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The Norwood Gypsies

The Norwood Gypsies

In a "History of the Gypsies," First published , it is said that Norwood had long been a favourite haunt of that brotherhood, on account of its remote and rural character, though lying so handy for both London and Croydon. It appears that besides being occasionally brought before the magistrates for robberies of chickens and other denizens of the farm-yard, the gipsies here were occasionally made by the justices to feel the full force of the laws against vagrancy, and that occasionally they were "hunted down" without having done much to deserve it, being made the scapegoats of others who had fairer skins. Hither the Londoners of the last century resorted in fine weather to have their future lot in life foretold to them by the palmistry of the "Zingari" folk.

Gipsy Hill, and an inn still called the "Queen of the Gipsies," commemorate the inmate of a small outhouse who lived on this hill, and who died here in 1760—it is said at the age of 109 years.
Her name was Margaret Finch, an for half a century she had lived by telling fortunes in that rural and credulous neighbourhood. She was buried in a deep square box, as, from her constant habit of sitting with her chin resting
on her knees, her muscles had become so contracted that at last she could not alter her position. "This woman," observes
Mr. Larwood, in his "History of Signboards," "when a girl of seventeen, may have been one of the dusky gang that pretty Mrs. Samuel Pepys and her companions went to consult in August, 1668, as her lord records in his 'Diary' the same evening, the 11th: 'This afternoon my wife, and Mercer, and Deb went with Pelling to see the gypsies at Lambeth and have their fortunes told;
but what they did I did not enquire.'" "A granddaughter of Margaret Finch," Mr. Larwood adds,
"was living in a cottage close by in the year 1800."

Norwood must really have derived its name from being the "wood" that lay to the "north" of the large ecclesiastical town of Croydon; for it lies to the south of London. Two centuries ago Norwood was really a wood and nothing more. Aubrey, giving an account of Croydon at that period, in his "Perambulation of Surrey," writes: "In this parish lies the great wood, called Norwood, belonging to the see of Canterbury, wherein was an ancient remarkable tree, called Vicar's Oak, where four parishes meet in a point." These parishes, doubtless, were Lambeth, Camberwell, Lewisham, and Croydon. Bridget, queen of the gypsies.

The following singular entry appears among the burials in 1768, "Old Bridget, the Queen of the Gypsies, buried August 6th." This Bridget was niece and successor of Margaret Finch. The wood and the gipsies too have long since been swept away.

Margaret Finch Queen of the Gypsies at Norwood.Drawn from the Life by Ino. Straeke 1739. Engrav'd by Hen. Roberts 1742.

The Norwood gypsies lived in the area now known as Gypsy Hill. So famous were they that a pantomime called 'The Norwood Gypsies' was staged in Covent Garden in 1777. The most famous of the gypsies was Margaret Finch [d.1740]. A report published a few years after her death states that the 'oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling drew a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even to those of ye lower class of life'. She lived in a conical hut built of branches, at the base of an ancient tree, and it was there that great numbers of people visited her.

In the nineteenth century, Norwood was the holiday playground of the London tripper fortune telling by the gypsies was still one of the attractions . Other attractions included the tea gardens at the Jolly Sailor , the White Swan, the White Hart and the Windmill in Westow Hill. There were strawbery gardens in Beulah Hill and the famous Beulah Spa.

The authorities cracked down on the Gypsy fortune tellers of South London in the late 18th century. In August 1797, police arrested thirty men, women and children in Norwood under the Vagrancy Act. In 1802, the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune-tellers. 'Faced with police repression and subsequent enclosure of the Common, the fortune-tellers finally deserted Norwood' .

Sources:

(1) Alan R. Warwick, The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History (London: Blue Boar Press 1972).

(2) William Harnett Blanch, The Parish of Camberwell (1875).

(3) Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Cultures, 1736-1951 (Manchester University Press, 1999)

From: 'Camberwell', The Environs of London: volume 1: County of Surrey (1792), pp. 68-121. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45373&strquery=gypsies .

1795 Tuesday October 13th.

Yesterday father Stephen Lee and sons,John Lee, Robert Lee,Thomas Lee,Adam Lee and Ambrose Boswell were aprehended on suspicion of committing divers footpath robberies,they belonged to the Norwood Gypsies.

When asked what they did ,they replied horse dealing and fortune telling, they were known to terrorize the area of Norwood.
All stout men and not anyone of them any visable means of getting honest livings:-
Committed for further examination:-

October 17th 1795:-

Quintriple alliance was again paraded at the bar some of the Inhabitants of Norwood appeared for testimony In
favour of the Lee family and regarded the tribe as protection rather than a terroizing lot so the court gave them
Liberty and asked them to pay 6 shillings, none had any money among them,their enlargement was retarded pro temporc:-

The church register for St Giles in Camberwell records that on June 2 1687, 'King and Queen of the Jepsies [gypsies], Robt. Hern and Elizabeth Bozwell' were married there .

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S.J.DAY

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