Tag Archives: Royal Epping Forest Gypsies

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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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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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:


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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