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T.LEE CONT ( A To Z Of Gypsy Genealogy)



Official evidence of gipsies is fragmented because they travelled about. Historians are willing to take note of any gipsies discovered within their area of geographical interest but no longer follow them once they pass out of that region. Gipsy folklore fills in the gaps

but, unfortunately, much credit is given to unreliable accounts. Since many pedigrees published in the JGLS were collected from gipsies they are bound to contain, alongside the desirable moments of insight, the types of reasoning, exaggerations and mistakes that are typical of oral culture and casual communication. Recollections are most likely to be distorted by time and the limitations of the recorder.


In JGLS(NS)4:168 Sampson BOSWELL is quoted as having told George Hall that there was a book that traced the BOSWELLs back a thousand years and even as recently as the year 2000 Gordon (son of Silvester G) BOSWELL said, as he sat at the head of his caravan on television, that he had an even longer pedigree. The book they were both referring to has only a few generations but the sense of pride has lengthened it somewhat.


‘Old’ Ambrose Thorpe, baptised under his mother’s surname, BUTTRESS, Eliza, traveller of Conington, CAM, on 24 May 1840 at Withersfield SFK, could talk with a degree of authority about his own experiences from about 1855 onwards but earlier events would have been distorted by his youth or through the necessarily second-hand nature and bias of whoever reported them to him. By today’s standards Ambrose was no genealogist – he referred to ‘old’ Charles GRAY saying he was 200 years old.10 Hall declared him to be a reliable authority. With the benefit of hindsight we can establish which informant got his or her facts right and pay particular attention to what they are quoted as having said.


Communication that is less than scientific betrays the human nature of the sender; the desire to impress, to show respect, deceive or cover up embarrassing events, poor handwriting, misreadings and mistakes. Memory lapses are filled with guesses. One sibling is named in place of another, or mother and daughter are treated as the same person. Pedigrees, thus derived, need to be checked against official records. If the named person really existed there should be plenty of evidence even if it is given innacurately. Any path-crossing with officialdom had to be associated with a time and a place which can be accumulated to form a useful picture.




There are three particularly memorable pedigrees published in the JGLS:


1) ‘Borrow’s Gypsies’, JGLS(NS)3:162-63 by T W Thompson consists of 37 entries (A1-A2, B1-B13, C1-C22, D1-D49) which are identified in this A TO Z by the prefix ‘Bg.’, for example, Ada SMITH is [Bg.C1].


2) ‘The Heron Tree’, JGLS(NS)7 by Rev George Hall consists of 426 entries (A1-A2, B1-B8, C1-C41, D1-D120, E1-E111,

F1-F112, G1-G32) which are identified here by the prefix ‘Hn.’, for example, Louis BOSS is [Hn.D90].


3) ‘Pedigree Of Abram Wood And His Descendants’, JGLS(3)13 by Dr John Sampson consists of 352 entries (A1, B1-B4, C1-C20, D1-D56, E1-E117, F1-F105, G1-G49) which are identified by the prefix ‘Wd.’, for example, Elijah WOOD is [Wd.D31].


In his Introduction, Manfri F. Wood refers to his source, Sampson’s The Dialect Of The Gypsies Of Wales,11 then uses a little of Sampson’s information in Chapter 1 (pp.2-6). Wood says that the seventh child of Thomas and Silvaina WOOD was his grandfather, Frederick, who fell out with the rest. ‘He was cast out never to be mentioned again.’ It explains why Frederick and his descendants do not appear in the Pedigree but it casts doubt upon Sampson’s approach.


I doubt that Wood was making it up, even though he could have done, so it begs the question: was Sampson giving in to prejudice by allowing others to dictate what should be in the Pedigree of Abram Wood? Did he not check an alternative source? Winstedt wrote up Sampson’s notes on the Wood family in instalments between 1931 and 1934. He mentions the disagreement over the number of children of Thomas and Silvaina in JGLS(3)12:34 and this allows for the possibility of more. I have independently found an extra child, not previously mentioned. It is CRM Llandybie bp30/10/1831 Sophia d/o Thomas/Sylvina WOOD [Ø].


In about half a dozen cases the reference numbers given for Column E are faulty, as revealed in JGLS(3)11:70-71, for example, William FOULKES [Wd.E11] appears as [Wd.E19] in the final version. Betsy FOULKES is at [Wd.E20] in the final version but at [Wd.E12] in Winstedt’s preparatory article. For the purposes of this A TO Z only the final published version will be used, as shown above.



The original purpose of a fixed surname was so that property could be passed from father to son. Those having property would therefore be the first to use them while gipsies, who burnt their parents’ homes after their deaths, would find fixed surnames less useful. The most typical gipsy surnames, BOSWELL, BUCKLAND, LOVELL and LOVERIDGE, are also gorgio names so it is unlikely that gipsies brought them to England & Wales. From the multiple origins of the gipsy name SMITH it is apparent that surnames were selected for the purpose of blending in and if it was alright to adopt one name, why not another? Multiple identities could be used as a temporary defence against prejudice.Every country has its own method of using language and of naming things. If a language is constructed like English then it is English no matter what gobbledegook it includes. It is unlikely that any gipsy would have knowledge of the name his family arrived with unless the arrival was relatively recent.



During George Borrow’s lifetime he seems to have been trying to convince his readers that gipsies came from either Spain or Italy although, today, many still believe gipsies originated from Egypt. Borrow (1803-1881) romanticised gipsies in The Zincali12 which is a title composed of two words seemingly from different languages. In this way he invented words to substitute for English so that it would make gipsies appear exotic. This may have been a good literary device but he extended it in Romano Lavo-lil13 where he compiled a list of equivalents for the most common gipsy surnames of his experience. The final ‘O’ in several of the names gives them a Latino quality:










If any of the above ‘foreign’ equivalents were genuine they would have appeared in the censuses or parish registers but they do not. Not, at least, before Borrow invented them.




Thompson (1888-1968) was one of the most trustworthy gipsiologists. In the early 1900s he lived at Rather Heath, north-west of Kendal WML. He tried to establish whether written accounts could be verified. Unlike others, he was sceptical and did much to expose the fraud except that he did it so politely that you might not realise  it. Thompson was a scholar and a teacher who wrote about churches and their contents. He confessed, to Winstedt, that he disliked searching in parish registers. In JGLS(NS)3:164 he seems to have accepted Borrow’s suggestion, associating the early East Anglian SMITHs with Rome, saying that the gipsies themselves believed they came from Italy, but, he wrote, he had heard nothing in their language to support this opinion (p.168). He demonstrated the same independent thought on many occasions and there is some mystery about what happened to him. (JGLS(3)27:85.)


With the obvious exception of his letters, the Thompson Papers were bequeathed, by him, to the  Bodleian Library, Oxford, in the year of his death, and are filed under references 43227-43307.



Following his marriage (Edinburgh 1876) to a gipsy woman, Esmeralda LOCK, Groome (1851-1902) founded the Gypsy Lore Society in 1888 (although Yates gives that honour to McRitchie and Ibbestson). He is said to have divorced her in 1898 but, during their time together, he travelled with her family while recording incidents which he wrote up and published as semi-fictional stories. In JGLS(3):58 John Sampson (1862-1931) noted that Groome had used forenames collected from gipsies around Oxford. These unusual names, although obviously not all from OX families, were used for his companion characters at the start of In Gipsy Tents and this conforms to a standard literary practice which provides false names in order to protect the identity of those he is writing about.


Unfortunately Groome went too far and added checkable details which, only upon closer inspection, prove to be fabricated. His readers gladly accept the first deceit, because it is to be expected, but would they be enraged by the second? By quoting primary sources, in an attempt to seem authoritative, Groome was inviting the diligent readers to obtain confirmation for themselves. Today, we pay good money to reach the relevant record offices only to discover that some of his leads go nowhere. They did not happen.


At least Borrow’s dramatic aims were transparent. Groome’s fraud was unique for being unnecessary. In N&Q (Notes and queries) (6)II:362 (Nov.6,1880) Cuthbert Bede, while reviewing In Gipsy Tents which had been published earlier the same year, hinted that Groome had not provided sufficient information to enable others to review his sources. Indeed, in JGLS(OS)3:122, Groome points out his own carelessness in losing correspondence. Perhaps, being proud of his gipsy wife and his experiences as a traveller, he felt he could not be doubted on the subject, but, the Groome ‘goose chase’ is a time waster which is best avoided.



The gipsy notes and some of the correspondence of the rector of Ruckland LIN, Rev George Hall  (1863-1918), form a large part of the GLS collection at LIV.UNI. In JGLS(NS)7 he expressed satisfaction with his own efforts in cross-checking details of ‘The Heron Tree’ but errors were spotted following publication. In JGLS(3)4:25 Thompson states that in both Hall’s notes, and his own, Hn.E12-17 appear under Hn.D104 and not under the published Hn.D4. The earliest generations are the least reliable, as might be expected, and corrections will appear under HERRING in Part Three.


In JGLS(3)27:89 Winstedt points out a more substantial source of confusion. Using Thompson’s notes, he says that Seni BOSS [Hn.B8] was mother of Hezekiah, Baius, and John [Hn.C27-29] –  which is true – while Hall gives Sibela SMITH [Hn.B7] as their mother, instead. In fact, Sibela was the mother of  Seni and, to confuse matters, Seni married a SMITH after her BOSWELL husband died. Riley BOSS [Hn.C38] comes from Seni’s husband’s family although Hall places him as an elder brother of Clara [Hn.C41].


The misunderstanding stems from Hall’s literal reading of a Sheffield gent called Roberts14 who wrote that Clara (in 1832) ‘apparently about thirteen, was an orphan and sister to the man [Riley], though probably nearly twenty years younger than he.’ Neither Hall nor Roberts realised that the word ‘orphan’ was incorrect and the word ‘sister’ misunderstood. It is better to look at later events to guess at what Riley’s true intentions were towards Clara. Perhaps he wanted her to be one of his co-wives but Roberts would not be thinking along those lines if he believed that she was Riley’s sister. Roberts failed to realise that the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ are used freely, amongst gipsies, to refer to any close relative, or, indeed, any other gipsy, male and female, respectively. Hall’s false dilemma was to calculate the age of a mother who had given birth to two children nearly twenty years apart. This would have restriced him to an incorrect age range.


If Clara was regarded as an orphan it would probably have put an end to questions about why she was travelling with Riley. The presence of Susannah Smith, Riley’s main wife, would also have limited the concern that Roberts may have felt about Clara’s situation. Roberts’ story, having been accepted, at least by Hall, means that the folklore currently says that Clara’s mother, Seni, died while Clara was still young. Not so. It was her father, Varto (a version of Sylvester), who died when she was young (br30/6/1832 Elm CAM, died of cholera). In the same year she went travelling with Riley and Susannah. Seni lived, at least until 1871, as Cinderella BOSWELL.


Hall wrote to, and visited, Clara’s daughter, Patience DIGHTON [Hn.E48], and carefully guided her through a series of questions designed to obtain her written agreement as to Clara’s life-story. Patience obliged, even though she was given only one or two choices in most questions. Hall then converted the concocted ‘evidence’ into a camp fireside chat which was published in JGLS(NS)4:167-77. He shows Patience repeatedly endorsing his view, which he had incorrectly derived from Roberts and Borrow. (See BOSS, BOSWELL and DIGHTON.)


In The Gypsy’s Parson15, Hall refers to Noarus Tano, whose real name was Noah Young. The Romany for ‘young’ -  meaning the opposite of ‘old’ -  is tarno, tauno, or tauni, (see Wood p.129), therefore Hall converted an adjective into a surname despite the axiom that surnames can be altered – see Ellis Island, USA {1892-1924} – but  not translated. Hall’s book is presented as real life, not fiction, with some names hidden behind nicknames. He was selling books, not demonstrating his research skills. Whenever he attempted genuine research he always comes across looking a little naïve. ‘A Memoir Of George Hall’, written by his daughter, appears in JGLS(3)35:189.