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The Last Pharaoh

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 June 2011

Do we know our history, the stories of our past? The ordinary and everyday experiences of Hertfordshire people in the eighteenth and nineteenth century included trades as various as travelling hawkers, pedlars, flower sellers, braziers, scissor and razor grinders, horse-dealers, whitesmiths, tin-workers, basket-makers, braziers, lime-burners, marine store dealers, rag and bone men, blacksmiths, fiddle-players, the owners of dancing booths, and even fortune-tellers. As society changed, mechanisation developed at an amazing pace, and people began to move from the rural to an urban life, so most of these occupations passed, too.

Tracing the Romany and Traveller peoples who provided such important services amongst the villages and hamlets of Hertfordshire indicates an interesting history for many of their descendants. It also informs our understanding of our past, of the manner in which the poor and labouring classes survived, and of the harsh punishments often inflicted by the local elite and the law courts.

These extracts from the Hertfordshire records, from the early 1700s to the beginning of the 1900s, tell of a different way of life, and record the passing through of Romany Gypsies and Travellers, as well as the choice they made, in many cases, to settle.On 12th July1902, on p8, the Hertfordshire Mercury newspaper carried this story:

Curious death of an old fiddler. Henry Boswell, aged 65, who was a native of Hare Street, Hormead, has for many years roamed the country round picking up a precarious living as an itinerant fiddler. He was quite a link with past scenes and events of olden times, and no fair in the neighbourhood seemed complete without the presence of this wandering minstrel and we must say the people much enjoyed a dance or jig to his old-fashioned tunes. He was a typical country-fiddler, with no settled home, and he slept generally in a stable or other outbuilding of a village inn.

On Saturday last he attended a fair held at the hamlet of Nuthampstead in Barkway parish, staying at the Woodman public house kept by Mr George Martin. On Tuesday, when the heat was so great, he complained of pains in his head and apparently suffered from heat apoplexy. The next day the landlord found him lying in the stable much worse, so he sent for Dr Downs, who arrived between 10 and 11 am. The doctor saw the deceased was seriously ill, as he had vomited blood, so he ordered his removal to the Buntingford Union. Arthur Barker, a labourer working for Mr Martin, was bringing the poor man in a cart to the Union, and had got beyond Anstey, near to the village windmill, when the deceased suddenly called out “George.” Barker, who was leading the horse, at once stopped and got into the cart, only to find the old fiddler was dead.

An inquest was held on the body yesterday (Friday). Harry Boswell, as he was familiarly called, had a strangely chequered life, and his death under such grim circumstances must cause a general touch of pity [even] among those who knew nothing of the old fiddler, who, by the way, was sometimes employed for village gatherings by persons in good positions.

Henry Boswell was baptised on 14th March 1845, in Great Hormead,and a note appended to the entry added that he had been registered as Pharaoh Boswell (Dec quarter 1844), so that he was, in fact, only 56 when he died; he was the youngest son of Joseph and Jane Boswell, of Hare Street. Jane had been an Elliott before her marriage, baptised in 1803, the daughter of Ezekiel and Flower (nee Farrenton/?Farrington).

Boswell was an old Gypsy surname, and Joseph worked in a typically Gypsy occupation (the 1851 census lists his profession as general dealer),and two of his sons, John and Henry, were musicians. The fairs and feasts held all over Britain certainly needed a musician or two, and Morris Dancers always required such an accompaniment, so there was a living to be made, at least for part of the year.Yet Joseph and Jane appear settled in Great Hormead, and Jane can be traced in the census records from 1841 – although not always Joseph,which suggests he may well have been on the road for some of the time. There is, however, a much earlier record of Joseph Boswell of Great Hormead,In 1827 he was convicted of poaching, or, as the conviction records state: “using an engine called a firearm to kill game.”

Joseph was to die in the December quarter of 1863, and the widowed Jane continued to live in Hare Street, Great Hormead, for the remainder of her life. She is located there in the two subsequent censuses, living with her son Henry, the rest of the family having either died, or moved away. Following his mother’s death, in 1881, Henry seems to have wandered around, lodging in different Hertfordshire locations. In the 1891 census he can be found as a “lodger” in Much Hadham, and in 1901 he is listed as a “boarder” at Well Pond Green, Standon.

Whilst descriptors such as ‘dealer’ or ‘musician’ may help in tracing Gypsies and Travellers, they were not always used; agricultural labourer was commonly employed for many of the rural population, Gypsies and Travellers included, which is less than helpful, perhaps. Of course, they would pick up casual work, digging ditches, working for local farmers, harvesting crops, or working with horses, which can make it harder to identify these ethnic groups confidently.

However, in Joseph Boswell’s case, we can trace his parents. He was baptised in Layston on 16th June 1800, son of John and Esther Boswell. His father, John, who married Esther Pegram in Layston village on 22nd November 1784, was the son of Isaiah and Mary; his grandfather Isaiah had been baptised in Great Hormead in 1728, the son of John, a “travelling Gypsy.”The Pegrams, too, can be found in the local records of Great Hormead, when a Thomas and Sarah Pegram baptised their two daughters, Kezia and Jemima, on 19th September 1790. Thomas is described as a pauper, and the cleric has added a firm note to the effect that the “children were not born in this parish, nor does Thomas Pegram belong to this parish.”

So it seems many Travellers and Gypsies continued to marry within their own close-knit community, while some married into the local population. As this became increasingly the case, locations such as Great Hormead and the surrounding area were seen as ‘home’ by many, even if they travelled for part of the year, or perhaps just the men, searching for work, travelling to fairs, visiting local villages which had need of a brazier, or a scissor grinder, or a fiddle player.

Isaiah and his wife Mary had four known children, all of whom were baptised in Great Hormead, Ann on 25 July 1756, Sarah on 20th July 1760, John, on 10 July 1763 and Susannah, on 20th August 1769, and they themselves were buried there, Isaiah in 1801 and Mary, as “widow of Isaiah” on 14th July 1811. Among those Boswells who married, baptised their children, and were buried in Great Hormead was a Thomas Boswell, who married Sarah Clark in Little Hormead on 19th August 1816, and, when registering a child, Hepseba, on 10th November 1816, claimed to come from Newton, Cambridgeshire.

There is considerable evidence of movement between Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire amongst the semi-settled/travelling population, and it is likely that Thomas was also a son of John and Esther Boswell, baptised in 1793, and thereforeIsaiah’s grandson. Whatever the case, Thomas was certainly speedily accepted, by the time his second child, Mariann, was baptised, on 10th May 1818, he was said to be ‘of Great Hormead.’ Moreover, Thomas’s marriage in Little Hormeadoffersanother close link with Isaiah, as Isaiah’s daughter, Susannah Boswell, was also married there, on 21st July 1789, to Thomas Blakesly.

The naming ceremonies for Gypsy and Traveller children may include the unconventional, such as ‘Pharaoh,’ a popular Romany name, but the recipient may well choose to use another. It was not at all uncommon for Gypsies to have two names, a formal one and a rather more private family name, nor was it unusual for Gypsies and Travellers to use two surnames, as the importance of a bloodline reflected the woman, as well as the man, and children would often choose to use their mother’s surname, or to alternate between the two.

John Boswell, the son of Joseph and Jane, and Henry/Pharaoh’s elder brother, married, in his late thirties, Mercy Warren, the daughter of Philip Warren, a general dealer, like Joseph. Some of their children were to have slightly unusual names, including aMahala, born in 1868 and baptised the following year, and Ogust, registered as Ogus in the December quarter of 1873, and baptised in Ware on 30th November the same year, the son of John and Mercy Boswell. John, sometimes recorded as an agricultural labourer, as well as a musician, is now described as a “poultry dealer of Hormead.”

John, like his father and brother, was to die relatively early; his death is registered in the March quarter of 1887, aged 62. Mercy, however, lived on until very old age, dying when she was 90 years old in Ware. By the 1911 census their children were moving away from the typical Gypsy and Traveller occupations, too. Ogust can be found living in “a caravan in a field in Little Gaddesden,” but working in a more specialised area, as a steam ploughman, and a younger sister, Fanny, has become a teacher, indicating social mobility and the integration of the descendants of Isaiah, the son of John, a “travelling Gypsy.”

Amongst the burials in the local cemetery of St Nicholas in Great Hormead, including Isaiah and Mary Boswell, were several Boswell children, Elizabeth Boswell, aged 5, on 27th December 1826, and just a month later, Mary, 3, on 18th January 1827. Ten years later a little boy of 2, Charles Boswell, was also buried, for child mortality was high amongst the poor, and accidents common. Later in the century, in 1844, 2 year-old Elizabeth was buried, Robert, 8, the following year, and Esther, just 18 months, the year after that, and, on 7th May 1857, George Boswell, aged 14, who had died as a result “of a horse treading on him.”

By the time of Henry/Pharaoh Boswell’s death, the Boswell family were little in evidence in Great Hormead, many having moved on, or died out, or intermarried with the local village population. Of Henry’s funeral the newspaper reported:

Burial of Boswell, the Gypsy Fiddler. An inquest was considered necessary by the coroner on the body of Henry Boswell, whose death under sad circumstances we recorded in our last issue. The remains were interred on Saturday afternoon in the Layston cemetery. There was not a single mourner. It is thought that the only relative of the deceased is a cousin, an aged woman residing at Hare Street. (Hertfordshire Mercury 19July 1902, p 5.)

Layston cemetery is long since out of use, and now largely overgrown and, as with so many of the poor, no stone marks the spot where the fiddler was laid to rest.

Copyright © 2011 Anne-Marie Ford