Category Archives: Dances

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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Champion boxer Jem Mace parades with ball-giving group, 1865

Jem Mace might have been known as ‘The Swaffham Gipsy” but – by his own admission – this world champion pugilist didn’t have a drop of Gypsy blood running in his veins. His nickname more probably stems from his close association with “Borrow’s Gypsies”, forged via his nephew Pooley Mace.

Pooley joined the Borrow’s Gypsies’ clan as the husband of Delaia Smith [C8], the daughter of Ambrose Smith [B8] and Sanspirella Heron. He was the son of Jem Mace’s brother Barney and his Gypsy wife, Lurina Heron. Pooley was a skilled boxer himself and travelled the world with his famous uncle. And perhaps it was this Pooley connection that led Jem Mace to agree to take part in an extraordinary event in Manchester in 1865 with members of the Smith family. Here’s how it was advertised in The Manchester Guardian on 29 August 1865:


ROYAL OAK. – The King and Queen of the Gipsies from Epping Forest, and several of their tribe, will form a Procession This Day, (Tuesday). The band carriage, drawn by four greys, with 12 musicians, will take the lead; four carriages of gipsies, each drawn by a pair of greys, will follow; Jem Mace, champion of England, and the proprietor will come next; and the renowned Gladiateur, the champion of donkeys, who won the prize at the Islington Show, will be driven by his owner. Several parties having promised to join the procession in vehicles, the proprietor hopes they will follow in proper order. Route:– The procession will leave from the Royal Oak at half-past ten a.m. punctually, wet or dry, pass along Oldham Road to the Infirmary, down Market-street, over Victoria Bridge, along Chapel-street, Salford, to the Grapes Inn, up Cross Lane and Liverpool Road to Peter-street, along Oxford Road to Donley’s Wellington Hotel, Didsbury, where a halt will be made; thence to Mrs. Glover’s George Hotel, Cheadle, where the party will dine. After dinner the procession will proceed to Mr. Hunt’s, Bowdon; thence to Hardy’s Hotel, Altrincham; returning to town by Stretford Road, Deansgate, Long Millgate, and Shudehill, calling at Bill Lang’s to fill the champion cup, and thence home to the encampment at the Royal Oak.

The ‘King and Queen of the Gipsies’ referred to here are undoubtedly George Smith [C12] and Corlinda Lee, his wife. In his autobiography Incidents in a Gipsy’s Life published in 1886 (and re-published by the Romany and Traveller Family History Society in 2001), George recalls this visit to Manchester in the company of his extended family. This was the group that travelled the UK and Ireland in the 1860s and 1870s and organised dances for the public in the many towns and cities they stopped in along the way. This is the only occasion where I’ve found Jem Mace with them.

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