. We do however know that the surname Gray was a popular one amongst the gipsy community, so it is feasible that she was actually a gipsy, given his supposed connection with those people. According to Carew’s story, the couple married at Bath where they spent some time, the implication being that they were only young at the time, but, unless for some strange reason they married twice this account seems improbable!
In 1734, virtually a year to the day after their marriage Bampfylde and Mary presented their son Theodore for baptism, again at the parish church in Bickleigh then tragically, a mere two days later, the records show a burial for the child.
Four years later according to records held by Devon records office, Carew was sentenced as a criminal for transportation to Virginia. It was usual for a person being transported to have a Bond and a Contract issued, however, for Carew he was only named on the Bond, leading to speculation as to whether he actually was transported or not.
Carew talked fondly in his story of a daughter, Polly (a nickname often used instead of Mary), but so far any baptism record for this daughter is proving somewhat elusive, despite a mention of her marrying. There is one possible marriage for a Mary Carew at about the right time, but it took place in London, which does not fit with his account of her marrying a young gentleman who lived nearby in Devon.
Despite not being able to find the baptism we know that the couple most definitely did have a daughter named Mary as she was named in a vagrancy order issued at Sherborne, Dorset, dated 21st November 1745, along with a Robert Jones who was travelling with them.
In part of his story, Carew says that he had ventured as far north as Scotland and was travelling with Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, and he specifically stated that he had accompanied the Young Pretender back through England to Carlisle and Derby. According to records, the Young Pretender entered Carlisle on 10th November 1745 and then travelled south reaching Derby on the 4th December 1745. Given that Carew and his family were arrested as vagrants on the 21st November 1745, at Sherborne in Dorset, it seems unlikely that this part of his story has any truth in it; more likely the authorities returned him from Sherborne to his birthplace of Bickleigh.
There are known Jacobite sympathies in his family though; the son of Colonel Hugh Bampfylde who was stated to be godfather to Carew, another Sir Coplestone Bampfylde, this one the 3rd Baronet, was suspected of being a Jacobite in 1715 and imprisoned for a time. Another Bampfield, Joseph Bampfield (1622-1685), who was dead some years before Carew was born but whose story was no doubt told to him, had, with his lover Anne Murray, helped James, Duke of York, second son of King Charles I and the future King James II, to escape in 1648 during the English Civil Wars, disguising the young man in women’s clothing. Possibly Carew’s sympathies lay on the side of the Pretender in 1745 and he used anecdotes he’d heard in his youth to embellish his own tale. It is not known to which family this Joseph Bampfield belonged but he is thought to slot into the Devonshire Bampfield’s somewhere.
We then moved on to searching for his burial, with dates for this varying between 1758 and 1770. To confirm it once and for all the actual date was the 28th June 1758 and he was buried at the same church in which he was baptized.
The London Chronicle dated 28th August 1759 reported his death, but as you will notice it was over a year after his actual burial! His death must have gone unnoticed and unreported for over a year.
Bath, August 27th The well-known Bampfield Moore Carew, stiled the king of the Beggars died lately at Bicknel, Near Tiverton, in Devonshire in the 60th year of his age, after 50 years travel.
His life story is so complex that rather than try to provide a ‘potted’ version we simply offer you a link to the book should you wish to learn more about him.
If you prefer a shorter account, we came across this excellent website.
Each time we have found one fact that checked out we found so many more that simply didn’t. Carew provided us with so many names to try to validate, but each time we came across one and searched the internet we inevitably came back to his story, but rarely, if ever, was the person mentioned anywhere else!
He either had the most adventurous life that read like something from a ‘Boys Own’ comic, or most of it was total fiction. As we really can’t decide, we simply offer you the information we have found and you make your own decision, we would, however, say that the reality probably falls somewhere in between the two!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
FAREWELL TO THE KING OF THE GYPSIES
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.
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.
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.
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.