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The King's Rat Catcher

Anne-Marie Ford    -    2 April 2016

The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 28th June 1834 carried a colourful story about a Gypsy encampment that local police officers were sent to break up, taking six men and a woman into custody:

The men gave their names as Richard Stanley, William Stanley, Thomas Stanley, John Stanley, Warnford Stanley and John Cooper. They were charged with being rogues and vagabonds, liable to three months’ hard labour.

Richard Stanley, the chief of the tribe, said he had been an old soldier, and came to this neighbourhood in order to see friends of his wife’s. He got his living by the trade of rat-catching, and in proof of his belonging to that profession, handed a bill to his worship:

R. Stanley

Rat Catcher to His Majesty 16 years, is arrived here, and acquaints gentlemen, farmers and others, that he has for sale a famous composition for destroying rats and mice, which produces instant death to those pernicious vermin, but will not prove hurtful to either dog, cat, or poultry.

He assured the Bench that he would pay all expenses as to the impounding of the horses, and that the party should remove, if the Magistrates would forgive them this time and let them depart from the neighbourhood. They were, however, committed to the House of Correction for 14 days hard labour.

The Western Times, also published on the 28th June, added a few more details in reporting this story, for example describing Richard Stanley as a “tall, athletic-looking fellow, about six feet in his stockings,” and that the woman also apprehended was Sarah Stanley “the wife of Thomas.” The young men had, apparently, “besought the Bench to let off the ‘ould gentleman, their father,’ but even this request was refused.” The article concluded, rather triumphantly, with “if the county Magistrates are equally on the alert, Gypsies will soon be driven from this county.”

What is particularly compelling about this story is not the social realism, but the detail offered about this family. Richard Stanley was himself the son of a Richard and Elizabeth, and, since his family could be found in Wiltshire, may be the Richard Oliver Stanley baptised in Allington, Wiltshire on 24th November 1771, son of Richard and Elizabeth. In addition, the Wiltshire Quarter Sessions of 1813 record a Richard Stanley in prison at Devizes on 13th July 1813, claiming birth in about 1776, almost certainly the son of Richard and Elizabeth. The family were often described as horse dealers, which involved further and wider travelling than their Stanley cousins, who were generally basket-makers. Richard and his wife, Frances/Fanny certainly began baptising children in the 1790s, when this Richard would have been in his twenties, and it is possible that the name Oliver refers to the mother’s surname, since an Anslow Stanley, certainly a member of the extended family, and possibly a brother of this Richard’s, married a Trinity Oliver in Worcestershire in 1821.

In 1798, on 2nd March, Richard and Frances baptised a daughter, Trenett, in Bristol, Gloucestershire; two years later, on 27th June, James, son of Richard and Fanny, was baptised at Boldre, in Hampshire; probably their son Richard was born in 1801 or so, then there is a baptism of a John, son of Richard and Frances Stanley, on 10th February 1805, at Marlborough, Wiltshire; a Thomas, back in Gloucestershire, at Ashchurch on 26th February 1809; a Joseph at East Garston, Berkshire on 3rd January 1811and an Elizabeth in Tilehurst, Berkshire on 14th August 1814, daughter of Richard and Frances Stanley. In addition, of course, were the William and Warnford mentioned in the newspaper report of June 1834.

Two of Richard and Fanny’s sons, James and Richard, were married in a double wedding at Tetbury, Gloucester on 3rd July 1820 to two Scarrett women; Richard married an Eleanor and James married a Margaret. Richard and Eleanor baptised a daughter, Traziah, in Drayton, Berkshire, a year later on 1st July 1821, but the couple do not appear again. It is surely Richard’s grave at Highclere, Hampshire, where he died in December 1822, at 21 years of age. The Taunton Courier & Western Advertiser of 9th March 1898 records that “Lady Victoria Herbert . . . had the tombstone of a king of the Gypsies in Highclere churchyard beautifully restored.” The inscription leaves little doubt that it was this Richard, son of Richard and Fanny:

Sacred to the memory of Richard Stanly (sic) who died 15th December 1822, aged 21 years. The widowed mother And the orphan dear their loss together now deplore. King of the Gypsies.

James and Margaret Stanley, meawhile, travelled widely, and sons Richard and James (yes, another generation using the same names), can often be found in the West Country, particularly favouring Somerset, although Richard was baptised at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, on 6th January 1822 and a daughter, Vashti, was born 12th March 1825; Margaret, was baptised in Somerset on 3rd October 1830 at North Petherton; James back in Painswick, Gloucester on Christmas Eve 1835, and finally a Betsy at Bridgewater, Somerset on 10th April 1845.

The West Country seems to have remained favoured territory for many of this extended family, and Richard and Frances Stanley are both buried there. I am grateful to Gary Stanley for this information, which records their burials at Norton Fitzwarren, Somerset in 1849 and 1853 respectively.

* The Romany and Traveller Family History Society have just published the second in the Stanley family tree series, which focuses on these West Country Stanleys, many of whose descendants emigrated to the United States. It will be available to buy from mid-April onwards from the society at £8.00 plus p+p; please see their webpage for further details.

Copyright © 2016 Anne-Marie Ford