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The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Anne-Marie Ford    -    26 July 2014

&lt;p>In 1895 the infamous trial of the writer Oscar Wilde saw him sentenced to two years&rsquo; hard labour and ultimately condemned to Reading gaol. After his release in 1897, and probably whilst he was in exile in France, he wrote &lsquo;The Ballad of Reading Gaol.&rsquo; This also brought a certain notoriety to the establishment itself. Like most gaols it had housed miscreants for minor and major crimes over the years and, like most gaols, its temporary inhabitants included Gypsies and Travellers.</p>

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<p>One such inmate was Frampton Beldam, who was sentenced on 28<sup>th</sup> May 1890 to 14 days&rsquo; hard labour, or to pay &pound;1.2.6d, for receiving, presumably as his occupation was listed as that of dealer, it must have been something of an occupational hazard. Claiming to be 30 years of age, Beldam was recorded as 5&rsquo;3&rdquo; tall, with dark brown hair, and declared that he had been born in Mentmore, Oxfordshire. He may well have been born there, but he was baptised at Bearwood, Buckinghamshire on 14<sup>th</sup> May 1865. </p>

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<p>The son of Thomas Beldam and Talitha Fenner, Frampton can be found in a caravan at Little Marlow, in Buckinghamshire, with his family in the 1881 census, where they are listed as Fletchers, not Beldams. His father, Thomas, is recorded as a dealer, and his mother, Talitha, as Gotilla; there are also siblings Vertinia, born about 1867; Sarah, born around 1869; Tommy, born about 1875; Nathan, born two years&rsquo; later; Providence, born the following year; Henry, an infant. Frampton, who is the eldest here, has a birth year of 1865 on the census, which accords with the date of his baptism, and indicates that he was 25, not 30, when incarcerated in Reading gaol. The family are travelling with a group of Hazards and Plato Buckland&rsquo;s family, listed as Williams.</p>

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<p>Named for his uncle, Frampton came from a significant Gypsy family; his father, Thomas, was the son of another Thomas Beldam and Maria Smith Frampton&rsquo;s uncle Frampton had, at the age of 21, married 20 year-old Sophia Fletcher at St Mary&rsquo;s, Harmondsworth, London on 31<sup>st</sup> July 1854. By the 1871 census the elder Frampton can be found in the registration district of Uxbridge, Middlesex, with his wife, Sophia, and children Ann, Cinderella, Riley, Sarah and Amadine, who was married to a Draper. This tenuous connection with the Fletcher family does not, however, explain why the younger Thomas should choose to use his sister-in-law&rsquo;s name for his own family during the census.</p>

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<p>Other Gypsies and Travellers who also spent time in Reading gaol during this period include Agnes Lee, a hawker, who was found guilty of being drunk and committing wilful damage and sentenced to a month&rsquo;s imprisonment with hard labour, despite the fact that she claimed to be 70 years of age. Henry Cooper, a young Gypsy, together with fellow Gypsies Olney Cyprus Smith and Nathan Smith, was sentenced to seven days&rsquo; hard labour for &ldquo;unlawfully camping on the highway&rdquo; and John Loversage (Loveridge), a hawker, also received seven days&rsquo; for being drunk, whilst dealer James Richens was sentenced to three calendar months with hard labour for stealing half-a-sovereign.</p>

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<p>My great-great grandfather, Thomas Lewis, a Gypsy, also appears in the records. On 3<sup>rd</sup> December 1890 Tommy, in reality Tommy Boswell, was charged with stealing wood and sentenced to three weeks&rsquo; hard labour. He is described as 65 years old, 5&rsquo;8&rdquo; tall, with dark grey hair, unable to read or write, and born at East Hagbourne. Tommy had, in fact, been baptised in 1838, so was much nearer 52 than 65; he was well known in the area of Hagbourne, where he more or less settled with his third wife, Councelettie Smith, playing at local hops and for the Abingdon Morris Dancers and occasionally wandering across to Oxfordshire to play his fiddle for the Bampton Morris Dancers. </p>

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<p>Tommy&rsquo;s minor infringement of the law appeared as a brief footnote in the <i>Reading Mercury</i> of 6<sup>th</sup> December 1890: &ldquo;Thomas Lewis, a Gypsy, was charged with stealing a bundle of wood, to the value of 3d, the property of Mr John Herman, of East Hanney. PC Edward Hearness proved the case.&rdquo; Tommy was released three weeks later, in time for Christmas, with no apparent ill effects and continued his life as before. His children with Councelettie, like their parents, also saw the area of East Hagbourne as home, and those who continued to travel were quite short travellers, with the exception of one of their daughters, Fairnettie/Faine/Tryphena. She married into the Black family of Inkpen, becoming widower Henry Black&rsquo;s second wife, and inherited several step-children. Travelling between Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire, she bore her horse-dealer husband six known children: Lemmy, John Thomas, Walter William, Maurice Jesse, Nelson and Sidney. Finally, Fairnettie and most of her children, appear to have settled in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, where she died in December 1938 and is buried there as Fain Black.</p>

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<p>Two other daughters of Tommy and Councelettie, Adelaide and Marannie/Rose Hannah, married brothers Frederick and John Breakspear and led a more settled life; Tryphena Alice adopted a settled life in its entirety, marrying Bill Jefferies, a local blacksmith. A son, John/Jack/Ceterus married his first cousin, Vertie Smith, and travelled quite short distances and another son, Henry, also a short traveller, died as a young man. It was the continued travelling life of Fairnettie Black, however, which meant she was unable to attend her father&rsquo;s funeral, some 20 years after his experience in Reading gaol, an event also covered by the <i>Reading Mercury</i>:</p>

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<div class="quote" style="margin-left:36pt;"><p>On Monday afternoon, at West Challow cemetery, the funeral of Mr Thomas Lewis, more familiarly styled the local &ldquo;Gypsy King,&rdquo; took place, and there was a large crowd from Wantage present. Mr Lewis, who died the previous Friday (5<sup>th</sup> August), at the age of 77 years, after a short illness, had had a remarkable career, his proud boast being that he had never slept in a bed in a house during his life. He used to rest in a tent or sometimes in his caravan in a field . . . It was a unique scene at a funeral to see some of the mourners sitting on a cart smoking their pipes on the way to the cemetery and wearing their Gypsy garb. It was probably this that attracted so many people from Wantage.</p></div>

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<p>Clearly, Tommy did not count sleeping in a bed in prison (a location he experienced more than once), as a house, nor had his criminal activities damaged his reputation in any way, almost the reverse. Sadly, for Oscar Wilde it was quite a different matter. The court case which saw him sent to Reading gaol signalled the end of his career, his family life and his place in society, and for the remainder of his life he lived in exile abroad.</p>

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<p>&lsquo;The Ballad of Reading Gaol&rsquo; was the brilliant Wilde&rsquo;s final work, a long poem documenting the harsh rhythms of prison life. He suggested it be published in <i>Reynold&rsquo;s Magazine</i>, &ldquo;because it circulates widely among the criminal classes &ndash; to which I now belong.&rdquo; Wilde died abroad of cerebral meningitis on 30<sup>th</sup> November 1900, he was just 46 years old. His epitaph was a verse from &lsquo;The Ballad of Reading Gaol.&rsquo;</p>

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Copyright © 2014 Anne-Marie Ford