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

A paper 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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