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Poor of the Parish

Anne-Marie Ford    -    4 December 2016

The pretty church of St Stephen’s in St Albans, Hertfordshire was the setting for the baptism of Jane Smith, daughter of Gypsies Christopher and Priscilla on 3rd February 1811. Christopher Smith and his first wife, Priscilla Shaw, had several children, many of whom were baptised in Hertfordshire, and subsequently Christopher and his second wife, Maria, also favoured the county, although Christopher himself claimed to have been born at Great Brington, in Northamptonshire, and, it seems, considered that as home territory.

Great Brington was the location which Christopher’s daughter, Jane, was also to claim as her place of birth in one of the two 1861 census records in which she appears. At Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire, she is with her husband, Richard Carey, a travelling tinker, who claimed birth at Banbury in Oxfordshire in 1791, and at Clavering, Saffron Walden, Essex, where the couple have been joined by Jane’s brother, Moses Smith, a tinker and chair bottomer, aged 35? Moses claimed birth at Stocking Pelham in Hertfordshire, but was actually baptised on 24th January 1819 at Colmworth, Bedfordshire, and so, in reality, was about 42 years of age.

Three years after these census records, on 29th March 1864, the local paper reported on the petty sessions at Waltham Abbey:

Richard Carey and Moses Smith, two Gypsies, were charged with being asleep under a tent and having no visible means of subsistence. A former conviction being proved against Smith, he was sentenced to 21 days imprisonment and Carey to 14 days.

Another newspaper, however, the Hertfordshire Guardian, offered an ironic, and socially more aware, take on the event, under the title ‘Horrid Crimes’ :

A dreadful case came before the Waltham Abbey bench of magistrates on Tuesday last. Two Gypsies (one bearing the rare and uncommon name of Smith) were charged with the awful crime of sleeping under a tent, and also the still more horrid crime of having no visible means of subsistence! For these double offences against the laws of this land of liberty the Gypsies were sentenced, one to 14 days, and the other to 21 days’ imprisonment. The article pondered whether poverty was “becoming a crime” in the county. Why, the article enquired, should “two poor Gypsies be punished for this awful crime of having no visible means of subsistence.” Turning to the “dreadful offence of sleeping under a tent,” it considered that this was no crime in the days of Moses “when all the Israelites slept in tents,” concluding that if poverty “is a crime to be punished by imprisonment, then heaven help the poor of our large towns.”

By the autumn of the same year tragedy had struck the family, with Jane’s sudden death, and the Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser of 8th October 1864 carried a report of the subsequent inquest of “Jane Smith, a Gypsy woman, aged 54, who died in an encampment on the Roman road leading from Baldock to Walkern.” Richard Carey deposed that the deceased woman had lived with him as his wife for 43 years? she was born in Wheathampstead; Joseph and William Smith, rush chair bottomers, usually travelled with them. On the Monday previous the whole party were encamped together on the above named road in two tents. The deceased seemed naturally a healthy woman, but she complained occasionally of a pain in her left side. On the day of her decease she ate and drank as usual, and in the evening, between 5 and 6 o’clock, as she was sitting on the grass near to witness, she coughed and threw up blood? her own tent was about eight yards distance and she tried to move away into it but she fell down on her knees. Joseph Smith picked her up and she died in his arms.

Christopher Smith confirmed that the deceased was his daughter, that she had lived with Carey as his wife for many years, and that [Carey] was always kind and gentle in his behaviour towards her. Jane’s brother, Joseph Smith, stated that he saw the deceased fall on her knees, he ran to pick her up, blood came from her mouth, and she died in about five minutes afterwards without speaking, or making any noise except a gurgling in the throat.

Mr Augustus Dixey, surgeon of Baldock, deposed that he had examined the body of the deceased and found no marks of violence upon it? his opinion was that the deceased had died from some rupture of some blood vessel in the stomach depending upon congestion, arising from disease of the heart.

Since Jane was only 54 years of age at her death, the assertion at the inquest that she had lived with Richard Carey for 43 years could not have been fact, but may have been an error in reporting, in which the numbers were transposed. What is clear is that the couple travelled with members of her family and, in spite of the considerable age gap, the relationship seemed amicable.

Jane’s husband was to die just three years afterward, and his death, too, was subject to an inquest as to the cause. This was reported in the Hertfordshire Guardian of 12th March 1867:

Great Berkhamsted - on Saturday inst., an inquest was held at the Union Workhouse . . . on the body of Richard Carey, an itinerant umbrella mender, about 75 years old, who was discovered dead in a barn in the occupation of Mr Redding at Harriott’s End, Northchurch, on the Thursday previous. It appeared from the evidence that the poor old man had been in the habit of sleeping abroad, sometimes in a barn, at others lighting a fire by the roadside? that he fell down from weakness after receiving relief in Mrs Redding’s house the day before, and crept into the barn for shelter, where next day he was found dead. Mr Hilder, surgeon, considered that he died from exhaustion and debility.

A postscript to Richard’s sad demise appeared in the Hertfordshire Guardian of 16th March, when “George Harris, a Gypsy, was charged with stealing a quantity of tools, of the value of 2/6d, on 28th ult., the property of the late Richard Carey, from a barn at Harriott’s End. He was committed to prison for six weeks.”

Christopher Smith himself was to live into extreme old age, travelling much the same beat, and always accompanied by family members. A censorious article in the Hertfordshire Express and General Advertiser of 5th November 1870 makes reference to “an old Gypsy named Christopher Smith, and his son Joseph, who appeared attired in a very dilapidated suit of clothes and presented an unsightly appearance, [and] were charged under the vagrancy act.”

The 1871 census finds him, “aged 86 years,” and still claiming birth in Great Brington, Northants, with several family members, at Clavering, Essex, “in tents.” His second wife, Maria, is present, with sons Barthy (Bartholomew) and Moses, and, in a neighbouring tent, Christopher’s son, Stephen, and his wife Susan, with children Cornelius, 4, and Sydney, an infant. In June of the same year Christopher, together with sons Moses and Stephen, was charged yet again with vagrancy, “encamping on the highway in the parish of King’s Walden,” in four tents, with a donkey and cart, and accompanied by two women and some children.

Having outlived a wife, at least one child and a son-in-law, surely Christopher’s death is that of the first quarter of 1874 in the registration district of Epping, Essex, where he is recorded as 86 years of age. His life had been hard, sometimes tragic, but he had lived to a great age, and, since his first known child, Mary Ann, had been baptised at Pirton in Hertfordshire on 9th April 1809, his claim to have been born about 1788 was probably not such an exaggeration.

Copyright © 2016 Anne-Marie Ford