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  © Copyright  Romanygenes 2007--2020 Design and Web Layout  © 2007-2020 S.J.Day All Rights Reserved


Copyright RomanyGenes 2007-2020 Design and Web Layout S.J.Day All Rights Reserved

Terence Lee





Gypsies Of Britain  by Vesey-Fitzgerald, gives a brief general history of the subject which he, as a member of the Gypsy Lore Society (GLS), was able to glean from his subscription to the obscure Journal. Unfortunately the very success of his work has allowed dozens of factual errors to be widely circulated. Here are several examples from Chapter V, ‘Death and Burial’:


Page 73 For Mrs Hearn’s burial the year given, 1691, should read 1681.

Page 75 Urania Buckland should read Selina Buckland.

Page 81 Louis Boswell’s burial was in 1835, not 1839.

Page 81 Vashti Carlin died 4 years after Louis, not in the same year.

Page 94 ‘Another’ (Dan) Boswell’s burial was in 1827, not 1821.

Page 96 For Constance Smith, Highwater should read Highworth.

Page 101 For Vernon Taylor’s death the year was 1886, not 1898.


The first appearance of gipsies in England & Wales, he says, was during the sixteenth century and somewhat earlier in Scotland. They came over from Europe in successive waves and those named in early sources include Giles HATHER and Kit CALOT (in 1528), and Cock LOREL their chief in Henry VIII’s time (see p.29).


In his introduction to Gypsies . Sandford refers to the earliest Scottish wave saying, ‘The first reference to them appears to have been in the twelfth century in Perth. But most contemporary culture seems to have come over in the sixteenth century’. Wood reflects the growing interest of gipsies in their own ancestry with In The Life Of A Romany Gypsy, in which he says that gipsies came to England at the time of the Wars of the Roses. He regards the origins of names like BOSWELL, LOCK and WOOD as roughly contemporaneous, all being off-shoots of the HATOR tribe.


In JGLS(OS)1:5-24 Crofton reports that gipsies who were previously in France travelled to England in 1440. Henry Tudor brought an army of French footmen to fight in the Wars of the Roses during which he deposed the Yorkist King Richard. Henry then reigned for

24 years until 1509. It is not inconceivable that he may have brought gipsies with him,as part of his troupe to help in the final battle

on 22 August 1485 where the surnames LOVELL(Lord Francis) and STANLEY (Lord Thomas and Sir William) featured prominently.

It seems plausible to suggest that any participating gipsies may later have commemorated the occasion by symbolically adopting their leaders’ surnames. Later they selected Crimea, Napoleon, Nelson, Waterloo, and Wellington for their children. The location of the final battle, at Bosworth, is strikingly similar to BOSWELL and has been used as its alternate on several occasions. The above mentioned Journal article confirms that the names BOSWELL and HERNE were in common use by 1687 and presumably a lot earlier.


Wood mentions the HATOR tribe which is probably the same as the name HATHER given by Vesey-Fitzgerald who reflects the ‘class’ system when referring to the INGRAM family who were, he says, ‘the true black blood of the Romani. They and the Chilcotts were regarded with something akin to awe, even by such old Gypsy families as the Herons and Grays’ (see p.106). In correspondence he refers to the WOODs as ‘the real aristocrats of the British Gypsies and the Locks and the Ingrams as the “gentry” so to speak’. Such hierarchical language reflects how some GLS members confused concepts of ‘class’ and ‘caste’.




Writers of fiction and semi-fiction have tended to portray the visage of gipsies as exotic - curly haired, moustached, wild-eyed, black-eyed, gaudy, oriental, swarthy – but more realistic descriptions appear in criminal records with mention of skin problems caused by smallpox, a disease which terrorised gipsies for centuries. There is no evidence that gipsies have ever been more likely to offend

than the lower classes of any era but fascination with them and their secret ways meant that they would always get maximum newspaper coverage.


Although laws discriminating against gipsies in the early sixteenth century prove that they were present in the county at that time, it has been impossible to discover what happened to any particular family between first arrival and the earliest known parish register entries even though it was not a great length of time. The gap in our knowledge tends to be filled in with speculation but intermarriage should prevent anybody claiming that one name is more important, on account of its age, than another. Marriage changes things and, over many generations, there have been many changes. For anybody to claim that they are pure bred Rom they would have to be descended, 100%, from other pure bred Romanies.


Generalisations occur, such as the ‘tallness’ of the HERONs, JGLS(3)23:125, or the ‘shortness’ of the BOSWELLs, JGLS(NS)8:178. It shows some members proving that they met gipsies, and made some superficial observations, but the descriptions are unscientific. Music and painting create stylised images while old photographs can be misinterpreted when the subjects have dressed up for the occasion. To find out how they lived it is necessary to examine sufficient sources including newspapers and court records. Information about occupations can be gathered from the censuses and parish registers. Find out where they stayed, who they stayed with and for how long. What was their area of travel and why? Where did they winter? Who did they marry and what did their children go on to achieve?




If we regard some families as more or less ‘typical’ we must be making judgements, like Vesey-Fitzgerald, about a combination of factors. The notion of caste revolves around religion, culture and occupation. It is to do with marrying into the side of the family most likely to preserve a particular way of life and that is why cousin marriages are so common amongst gipsies. We have learnt from historians, supposedly using language as their key, that gipsies originated from a low-caste wandering tribe in north-west India where people accepted deprivation as a way of life. Belonging to a particular caste provides an unwritten licence for behaviour which, in Britain at least, is considered to be a threat to good order. The behaviour comes across as pilfering but it is an extension of the caste notion that if you stay within the confines of your caste then you are entitled to be tolerated by others. It means that gipsies would accept being at the bottom of the social ladder provided they were permitted to help themselves to the occasional cauliflour or rabbit to feed their children. From this starting position the gipsy has always adapted to prevailing circumstances.


In JGLS(3)13 it is not clear whether  Sampson (1862-1931) is thinking ‘caste’ or ‘class’ when he distinguishes between gipsies, mumpers, tramps, gorgios and Irishmen amongst the kinfolk of the WOOD family and he probably got closer than anybody to understanding how things worked. In Fairfield Folk. Brown describes the MATTHEWS family teaming up to build a stock of steam-driven vehicles which led them to regard themselves as a ‘cut above’ gipsies. This reflects both the gipsy’s ability to move with the times and his concept of social status. As property owners the MATTHEWS family married people of similar lifestyle, those who

would appreciate and support their fairground ambitions.


For Keomi GRAY, who had four children by artist-painter Fred Sandys, and for Esmeralda LOCK, who married gent Hubert Smith on 11 July 1874 at Vallo Herregord near Tonsberg Norway and was divorced from him on 7 November 1876 after which she married Francis Hindes Groome on 11 November 1876, there was no permanence in a relationship outside of their social group but those relationships still flourished for a while to show how gipsies did not restrict themselves to members of their own community. Gipsy Rodney Smith, the evangelist, measured his advancement according to how far he had moved away from his family of origin; he married Anne Elizabeth Pennock, a gorgio from Whitby, and, after her death, an American, Mary Alice Shaw, but he never seemed

to find peace, fell out with members of his own family, and died at sea en route to New York


I have drawn up a set of five different categories and attempted to assign particular families to each. This is a speculative exercise to see if gipsies can be categorised by caste. Social as well as physical mobility is bound to change fortunes so that even two brothers can live completely different lives depending upon who they marry and where they earn a living.


Category I – People who are described as gipsies for flimsy reasons.


a) In the Epsom Downs 1891SRY census [0547/22/37 to 0547/26/45] there are over forty families described as ‘Travelling Gipsies’ including BOND, BILTON and MILLER. They are all located together but the absence of any other occupation strongly suggests that the enumerator did not bother asking everybody what they did for a living and it also shows that individual families

were not given separate forms to fill out. ‘Travelling gipsies’ is a very telling description but it is unlikely to be equally justified for

all the families present.


b) In the Wardle 1901LAN census [3842/167/26] James HOLT’s occupation is given as ‘carpet weaver’. His mother-in-law is Mary WHITEHEAD who was a local woman. Although the name HOLT is sometimes associated with LAN gipsies the only evidence here is the abode, ‘Gypsies Tent’.


c) Other surnames which might fit into this category include BERRIMAN, CHAPLIN (Charlie Chaplin, film star), MORRISON (the supermarket chain) PERFECT, PICKETT, and RAMSEY (Alf Ramsey, 1966 World Cup winning England football manager).


Category II – People living as tramps, vagrants, travelling salesmen, potters, and seasonal pickers marrying the gipsies  they met on the road or at stopping places.


a) In BDF the surnames ALBONE and ODELL were once quite common and it is unsurprising to note that a few of them married gipsies. But it would be wrong to assume that gipsylike ALBONEs and ODELLs were more closely related to each other through their own name than to each other through their gipsy marriages.


b) Jem MACE, father of modern boxing, was known as ‘The Swaffham Gipsy’ in the early part of his world famous fighting career but his main gipsy connection was through his uncle Barney’s marriage to Lurenna HERON [Hn.D26]. The NFK surname MACE only really became associated with gipsies around 1839 following the birth of Jem’s cousin, Napoleon MACE, son of Barney and Lurenna. At this time Jem was eight years old.


c) Itinerant potters and earthenware dealers may be included such as LOWTHER, MILLER, VAREY  and the north-west YOUNGs.


Category III – People who were settled in the late eighteenth century but who took to the road and became regarded as gipsies, or those who did the opposite. This category has a ‘settled’ component.


a) Not until the repeal of the harshest legislation, in 1783, could gipsies move around relatively free from persecution. Some may have celebrated by naming their children ‘Freedom’ or ‘Liberty’. Regular gipsy occupations involved goods and services which could be carried about, worked and sold, using wood, clay, tin, horses, music and various repair kits. Surnames in this category include HARRIS (of CAM), SCARROTT (of STF), TAYLOR (of CAM) and WHATNELL (of LEI).


b) A group of families became motorised and moved into showmanship, collecting large vehicles which would need a permanent base for winter storage and repair. These include GRAY (of NFK), HARRIS (of SX) and MATTHEWS (of  SX).


Category IV – People with easily identifiable gipsy forenames and surnames whose families travelled widely for hundreds of years carrying out the typical occupations of gipsies.


FLORENCE and SCAMP are typical of this category although they ranged over areas of different size. The SCAMPs kept mostly to north and east KT while FLORENCE travelled between MGY and LEI. Other names include BRINKLEY (of HRT), BUCKLAND (large area west and south of LON), CAMFIELD (whole of ENG), LOVERIDGE (large area mostly in southern half of ENG) and TAPSELL (whole of ENG).


Category V – People who have the same characteristics as for Category IV except that they consistently lived alongside and intermarried with each other.

Names include BOSWELL, CHILCOTT, HERRING, LEE, LOVELL, SMITH and WOOD. Gipsies decide who are gipsies and their decisions show up in their choice of marriage partners. Every region of ENG & WALES had its gypsyries proportionate in size to that of its population. I have defined a gypsyry as a place where a significant number of gipsies, from different origins, congregated then settled into local houses. I would name the most prominent as those at Canning Town and Eastwood EX, Chatham and Plumstead KT, Farnborough, Holdenhurst (now Bournemouth DOR), New Forest, Hound, Southampton, Tadley, and Yately HAM, Blackpool LAN, Earlsfield and Notting Hill LON, Edmonton MDX, Croydon and Mitcham SRY, Hartlebury WOR and Attercliffe SHF.YKS.



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