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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1 Comment

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One response to “John Cooper’s family: another unexpected Irish connection

  1. I am the grandson of Minnie Cooper and the son of Dorothy Balfour. I can fill in the blanks on the family line from prior to Minnie’s death to 2014. You can contact me per the data below.

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