Following on from our last two blog posts looking at Queen Victoria’s connection with the Cooper gypsy family just a few short months before she became monarch, and the fact that we delve into Romany history in our latest book, we thought that today, instead of one of our regular blog posts, we would instead recommend a brilliant online resource for anyone interested in taking research into gypsy genealogy further.
A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History follows two generations of the British royal family’s ancestors, charting their respective – and scandalous – love affairs and unions. The second of these two marriages was between a well-connected young Oxford University student (he was nephew and grandson to two successive Dukes of Portland, great-nephew to the Duke of Wellington and grandson to Marquess Wellesley) and a girl from humble working-class stock who had gypsy blood flowing through her veins.
We have spent many years researching certain Midlands gypsy families and this was how we first stumbled onto the story which sparked A Right Royal Scandal. For any of our readers who, like us, are interested in finding out more we recommend a fantastic site run by expert genealogists Eric Trudgill and Anne-Marie Ford.
Their site, ‘Gypsy Genealogy’, publishes at least two new articles on the first Monday of every month, and they are always full of information. Some give the history of a particular family while others give helpful tips on how to conduct your research for, as we have found, when researching gypsy families you often need to employ different methods to obtain results. So, we’d recommend bookmarking this fascinating resource and popping back to it regularly.
Header image: Gypsy Encampment, 1795 by George Morland
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!
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”.
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 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