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An Ancient Tribe

Anne-Marie Ford    -    2 March 2014

The Leicestershire Chronicle of 18th October 1845 reported on a case heard at the Michaelmas County Sessions where a Gypsy “complained of being illegally convicted” under the Vagrancy Act. To the amusement of many in the court the appellant claimed that his family “being a very ancient tribe” and existing long before the Vagrancy Act “could not be said to fall within the description given in that Act.” The case was reported thus:

On the 26th July last, the appellant, who is a widower, encamped together with his relations, Plato Smith and Violet (Plato’s wife), Dives Smith and his wife, and a younger female of the same name, at Knossington, on the public road between Owston and Oakham. Between two and three o’clock the following morning, P.C.Morris, accompanied by five other men, went to this encampment, handcuffed the appellant and Dives Smith as they lay asleep, and without any explanation, and took them and Violet Smith into custody, besides taking appellant’s two horses, a cart, and a watch, and three sovereigns, 4/6d, which were found on the person of Nathaniel Smith, the appellant. The prisoners were then conveyed to East Norton and, when arrived there, were placed in the care of the constable of that place. The men, however, made their escape . . . but, on 26th September they surrendered themselves and were convicted by the East Norton bench as rogues and vagabonds . . . and this was the conviction appealed against. The woman, Violet Smith, apprehended on a charge of felony . . . [was] committed for trial.

Plato Smith was the son of Samuel and Cinnamenta, baptised in Medbourne, Leicestershire on 11th March 1822, and his wife, Violet, the daughter of Thomas and Sylvia Smith, was baptised at St Mary’s, Melton Mowbray on 12th April 1819, the daughter of Gypsies who “lived everywhere and nowhere.” Thomas was himself the son of the famous Absalom Smith, who had died in 1826 and whose funeral was recorded in the Leicestershire Chronicle of 18th February that year:

On Wednesday se’nnight, aged 60, Absalom Smith, better known in this neighbourhood as king of the Gypsies, leaving behind him a wife and 13 children . . . and 54 grandchildren . . . was interred [in Twyford Churchyard] in his coat, the buttons on which were silver and marked ‘A.S.’

This legendary figure was recalled somewhat romantically in the same newspaper as late of 5th February 1887:

When the Gypsies were allowed to encamp in the lanes and waste ground of Leicestershire and other counties, Absalom Smith was their recognised king and they had their ‘code of laws’ and any infringement of these he adjudicated upon and his decision was final. Absalom Smith was a tall man, of dark complexion, black hair, with long curls on each side of his face. He generally wore a long blue coat with large silver buttons . . . with his initials engraved thereon, breeches, leggings and silver buckled shoes. The king of the Gypsies was a good athlete and especially a good runner and jumper . . . he could fiddle well by ear, and used to play at country feasts.

Dives/Divers Smith is not the only member of the family with that given name, but the most likely candidate in 1845 is the Dives/Divers Smith who, with his wife, Sibarina/Cybarina, baptised a daughter, Beattie, at Ashfordbury, Leicestershire, just two miles from the family patch at Melton Mowbray, on 28th November 1844. He was the son of Cain and Trinity Smith, Trinity being the daughter of Solovaino, Absalom’s brother, and Sibarina, like Violet, was also a granddaughter of Absalom’s, as her father was Absalom, one of the elder Absalom’s sons.

Plato Smith was to make the local papers on more than one occasion. The Leicestershire Mercury of 23rd November 1850 reported on Plato Smith being charged with stealing a donkey. “It seemed that the donkey was taken out of [William] Read’s stable by Phinial Smith and he gave it up to Plato and threatened great violence to any person who should take in from him,” adding that “ Both of them are Gypsies, and had been camping near to Markfield.” In the event Plato Smith was discharged. But Phinial’s presence is interesting, he was Plato’s elder brother, another son of Samuel and Cinnamenta and two years later was again to be involved with horse stealing. The Leicester Chronicle of 21st August 1852 proclaimed “Horse Stealing at Arnesby” and beneath this headline ran a brief story:

During the night of the 12th inst., an aged chestnut horse, of the cart breed, the property of [a] cattle dealer [of] Arnesby, was stolen from the field in that parish. It is supposed he has been driven away by a Gypsy named Finial (sic) Smith, aged 36 years of age.

In the 20th March edition of the Leicestershire Chronicle Plato Smith, a Gypsy, was found pleading guilt to encamping on the highway at Loughborough. Violet, too, was to find herself in court on more than one occasion. The Leicester Journal of 20th March 1860 carried a story in which Violet was accused of telling fortunes by using palmistry, to gain money and goods and the same journal noticed her nine years later, in a brief article of 7th May, when she was accused of receiving a ring, knowing it to be stolen.

And the Nathaniel Smith, who appeared to be leading this group, and claimed to be a widower? The name was popular amongst the family, of course, and Plato had a brother of that name who may well have been married prior to an acknowledged union with Loryweana Clayton, particularly as he was about 12 years older than she was. One strong possibility is the Harriet Smith who married Nathaniel Smith on 7th January 1833 at Weston by Welland, Northamptonshire, where, incidentally, Nathaniel’s father, Samuel, had been baptised in 1791. In addition, this couple appear to have been witnesses to a wedding in the December quarter of 1837 in the registration district of Uppingham, Leicestershire between a Lementina Smith and Jonathan Popple. It is possible, too, given the dates and location, that this Lementina is the daughter of Joseph and Reserva Smith, who was baptised Clementina at Ashby Magna, in Leicestershire, on 11th December 1816. Since a Reservoir Smith was the second wife of Nathaniel’s father, Samuel, and sister of his first wife, Cinnamenta, this would indicate that Clementina is both Nathaniel’s cousin and step-sister, surely a good reason for his being at her wedding.

Nathaniel is known not only to have formed a union with Loryweana Clayton, the daughter of James Booth/Clayton and Sophia Smith, baptised on 28th May 1826 at Willoughby on the Wolds, Nottinghamshire, but also Loryweana’s sister, Cinamenta Clayton; Phinial, son of Samuel and Cinamenta Smith and brother of Plato, also married both sisters. Whilst this is perfectly possible, and not that unusual within such a tribal community, perhaps it is also possible that Phinial and Nathaniel are the same person, using an alternate name. Phinial as a short form of ‘Thanial,’ with the ‘th’ pronounced as an ‘f’ is surely likely. Plato is known to have travelled with Phinial, so to find him with Nathaniel in 1845 suggests, too, the possibility of an alternate name, rather than an alternate brother.

Nathaniel Smith was buried at Ibstock, Leicestershire on 2nd November 1865, where it was claimed he is 51 years old, which, if accurate, would place his birth in 1814, the year in which Phinial was baptised at Harpole in Northamptonshire, on 11th March. By the 1871 census, where Cinnamenta, recorded as Synamenta, is found at Little London, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, she is listed as head of the house, living with her daughter, Sophia, aged about 11,named for Cinnamenta’s mother, her son, Nathaniel, aged about 4, together with another Nathaniel Smith, aged 24, having been baptised in 1847. This is the baptism of Nathaniel Smith at Langham, Rutland on 13th June 1847, the son of Nathaniel and Lorywerna; there are also records of other children born to this couple, Amy baptised at Edith Weston, Rutland on 31st December 1848, the daughter of Phinial, Harriet, baptised 23rd October 1856 at Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, daughter of Nathaniel and Laurie Weymer (sic), and another son, Rito, in 1857.

The 24-year-old Nathaniel, therefore, is Cinnamenta’s nephew, son of her sister, Loryweana. and also, quite possibly, her step-son. Whilst it may seem strange to suggest that Nathaniel had two sons named after him with his two wives, it is not unheard of and what makes it more likely is the age of little Nathaniel. He dies the year after the 1871 census, and his death is recorded in the December quarter of 1872 in the registration district of Melton Mowbray, aged 6. This would place his birth year in 1866, the year after Nathaniel’s death toward the end of 1865, and indicates that Cinnamenta was pregnant with this child when her husband died. Naming this last child after her deceased husband then makes sense. There are two other baptisms for children of this couple, a Reservoir, baptised in Nailstone, Leicester on 9th June 1860, and also probably the Reservoir Smith whose death is recorded in the registration district of Market Bosworth in the June quarter and a Margaret Reservoir, the daughter of Nathaneal (sic) and Cinnamenta Smith, Gypsy, at St. Wilfred’s Church, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicester on 3rd June 1863.Since this daughter is not with Cinnamenta in the 1871 census it must be assumed that she, too, died young.

Cinnamenta’s daughter, Sophia, however was to survive and married, as Sophia Booth, in the September quarter of 1877 at Melton Mowbray a Samuel Smith. By the 1881 census she is living with her husband and two children, Sam, aged 4 and Sarah, aged 2, at Platts Court, Timber Hill, Melton Mowbray. Cinnamenta is also living there, together with her father, James Booth, a widower and a chair bottomer, and is recorded as “Minta,” a widow of a horse dealer.

Copyright © 2014 Anne-Marie Ford