A Lying Tale: Fact and Fiction in the Stories of Borrow’s Gypsies by Anne-Marie Ford

This essay was originally written by our guest author Anne-Marie Ford as her entry for the 2016 George Borrow Trust Essay Competition hosted by the George Borrow Society: http://www.georgeborrow.org. The essay received a Distinguished Mention and we are delighted to have the opportunity to share it with a wider audience.

“We know very little about ourselves; and you know nothing, save what we have told you; and we have now and then told you things about us which are not exactly true, simply to make a fool of you, brother. You will say that was wrong; perhaps it was. Well, Sunday will be here in a day or two, when we will go to church, where possibly we shall hear a sermon on the disastrous consequences of lying.” Jasper Petulengro’s parting words to the narrator of The Romany Rye (1857) [Note 1], full of humour, truth and irony, reflect not only the Gypsy’s pleasure in a joke, but also the limits of contemporaneous knowledge regarding these wandering people.

During the eighteenth century the Romani had proved intriguing to cultural anthropologists, not least because of their language, which was principally based on Sanskrit, but also shown to contain a vocabulary that demonstrated the geographical areas of their wanderings, before some of them reached Britain in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. In 1782 Johann Christian Rudiger was to publish his ground-breaking research confirming the relationship between the Romani language and Hindustani. [Note 2] The roots of the Romani diaspora can now be traced to Northern India, and it is believed that these people left their homeland sometime around the tenth or eleventh century. Their arrival in Britain appears to have been at the end of the fifteenth century, when a reference is recorded to the ‘Egyptians’ as entertainers at the court of the Scottish King, James IV, in the book of the Lord High Treasurer. [Note 3] During the sixteenth century their presence throughout the British Isles became a matter of grave concern and the Egyptians Act of 1530 ordered their expulsion from the country. A subsequent Act, dated 1554, made being a Gypsy a capital offence, such was the anxiety caused by these wandering strangers. It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that the Romani tribes remained outside society, marrying within their own close family groups and maintaining a language and cultural traditions very different from those of the settled population. Unsurprising, too, that this resulted in the preservation of these traditions that were to prove absolutely fascinating for linguists and anthropologists alike.

By the eighteenth century the punishment of Gypsies for being wanderers was more likely to be one of imprisonment for a week or so, and then they would be sent back to the place in which they claimed settlement, through birth or baptism. Whilst Gypsies had originally been seen as a threat and cause for anxiety, as the eighteenth century progressed into the nineteenth the Romani were to prove essential to the rural economy, working at pea-picking, hop-picking, fruit-picking, apple harvests, brick-making and lime-burning. They also supplied the music at village feasts and fairs, ran pitches at fairgrounds, mended kettles, made baskets or travelled with grinding barrows to sharpen scissors and knives. They began, too, to be romanticised and sometimes celebrated as an example of Primitivism. Artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted them, Augustus John and his extended family sometimes travelled with them, and the Gypsy Lore Society, founded in 1888, started to publish the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society which recorded the family trees of major tribes, old folk-tales and songs and the language of a people who had only an oral culture, and no written one.

After a lapse of 15 years the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society began publication once more in 1907, and David MacRitchie wrote the Preface, comparing the hiatus the Society had experienced to that of the six years between Borrow’s stories of the English Gypsies. “In the year 1851, under the title Lavengro, George Borrow published the first section of his remarkable autobiography, for such it is to a great extent, although interwoven with much that is fanciful and often inaccurate. In 1857 the second portion, ‘The Romany Rye’, made its appearance.” He then quotes Gypsiologist Dr John Sampson, who had written rather colourfully:

“After a slumber of six years the dingle re-awakens to life, Lavengro’s hammer shatters the stillness, and the blaze of his forge again lights up its shadows, while all the strange persons of the drama take up their parts at the point where the curtain had been so abruptly rung down.”

Not everybody felt that way, at least not at first. When George Borrow’s publisher, John Murray, finally received the long-awaited MS of Lavengro he had been alarmed to discover that it was not the autobiography he had been led to expect, and indeed had advertised as such. The narrative so long in the writing was, instead, what the author himself described as a “dream” or a “drama.” [Note 4] Perhaps it was what the Romani would have called a “Lying Tale.” Equally disappointed, the reviewers were often negative, and the reading public did not care to make Lavengro: the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest a popular success. The sequel to Lavengro, The Romany Rye, was no more successful and its appendix, in which the author, bitter at the lack of success of Lavengro, criticised its reviewers, did nothing to help remedy the situation. Murray could hardly have expected that Borrow’s Gypsies were to prove not only extremely successful, but inspirational; readers were to find, as Borrow had predicted, that the Gypsy was “decidedly the most entertaining character.” [Note 5] Lavengro and The Romany Rye inspired subsequent generations of scholars, academics and linguists to further explore the language, customs and tribal connections of the Romani and to reveal their unique cultural and social world.

T.W. Thompson was an undergraduate at Cambridge when he became fascinated by the Romani; his writings and research over the next several decades were to be informed and influenced by the work of members of the Gypsy Lore Society. These included Francis Hindes Groome, Sampson (who traced his passion for Gypsies to the occasion on which he first read George Borrow), MacRitchie, E.O. Winstedt and the Reverend George Hall. In February 1912, when he was just 23 years of age, Thompson reviewed a new biography of Borrow by Herbert Jenkins for The New Age: a weekly review of politics, literature and art. His review is a somewhat scathing attack and he was particularly indignant that Jenkins had concentrated his efforts on the years Borrow spent abroad, and said little of his connection with the Gypsies he encountered when a young man:

If one period of Borrow’s life ought to be treated more fully than another, then, surely, it was those early years . . . when he was wandering about and forming the acquaintance of Gypsies and “bruisers” and all kinds of odd people met by the wayside; when he was acquiring his knowledge of horseflesh and strange tongues. When, with the bitter agony of a proud spirit, he was struggling unsuccessfully “to adapt, not himself to the universe, but the universe to himself,” and to earn his daily bread at the same time. These were the years that, rather than any other, made Borrow into the strange, unlovely, fascinating man that we know.” [Note 6]

It seemed clear to Thompson, and perhaps to us too, that Jenkins also misunderstood the Romani nature, love of jokes and “Lying Tales,” for as Thompson complained:

“Whenever he does venture to tell us anything about such matters he generally makes himself ludicrous. Take, for instance, the scrap of the MS in which Mrs Petulengro, desirous of a “little pleasant company,” urges her husband to take another wife, to which Jasper adds that Bess (Isopel Berners) would do excellently . . . this characteristic specimen of Gypsy ironical banter Mr Jenkins takes particularly seriously, adding that such a remark could not have ever been made by a Gypsy woman.” [Note 7]

This was exactly the sort of wit, and exactly the sort of joke, that was common amongst the Romani. Found amongst the George Hall and E.O. Winstedt papers in the Bodleian library in Oxford [Note 8] is a story recounted by Nelson Loveridge about his brother, Harry, and Ceterus (Septimus) Boswell, alias Jack Lewis, the son of the Gypsy fiddler Tommy Boswell, and their wives, Britannia and Vertina, that bears some resemblance to this kind of humour:

“Ceterus had been quarrelling with Vertie, and Ginger Harry Loveridge…and his wife, Britty Smith, agreed to have some fun with Ceterus. Harry got Ceterus drunk and agreed to swap wives with him. Then Britty and Vertie (by prior arrangement) walked in and Harry told Britty she now belonged to Ceterus. So Britty hugged Ceterus, saying ‘what a man you are, my Cetey.’ Then Ceterus said, ‘go on, Harry, take my wife, she’s yours! But Vertie was having none of it – they all got very drunk and went home with their own wives.”

A sense of humour was an essential part of a Gypsy’s nature, and, as Tommy Boswell once told Winstedt, when he enquired after a cousin of Tommy’s, he had not seen him for a while and thought perhaps he had gone to Egypt! However, Tommy’s assertion that his father, Lewis Boswell, a renowned fiddle player, had played with Paganini and that “the honours were fairly divided,” [Note 9] may be fact, rather than fiction. In the early 1830s Paganini did indeed travel around England giving public performances, and invited members of the audience to join him on stage to play along with him. Is this a “Lying Tale”…or is it true? The Romani were misunderstood by Jenkins, perhaps, but not misunderstood by Borrow, or the Gypsiologists. In the end, Thompson suggests, this very limitation made Jenkins’ work on Borrow a failure.

Two years before Jenkins published his biography of Borrow, the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society had printed a detailed discussion regarding Borrow’s Jasper Petulengro, in reality Ambrose Smith, and his family tree, as well as photographs of Sanspirella, Ambrose’s wife, and some of their family, taken at Dunbar, Scotland in August 1878, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s visiting the camp at Knockenhair Park (p 16). The pictures are clearly posed, but, nevertheless, fascinating. The first one shows Sanspirella, then about 65 years of age, holding her granddaughter, Dona Mace, together with her daughter, Bidi (Obedience), and son, Tommy. The second photograph shows Sanspirella and Dona once more, together with Sanspirella’s daughter, Delaia, holding a child, and Delaia’s husband Poley Mace, in a silk top hat, as well as Sanspirella’s son, Tommy. Ambrose is absent from the photographs, perhaps he was already ill, since he died just two months later, in October 1878 and was interred at Dunbar, aged 74 years. The following year, in May 1879, his son, Tommy, who appears in both scenes, also died, at 43 years of age, and was buried with his father.

Thompson, in his review, directed Jenkins to the new series of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society for greater detail regarding this portion of Borrow’s life. This was certainly less than tactful, but it does appear to confirm that Jenkins did not care to address or research this area, in spite of the material available. Why does he omit such investigations, Thompson ponders, and finds the answer in Jenkins declaring that “perhaps his [Borrow’s] greatest misfortune was his disinclination to make friends with anybody save vagabonds.” [Note 10}

Inspired by Borrow’s tales of Jasper Petulengro, Thompson recognised that Borrow’s “imagination was fertile only when he had facts to go upon,” [Note 11] and that Borrow “from internal and external evidence…not only modified the character and characteristics and histories of his Gypsy friends, but that he frequently combined in one person those of two or three individuals.” [Note 12] Therefore one of Thompson’s several articles for the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society demonstrates him wrestling with the characters of Borrow’s tales, as he attempts to identify them as closely as possible, with the aid of the papers of George Hall, in particular.

Jasper Petulengro, that “singular being,” [Note 13] had long been identified as Ambrose Smith, the son of Faden or Ferdinand Smith, who had “died in prison when Ambrose was a young man,” although Borrow tells us that Jasper Petulengro’s parents were “transported for coining.” [Note 14] Thompson argues, quite reasonably, that this is an invention, since “the author of ‘Lavengro’ and ‘The Romany Rye’ did not scruple in these works to modify the histories, relationships and circumstances of his Gypsy friends when it pleased him to do so.” [Note 15] Ambrose’s mother, Amaryllis/Mirelli Smith, was not only not transported, but lived into old age. On this point, Thompson tells us, her descendants had no doubts at all. “They gave her age at death as over 70, and said she was buried at Grundisburgh, near Woodbridge.” He was able to confirm this later, finding her burial registered on 28th May 1854, “Amaryllis Smith, a travelling Gypsy, aged 72.” [Note 16]

The character of Tawno Chikno Thompson believes, as a result of George Hall’s research, to be Ambrose’s brother, Ferdinand, whose nickname was Tarno Tikno (little one). Borrow does not present him as Ambrose’s brother, however, and although he captures his known nature, “big, simple, kindly, handsome,” [Note 17] he rewrites his history, so that instead of remaining a bachelor until quite old, and then marrying a Gorgio, or non-Romani, Borrow saddles him, when young, with a middle-aged, ugly, deformed, barren and bitterly jealous wife, Mikaila Herne. [Note 18] Her character, Thompson suggests, actually resembles more closely that of Ambrose’s sister, Prudence (who was lame), whilst another sister, Caroline or Laini, is the basis for the Borrow character Ursula Herne, whom Jasper claims as his sister-in-law.

Thompson also draws attention to the way in which Borrow is creative in terms of dates and ages. Meeting Jasper when both he and the narrator are boys, in Lavengro in 1810, is a case in point. Ambrose was not born until 1804, if the age given on his gravestone is correct, and when the narrator and Jasper meet again, at Tombland Fair, Norwich, in 1818, the Gypsy is already married to Pakomovna and they have a child. In reality, Thompson says, Ambrose Smith had one or two partners before his union with Sanspirella Heron, the Pakomovna of the story, and they did not form a relationship until 1825 at the earliest, when Ambrose would have been 21 years of age. He believes the first such union to have been with Amelia/Milly Lee, known as “Milly the Cat,” recording in his research notes that “young Ambrose Smith found a wife among the Epping Forest…Lees. She was a daughter of William Lee, a fighting man of some repute.” [Note 19] A subsequent partner, Tralia Smith, had a daughter with Ambrose named Lavinia, who was baptised at Brandiston, Suffolk on 22nd September 1833. Tralia, born in 1812, the daughter of Robert and Margaret Smith, may well have been a cousin of Ambrose’s. Robert Smith was the same generation as the elder Ferdinand, Ambrose’s father and the elder Ambrose Smith, and travelled the same beat; it is possible, even probable, that they were brothers. We now know, too, that Ambrose’s marriage to Sanspirella took place about a decade later than Thompson guessed.

It is in the year of 1825 that Borrow describes the marriage feast of Ursula and Sylvester, who Thompson believes to be based on Laini Smith, Ambrose’s sister, and Laini’s husband, Tom Cooper. Laini and Tom baptised their eldest daughter as “Trennit, daughter of Thomas and Caroline Cooper, knife grinder, at Horton, Bucks., on 18th June 1826,[Note 20] so this date seems entirely accurate. However, Borrow also gives his Jasper Petulengro and Pakomovna four children by this time, the eldest being ten years of age, so he is clearly playing fast and loose with the history of the family. Ambrose’s union with Sanspirella post-dates the liaison with Tralia, and their eldest child, Tommy, was born in about 1836, a second son, Alfred, was baptised in Suffolk on 18th April 1838, a daughter, Delaia/Dillyer, was baptised in the same county on 3rd January 1847, “aged 6 years,” so probably born in 1840, and another daughter, Obedience, was baptised in Norwich on 31st January 1842. All this confirms that Ambrose and Sanspirella (who was born in 1813, daughter of Reynolds Hearn, son of the famous Dick Heron, and Margaret Boss/Boswell), did have the four children Borrow gives them in his story, but very much later than he chose to relate.

Ursula’s tale of her first husband’s escape from prison, to which Borrow devotes a considerable number of pages, contains references typical of such a story. She contrives to hide a little saw in some gingerbread, which she brings to the gaol, and pretends to faint to distract the turnkey. After several incidents, however, she goes to meet up with her husband, following his Gypsy trail or patteran. And this word, she confides to the narrator, has more than one meaning, since “the name for the leaf is [also] ‘patteran’.” [Note 21] She says it is a secret learned from her mother, Mrs Herne, explaining that, “she told me the word for leaf was ‘patteran’, which our people use now for trail, having forgotten the true meaning.” [Note 22] Thompson points out that this assertion by Borrow was quite untrue, and that both meanings were well known amongst the Gypsy fraternity. Is the author, Thompson wonders, wishing to emphasise the word to indicate the acquisition of special and secret knowledge, or is he simply weaving a “Lying Tale” in which the boundaries of fact and fiction blur? Thompson believes it to be the former, since he asserts that there is little doubt that Borrow was keen to draw attention to his linguistic knowledge. Instead, he argues, Borrow should be more properly valued, not so much as an authority on Romani, but “as a writer without whom English prose literature would have been the poorer, lacking among other things any convincing portrayal of Gypsy life and character.” [Note 23]

Perhaps one of Borrow’s most fascinating characters is Ursula’s mother, Mrs Herne, Jasper Petulengro’s mother-in-law. She was, Thompson states, very probably Peggy Boss, daughter of Edmund, and married to Reynolds Herne/Hearn. Borrow makes her a widow, since her husband “came to his end untimeously,” [Note 24] sometime before 1818, but Thompson quotes an entry from Goddard Johnson’s notebook of Romani vocabulary, found amongst George Hall’s papers, that proves Reynolds to have been alive as late as 1823. “Reynolds Hearn travelling at East Dereham in 1823 fasted on Good Friday and the four Fridays next after from flesh, in consideration of the five wounds of Christ.” [Note 25] Peggy Boss, if she was the prototype for Mrs Herne, was also probably about 55 years of age when she informs the child Leonora that she is 65; Leonora, Thompson insists, can be identified with considerable certainty as Joni Boss, an elder sister of Jane Eldorai Boswell (the chief informant of George Hall), and born in 1818 or 1819, adding that “from early childhood, Mr Hall discovered, Joni always travelled with her aunt Peggy, except when, at rare intervals, Ambrose and Sanspirella took charge of her; and Peggy, he was assured, never had any other child to live with her after her own [children] were grown up.[Note 26] Mrs Herne’s suicide is considered surprising, if true, as Thompson believes it a “phenomenal thing for a Gypsy to do.” [Note 27] Maybe Thompson is influenced by the exchange between Jasper Petulengro and the narrator in Lavengro, in which the Gypsy insists that life is sweet, for “there’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?” [Note 28]

The idea that the suicide of a Gypsy is “phenomenal” in Thompson’s opinion is not true, of course; the Gypsy fraternity were as likely as anyone else to suffer from severe depression, and with very little research I have come across four such cases reported in nineteenth century newspapers. In spite of the fact that such a death does not chime with Jasper’s celebration of the Romani life, it is quite possible that Borrow wished to give this enemy of the narrator an ignominious end, and his Gypsy hero, Jasper Petulengro, confirms that she died “by hanging.” [Note 29] In fact, if Peggy is the Mrs Herne of the narrative, she was alive in the 1830s and, Thompson argues, “probably in the forties,” although he concedes that George Hall’s informant on this matter, Jane Eldorai, Peggy’s niece, would never say how her aunt had met her end, and he felt that unusual circumstances, perhaps not very creditable, made the memory of it unpleasant.

The truth was perhaps a little less dramatic than may be imagined, as Jane Eldorai’s son, Lias, (Lame Lias Boswell, the Derby fiddler, born on Mickleover Common on the outskirts of Derby in 1851, son of Nelson Boswell and Jane Eldorai), was to later confide in Thompson. “Peggy”, he said, “quarrelled with her people whilst staying with them somewhere on the western fringe of the Black Country, and after declaring she would travel alone in future she left them in high dudgeon. Two or three days later some of the party took the same road…and as they went along they made inquiries, hearing of her now and again in villages through which they passed. A week elapsed, perhaps more, then they caught sight of her tent and donkey. But there was no fire, and no sign of Peggy; so they entered her tent, and found her lying there – dead.[Note 30] Whilst there is no doubt that Borrow intended that Mrs Herne be seen as an evil old crone, attempting to murder the narrator by poisoning, it does seem a very melodramatic scene, although it is plausible. Thompson argues that the narrator’s symptoms were not inconsistent with his having swallowed “witherite, a source of which, known to Gypsies and utilised by them . . . existed near Minsterly, a place conveniently close to the Shropshire dell where the child Leonora persuaded the narrator to eat of the poisoned cake.” [Note 31] Borrow certainly claimed it to be true, and, in addition, that his ill-health ever after was the result of this experience.

When William Ireland Knapp prepared his biography of Borrow, which had been published by John Murray in 1899, he wrote to friends and acquaintances whom, he hoped, could shed some light on events in Borrow’s life. During a trip to Cornwall Borrow had met the Reverend Berkeley and his wife, and the letter Berkeley sent to Knapp was published in the biography, headed “Mr Berkeley’s Reminiscences of Borrow in 1854”:

“In ‘Lavengro”…he tells of an attempt made by a Gypsy crone to poison him. The effect of that poison followed him through life, producing attacks of the deepest depression; so that he would sit silent and melancholy for hours, refusing food and not answering if spoken to . . . my wife and I went to Penquite one evening (30th January 1854). When we went in we found him sitting in the kitchen before a huge fire shivering, as with the ague, and looking hopelessly sad . . . my wife sat down to the piano . . . after a while we could see that he began to listen . . . at length he suddenly sprang to his feet, clapped his hands several times; danced about the room and struck up some joyous melody . . . he told me afterwards that he was subject to these attacks ever since he was so nearly killed by the old Gypsy’s poison.” [Note 32]

The scene of the narrator’s poisoning is effective when he briefly describes his own physical reactions, but it is hard to imagine a person as sick as he is being able to hear and comprehend the long conversation between Mrs Herne and Leonora that then ensues. This exchange takes up several pages, even before Mrs Herne begins to recount her dream, one that foreshadows her own end, and indicates a surprisingly omniscient narrator. Finally, in attempting to make sure of the narrator’s death, and lunging at him with her stick, the pole of the tent gives way, in a manner that renders the scene both dramatic and darkly comic. Did Borrow, perhaps, create the story of his poisoning not only for effect, but to explain his mood swings to others, and also to himself?

Surely Borrow learnt much more from the Gypsies he encountered than their language, or family connections. It is likely, for example, that in his close contact with the Romani, he would know about witherite and the manner in which they used it. Perhaps, too, he was actually celebrating what the Romani would have recognised as a “Lying Tale,” when he wrote the semi-autobiographical Lavengro, and its sequel, the more obviously fictional, The Romany Rye. Tale-telling seems preferable, in these texts, to truth telling; after all, it was Ursula Herne, in her conversation with the narrator, “under the hedge,” [Note 33] who revealed of his friend Jasper’s nature that “there [was] not in the whole world a greater liar,” [Note 34] and Jasper Petulengro admits quite cheerfully that he does “not always stick exactly to the truth,” [Note 35] being “somewhat given to lying.” [Note 36]

In his article on “The Gypsy Grays as Tale-Tellers” for the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society Thompson declared that “the lively play of a Gypsy’s imagination is a thing of delight.” He was to advise, too, that an effective method of engaging a Gypsy in conversation was to tell them a “Droll or Lying Tale.” Tell them, he wrote, “how Billy Lovell…lit his pipe with a £5 note, a thing he had never seen or heard of till then, and how Billy’s brother, Sandi, sat at his tent door the greater part of a winter’s day without coat or waistcoat, to show passers-by his new shirt, which had a whole pack of cards printed on it, in the right colours too. Then he will count you good company, even if he knows your tales backwards; and will entertain you in turn.” [Note 37] Thompson himself thoroughly enjoyed the art of telling a tale, observing that it was a favourite pastime of the Gypsy fraternity and that Absolom (Appy) Boswell, a probable half-brother of Jane Eldorai’s, was famous all over the north Midlands and the northern counties for his “Lying Tales,” which other Romani learnt, adapted and recounted in turn. Stories of Appy’s own life tended to be rather marvellous, and involved a shipwreck, which he survived, after this he recalled that he “lived for a week at the bottom of the sea,” and that it was, he declared, a beautiful place, although “it took you all your time to get a bit of fire going.” [Note 38]

Amongst the tale-tellers in the Gray family Thompson was particularly friendly with Eva and Gus/Augustus Gray, two grandchildren of Borrow’s “chal of the name of Piramus [who] besides being a good shot, was celebrated for his skill in playing on the fiddle.” [Note 39] Jasper Petulengro tells the narrator of an evening when “Piramus was playing on the fiddle a tune of his own composing to which he has given his own name, Piramus of Rome, and which ismuch celebrated amongst his people,” [Note 40] and Thompson confirms, in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, that “John, Piramus and Oseri Gray…associated and ranked with Jasper Petulengro and the Boswells and Herons.” [Note 41]

The majority of the tales Thompson published in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society came from either Eva Gray or her brother, Gus. Eva, Thompson recalls, was “the best tale-teller among the Grays,” adding that “she sweeps you along without pause from beginning to end of her story, words pouring from her lips, her hands, her eyes, her face, her whole body reinforcing their meaning and significance. She does not merely tell you the tale; she lives it before your eyes, and with such intensity that you live it yourself.” [Note 42] He added, too, that “when Gus Gray, striving to achieve the gravity of an owl, began to descant on the original of Gypsy families, and chose as his starting point a certain King Pharaoh who lived in Egypt a great many years ago, I lay back among the straw and blankets of his comfortable tent, anticipating entertainment. Nor was I disappointed.” [Note 43]

Surely this art of tale-telling, more often spoken of as a “Lying Tale,” is celebrated in Borrow’s stories of the English Gypsies. He weaves fact and fiction together so efficiently partly because, I suggest, it perfectly reflects the nature of the people he is writing about. Thompson in his notes records that he was told, by descendants of those who were present and who had known both Borrow and Ambrose Smith, that Borrow had asked Ambrose if he should like to be in a book Borrow intended to write. Ambrose was said to have thought about it, puffing on his pipe, then asked if Borrow would be in this book too. When he replied in the affirmative, Ambrose responded, after further rumination, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll go shares with you…” [Note 44]


1 George Borrow, The Romany Rye (London:Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1910, first published 1857) 63
2 “Johann Rudiger and the Study of the Romani in 18th Century Germany” : http://www.romani.humanities@Manchester.ac.uk
3 “Gypsies in Scotland”: http://www.ScottishGypsies.co.uk
4 George Borrow, Lavengro: the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (London: Collins 1915, first published 1851) 3
5 Ibid., 4
6 The New Age: a Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art, 422
7 Ibid., 422
8 Papers of E.O. Winstedt and T.W. Thompson at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
9 Ibid.
10 The New Age: a Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art, 423
11 “Samuel Fox and the Derbyshire Boswells,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:4, 1925, 17
12 The New Age: a Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art, 423
13 “Samuel Fox and the Derbyshire Boswells,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:4, 1925, 12
14 Ibid., 13
15 Ibid., 14
16 Ibid., 14
17 Ibid., 14
18 There are various spellings of this name, and I have employed those used by members of the Gypsy Lore Society when identifying those they speak of. As a result, you will find Herne, Hearn and Heron, all members of the same extended family.
19 Papers of E.O. Winstedt and T.W. Thompson at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
20 “Samuel Fox and the Derbyshire Boswells,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:4, 1925, 15
21 George Borrow, The Romany Rye (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1910, first published 1857) 95
22 Ibid., 95
23 Papers of E.O. Winstedt and T.W. Thompson at the Bodleian Library, Oxford
24 “Samuel Fox and the Derbyshire Boswells,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:4, 1925, 16
25 Ibid., 16,
26 Ibid., 19
27 Ibid., 16
28 George Borrow, Lavengro: the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (London: Collins 1915, first published 1851) 202
29 Ibid., 526
30 “Samuel Fox and the Derbyshire Boswells,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:4, 1925, 17
31 Ibid., 19
32 William Ireland Knapp, Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow: derived from official and other authentic sources (London: Murray 1899) II:xlvi, 99
33 George Borrow, The Romany Rye (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1910, first published 1857) 79
34 Ibid., 91
35 Ibid., 99
36 Ibid., 99
37 “The Gypsy Grays as Tale-Tellers,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:1, 1922, 18-19
38 Ibid., 18-19
39 George Borrow, The Romany Rye (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1910, first published 1857) 55
40 Ibid., 59
41 “The Gypsy Grays as Tale-Tellers,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3:1, 1922, 18-19 42 Ibid., 18-19
43 Ibid., 18-19
44 Papers of E.O. Winstedt and T.W. Thompson at the Bodleian Library, Oxford


George Borrow, Lavengro: the Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest, (London: Collins 1910) The Romany Rye, (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1915)
Michael Collie and Angus Fraser, George Borrow: a Biographical Study (London: St Paul’s Biographies, 1984)
Angus Fraser, George Borrow’s Birthplace and ‘Gypsy’ Ancestry, private circulation, 2003
George Hall, The Gypsy’s Parson (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1916)
Herbert Jenkins, The Life of George Borrow: compiled from unpublished official documents, his works, correspondence, etc., (London: John Murray, 1912)
William Ireland Knapp, Life, Writings, and Correspondence of George Borrow: derived from official and other authentic sources (London: John Murray, 1899)
Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, Gypsy Borrow (London: Dennis Dobson, 1953)
David Williams, A World of His Own: The Double Life of George Borrow, (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

Journals/research papers

Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 1907-1925
The New Age: a Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art, 29 Feb 1912
Research papers of E.O. Winstedt and T.W. Thompson, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Although Thompson declared that Borrow had offered a convincing portrayal of Gypsy life and characters this was only partly true. His Gypsy stories were not examples of social realism, so much as a semi-romanticised view of the Other. But Borrow’s timing, even allowing for the frequent delays in publication (or perhaps because of them), was perfect. Michael Collie and Angus Fraser recognised this in their introduction to George Borrow: A Biographical Study:

“As the English countryside became more and more industrialised, and the Victorian atmosphere more claustrophobic, readers found new charm in a book which led them to the fast-disappearing world of Gypsies, grooms and horse-dealers.”

Borrow’s fascination with language and his interest in the people referred to by Jenkins as vagabonds, meant that he was to inspire many to explore the social and cultural world of the Romani at the very moment that it was beginning to disappear.


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The 1811 Overture: Being an Account of George Borrow, John Clare, Various Gypsies and A Great Deal of Straw Plait in This Year of the Napoleonic Wars by David Nuttall

This paper was given by David Nuttall at the Easter Conference of the George Borrow Society, held in Peterborough, in April 2014. We welcome David to the Borrow’s Gypsies Blog as our first guest author.

My mother said
I never should
Play with the gypsies
In the wood
If I did
She would say
Naughty boy to disobey
Disobey one,
Disobey two,
Disobey over Waterloo

George Borrow and John Clare were two naughty boys who chose to ignore this advice. In 1811 John Clare hadn’t begun to socialise, as he would a few years later, with the Gypsies who regularly travelled through or near his home village of Helpston. But he was well aware of them as being part of his world:

I thought the gipseys camp by the green wood side a picturesque and an adorning object to nature and I lovd the gipseys for the beautys which they added to the landscape

A favourite camping place of these Gypsies was nearby Langley Bush, just outside the village, a location marked by an old tree that had once been the meeting-place, one might almost say the local court house, for villagers in the surrounding area, dating back to Anglo Saxon times.

George Borrow didn’t know a Gypsy when he saw one, apparently,
“A strange set of people,” said I at last; “I wonder who they can be.” he would write forty years later in ‘Lavengro’.

As an Overture to this Peterborough Weekend, this first talk this morning takes a look at this area of Northamptonshire in the year 1811; to see who is here, what has bought them here and what they are doing to pass the time. It will also see where they move on to, for not many who are here in 1811 will be stopping.

John Clare is here, of course, he’s the local hero, living in Helpston, Northamptonshire, just 7 miles northwest of here. Born there on the thirteenth of July, 1793, he was almost exactly ten years older than Borrow, born the fifth of July, 1803; Clare and Borrow are the only two leading writers of the 19th century who had hands-on relationships with English Gypsies and whose writings reflect this; it is the Napoleonic Wars that brings them within range of each other briefly in this 1811 period. The closest they would be again would be in London in 1824, when they were both, quite independently, among the crowds lining the route of Lord Byron’s funeral procession; they never met, and if they knew of each other and read each other’s works, there is no evidence of it, other than wishful thinking.

Napoleon Bonaparte isn’t here, not yet, although he’s expected; some of his forces have made the trip, however, and they are in the newly constructed prisoner-of-war camp at Norman Cross. There are 6,272 of them in residence in 1811 – Prisoners of War of all Ranks; French civilians or fishermen who found themselves at Norman Cross were either put on parole or released.

Captain Thomas Borrow, George Borrow’s father, has been posted there from East Dereham, Norfolk in 1810, along with his wife and his two sons; the younger with a career in languages ahead of him, who, uncharacteristically, does not take advantage of the range of languages on offer from captive potential tutors from France, Holland, Spain, Italy and Germany, plus, and I quote, Negroes and whatever language they had to offer; it was the prisoners themselves, mostly illiterate, who took advantage of the opportunity to learn to read and write in their own native language and English through lessons offered by the prison.

And down along a green lane, somewhere near where we are today, the Gypsy Smith Family are waiting to be discovered by this same son, George, and his pet snake, (who, actually, has only come for the next talk this morning and plays no further part in this one), the Romany Writer to be, who make their son Jasper Petulengro – in real life, Ambrose Smith – and his Tribe into some of the best known Gypsies in literature.

Evidence that the first meeting of George and Jasper took place near Norman Cross, as related in Lavengro, can be found in factual entries in historic documents; the Smith Tribe, which by default includes Jasper, were in this area at the very same time that Borrow was. And that is something that Borrow would have been very unlikely to have learned later, when as an adult, he wrote Lavengro.

Records tell us that the Smiths were here in 1811, because Borrow’s Gypsies travelled in a group that included the Heron or Herne Family and, on the 24th of February 1811,Reynold Heron and his partner Peggy baptised a daughter named Fabridge Heron at St Mary’s Church, Stanground, Huntingdonshire. Stanground is now part of Peterborough and lies to the south of the city on the road that leads from the Great North Road through Norman Cross to Peterborough.

In time, Jasper would go on to marry Fabridge’s younger sister, Sanspirella Heron. And Fabridge’s mother Peggy Heron is without doubt the Mrs Herne who baked the poisoned cake that almost did for Borrow in The Romany Rye.

Borrow encounters two adults in the green lane, a man and a woman. The general impression is given that the two are the father and mother of Jasper. However, Borrow describes the woman as being older than the man. The man also at one point addresses the woman as ‘mother’ but at other times as ‘wifelkin’. So is the woman his wife or his mother? The real-life parents of Jasper were Faden Smith and Morella Smith. Faden was born in about 1772 and Morella was baptised in 1787 in Yelling, Huntingdonshire, again not far from Peterborough and Norman Cross. So, in fact, Jasper’s mother was not older than her husband, but fifteen years younger. And their son Jasper is summoned forth to be introduced to Borrow.

This first encounter is interrupted by the sudden, rather show-off, entrance of another Gypsy named Nat, on horseback – over the hedge rather than along the lane like everybody else – and the camp breaks up. Borrow says that two or three wild-looking women and girls help; these girls would have included one or more of Jasper’s real-life sisters, Elizabeth, Lydia and Phoebe. Nat makes for the Great North Road along with

the two bags formed of stocking, half full of something heavy, which looked through them for all the world like money of some kind’

and the rest of the Gypsies move off in the same direction. George will not see Jasper again until Chapter Sixteen.

So, why are Borrow’s Gypsies up this green lane in 1811, a bit off-track for Gypsies who are usually associated with Norfolk and Suffolk, you might think. However, the baptismal records of the Herons and, by association their close relatives the Smiths, indicate that this travelling group used to use the Great North Road to travel north into Yorkshire, and south towards London. There were several fairs to attend locally each year. It would seem most probable, however, that it is the lure of the newly constructed prisoner of war camp – the World’s first such custom built establishment – at Norman Cross that finds them here in this green lane in 1811; it s presence has money-making potential. For comparison, you only have to look to the Gypsies of the New Forest in Hampshire. In the 19th and early 20th century, many members of that community were granted special licences to provide a mobile shop service to the soldiers stationed at nearby Borden Camp.

Once the residents in Norman Cross started making use of the various manufacturing skills they bought with them from their pre-war trades and turned it into an Arts and Crafts Factory,dabbling in a bit of porn, our Smith Family certainly wouldn’t have been the only people inside and outside of Norman Cross to conveniently forget the small matter of being at war, and take full advantage of the lucrative opportunities it presented. Not Captain Borrow, of course. But, mind you, Big House, Willow Lane in Norwich.

And, as to what Jasper’s parents are doing when Borrow comes across them, judging by the hurried manner of their departure, they are up to no good. Nat could be dropping in to collect the haul from some recent break-ins or the gain from some transactions; if the possibility of this shocks you, can I remind you that Faden Smith, along with Jasper and one Lewis Boswell were tried for burglary at the SuffolkAssizes in 1822. Jasper got off, but the other two were found guilty and sentenced to death, commuted to transportation for life; Lewis Boswell made the voyage to Australia, Faden, because he was in his 50s and deemed too old for transportation, got no further than the prison hulks off Portsmouth, where he died four years later.

And who is Nat, whose badly timed appearance put an end to George and Jasper’s green lane bonding; he was heading for the Great North Road, a route which would, eventually, lead him to the gallows at Newgate Prison, or so Borrow tells us in Lavengro, although no-one with that Christian name appears in the Newgate Register.

Nathanael is not a common Gypsy name in this period; however, it is found among the Gypsies of Langley Bush.

tis a Gipseys wedding Israel Smith and Lettyce Smith – wrote John Clare –  the Fiddle accompanyd them to church and back the rest part of it was nothing different to village weddings — Dancing and Drinking — Wrote a Song for them being old friends

Leetitia Smith married Israel Smith in Helpston Church on the 20th of September 1824. She was the daughter of Nathanael and Patience Smith. And it would seem very likely that the fiddler for the occasion was her Uncle Wisdom who was Nathanael’s brother and who knew John Clare. If that is the same Nat as known to Faden Smith and Company in Lavengro,itwould seemthatthesetwo groups of Gypsies, each associated with a different author and previously viewed as separate, at the very least knew each other and had a working relationship. In the absence, at present, of any hard evidence, to establish anything further is not possible. So no clutching at straws here, then. Only the prisoners in Norman Cross did that, big-time; back to young George Borrow

He thinks the Gypsies he has met are straw plaiting and coining, because that’s what he says he’s heard spoken about in the prison;

‘And it will be as well here to observe, that at this time there was much bad money in circulation in the neighbourhood, generally supposed to be fabricated by the prisoners, so that this false coin and straw plait formed the standard subjects of conversation at Norman Cross.’

The manufacture and sale of straw hats and bonnets and straw plait, used in the decoration of hats, are indeed banned at Norman Cross, as was the production of

‘Obscene figures and indecent toys and all such indecent representations tending to disseminate Lewdness and Immorality exposed for sale or prepared for that purpose are to be instantly destroyed.’

Now, the only mention of coining comes from Borrow himself in Lavengro and not from any other sources relating to the history of Norman Cross; what the prisoners were certainly doing was the forging of Bank of England £1 notes, which had only been introduced in 1797 in response to the need for smaller denomination banknotes to replace gold coin during the French Revolutionary Wars. To the forgers, the fact that people were unfamiliar with their appearance must have been a plus, although the quality, it is said,

was so good that counterfeit ones could only be detected by wetting the notes and observing the different behaviour of the ink used by them and the printers of genuine notes’.

During December 1804, prisoners Nicholas Deschamps and Jean Roubillard were discovered forging £1 notes. Engraved plates ‘of a very high standard and printing implements’ were found. They were convicted of forgery at the Huntingdon Assizes; although a capital offence, the sentence was commuted and, as a nice change for them, they remained in Huntingdon Gaol until they were repatriated to France in 1814. Such counterfeit notes came to be known in slang as Lil, from the Romany word for ‘book’ or a piece of paper, as in Borrow’s Romano Lavo-lil.

Getting the end product of illegal bonnets and hats out of Norman Cross was obviously tricky, but not so straw plait. Again, Borrow in Lavengro:

And then, those visits, or rather ruthless inroads, called in the slang of the place “strawplait-hunts,” when in pursuit of a contraband article, which the prisoners, in order to procure themselves a few of the necessaries and comforts of existence, were in the habit of making,’

In fact, the prisoners made more than enough money for their own needs and were able to send the money back to France via accredited agents to their families; on repatriation in 1814, it is reported that some French prisoners took home with them sums of up to £1000, the equivalent of around £60,000 today. Similar amounts were made by their ‘business partners’ outside the prison, who formed an essential part of the operation.

‘Persons in the neighbourhood, soldiers from the barracks, and others were accessories in the illicit trade in straw plait. They would conceal it about their persons, wrap it round their bodies, etc. They assisted in two ways, they helped get the straw into the prison and to carry the manufactured article out.’

Faden Smith is described by Borrow in Lavengro as carding straw plait; that is winding it around a board, perhaps in preparation for sale to a straw plait wholesaler or hat maker at a nearby market as part of this illegal big earner. So, George seems to have been right when he made his accusationand, in the circumstances, one would think, rather foolish to threaten to tell on them, and worse, who his Dad was, especially with Mrs Herne lurking in the background.

The Government were concerned with the effect this was having on the local manufacture of straw plait, considering the prisoners, who enjoyed free board and lodging, courtesy of The State, had a clear advantage over local straw plaiters. They also had the problem that the prisoners were producing a higher quality product, straw plaiting being a major industry in some regions of France and Italy, the import of which had been stopped by the Wars. Indeed, what could be better than the importing of straw plaiting than the importing of the straw-plaiters themselves, prisoners were those already trained in the craft, to resume production over here.

However, the Government, it might come as no surprise, might have been less worried about the plight of local workers than they were concerned with the fact that since 1802 straw plait had joined a list of some 5,000 items now newly subject to duty to raise funds to finance the Wars. So, the prisoners were defrauding the Revenue, an activity that, in the Spirit of Smuggling, local people outside of Norman Cross were only too happy to lend the French prisoners a hand.

And for those willing to take the risk, the consequences of getting caught could have been worse, considering the profits to be made; our year of 1811 saw the trial at Huntingdon of four Stilton men, Barnes, Lunn, Browne and James, the ostler at the Bell Inn, for being engaged in the trafficking of straw plait; Lunnwent to prisonfor a year, the others got six months. Barnes had said he would get straw into the prison in spite of General Williams or anybody else, as he had bought five fields of wheat for the purpose. However, for any military personnel found guilty of involvement, it could be up to five hundred lashes, and that’s not, presumably, with straw-plait, and several soldiers deserted rather than face that.

In fact, the prisoners revolutionised the straw plaiting industry in this country. They made, out of bone, a ‘splitter’ device – a device that may have used back home in the industry in France, otherwise they invented it over here – to produce thinner strips of straw and thus the possibility of more complex plait patterns. This machine was copied in iron by a Dunstable blacksmith and was adopted by local manufacturers; it was a little thank you from the French, when their holiday was over and they went home, for having such a nice time. Only one, Jean Habert, thought it good enough over here to return after the wars; he married a local girl, settled in Stilton and worked as a baker.

For John Clare 1811 marked by an accident he witnessed in August of that year when working in the fields, bringing in the harvest and which was to effect his health and employment prospects

‘my indisposition, (for I cannot call it illness) originated in fainting fits, the cause of which I always imagined came from seeing when I was younger a man name Thomas Drake after he had fell off a load of hay and broke his neck     the gastly palness of death struck such a terror on me that I coud not forget it for years… ‘

Clare had previously tried to join the Militia but had been rejected because of his small stature; in 1812, aged 18, he was presented with the choice of being called up by compulsory ballot, or volunteering for a bounty of two guineas, and he took the money. He went to Peterborough to be sworn into the Eastern Regiment of the Northampton militia and spent time in basic training in Oundle. It was after this period that Clare deliberately sought out the companyof his nearby Gypsies –

I got acquainted with the gipseys and often assos[i]ated with them at their camps to learn the fiddle of which I was very fond     the first acquaintance I made was with the Boswells Crew as they were calld a popular tribe well known about here and famous for fidd[l]ers and fortunetellers

He wanted to play ‘in the gypsy style’ and was taught by John Gray, an accomplished player, who was married to Maria Boswell, the sister of Tyso Boswell, whose great-grandson is Gordon Boswell of the Romany Museum at Spalding, Lincolnshire.

This would be around 1818, the date on his first tune-book; and it is from these tune-books that we know what tunes he played. They contain 263 transcribed tunes, some of which he learnt by ear from the Gypsies, and then wrote down later. Wisdom Smith is a Gypsy he mentions that he got the tune ‘Highland Mary’ from. Unlike his Folk Song Collection, the aim of which was preservation, this was his working repertoire. Such books are not uncommon, Thomas Hardy, another fiddler / poet, who played at dances, his first being in 1847 when he was seven years old, used two similar books, dated 1800 and 1820, belonging to his grandfather and father.

Now Borrow’s Gypsies are usually as described as East Anglian because of their close association with Norwich in Norfolk and Woodbridge in Suffolk and the points in between, but that’s not how they saw themselves. Jasper’s sister Elizabeth, who we left striking camp in 1811 near Norman Cross, became the partner of one Elijah Buckley. And in 1832 Elijah Buckley was killed by one John Stephens in a brawl in at High Beech, Epping Forest, just five years before John Clare entered Dr Matthew Allen’s Private Lunatic Asylum there. So, Jasper’s and associated Gypsy families often ventured into Essex too.

Elizabeth’s son, George Lazzy Smith also saw Epping Forest as his home territory. In the 1860s, he became the leader of the Gypsy group who travelled the United Kingdom and Ireland holding dances, and calling themselves the ‘Royal Epping Forest Gypsies’. To quote from his autobiography‘Incidents In A Gipsy’s Life’ published in 1886 as a promotional piece when he and his family were on show, at his own instigation, at the International Exhibition held that year in Liverpool:

To begin with, I was born on the 3rd of May, 1830, my birthplace being on the common called Mousehold Heath, Norwich, Norfolk, my parents having but a few months previously left their old camping ground in Epping Forest, near London. For many years, my ancestors recognised the Forest of Epping as their headquarters, and to this day at intervals we visit the spot, a sort of pilgrimage to Mecca as it were; but alas how different a form it presents to that which it did in my boyhood’s days…’

So, Borrow’s Gypsies were the Epping Forest Gypsies, although if you didn’t know that, you’re in good company. Borrow didn’t seem to know it either.

In Romano Lavo-lil, he is asked about Epping Forest:   “I frequently heard them talk of Epping Forest,” said the Gypsy; “a nice place, is it not?” “The loveliest forest in the world!” he replies, resisting the temptation to say Epping is a fine old Forest,

“Not equal to what it was, but still the loveliest forest in the world, and the pleasantest, especially in summer; for then it is thronged with grand company, and the nightingales, and cuckoos.”

The Lees and the Bosvils are mentioned: “Old acquaintances of mine,” said I; “why only the other day I was with them at Fairlop Fair, that was held in Hainault Forest, to the east of Epping Forest.”

But no mention of ‘my old pal Jasper’. But Jasper was an Epping Forest Gypsy too; he certainly travelled with the ball-giving group led by his first cousin George.

In 1837, John Clare took the Great North Road south to Epping Forest to become a patient at Dr Matthew Allen’s Private Lunatic Asylum in the heart of the Forest at High Beech. He’s recorded being there in 1841, on the Census taken in June of that year; the patients’ names are reduced to their initials, but there is no mistaking

J.C., aged 40, occupation ‘Poet’.

The very next month, J. C., at his own instigation, would leave High Beech and go home to Northborough by way of Norman Cross, whistling ‘Highland Mary’.

‘Journal Jul 18 —1841 — Sunday — Felt very melancholly — went a walk on the forest in the afternoon — fell in with some gipseys one of whom offered to assist in my escape from the mad house by hideing me in his camp to which I almost agreed but told him I had no money to start with but if he would do so I would promise him fifty pounds and he agreed to do so before saturday on friday I went again but he did not seem so willing so I said little about it — On Sunday I went and they were all gone — an old wide awake hat and an old straw bonnet of the plumb pudding sort was left behind —‘

So now, it would seem the members of The George Borrow Society, have to face an inconvenient truth; it seems their Gypsies, Borrow’s Gypsies, let John Clare down in his hour of need there in Epping Forest. An apology is obviously in order, which I hope Linda Curry, Chairperson of The John Clare Society, who is here today, will accept. It could have be worse; Jasper, or whosoever it was, could have asked for cash up-front and then you would have to pass round that old straw bonnet of the plumb pudding sort to repay the £50 involved.

So John Clare returns home, briefly; later that year he would leave for the Northampton General Asylum, where he will spend the rest of his life until his death in 1864.

It might be that Clare also returned to his fiddle, for included in his second tune-book is a tune just entitled ‘Polka’, and the polka did not cross the channel until 1844. Perhaps learnt by ear, as his transcription has the wrong time-signature, is in a different key and that raises the question of who he learned it from. Anyway, George Borrow would have recognised it; for it’s his favourite tune, The Redowa Polka.

“Lor, it just had to be, didn’t it, brother?” said Jasper, “what a cushti ending.” Then whining forth, “The Lil of 1811!” he gave me a parting leer, and hastened away. I made a motion which the viper understood; and now, partly disengaging itself from my bosom, where it had lain perdu, it raised its head to a level with my face, turned and stared upon the audience with its glittering eyes. Mesmerised by its stare, they couldn’t think of a single question.

Sources: George Borrow’s Lavengro; John Clare’s Journal; The French Prisoners of Norman Cross by Arthur Brown, published in 1895; and The Depot For Prisoners Of War At Norman Cross Huntingdonshire. 1796 to 1816 by Thomas James Walker, published in 1913.


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John Cooper’s family: another unexpected Irish connection

The family of Faden John Smith [B10 on the 1910 Borrow’s Gypsies family tree in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society] weren’t the only people to make their home in Ireland. (See the story about Faden John elsewhere on this blog.)

The children of Faden John’s nephew John Cooper [C21] also emigrated from England to live there but choosing Belfast rather than Dublin.

John Cooper was the son of Faden John’s sister Phoebe Smith [B12] and Tom Cooper. He was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in about 1832. On 5 March 1865 he married Sarah Story at Fairfield parish church near Liverpool, Lancashire. She was, as the 1910 tree records, a non-Gypsy, her father being described on the marriage certificate as a ‘Tradesman’.

The couple had three known children, all daughters. Florence Cooper, the eldest, was born in England, location unknown, in about 1867.

John and Sarah then travelled to Ireland, where they gave birth to their second daughter, Agnes Nora Cooper. She was born on 17 May 1869 at Ahoghill, near Ballymena, County Antrim. It’s possible, in fact likely, that the couple at this point were travelling with the ‘Royal Epping Forest Gipsies’, the group headed by George Smith [C12] that travelled the UK and Ireland in the 1860s and 1870s, holding dances for the general public in major towns and cities.

From Country Antrim, John and Sarah headed to Scotland in the early 1870s, perhaps in the company of John’s uncle, Ambrose Smith [B8]. Ambrose was the Gypsy on whom the 19th century writer George Borrow based the character ‘Jasper Petulengro’ in his novels Lavengro and The Romany Rye.

And it was during this sojourn in Scotland that disaster struck. John Cooper died on 21 January 1872 in a tent behind Hope Terrace, Queens Park, Govan, Glasgow. According to Francis Hindes Groome writing in his In Gipsy Tents (1880), John was buried in Cathcart Cemetery in Glasgow in a grave marked by a large monument. But recent investigations seem to suggest that this stone is long gone. What does survive nearby is the grave of a relative of John Cooper: his second-cousin Logan Lee [D46], son of Leviathan Smith [C14]. Logan died in Galway, Ireland in 1873, and was brought to Cathcart for burial. (You can read more about Logan and see an illustration of his gravestone elsewhere on this blog.)

Two months after John Cooper’s death, his third daughter came into the world. Minnie Leah Cecil Cooper was born on 15 March 1872 at Moss Side, Eastwood, Renfrewshire, with John described on her birth certificate as ‘Travelling Horse Dealer (deceased)’.

So here is Sarah Cooper, a young widow with three little daughters to care for. Being a non-Gypsy, it might have been expected that Sarah would bid farewell to life on the road and return to her roots in Liverpool. But she didn’t. Instead, we find Florence and Minnie in the 1881 census in the care of their Gypsy grandmother Phoebe Cooper among a large encampment of other Gypsy relatives in Christies Field, Broughton Road, Edinburgh, Scotland. The whereabouts of Sarah Cooper herself and her daughter Agnes Nora in 1881 is, as yet, unknown.

But in the next sighting of the girls and their mother in the 1901 census they are living in Belfast. To support her family, Sarah Cooper has started out in business as a Family Grocer at 166 Newtonards Road, Belfast. Perhaps she is following in her father’s ‘Tradesman’ footsteps. Her daughter Florence Cooper has also started a career in food retailing. She is recorded as a Lady Tea Traveller. Agnes Nora – now calling herself ‘Nora’ – is working with her mother in the shop as a ‘Grocer’s Sales Assistant’. And what of Minnie? She too is in her mother’s household but by now as a married woman with children of her own.

Minnie had married Robert Balfour, a Scottish-born naval architect, at the University Road Methodist Church in Belfast on 17 January 1891. She went on to have five known children with him:

  •  Sylvia Dorothy Grantham Balfour, born 17 November 1891, in Lower Sydenham, Belfast; known as ‘Dorothy’.
  • Muriel Cecil Sydenham Balfour, born 3 January 1895, at 1 Bloomdale Terrace, Belfast.
  • Roderick Douglas Balfour, born 25 March 1896, at 1 Grampian Avenue, Belfast; known as ‘Douglas’.
  • Edna Irene Story Balfour, born 30 June 1900, at her grandmother’s house/shop – 166 Newtonards Road, Belfast. She died aged two on 11 February 1903 in Belfast.
  • Mona Elsie Story Balfour, born 1 July 1905, at 36 Dudley Drive, Kelvinside, Glasgow, Scotland; known as ‘Elsie’.

Florence Cooper and her sister Nora remained spinsters throughout their lives. In the 1911 census, they are still living with their mother in her grocer’s shop in Newtonards Road. Sarah continues to be recorded as a Grocer. Florence is now a Baker & Confectioner. Nora has no occupation. Sarah Cooper dies on 17 March  1916 at 44 University Street, Belfast, although her usual address is given as 166 Newtonards Road. Florence Cooper dies on 31 December 1937 at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. Nora lives on until 1947, when she dies at the City Hospital, Belfast.

And in 1911, Minnie and husband Robert Balfour are in Scotland and still living at 36 Dudley Drive, Kelvinside, the place of birth of their last known child, Mona. By now, Dorothy is a student teacher and the younger Balfour children are still at school. The continuing history of this family group has yet to be traced.

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Faden John Smith’s mystery family make their home in Ireland

On Borrow’s Gypsies family tree, published in 1910 in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, there’s a small knot of people at the bottom of one page with no details attached to them.

They are Bertram [C15 in the tree], Herbert [C16], Beatrice [C17], Norah [C18] and Ambrose Smith [C19], the children of Faden John Smith [B10] and his partner Alice, a non-Gypsy whose surname, according to the tree, is ‘Penden’. Faden John Smith himself is the brother of Ambrose Smith [B8], the ‘Jasper Petulengro’ of the novels of George Borrow.

As far as I’m aware, little or no work has ever been done to trace Faden John’s family or identify the people in it. Until now, that is. For research into Faden John, Alice and the children has revealed that they left England in the late-1860s to make their home in Ireland and that they never returned to live permanently in England again. Perhaps this is the reason why their Smith relatives based in England couldn’t provide T.W. Thompson with any useful information about them when he was compiling the family tree.

John Farthing Smith – to give him the name that he is invariably recorded by in the historic documents discovered so far – married Alice Penn [rather than ‘Penden’] in Hatcham, South London, on 24 October 1857. Alice was indeed a non-Gypsy, born in a street close to Liverpool Street Station in the City of London in 1837, the daughter of a merchant’s clerk.

By the time of the 1861 census, we find the couple camped in caravans at Mile End, Bow, East London. They now have one child, recorded in the census as a daughter called Bertha, aged 10 months. But a birth certificate shows that the child was in fact a son, Bertram Farthing Smith, who was born in 1860 in Old Ford Road, Bow. With John and Alice in 1861 are two more adults: John’s sister Elizabeth Smith [B9], the widow of Elijah Buckley, and her son William Smith [C13]. William gives his age as 25 and his birthplace as Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.  Both John and William give their occupations as horse dealers.

Two more children arrive in the family before they leave London: Herbert, who was baptised at St Mary’s, Stratford Le Bow, London, in 1862; and in 1864, Beatrice Alice, born in a house at 1 North Street, Poplar, London.

And then, off go the family to Ireland, possibly as adherents of the ball-giving group of Gypsies led by John’s nephew George Smith [C12], who you can read about elsewhere on this blog. George is the other son of the Elizabeth Smith mentioned above and therefore the brother of William.

In Ireland, John and Alice add two more children to their family. Leonora Eugenie Smith was born on 3 March 1869 in Strabane, County Tyrone. Ambrose – recorded as Lewis William Ambrose Smith – was baptised in Killeshin, County Carlow, on 19 June 1876.

It appears that John and his nephew William Smith may well have gone into business together as horse dealers in the Irish city in which they all eventually settled, Dublin. Either that or the two brothers William and George started up a business, perhaps with John’s help, but with George’s involvement being rather remote: he was living in Scotland in 1891 and 1901 and in Wales in 1911.

John Farthing Smith died on 21 April 1891 at Rear of 41 Rutland Square [later to be re-named Parnell Square]. The registrar appears to have started to write the word “Far” between John and Smith but has then crossed that out. John is described as a 69-year-old horse dealer. The informant of the death is his son Herbert of the same address. As confirmation that this John Smith is indeed the right person, his address at death is also the address of another family member four years later, his nephew and possibly his business partner William Smith. John was buried at Rathcoole, County Dublin, according to the Irish Genealogy website but the original document is not currently available online. No record of a will or an administration can be found for him.

John’s widow Alice continued to live in Dublin. We find her in the 1901 census with her children Bertram, Beatrice, Leonora and Ambros [sic] living at 41 Granby Lane, Dublin. In the 1911 census she and her daughter Leonora are living alone at 12 Emor Street, Dublin. She died in 1920 in Sandford Avenue, Dublin, and the administration of her estate was granted to her son Bertram Smith, described in the calendar of wills as a ‘merchant’.

And what became of the children? Here’s a potted biography for each of them:

Bertram Smith
He became a notable horse dealer in Ireland and is recorded in newspaper reports in the late 1800s attending horse fairs and possibly owning race horses. He travelled back to England to marry, wedding Eleanor Rimmer, daughter of a joiner from Liverpool, in Egremont, Cheshire, in 1901, By the time of the 1911 census, he was back in Dublin and had two children: Bertram, born in Dublin in 1903; and Eleanor, known as Nellie, born 1909, again in Dublin. Bertram’s wife Eleanor died in 1920 in Dublin. Bertram then married for a second time, to a Jane Jenkins, a farmer’s daughter, in 1923 at St Stephen’s, Dublin. His address then is given as Lad Lane, Lower Baggot Street. It’s not known if he and Jane had any children. Bertram’s death has not yet been traced.

Beatrice Smith
She married a Londoner called William Thompson Mackey, a designer of machinery, in 1901, in Dublin North Registration District. In the 1911 census, the couple are living in Fulham, London, with no children of their own but with a niece called Alice Elizabeth Smith, aged 5, born in Dublin. But both Beatrice and William Mackey seem to have returned to live in Ireland at some point after that. Her death, as Beatrice Alice Mackey, is recorded at 115 Fortfield Road, Dublin, on 19 April 1945.

Herbert Smith
No reference has been found for Herbert after his 1862 baptism at St Mary’s, Stratford Le Bow, London, apart from in 1891 when he registers the death of his father John Smith in Dublin. He doesn’t appear in the Irish census of 1901 or 1911.

Leonora Smith – the ‘Norah’ of the family tree
Leonora didn’t marry. She continued to live with her mother Alice until Alice’s death in 1920. Her own death is recorded on 20 June 1929 at Adelaide House, Dublin, possibly a hospital, aged 60.

Ambrose Smith
Ambrose followed the profession of horse dealer like his father and cousins. He married Bridget Behan, daughter of a steward, on 22 January 1904 at St Mary’s, Dublin. Within two years, he was dead. His death is recorded on 4 June 1906 at 41 Granby Place [sic], Dublin. He and Bridget appear to have had only one child – a daughter called Alice Elizabeth Smith who is living with his sister Beatrice in London in 1911. Alice Elizabeth was born in the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin on 14 May 1905 but without a forename being registered on her birth certificate. The parents’ names – Ambrose Smith of 41 Granby Lane and Bridget Smith formerly Behan – confirm her identity.

And a mysterious unknown son called John Smith too?
In the Irish calendar of wills and administrations for 1896, there is a reference to the death in Dublin on 11 June 1896, of a John Smith, described as a ‘gentleman’ of 29 Nelson Street, Dublin. The administration is granted to his mother, Alice Smith, of the same address. Could this be a previously unknown son of John Farthing Smith and Alice Penn? Unfortunately, most Irish wills and administrations were destroyed by fire in the early 20th century so this index reference is tantalisingly all that survives. More than that, there does not appear a record of a John Smith dying in Dublin in 1896 in the General Register Office death index so we have no further evidence about the identity of this man.

Updated on 8 June 2022.

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Walter Smith: a different ‘king’ and leader for the ball-giving Gypsies?

George Smith, the self-styled ‘King of the Gypsies’, seems to have a usurper.

Walter Smith, seated, with his son-in-law Stephen Hewitt. Stephen is the husband of Walter's daughter Pamela Smith.

Walter Smith, seated, with his son-in-law Stephen Hewitt. Stephen is the husband of Walter’s daughter Pamela Smith.

As you can read elsewhere on this blog, George Smith [C12 in the Borrow’s Gypsies family tree of 1910] always claimed that he was the one who came up with the ingenious money-making idea of leading his Smith, Young, Chilcott and Lee relatives on a grand tour of Great Britain and Ireland from the 1860s onwards. In major towns and cities along the way, George invited the public to visit their encampment to see how real Romany Gypsies lived and to have their fortunes told by his wife Kurlinda/Corlinda Lee and his daughters or other female members of the community. In the evenings, they held dances – advertising them as ‘The Royal Epping Forest Gypsy Balls’ – held either within the encampment or in public halls nearby. Here George brought in local caterers to serve refreshments and professional musicians to provide music. Kurlinda/Corlinda and George were usually in attendance, under the guise of  ‘The King and Queen of the Gypsies’.

But this newspaper report of 1871 seems to suggest that another member of George’s family had claimed the crown. This is Walter Smith [C3 in the 1910 tree, born 1841, died 1921], first cousin to George. His ‘queen’ is his wife Matilda, nee Gaskin. And it is interesting to see the mention of the Mullinger and Whatnell families. As far as we know, this is the first known contemporary reference to them as adherents of the ball-giving group.

North Wales Chronicle, Saturday 11 November 1871

“A GIPSY BALL.– Whether or not many people go a gipsying in the present day, it is pretty certain that no inconsiderable number go to gipsy balls. This was evident at the Masonic-hall, Scotland-road, Liverpool, on Monday night, when the “King and Queen” of the Gipsies gave a ball. The Zingari tribe of gipsies – they maintain that they are the only genuine tribe – are at present in camp in the neighbourhood of Everton, and they embrace the families of the Mullingers, Smiths and Whatnells. Their home is Epping Forest, but they have been in these parts some time.

The king rejoices in the common name of Smith – Walter Smith, that of his Queen being Matilda Smith. They speak the gipsy language, marry only amongst their own tribe, but consummate their matrimonial alliances in Protestant places of worship. They would appear to depend a good deal on the support of “externs”, making money wherever they are, and getting a living in quite a different style to the old, pastoral style of their ancestors. The ball was one means of replenishing their exchequer, and judging from the members who attended, it was pretty successful. The prices of admission, moreover, were low, and the opportunity of seeing and dancing with their majesties was thus within reach of all.

The King, Queen, and other members of the tribe, together with their children, graced the occasion with their presence, and entered thoroughly into the spirit of the dance. Her Majesty the Queen (Mrs. Smith) was dressed in blue silk, with a rather pretty head-dress which has no Parisian or other name. The rest of the female members of the tribe were for the most part attired in white, with glaring red trimmings, and red Garibaldi jackets. The costume of his Majesty (Mr. Smith) is perhaps best described as being a compound between the dress of a gamekeeper and a groom.

Perhaps the most innocent feature of the affair was the children of the gipsies, with their jet-black hair and piercing eyes, merrily capering amongst the throng of adult dancers. So far as we could observe the ball was well conducted, and will result in a goodly sum being netted by the Zingari tribe.”


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Death by drowning of John Franklin, 1907

Gloucester Citizen, 27 August 1907




An inquest was held at the Stonebench Inn, Elmore, on Tuesday morning by Mr. A.J. Morton Ball, the District Coroner, upon the body of John William Franklin (62), horse dealer, who lived at 40, Priory-road.

 The Coroner, in his opening remarks, said that the deceased had been in the water six months, and therefore it was useless to have any medical evidence. The police, who had taken great care in this case, said there appeared to be no outward signs of violence upon the body.

 Susan Welch, widow, of 40, Priory-road, Gloucester, said the deceased had lodged with her from the end of September until February 28th. According to witness Franklin “had a drop of drink” occasionally, but was sober when in her home. Except for a little rheumatism he seemed in good health and spirits. On Wednesday, February 28th, deceased went out after breakfast saying he would come in before mid-day and settle the bill, but first he had to go to Longford to draw some money from a Mr. Jones there. Next day, as Franklin did not return, Mrs. Welch went round to Mr. Woodcock in Quay-street, a friend of his, who said he had seen Franklin in the afternoon. Franklin’s son, having heard of his father’s absence, informed the police, who found deceased’s coat, hat, spectacles, and stick on the river bank near the Black Bridge. The river was dragged, but without any result.

 Sarah Franklin, widow of the deceased, who resides with her son, Fred Franklin, at 49, Park-road, said she had been living apart from her husband for twelve months prior to his disappearance. He occasionally gave way to drink. Seventeen years ago he was thrown from a horse and sustained concussion of the brain, since when he had seemed strange in his head at times.

Adolphus Franklin, 8, Worcester-street, deceased’s son, said he saw his father shortly after 11 o’clock at night on Wednesday, the 27th of February. Witness said “Good night” to him, and the deceased returned the greeting. That was the last time witness saw his father alive. The next day he was called upon to identify the clothes which were found on the river bank.

 Charles James, fisherman, of Elmore, said that on Monday he was going down the river in his boat, when he saw something floating in Madam’s Pool. On investigation he found it was a body, and secured it with a rope to the bank. He fetched a man named Borrow, and together they conveyed it to the Stonebench Inn.

P.C. Edward John Smith, stationed at Hardwicke, said he knew Mr. Franklin and identified the body when it was recovered.

 The jury returned a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind.

John Franklin’s death certificate states that he died on 27 February 1907 in the River Severn at Gloucester and was found on 26 August 1907 at Madam’s Pool, River Severn, Elmore. He is described as being a 62-year-old horse dealer living at 40 Priory Road, Gloucester. Cause of death states: ‘Found drowned, no marks of injury, having probably committed suicide whilst of unsound mind’. The informant is given as ‘Certificate received from A J M Ball, Coroner for Gloucester, Inquest held 27 August 1907’.

John’s wife is Sarah Smith [C5 on the Borrow’s Gypsies tree of 1910], the daughter of Honor Smith [B2] and Frank/Francis Smith. John Franklin is included on the tree as ‘Johnny Franklin’ with the note ‘drowned, 1909’. So the oral history from relatives that led to the tree’s compilation is correct in terms of the cause of death but a couple of years out on when it happened. There’s another mention of Sarah in the account of the death of her mother Honor Smith elsewhere on this blog.

Curiously, there’s no sign on the tree of an Adolphus Franklin, as a son of John and Sarah. Fred is certainly included [D23]. There are three other boys named: Algar [D21], Arthur [D22] and William [D24]. So has ‘Adolphus’ been mis-remembered as ‘Arthur’?

Both Algar (or Trafalgar) and William Franklin married partners who appear elsewhere on the Borrow’s Gypsies tree. Algar’s wife was Margaret Smith [D42], the daughter of George Smith [C12] and Corlinda Lee. While William – known as ‘Willy’ – married Eva Robinson, the daughter of Femi Smith [B3] and Sampson Robinson.



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The death of Honor Smith: unexpected place, unexpected year

For such an elderly matriarch, Honor Smith [B2 in the Borrow’s Gypsies tree of 1910] has been pretty agile in eluding researchers.

A number of folki have been looking for her death for a good many years. What led us all astray was that in her last sighting, in the 1891 census, she was living in a tent on the sands at Blackpool’s South Shore as a member of the long-established Gypsy community there. The oral history had it that she had died on the road, probably somewhere in Lancashire, at the age of 102. Relatives in Blackpool also believed that she had been buried with other members of her family in the town’s Layton Cemetery.

Honor was baptised 8 December 1816 at Belton on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, the daughter of Ambrose and Mary Smith, itinerant tinker. So, if the story about her age at death was true, then the year was likely to be 1916-1918 or so. The problem was that the English death indexes just weren’t showing an Honor Smith in that year range, nor in the county that she had made her home and where she had many relatives. There was also the possibility that she might have been registered  under an alias. She was recorded as ‘Hannah’ on at least one occasion during her life and on the birth certificate of her son Saunders, rather oddly, as ‘Thomas’. It seemed like a brickwall.

That is, until a chance search for Honor’s name a few days ago in the newspaper collection at the British Newspaper Archive finally tracked her down, in an unexpected place and in an unexpected year:

Royal Cornwall Gazette, 3 March 1898

A CENTENARIAN. – The death is announced at Gloucester of Honor Smith in her 101st year. Mrs. Smith was a native of Norfolk, but had lived the greater part of her life in Liverpool and Blackpool. Deceased, who retained nearly all her faculties until a few weeks ago, was a total abstainer, and her eyesight and hearing were remarkably keen, whilst her memory was almost unimpaired. She was the mother of nine children, only two of whom survive her.

Bristol Mercury, 1 March 1898


Mrs Honor Smith, of Worcester-street, has just died at the remarkable age of a few months over a hundred years old. Deceased, who was a native of Norfolk, had lived the greater portion of her married life at Liverpool and Blackpool. She had been a life-long abstainer, and had never known a day’s illness until she had an apoplectic fit about 17 years ago. Her eyesight and hearing were keen to the last, and her face is said to have been without a wrinkle. A few weeks before her death she protested against taking stimulants by the doctor’s orders. Mrs Smith would have been 101 next August.

Morning Post, 26 February 1898

DEATH OF A CENTENARIAN. – The death is announced of Mrs. Honor Smith at the residence of her daughter in Gloucester. Mrs. Smith attained the age of one hundred years last August.

The information on Honor’s death certificate corroborates the newspaper reports. It states that she died on 24 February 1898 at 53 Worcester Street, Gloucester, aged 100, the widow of Francis Smith, a horse dealer. The cause was senile decay. The informant was her daughter Sarah Franklin, in attendance, of the same address. (Sarah is C5 in the Borrow’s Gypsies tree, the wife of John Franklin.)

So for all Romany family historians the moral seems to be firstly, when someone gets close to being a centenarian, don’t be surprised if their age is hugely exaggerated in family stories and official records. And secondly, be open to the possibility that their place of death may be a long, long way from their familiar haunts.

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Who’s interested in this site? WordPress’s review of 2011

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 3,700 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 3 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Death of Sylvester Boswell, 1890

From the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Old Series, Vol. II, p191 (1890-1891)

DEATH of a well-known English Gypsy

Sylvester Boswell (“Westaaros”), famous for his deep Romines (1), died April 8 and was buried April 24 in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery, in the same tomb with his two sons Byron and Bruce. He died in Walton Workhouse, where he had been placed by his family about four years ago, when his mind began to fail. He was seventy-nine years of age, but most of the Gypsies here believe him to be much older; his nephew, J. Gray, insisting that he was at least 100. Upon his giving up tent-life, his goods were divided among his surviving sons and relatives, and as his subsequent death did not actually occur on the camping-ground, the usual Gypsy custom of destroying the deceased’s effects was not in this case followed. He is, however, said to have himself made away with a number of small valuables before his retirement. I remember, after that event took place, the ground underneath and around his small tent was dug up to a considerable depth, in the hope of finding some of the articles, which he is believed to have somewhere secreted.

(1) Vide Bath, Smart and Crofton’s Dialect of  the English Gypsies; Groome’s In Gipsy Tents; and Morwood’s Our Gypsies in City, Van and Tent

Sylvester Boswell – often known as ‘Wester’ – was baptised on 23 August 1812 at St Mary’s, Dover, Kent, the son of Tysa Boswell and Sophia (nee Heron). His father was allegedly serving in the Army at the time and so was stationed on the Kent coast. As many Gypsy historians know, Tysa (aka Tyso/Taiso) was killed by lightning at Tetford, Lincolnshire, in 1831, as was Edward Heron. The two men were buried together in the churchyard there under a large monument. Sylvester’s mother Sophia died in Brindle, Lancashire, in 1861, reputedly aged 100, and is buried in the churchyard of St James, Brindle.

It’s believed that Sylvester had three partners. The first – according to the oral history – was Mary aka Moll Smith [B1 in the Borrow’s Gypsies tree of 1910]. There were no children and Mary then went on to become the partner of Golden Hope and had a large family with him.

The second partner was Sarah Heron by whom – so the story goes – Sylvester had one child. Perhaps it’s this one, found in the baptismal register of West Keal, Lincolnshire, dated 16 July 1832: Sempronius Boemea, son of Sylvester and Sarah Boswell, occupation potter. (He was known later in life as ‘Bui’.)

And partner No. 3 was Florence Chilcott, the maternal aunt of the Corlinda Lee – wife of George Smith [C12] – who you’ll find mentioned many times elsewhere on this site. The children of Sylvester and Florence were: Byron (born 1839), Mackenzie (born 1842), Oscar (born 1844), Bruce (born 1847), Julia (born 1850), Wallace  (born 1853), Laura (born 1859) and Trafalgar (born 1856).

In 1878 Trafalgar Boswell married Athaliah Whatnell, daughter of Adelaide Smith [C6] and James Whatnell. Their son Silvester Gordon Boswell (born in the Gypsy encampment at South Shore, Blackpool, Lancashire, in 1895) not only inherited his grandfather’s name but his literary talent too. Old Wester was well-known as a scholar Gypsy with his own extensive library and a deep knowledge of the Anglo-Romani language that he shared with George Borrow. And young Silvester Gordon – in turn – became the first British Gypsy to have his autography published by a major publisher when his Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy appeared in 1970.

An overgrown monument at Flaybrick Cemetery commemorates Sylvester Boswell and three other people: his son Byrom [spelt thus, rather than ‘Byron’] who died or was buried 23 May 1883; his son Bruce died/buried 23 April 1886; and an infant named Burns Boswell died/buried 11 March 1873. Research in other sources shows that the latter is a grandson of Sylvester, being the child of Mackenzie Boswell and his partner Lureni Young, baptised 3 February 1873, Tranmere, Cheshire with the parents’ names recorded as ‘McKinzie’ and ‘Loraine’. Mackenzie himself is buried under his own fine monument nearby, as described in another entry on this site.

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Buried at Flaybrick Cemetery, Birkenhead, Cheshire: No. 3 – Mackenzie Boswell

This is the third of three items on this site about the Gypsy monuments visited by the Gypsiologist Robert Scott Macfie on 11 October 1909 at Flaybrick Cemetery in Birkenhead, Cheshire. He saw this one commemorating Mackenzie Boswell, another for the Smiths and one for the Chilcot/ts.

Here’s part of the inscription he took from Mackenzie’s tomb, now preserved in a document at the Gypsy Collections at the University of Liverpool Library:

In loving memory of Mackenzie Boswell the well known Horse Dealer, who died 25th March 1906 | Aged 66 years

Scott Macfie is rather dismissive in his description of the grave. He wrote: “A pointed arch headstone of grey granite: letters gilded. Granite curb enclosing white gravel. An expensive but common looking monument.”

A century later – in April 2008 – the tomb was found to be still there behind iron railings, although fallen and broken. A number of other family members were commemorated on it after Macfie’s 1909 visit. They are: Lily, described as the daughter of Mackenzie, who died 9 October 1912 aged 46; Harold his son, died 12 January 1915 aged 30; and Ethel ‘his youngest daughter’ who died 10 April 1921 aged 37.

On top of their stone, another small tablet has been laid, possibly by the Cemetery officials. This commemorates Helen Ida Hamilton, described as ‘the wife of David Hamilton FRCS Edin, born 1850, died 1903’. But it’s not yet known if Helen has any relation to Mackenzie. To be investigated!

The death certificate of Mackenzie confirms that he died on 25 March 1906 aged 66. His place of death was a field in Albany Road, Walton, Liverpool. His occupation is given as Horse Dealer. Cause of death is Influenza, Bronchitis and Cardiac Failure. Guswell Boswell, a grandson, present at the death, is the informant. Guswell gives the same address as his grandfather.

Mackenzie’s father – the famous Sylvester Boswell (1812-1890) – plus his brothers Byron (recorded as ‘Byrom’) and Bruce Boswell are buried nearby in Flaybrick under an overgrown gravestone. That tomb also contains the remains of a child of Mackenzie and his partner Lureni Young, named ‘Burns Boswell’, who was born and died in 1873. You can read more about the death of Sylvester in another entry on this site.

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