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TIP ELEVEN: When tracing Gypsies, pay attention to the long and the short of it.

Eric Trudgill    -    2 April 2012

Research Tips For Beginners In Gypsy Genealogy

Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP ELEVEN: When tracing Gypsies, pay attention to the long and the short of it.

Knowing some Gypsies were long travellers and some short can easily trap the unwary. Yes, even before the invention of tarmac and development of caravans in the second half of the nineteenth century, some Gypsies were remarkably “long”, but when you see a genealogy suggesting a Gypsy couple with children, on foot and carrying their possessions, zigzagged backwards and forwards between four different churches in four quite different parts of the country, a glance at a map, at the distances involved and the time wasted walking which could be spent working, will perhaps suggest these are four different couples with the same names, probably all gorjers, the researcher has taken unchecked from the internet.

And yes, some Gypsies were “short” enough to christen several children consecutively in the same church (an Elliott couple christened twelve in Willoughby Notts 1797-1819, a Florence couple seven in Burton on Trent 1795-1807, and a Hazard couple five in WantageBerks 1800-1813). But such cases are very rare before the second half of the nineteenth century (when ironically travel was easier), and when you see a genealogy suggesting an earlier Gypsy couple christened a large family in a single church, you may suspect the researcher hasn’t checked the Register to see if they were described as Gypsies or if their siblings and forbears were also churched there in some numbers (if they were, you can be sure the family members were non-, not short, travellers).

Once you’ve established your Gypsies’ territory, you can spot ostensible coincidences and anomalies that may deepen your understanding of their family structure. If they shared territory with others with the same surname, it’s probably not coincidence but evidence of relationship. For example, it was when I spotted Culvato Boswell, son of Edward, and Clark Boswell, alleged son of Shadrach, travelled in the same part of Worcestershire from at least 1816 to 1823 and the same part of Cambridgeshire from at least 1830 to 1832, that I realized Clark was actually himself son of Edward.

Ostensible anomalies are as helpful as ostensible coincidences. For example, I was puzzled that Charles and Harriet Hodgkins’ daughter, Susan, was christened in Enstone, Oxon in 1835, when all the baptisms I’d found for their other children were on the Hodgkins’ patch in Warwickshire. I looked for an appropriate Harriet Smith who might be visiting her parents on their patch, found one in Harriet, daughter of Wisdom and Elizabeth, and was delighted to find, by way of confirmation, that the widowed Harriet Hodgkins married the widower of Letitia Smith, another daughter of Wisdom and Elizabeth. Paying attention to the long and the short of it, as often before, had helped me make a good guess. But I must finish with two notes of caution.

Firstly, Gypsy families weren’t always as long and short as they seem: when you plot your findings on a map, you may find that a family, apparently spread across three counties in its churching, was actually confined to a small area on the cusp of those counties; and when you come across a family in the Civil records (say, in trouble with the law), you may find it wasn’t as short as it seems in Ecclesiastical records (some families distorted their travel-profile by saving up baptisms for when they were wintering out, near a favourite church, or hopping in the summer with normally distant relatives and friends).

Secondly, Culvato and Clark Boswell were long/short travellers, making longish moves from the East to the West of England and back again, but in each case working a fairly small patch, whilst Charles and Harriet Hodgkins were short travellers, content with a very small patch. But, as I noted, Charles’ travel pattern was slightly distorted by Harriet’s trip to her family, and in principle Culvato and Clark’s travel pattern could have been extensively distorted (I’ve discounted this possibility) by the influence of one or both of their wives(in principle the men could have travelled together because one was a blood connection not of the other, but of the other’s wife, or because the wives themselves had a blood connection). Next month I’ll explore more fully the impact on travel patterns of patrilocal and matrilocal possibilities.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill