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Oxfordshire Gypsies

Anne-Marie Ford    -    29 June 2017

Oxfordshire was a county that was frequently named as a place of settlement by some of the major Romany families of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Settlement was important, offering a place of belonging, a county and a parish which the Gypsies saw as home territory. It was to such a parish, claimed through baptism, or historical settlement of the family, that a Gypsy would be returned when subject to a removal order.

The first groups of Romani are thought to have arrived in Britain around the end of the fifteenth century, and the earliest recorded reference to ‘Egyptians’ would appear to be in 1492 in Scotland, at the court of King James IV, where they were described as ‘entertainers.’

By the mid-1500s anxiety about these strangers was such that the ‘Egyptians Act’ of 1554 made being a Gypsy a capital offence. It isn’t surprising, perhaps, that the major Romany tribes, including the Lees, Boswells, Smiths and Bucklands, Stanleys, Coopers and Hearns, remained outside society, marrying within their own close family groups and maintaining a language and cultural traditions very different from those of the settled population. Whilst some non-Romanies became travellers, either by marrying into the lesser Gypsy families, or taking to the travelling way of life as a way of securing a livelihood in difficult times, it was the old Romany families about which we know most, principally because of the interest they aroused amongst nineteenth-century academics and social historians.

Romanies and Travellers, the people called Gypsies, spoke a language which was based on Sanskrit, but also carried the speech patterns and word choices of their journeying from Rajasthan in Northern India, leaving there sometime around the 11th century, and sojourning for about a century in Greece and Turkey, before travelling through Europe. Research by linguists and cultural historians during the nineteenth century into the language and social practices of ancient tribes, those who still spoke some Romani and held to their customs and traditions, are key to understanding who the Gypsies and Travellers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were

By the eighteenth century the social historian can observe a closer link with the local populations. The punishment of Gypsies for being wanderers was more likely to be one of imprisonment for a week or so, and then they would be sent back to the place in which they claimed settlement. So it is from this period that we see the Gypsies become more involved with the settled communities, working as casual labour for farmers; pea picking, general agricultural work, fruit picking, and bringing in the summer harvest were all tasks they undertook.

In addition, the Gypsies made pegs, lace, shawls, wax flowers, brooms and paper windmills, mended chairs, kettles and pots, sharpened tools and knives and mended umbrellas. All these activities benefitted the local people, and were often tasks the Gypsies could undertake in the winter months. Roads were bad in the winter, often just rutted cart tracks, and the Gypsy population, who walked and pulled handcarts, staying in tents until at least the mid-nineteenth century, when caravans became more common, were unable to travel. They generally camped on local commons or heaths, wintering out on the periphery of towns and villages.

Families would often begin travelling again in the spring, when the roads had improved, returning to a favoured location in the autumn. Some Gypsies and Travellers, as the nineteenth century wore on, could be found in their caravans parked in the yards of local inns, some sought refuge in the workhouses. Although it may not seem a positive choice to enter the workhouse, the shelter it offered to the old and the very young was often considered to be preferable during harsh winter weather. Equally, many Gypsies and Travellers sought health care in the workhouse, where the poor could obtain some medical aid.

Two other skills that the Gypsies and Travellers brought to the people they lived alongside were musicianship and brick-making. The Oxford fairs and feasts drew many to the area, and the commons and heaths provided a perfect location for these events, many of which dated back several centuries. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 10th September 1836 records that:

St Giles’s fair was this year attended by an unusual number of toy stalls and exhibitions of various descriptions . . . We had a variety of Punch and Judy [shows], sleight of hand, balancing, accompanied by the usual group of Gypsies with snuff boxes.

It was at such fairs that Gypsies could be found, providing much of the music, and running dancing booths and shooting galleries, as well as cocoanut shies. An important tribe of Smiths claimed Oxfordshire, and especially Nettlebed, as home territory and the 1871 census finds a family there, living in a “Gypsie tent.” They are recorded as Louisa Smith, a widow, with some of her extended family: Jonas, claiming birth in Berkshire in 1839, but actually baptised in Stanford-in-the-Vale, Oxfordshire in 1832; John, born about 1848; William born about 1852; James, born around 1849; Sarah, born in 1853 and ‘Condancous,’ born about 1859 (almost certainly Louisa’s grandson, Andanias, baptised in Benson, Oxfordshire in 1857). Whilst much is incorrect, for example, Louisa and her husband, Mark, did not have a Sarah, born in 1853, but they did have an Adelaide, baptised in 1853, the census indicates their presence, wintering out in Nettlebed.

Louisa Smith had been baptised with her grandmother’s name, ‘Ashi,’ on 18th December 1808, the daughter of Neptune Smith and Elizabeth Ayres, both of whom were descended from important Romany families, as was Louisa’s husband, Mark, the son of Arthur Smith and Carnation (Nation) Lee. Mark Smith died at Nettlebed in the autumn of 1869 and was buried there on 30th October that year. Together he and Louisa had 13 known children, almost all of whom were baptised in Oxfordshire: Lucy, baptised in Ewelme on 22nd April 1827; Arkless, also known as William, was baptised at Emmington on19th April 1829; Phineal, baptised at Lewknor on 27th February 1831; Jonas baptised at Stanford-in-the-Vale on 28th October 1832; Oliver, baptised at Warborough 21st December 1834 and Kunsaleti/ Counselettie Smith, my great-great grandmother, who was baptised at Ipsden on 10th January 1837. Louisa’s next child, Perun/Perrin, also known as Frank, was baptised at Didcot, Berkshire, on 12th February 1838, but all the remaining children wre baptised in Oxfordshire. Urania at Ewelme on 6th August 1843, although buried the following month at Aston Tirrold, Berkshire; Victoria (Tiggy) at North Stoke on 27th April 1845, together with her twin brother, Albert; Josiah at Chalgrove 24th August 1847; and the last two known children both at Goring Heath, Job on 1st February 1850 and Adelaide in January 1853.

The family were sometimes referred to in local papers, a result of appearances at court, generally for offences that reflected their way of life. The Oxford Times of 2nd May 1868 reported on the trial of three Gypsies, two of Louisa’s sons, Josiah and Job Smith, and a son-in-law, Henry Bath, husband of her daughter Lucy, charged with being found in a lane in the parish of Marcham, without visible means of support:

The prisoners formed a portion of an encampment of Gypsies who had squatted in the lane in question, and in consequence of many complaints having been made to the police by parties in the neighbourhood of damage to fences and trees, which rightly or wrongly, but most probably the former, had been laid to these marauders. A constable took the three men named into custody on the previous Saturday night amidst a clamour of tongues, profaneness, and lamentations on the part of the women and children, one of the prisoners being found asleep at the time, in a tent, the other two sitting over the remains of what appeared to be a considerable camp fire. They pleaded guilty, but protested they had never been at the place before, and one of them created a laugh by expressing a wish that they could get somewhere where the police were not, or else that they would not interfere with them.

The Oxford Journal of 17th April 1875 also records Louisa Smith, a hawker, “charged with having three horses straying on the high way at Mollington.” She was fined 10/- for this misdemeanour, with 13/6d costs, which were paid. Her sons were less willing to pay up, however, when they were charged with camping out. Once more, the Oxford Journal records the event, when two of them appeared at court on 27th April 1878. “Two Gypsies, Perrin and John Smith (believed to be brothers), were fined 10/6d for encamping on a highway at Ewelme on 4th inst., with the alternative of seven days in gaol.” The article added that the two “loudly elected to do the seven days.”

Copyright © 2017 Anne-Marie Ford