Share this page

Courting Controversy.

Anne-Marie Ford    -    29 November 2014

It has often been said that references to court records when exploring Romany and Traveller families indicate a criminality which gives an unfair impression of our ancestors. But to ignore these records which, together with newspaper articles, transportation lists, census records and births, marriages and deaths, allow us to know a little more about their lives, would be to lose some key evidence.

It is certainly true that the Traveller’s way of life often brought them into conflict with the authorities, but the settled population also found themselves in court for committing crimes attributable to poverty, and were dealt with equally harshly. Several counties have put their prison records online in index form and these provide a valuable research tool. Those of Staffordshire, for example, tell us just a little more about the lives of four Gypsy women, Xantippe and Rhoda Lee and Trinity and Rebecca Boswell.

In Broadway, Worcestershire, Gypsies William and Charlotte Smith used the somewhat unusual name of Xantippe for their daughter, whom they baptised on 31st May 1795.The name can be found in the historical writings of Plato, whose teacher, the Athenian philosopher Socrates, was married to a Xantippe. The first part of the name means ‘yellow,’ and the second ‘horse;’ when the value of horses was a significant element of people’s wealth, both in the Greek world of Socrates and, perhaps, too in the Romany world, this does not seem so strange a choice. It was occasionally used in both the Traveller population and amongst the settled community.

Xantippe Smith was eventually to form a union with Robert Lee, and thisbrought together two important Romany families. The couple had six known children, although Xantippe’s glorious first name was often strangely represented.

Their first known child, a daughter, Susan, was baptised at Charlecote, Warwickshire on 24th March 1822 and two years’ later a Trinette was baptised at Wistanstow, Shropshire, on 25th August 1824, the daughter of a “tinman of Enborne, Berkshire.” Another daughter with an interesting name, Edingale, was baptised at Westbury, Shropshire on 18th April 1830/1, together with a son, Richard, and both were recorded as the children of Robert and “Exemphany.” Rhoda was baptised on 5th June 1833, also in Shropshire, at Church Preen, the daughter of travelling Gypsies, Robert and “Accentipe,” and Samson William at Almeley, Herefordshire on 3rd March 1839, when his parents claimed to come from Pontesbury, Shropshire.

Xantippe’s husband, Robert, was the son of Samuel and Hannah Lee and had been baptised at Essendon, Hertfordshire on 22nd July 1792, but his father was baptised at Enborne, in Berkshire, so this was considered as home territory, even by members of the family who had never been there. Robert’s siblings included Richard, Clevansy, Sampson, Elijah and Thomas, and two of these brothers, Richard and Samson, were to be remembered in the naming of Robert Lee’s own children with Xantippe Smith. The names of Robert and Xantippe’s daughters perhaps owe something to their mother’s family; Susan and Rhoda being very common indeed makes them almost impossible to trace, and Trinette/Trainette/Trinity was, of course, also a popular name amongst the Gypsy fraternity; Edingale, too, appears in several families, including the Smiths and the Grays. But we do know a little something more about Rhoda Lee and her mother, Xantippe, and that we owe to nineteenth century court records.

It is with her youngest daughter, Rhoda, that Xantippe is found in Sedgley, Staffordshire, in the records of Quarter Sessions of Michaelmas 1857. Both women are wrongly accused of “stealing the sum of 30/- in silver coins, the monies of James Perry, at Sedgley.” At the hearing Xantippe gave her age as 59, although she was actually about 62, and her daughter, Rhoda, claimed to be 22, but was 24 – both only slight variations on their true ages. The magistrate declared that it was “no true bill,” and the case was dismissed. So we know that, 18 years after the baptism of Robert and Xantippe’s last child, baptised in 1839, Xantippe is still alive, has reached old age, and is not alone. At the very least she has the companionship of an as yet unmarried daughter. It also offers a date from which we may begin to search for Xantippe’s death and a possible union for Rhoda.

Eleven years prior to this event, Trinity and Rebecca Boswell, having been arrested for “stealing one pound weight of fry, the property of Thomas Talbot, at Bilston,” were tried at the Stafford Ephiphany Quarter Sessions of 1846. These women were not as fortunate as Xantippe and Rhoda, and being found guilty, they were sentenced to be “severally imprisoned with hard labour for two calendar months.” Rebecca is an extremely common name, Trinity, amongst Romany families, scarcely less so, but the prison records give their ages, and, with the location, we have sufficient information to know exactly who they are.

In fact, neither of these women are Boswells by birth, and are not related to each other by blood. Trinity is the wife of Adolphus/Rudolphus Boswell, who was himself born in Staffordshire about 1825. Trinity was born Trenit Gibbs around 1824, and gives the age of 24 on her prison record, which is probably just a couple of years off the mark. She is, by this time, already a mother, having had a daughter, Dinah, in about 1844. A year or so after the hearing in Sedgley, Staffordshire she has another daughter, Caroline, and then baptises a son, Orlando, at West Bromwich, Staffordshire on 12th May 1850, followed by Zuba at Bilston, Staffordshire around 1855and John at Wednesbury, in the same county, about two years later. Her last known child, named for her partner in crime perhaps, is Rebecca, baptised at Moseley Hole Primitive Methodist Chapel, Staffordshire on 12th August 1860, where Adolphus is described as a musician.

Rebecca is about a dozen years or so older than Trinity, and on her prison record gives her age as 36, she is the second wife of John Boswell, Adolphus’ elder brother, and was born Rebecca Feary in about 1809. She, too, has children, Selina, baptised at Ashtead, Nottinghamshire on 18th March 1838; Apamuel, baptised at March in Cambridgeshire on 1st December 1839; Emily, baptised at Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire on 30th August 1845, daughter of a horse dealer. Her only other known child, Georgina, was born at Bilston, Staffordshire about 1851. What is clear, too, is that the women were unlikely to be camping alone. Their children must have been with their extended family, and cared for during their mother’s imprisonment.

Tracing their prison sentence means it is likely that searching the local records in Staffordshire during this period may well offer sightings of the extended family; they would not, after all, move on until the spring, when the roads were better. By this time Trinity and Rebecca Boswell would be free, since their case was heard at the Epiphany Sessions, held in early January.

It may be courting controversy to assert this, but I believe we need to use every original source we can, including court records. These show us so plainly how often the crimes, such as they are, are trivial, and indicate poverty or a travelling life. If these reflect badly on anyone, it is surely the courts who dealt out such severe punishments.

Copyright © 2014 Anne-Marie Ford