For such an elderly matriarch, Honor Smith [B2 in the Borrow’s Gypsies tree of 1910] has been pretty agile in eluding researchers.
A number of folki have been looking for her death for a good many years. What led us all astray was that in her last sighting, in the 1891 census, she was living in a tent on the sands at Blackpool’s South Shore as a member of the long-established Gypsy community there. The oral history had it that she had died on the road, probably somewhere in Lancashire, at the age of 102. Relatives in Blackpool also believed that she had been buried with other members of her family in the town’s Layton Cemetery.
Honor was baptised 8 December 1816 at Belton on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, the daughter of Ambrose and Mary Smith, itinerant tinker. So, if the story about her age at death was true, then the year was likely to be 1916-1918 or so. The problem was that the English death indexes just weren’t showing an Honor Smith in that year range, nor in the county that she had made her home and where she had many relatives. There was also the possibility that she might have been registered under an alias. She was recorded as ‘Hannah’ on at least one occasion during her life and on the birth certificate of her son Saunders, rather oddly, as ‘Thomas’. It seemed like a brickwall.
That is, until a chance search for Honor’s name a few days ago in the newspaper collection at the British Newspaper Archive finally tracked her down, in an unexpected place and in an unexpected year:
Royal Cornwall Gazette, 3 March 1898
A CENTENARIAN. – The death is announced at Gloucester of Honor Smith in her 101st year. Mrs. Smith was a native of Norfolk, but had lived the greater part of her life in Liverpool and Blackpool. Deceased, who retained nearly all her faculties until a few weeks ago, was a total abstainer, and her eyesight and hearing were remarkably keen, whilst her memory was almost unimpaired. She was the mother of nine children, only two of whom survive her.
Bristol Mercury, 1 March 1898
Mrs Honor Smith, of Worcester-street, has just died at the remarkable age of a few months over a hundred years old. Deceased, who was a native of Norfolk, had lived the greater portion of her married life at Liverpool and Blackpool. She had been a life-long abstainer, and had never known a day’s illness until she had an apoplectic fit about 17 years ago. Her eyesight and hearing were keen to the last, and her face is said to have been without a wrinkle. A few weeks before her death she protested against taking stimulants by the doctor’s orders. Mrs Smith would have been 101 next August.
Morning Post, 26 February 1898
DEATH OF A CENTENARIAN. – The death is announced of Mrs. Honor Smith at the residence of her daughter in Gloucester. Mrs. Smith attained the age of one hundred years last August.
The information on Honor’s death certificate corroborates the newspaper reports. It states that she died on 24 February 1898 at 53 Worcester Street, Gloucester, aged 100, the widow of Francis Smith, a horse dealer. The cause was senile decay. The informant was her daughter Sarah Franklin, in attendance, of the same address. (Sarah is C5 in the Borrow’s Gypsies tree, the wife of John Franklin.)
So for all Romany family historians the moral seems to be firstly, when someone gets close to being a centenarian, don’t be surprised if their age is hugely exaggerated in family stories and official records. And secondly, be open to the possibility that their place of death may be a long, long way from their familiar haunts.