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Year of the Horse

Anne-Marie Ford    -    4 September 2011

The horse, so central to Gypsies’ and Travellers’ lives, not only provided a means of transport, but a way of making a living, sometimes a very reasonable one. In the nineteenth century, Gypsy horse-dealers could enjoy a relatively prosperous life, buying low and selling high, travelling the country to attend the fairs and markets where business was to be done. However, this was only one aspect of obtaining a living through the buying and selling of horseflesh; there were far more common ones. There were the dealers of old horses, running a ‘knackers’ yard,’ and there were the chancers, the horse-thieves who risked their freedom, sometimes their lives, in the hope of making a quick and lucrative deal. In 1859 two examples of these less thansuccessful Gypsy horse-dealers were to fall foul of the law: Kisby Draper in Buckinghamshire; Ambrose Draper in Hertfordshire.

When Kisby Draper, claiming to be 24 years old, was arrested in Buckinghamshirein March 1859 for stealing a bushel of turnip tops, he said that he earned “board, lodging and an occasional shilling” by assisting his father, who was a dealer in old horses. The gaol records suggest that the family were therefore considered “fairly [well] off,” given the father’s occupation. This is relative, of course, butKisby obviously failed to impress, in spite of the family’s supposed resources, for the notes which reflected that he looked “like a Gypsy,” added that he appeared to be “alien to good feelings.”

The son of William Draper and Mary Cotchin, KisbyDraper had, by 1859, formed a partnership with Cinderella Beldam/Beldom, the daughter of Thomas Beldam/Beldom and Maria Smith. They were to have four known children: William, baptised on 24th July 1853, in Harmondsworth, Middlesex, where his father is recorded as a tinman; Amadine, baptised in Stewkley, Buckinghamshire on 19th January 1857; Kisby, in 1875 in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire,baptised some years after his birth;Lavinia, also a late baptism, in 1877, at Woburn Sands, Bedfordshire. The union between Kisby and Cinderella did not last, however, and Kisby married Ann Baines on 26th June 1864 in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, claiming to have aged just three years since his arrest five years before. He also adopted his mother’s maiden name around this time, not an unusual action for a Gypsy, but perhaps it was something to do with trying to leave his criminal past behind!

Just two months afterKisby’s arrest, in May 1859, Cinderella’s brother, Riley, was also apprehended in Buckinghamshire for “hawking without a licence.” The 15 year-old Riley, a clothes-peg maker and hawker, said he was the son of an itinerant tinman, and claimed birth at Kingsey, “in a tent by the roadside.” Registered in the prison records as ‘RyalBeldome,’ his family, he said, generally lived in Little Brickhill in the winter, going on tramp during the summer months. All last winter, however, “the family [had] lived in their cart, which stood in a field, near Uxbridge.” The comments made by the officer were even more derogatory than those made about Draper, for he remarked that the youth, who “calls himself Riley Baldom,”was “almost a savage.”This is the earliest known criminal record for Riley, but it was not to be the last.

Riley was to go on, with another brother-in-law, Meshach Hearn (married to Riley’s sister, Mary), to try his hand at horse stealing and cattle rustling. In the summer of 1866 Meshach Hearn, Riley Beldam/Beldom and William Shirley were convicted of horse-stealing at Buckinghamshire; Riley was sentenced to 10 months’ hard-labour. In Bedfordshire, a further conviction of 14 months was handed down for a similar crime. Although by 1871, in Buckinghamshire, Riley Beldam/Beldom, hawker, aged 27, was found guilty of nothing more serious than “allowing a horse to stray on the highway.” The gaol records offer a brief description of him as just under 5’9”, with brown hair, grey eyes and an oval face, the son of Thomas, a hawker, adding that he was “clean.”

However, Meshach’s tendency to steal horses was to cost him dear; the Hertfordshire Advertiser of 8th January 1870 explains an anomaly in the family of Meshach and Mary Hearn.Under the headline ‘Stealing a Mare,’ the newspaper reports that “Meshach Hearn (28), gipsy (sic) tinker of Bushey, was charged with stealing a mare, the property of William Courtney of Bushey. The prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude.”

Meshach and Mary had been married at Great Stanmore, Middlesex on 21st June 1868 and their son, Emmanuel, was baptised on 23rd September 1869, where Meshach is recorded as a costermonger of Ruislip.Although six children were to follow, (Lucy, named after Meshach’s sister, in 1876; Thomas in 1878; George in around 1880; William two years’ later; Britannia in about 1884; Solomon, named for Meshach’s elder brother, born around 1887, and baptised at Hillingdon, Middlesex on 16th May 1889), the seven-year gap between Emmanuel and Lucy seemed surprising. But Meshach can be found in the 1871 census serving out his term of imprisonment. In the male prison in the Gillingham district of Kent a 29 year-old Meshach Hearn is recorded as a resident.

While Kisby Draper and his family may have made some sort of a living dealing in old horses, and both he and Meshach Hearn were to prove themselves rather unsuccessful horse thieves, Ambrose Draper, “a gipsy” (sic),was, undeniably, quite the worst horse-thief of all! In 1859, the same year that Kisby Draper and the young Riley Beldam/Beldom were arrested, Ambrose Draper was to chance his luck by stealing a mare at Welwyn, in Hertfordshire.

There were, apparently, three horses left in a field overnight, and horse tackle hidden beneath a hayrick; in the morning the mare, and one of the halters, were found to be missing. The wonder of it is that Ambrose thought this mare worth stealing at all, for she was bandy-legged and lame in the foreleg. Such a description made her easy to identify, something Ambrose seemed to overlook when he tried to sell it to a John Hampton at Hadham, Hertfordshire, for £5. The court records of the trial were reported in the 6th July 1861 edition of the Hertfordshire Mercury, the delay being caused by Ambrose Draper successfully absconding, when initially apprehended. Unfortunately, he seems to have been as memorable as the mare he stole, and was taken into custody two years later for the offence.

John Hampton gave evidence at Ambrose Draper’s trial, as did James Turner, having seen Draper at Hadham, and hearing him trying to sell the mare to Hampton, who would only offer £2. Turner told the court that he “saw the mare afterwards in the pound,” and that the prisoner had asked him whether he had seen it. Upon Turner questioning him as to how he had come by the mare, Draper explained that “he had [the mare] from a farmhouse in exchange for a donkey, having given 15/- in exchange.”

Another witness for the prosecution, Aborn Davey, who lived at Hadham, said he recollected “seeing a gipsy (sic) with a fiddle,” who had later come to him and asked him to buy the mare, adding that he had replied that “if I bought the mare, I should want it to kill.” The son of the owner of the mare, John Pennyfather, came over from Welwyn to Hadham to identify the mare, and, as if that was not easy enough, went to great lengths to identify the halter, telling the court, “I know the halter had a brass nail in one winker, and two in the other, and there was a ring on the bit.”At the conclusion of the evidence the prisoner declared his innocence. The verdict handed down was ‘guilty.’

It has been suggested that Ambrose Draper, who was obviously a fiddle-player, should have stuck to his trade, and not dabbled in horse-dealing or stealing; as to why he should choose such a poor and easily identifiable horse is something of a mystery. Perhaps, it has been suggested, it was because it was the only one he could catch!

Copyright © 2011 Anne-Marie Ford