METROPOLITAN GYPSYRIES--WANDSWORTH, 1864
(Extract from Romano Lavo LiL by george Borrow)
What may be called the grand Metropolitan Gypsyry is on the Surreyside of the Thames. Near the borders of Wandsworth and Battersea,about a quarter of a mile from the river, is an open piece of groundwhich may measure about two acres.To the south is a hill, at the foot of which is a railway, and it is skirted on the north by the Wandsworth and Battersea Road. This place is what the Gypsies call a kekkeno mushes puv, a no man's ground; a place which has either no proprietor, or which the proprietor, for some reason, makes no use of for the present.The houses in the neighbourhood are mean and squalid, and are principally inhabited by artisans of the lowest description.This spot, during a considerable portion of the year,is the principal place of residence of the Metropolitan Gypsies, and of other people whose manner of life more or less resembles theirs.
During the summer and autumn the little plain, for such it is, is quite deserted, except that now and then a wretched tent or two may be seen upon it, belonging to some tinker family, who have put up there for a few hours on their way through the metropolis; for the Gypsies are absent during summer, some at fairs and races, the men with their cocoa-nuts and the women busy at fortune-telling, or at suburban places of pleasure--the former with their donkeys for the young cockneys to ride upon, and the latter as usual dukkering and hokkering, and the other travellers, as they are called, roaming about the country following their particular avocations, whilst in the autumn the greater part of them all are away in Kent, getting money by picking hops. As soon, however, as the rains, the precursors of winter, descend, the place begins to be occupied, and about a week or two before Christmas it is almost crammed with the tents and caravans of the wanderers; and then it is a place well worthy to be explored, notwithstanding the inconvenience of being upto one's ankles in mud, and the rather appalling risk of being bitten by the Gypsy and travelling dogs tied to the tents and caravans, in whose teeth there is always venom and sometimes that which can bring on the water-horror, for which no European knows a remedy. The following is an attempt to describe the odd people and things to be met with here; the true Gypsies, and what to them pertaineth, being of course noticed first.
On this plain there may be some fifteen or twenty Gypsy tents and caravans. Some of the tents are large, as indeed it is highly
necessary that they should be, being inhabited by large families--a man and his wife, a grandmother a sister or two and half a dozen children, being, occasionally found in one; some of them are very small, belonging to poor old females who have lost their husbands, and whose families have separated themselves from them, and allow them to shift for themselves. During the day the men are generally busy at their several avocations, chinning the cost, that is, cutting the stick for skewers, making pegs for linen-lines, kipsimengring or basket-making, tinkering or braziering; the children are playing about, or begging halfpence by the road of passengers; whilst the women are strolling about, either in London or the neighbourhood, engaged in fortune-telling or swindling. Of the trades of the men, the one by far the most practised is chinning the cost, and as they sit at the door of the tents, cutting
and whittling away, they occasionally sweeten their toil by raising their voices and singing the Gypsy stanza in which the art is entioned, and which for terseness and expressiveness is quite equal to anything in the whole circle of Gentile poetry:"
Can you rokra Romany?
Can you play the bosh?
Can you jal adrey the staripen?
Can you chin the cost?
Can you speak the Roman tongue?
Can you play the fiddle?
Can you eat the prison-loaf?
Can you cut and whittle?
These Gypsies are of various tribes, but chiefly Purruns,Chumomescroes and Vardomescroes, or Lees, Boswells and Coopers, and
Lees being by far the most numerous.The men are well made, active fellows, somewhat below the middle height. Their complexions are dark, and their eyes are full of intelligence; their habiliments are rather ragged. The women are mostly wild-looking creatures, somepoorly clad, others exhibiting not a little strange finery. There are some truly singular beings amongst those women, which is more than can be said with respect to the men, who are much on a level, and amongst whom there is none whom it is possible to bring prominently out, and about whom much can be said. The women, as has been already observed, are generally out during the day, being engaged in their avocations abroad.
There is a very small tent about the middle of the place; it belongs to a lone female, whom one frequently meets wandering about Wandsworth or Battersea, seeking an opportunity to dukker some credulous servant-girl. It is hard that she should have to do so, as she is more than seventy-five years of age, but if she did not she would probably starve. She is very short of statue, being little more than five feet and an inch high, but she is wonderfully strongly built. Her head is very large, and seems to have been placed at once upon her shoulders without any interposition of neck. Her face is broad, with a good-humoured expression upon it, and in general with very little vivacity; at times, however, it lights up, and then all the Gypsy beams forth. Old as she is, her hair, which is very long, is as black as the plumage of a crow, and she walks sturdily, though with not much elasticity, on her short, thick legs, and, if requested, would take up the heaviest man in Wandsworth or Battersea and walk away with him. She is, upon the whole, the oddest Gypsy woman ever seen; see her once and you will never forget her. Who is she? you ask. Who is she? Why, Mrs. Cooper, the wife of Jack Cooper, the fighting Gypsy, once the terror of all the Light Weights of the English Ring; who knocked West Country Dick to pieces, and killed Paddy O'Leary, the fighting pot-boy, Jack Randall's pet.
Ah, it would have been well for Jack if he had always stuck to his true, lawful Romany wife, whom at one time he was very fond of, and whom he used to dress in silks and satins, and best scarlet cloth, purchased with the money gained in his fair, gallant battles in the Ring! But he did not stick to her, deserting her for a painted Jezebel, to support whom he sold his battles, by doing which he lost his friends and backers; then took from his poor wife all he had given her, and even plundered her of her own property, down to the very blankets which she lay upon; and who finally was so infatuated with love for his paramour that he bore the blame of a crime which she had committed, and in which he had no share, suffering ignominy and transportation in order to save her. Better had he never deserted his tatchie romadie, his own true Charlotte, who, when all deserted him, the painted Jezebel being the first to do so, stood by him, supporting him with money in prison, and feeing counsel on his trial from the scanty proceeds of her dukkering. All that happened many years ago; Jack's term of transportation, a lengthy one, has long, long been expired, but he has not come back, though every year since the expiration of his servitude he has written her a letter, or caused one to be written to her, to say that he is coming, that he is coming; so that she is always expecting him, and is at all times willing, as she says, to re-invest him with all the privileges of a husband, and to beg and dukker to support him if necessary. A true wife she has been to him, a tatchie romadie, and has never taken up with any man since he left her, though many have been the tempting offers that she has had, connubial offers, notwithstanding the oddity of her appearance.
Only one wish she has now in this world, the wish that he may return; but her wish, it is to be feared, is a vain one, for Jack lingers and lingers in the Sonnakye Tem, golden Australia, teaching, it is said, the young Australians to box, tempted by certain shining nuggets, the produce of the golden region. It is pleasant, though there issomething mournful in it, to visit Mrs. Cooper after nightfall, to sit with her in her little tent after she has taken her cup of tea,and is warming her tired limbs at her little coke fire, and hear hertalk of old times and things: how Jack courted her 'neath the treesof Loughton Forest, and how, when tired of courting, they would getup and box, and how he occasionally gave her a black eye, and how sheinvariably flung him at a close; and how they were lawfully married at church, and what a nice man the clergyman was, and what funny things he said both before and after he had united them; how stoutly West Country Dick contended against Jack, though always losing; how in Jack's battle with Paddy O'Leary the Irishman's head in the last round was truly frightful, not a feature being distinguishable, and one of his ears hanging down by a bit of skin; how Jack vanquished Hardy Scroggins, whom Jack Randall himself never dared fight.Then, again, her anecdotes of Alec Reed, cool, swift-hitting Alec, who was always smiling, and whose father was a Scotchman, his mother an Irishwoman, and who was born in Guernsey; and of Oliver, old Tom Oliver, who seconded Jack in all his winning battles, and after whom he named his son, his only child, Oliver, begotten of her in lawful wedlock, a good and affectionate son enough, but unable to assist her, on account of his numerous family. Farewell, Mrs. Cooper, true old Charlotte! here's a little bit of silver for you, and a little bit of a gillie to sing:"
Jack Cooper 1824