Corlinda Lee: a star attraction at Glasgow’s Necropolis

If you ever take a guided tour of Glasgow’s glorious City of the Dead – the Necropolis cemetery behind St Mungo’s Cathedral – you might be surprised to learn that one of “Borrow’s Gypsies” is a star attraction.

Early in the tour you’ll be led to the large and impressive tombstone of Corlinda Lee: a Necropolis resident that the tour guides describe as one of their favourite characters. Her popularity is such that she features not only on the Friends of the Necropolis website but also in two books: Ruth Johnston’s Glasgow Necropolis Afterlives: Tales of Interments (2007) and Ronnie Scott’s Death by Design: the True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis (2005).

Kurlinda Lee – as she was baptised on 2 October 1831 in South Wooton near King’s Lynn, Norfolk – was the daughter of Charles Lee and Union Chilcott. In about 1856 she became the partner of George ‘Lazzy’ Smith [C12] , another of “Borrow’s Gypsies”. Between 1858 and 1874, she and George had eight children: Midora [D38], Alice [D39], Charles Henry [D40], Frederick [D41], Margaret [D42], Cecilia [D43], Ernest [D44] and Patrick Arthur [D45].

Soon after the births of the first of these, George came up with an ingenious money-making idea. He brought together members of his Smith/Lee/Chilcott/Young/Heron/Boswell family and led them on a grand tour of Great Britain and Ireland. In major towns and cities along the way, the group invited the public to visit their encampment to see how real Romany Gypsies lived and to have their fortunes told by Kurlinda/Corlinda and her 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’.

Wherever the group travelled, newspapers wrote glowing reports. During their sojourn in Scotland, even Queen Victoria took notice. While the Smiths were camping at Knockenhair Park in Dunbar in August 1878, the Queen and her entourage passed by and acknowledged them – as we know not only from newspaper coverage but from an entry in the Queen’s own diary. There’s also a tale that the Queen stopped to have her palm read by Kurlinda/Corlinda or by Sanspirella Smith, the wife of a patriarch of the Smith clan, Ambrose Smith [B8]. However, this element of the royal patronage may be fantasy rather than fact.

Kurlinda/Corlinda Lee died in Glasgow on 28 March 1900. Her tombstone was designed and made by one Glasgow’s foremost monumental masons, Robert Gray. Originally it carried a bronze portrait of Kurlinda but sadly – like many similar bronzes in the Necropolis – this is now missing, having been stolen for its scrap metal value. All that is left on the stone is the odd ghost image of a woman’s face with her hair tied behind her head.

The inscription on the stone reads:

CORLINDA LEE

Queen of the Gipsies

Beloved wife of George Smith

Who died at 42 New City Road, Glasgow, on the 28th March, 1900 aged 68 years and lies here beside her beloved son Ernest

Her love for her children was great and she was charitable to the poor. Wherever she pitched her tent she was loved and respected by all.

Her grandchild baby May

Given 17th May 1897

Taken 14th July 1898

Erected in loving memory by her husband and family

On our recent visit to the Necropolis, it was a bonus to discover that Ernest Smith [D41] has his own fine monument next to his mother’s. He predeceased her, dying at 202 Cambridge Street, Glasgow, on 28 April 1898, aged 27. The child buried in Kurlinda/Corlinda’s grave is (Alice) May Franklin, the daughter of Kurlinda/Corlinda and George’s daughter Margaret [D42] and her husband Trafalgar Franklin [D21]. May’s death certificate records that she died in a caravan at the Phoenix Show Ground, Sawfield Place, Glasgow.

Here are the two monuments, to be found in the Sextus Division of the Necropolis, not far from the main entrance.

The gravestone of Kurlinda/Corlinda Lee – Mrs George Smith – at the Necropolis, Glasgow, Scotland (left) and that of her son Ernest Smith (right).

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