We came across a book written in 1790 entitled The Universal Fortune Teller and concerning a gypsy, Mother Bridget of Norwood, one of the infamous Norwood gypsies who died in 1768. The Norwood gypsies lived in the area now known as Gypsy Hill. The book gives us description of Bridget along with details of fortune telling, some of which we can share with you.
According to the book Bridget’s parents died when she was young and she was left to raise herself and managed to support herself by begging. She gained a 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 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 online (page 63).
The Norwood gypsies 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 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 Gypsies, 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.
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.
So far we have written several pieces about Romany gypsies as their stories have popped up during our research and for anyone who reads our latest book, A Right Royal Scandal, you will find out more about our interest in this community.
In this, the first of two posts (our second being on Thursday), 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.
Given the length of this post we will be running the second part on Thursday. In today’s post we will simply recount Princess Victoria’s journal entries from exactly 180 years ago this week and on Thursday 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. 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 canvass. 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 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 disheveled 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]
Further information on the burials of the 1,770 men who never left Norman Cross can be found here including the details of 41 men who were Trafalgar veterans.
[i] Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (31st January 1846) and Stamford Mercury (6th February 1846).
An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott is available from Pen and Sword Books (click here to order) and all good bookshops.
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The Boss family, notorious gypsy horse thieves and dealers, plied their dubious trade across throughout Norfolk and Suffolk, into Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire and further afield into Yorkshire.
The family used various aliases, including Heron (Hearne) and Jones. The best known was Riley Boss who had three wives, Charlotte Hammond, Lucy Boswell and Shurensi (sometimes Susannah) Smith. Also of the travelling party was Riley’s reputed half-brother, James Venus, who had taken for a wife Trinity Boswell (sister of Elijah Boswell, a notorious rogue) along with her children by George Boyling, her previous husband.
James Venus and Riley Boss had a sister named Clara. In the latter half of the 1820s, the party met Samuel Roberts (1763-1848) of Park Grange in Sheffield, the son of a local manufacturer. It is likely that this was during the summer of 1827. James and Trinity Venus had baptised a son, named Newcombe Venus, in Bowdon Cheshire on the 22nd April 1827 as James and Traineth Venus of Dunham (a neighbouring village) with James’s occupation being described as cutler, a traditional gypsy occupation; he would have travelled with a grinding machine sharpening blades.
In the summer of 1827, the party were on their way back to Lincolnshire where young Newcombe Venus was buried at Mablethorpe on the 5th August 1827, the burial register recording him as the son of James and Trinity Venus, gypsies, aged about nine months. At some point between these two dates, whilst travelling from Cheshire to Lincolnshire via the Sheffield road, the gypsy party met with Samuel Roberts. In his own words:
In taking my accustomed ride into the country, I met with a tribe, or rather family, of Gypsies, consisting, as I then supposed, of the father, mother, and five children; it, however, proved, that the older of the children, a girl apparently about thirteen, was an orphan, and sister to the man, though probably nearly twenty years younger than he. I saw them several times and at length asked the man if he would have any objections to leaving his sister with my family, at any rate till he called again, which I understood to be in about eight days . . . The man said his name was James Vanis. His sister’s Clara Vanis. I have since heard that it was Hearn and not Vanis.
From this description, we seem to have James and Trinity Venus, together with his sister Clara, the baby Newcombe and three of Trinity’s children from her previous marriage. Samuel Roberts was a religious man, a keen slavery abolitionist and he published several books, some on the subject of the gypsies and their culture and he was also known as the ‘Pauper’s Advocate’. His reason for wanting Clara to stay with him and his family was to become better acquainted with the language and habits of the gypsy people. With both James Venus and Clara being agreeable to this she returned to Park Grange with Roberts. Clara was, from Roberts’ description, a slight, well-formed girl, not strongly gypsy looking and not handsome but strikingly intelligent.
She spent the eight days with the Roberts family and they seem to have been as delighted with her as she was with them, becoming a firm favourite with two of Roberts’ daughters. She and the Roberts wished to extend the visit but James Venus came at the appointed time and insisted that Clara leave with him immediately. Clara was in tears but agreed to go with her brother, even though Samuel Roberts entreated her to remain. James Venus had told Samuel Roberts that Clara was needed as his wife and one of the children was ill, but after Clara had quit his house Roberts encountered the wife, Trinity, who told him that she was as well as usual and did not wish for Clara’s return. No further mention is made of the sickly child but seeing as the infant Newcombe Venus was buried shortly after this, James Venus was probably right to be concerned and to want his sister to help.
The Victorian gypsiologist, Rev. George Hall (1863-1918), so well known to the Lincolnshire gypsy fraternity, later talked with Clara’s family. Hall knew her as a full sister to Riley Boss and a half-sister to the slightly shadier James Venus, whose identity has always been unsure. Indeed, many authorities have decided that James Venus was simply an alias used by Riley Boss and that the two men were one and the same. George Hall had this to say, referencing the opinion of another, earlier, gypsiologist, George Borrow.
Concerning the dramatic termination of the Sheffield episode, two versions are extant. According to Mr. Roberts, it is James Vanis, otherwise Hearn, who comes of Clara with a lying pretext on his lips. In Borrow’s statement it is Ryley who snatches his young sister away in a characteristic spirit of violence. It is true, the girl had a half-brother named James, yet seeing that Borrow obtained his facts during lengthy conversations with Clara herself, it may be presumed that ‘James Vanis’ was after all only one more of Ryley’s many aliases.
However, it seems unlikely that James Venus was purely an alias; certainly Trinity, after leaving George Boyling and taking up with her second husband, consistently uses the surname Venus, or a variant thereof, as does James during several court appearances for vagrancy and theft, and not once do they use differing forenames or surnames.
The year after this Sheffield episode, in Burton by Lincoln, the name Newcombe was given to a son of Riley Boss and Shurensi (as an adult he would be transported to Australia under the name of Barthey Jones for the crime of horse stealing).
28th September 1828, Burton by Lincoln, baptism of Newcome son of William and Susan Boss, at Burton, gypsey.
A month later James Venus (as James Vanus) was sentenced to a week in prison for the crime of larceny at the Doncaster Sessions, possibly tried alongside an Abraham Herring, but he was back in Lincolnshire in November for the baptism of a child named Aswerly at Upon cum Kexby near Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, the register there recording the parents as James and Trinity Venus, travelling tinker.
Riley at least remained in the Lincolnshire area as a double baptism of his children took place at the end of 1832, one which was not all that it seemed. For Riley had a son named Adness with Shurensi and a daughter named Naomi with Lucy; polygamy was common amongst these people, and it so happened that Riley had two children born within days of each other by two of his wives. Not wanting to shock the local vicar by proclaiming himself as the father of both children, a relative stood in as the father of Lucy’s daughter. The baptisms took place in the village of Wootton.
30th Dec 1832 – Agnes daughter of Ryley and Susannah Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy
30th Dec 1832 – Naomi daughter of Thomas and Lucy Bos, of Wootton, a gipsy
The Vicar then added a note at the bottom of the page of the baptism register, “N.B. I was afterwards informed by report only, after their departure, that the child whom they named Agnes was a boy. The persons who call themselves Bos are probably Boswells”. The child was not only a boy but was Adness rather than Agness, but he also, in later life, used the names Isaac and Haggi.
James Venus made a further appearance in the dock, this time in Derbyshire for stealing an ass, along with his stepson Absalom Boyling, the two men were recorded as James Vanass aged 50 and Absalom Vanass aged 16, both gypsies. James received four months imprisonment.
At Attercliffe, Sheffield, on the 20th February 1844, Trinity Venus, wife of James Venus, brazier, died of typhus fever aged 54 years. Her death was registered by Hesilla Venus, possibly her daughter Asella by her first husband George Boyling, who had been present at the death; we can find no other trace of Hesilla/Asella. Trinity’s son Absalom, or ‘Appy Boswell, was known for his ‘Lying Tales’. Perhaps though there was more truth in them than has yet been supposed?
The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Journal (1925) has this on ‘Appy.
Among them was Trenit Boswell, a daughter of the Absolom or Appy Boswell who is famous all over the North Midlands and the northern counties for his Lying Tales, and about whose origin and ‘breedipen’ there has been as deep and seemingly impenetrable a mystery as any in Gypsy genealogy. Appy himself would declare that he was born at Wickersley, near Rotherham, of respectable gorgio parents, his father being a small farmer and dealer. As a boy he attended Sunday School, where he learned to read and write; after which, he said, his parents apprenticed him to Rogers of Sheffield, ‘to have him put in the way of the grinding business.’ The workmen, however, used him harshly, so he ran away, and ‘listed as a sailor’; and was shipwrecked, and lived for a week at the bottom of the sea — ‘ a beautiful tem in no mistake, only vittles wasn’t to say plentiful there, and it took you all your time to get a bit of fire going.’ Various adventures followed, bringing him back at last to England, where one day he fell in with a widow who had five children, and was so sorry for her that he married her forthwith. But, as will be seen, this is one of Appy’s Munchausen-like efforts, not sober autobiography; and so, having indicated its nature, I must pass it by now, hoping that on some future occasion I may be able to tell it, and one or two more Appy Boswell tales not printed as yet, in something approaching their original form. Here I can only add that Appy once took a sceptical listener to Wickersley, and convinced him of his parents’ residence there, for no sooner had they set down their grinding-barrows in front of the kicema than the door of a house opposite flew open, and a voice inquired : ‘ Is that you, Absolom? Your mother wants to see you. She’s bin took badly, poor old lady.’ This is what Appy said, at all events; and I know of Booths and Claytons nearly related to him who believe that things happened so — by previous arrangement or otherwise.
It seems plausible, having seen Trinity’s death certificate, that the story about his sick mother at Wickersley which is close by Sheffield may have some truth in it after all and relate to Trinity Venus. Incidentally, Absalom (or ‘Appy) was baptised at Scawby in Lincolnshire in 1821 as the son of George and Trinity Boyling, wandering gypsies.
James Venus was buried at Harewood in Yorkshire, as James Veanas, under coroner’s orders.
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.
He had married Martha Rawlinson at Eakring in Nottinghamshire on the 22nd November, 1804; 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 his fortitude forsook him and he 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.