Share this page

Life of Riley

Anne-Marie Ford    -    3 July 2011

In Rowington, in the county of Warwickshire, on 18th September 1814, Edward Hodgkins, a vendor of crockery, and his wife, Penelope, baptised their son Riley. Although Riley was to die at the age of 20, and be buried in Tanworth, Warwickshire on 9th March 1835, two of his siblings were to remember him by naming their own sons Riley.

The Hodgkins family are traceable from 1780 as travelling tinkers, braziers, potters, chair-bottomers, basket-makers and besom-makers, but by the 1840s, like so many Gypsies and Travellers, they were having to adjust to the new socio-economic conditions.

Edward and Penelope’s son, Thomas, and his wife, Mary, formerly Daffy, baptised their son Riley on at least two occasions. In the first baptismal record, at Evesham All Saints, Worcestershire, on 18th October 1837, Riley’s father was described as a tinker; at the second, in Droitwich, in the same county, on 25th December 1838, he is recorded as a razor grinder.

Riley next appears in the 1851 census, as a besom-maker and travelling tinker, aged 13, in Evesham, Worcestershire. He is recorded as head of the household (!) and with him are his younger siblings, Susan, Walter, George, Rebecca and little Wilson, who is just 1 year old.

On 12th October 1861 in Bidford-on-Avon, Riley, son of Thomas, married Mary Crane, the daughter of William and Sarah, who had been baptised on 26th September 1841 in Wickhamford, Worcestershire. Riley and Mary appear in the census records together until 1901, usually in the Kidderminster area. In the December quarter of 1906, in the district of Kidderminster, Riley dies, aged 70.

In the census records Riley, as an adult, is always described as a labourer and this is the description he gave of himself, when involved in court proceedings in 1864. As so many Gypsies and Travellers seem to fall foul of the law, it was fun to discover the court papers of a Gypsy who was successful in prosecuting a case of theft.

In his deposition of 26th September, Riley Hodgkins said, “about 5 o’clock in the afternoon of Friday last I went to the house of George Hendley, beerhouse keeper at Bidford . . . Henry Harrison went in with me, . . . I had two purses . . . one was similar in appearance to the one now produced. It contained six shillings in silver and one halfpenny . . . The prisoner and myself sat on a seat together by the window. We remained there about an hour and during that time had four pints of ale between us and my wife and the witness [Mary] Collins, who came in during the time we were there.”

Mary Hodgkins, Mary Collins and a constable Poultney were all to offer evidence in the court proceedings that supported Riley’s version of events, although Riley’s wife might have been forgiven for not doing so, for, as Riley continued, “Whilst I remained in the house my wife asked me for some money and I took my purse out for the purpose of giving her some, but did not do so,” adding that he had “opened the purse and counted the money in the presence of the prisoner.”

Hodgkins then left the room for a few minutes, “previous to our having the last pint of ale,” and, on his return, when trying to pay for the beer with the money he had left in his waistcoat, found the purse had gone! He cried out, ‘Blow it if I haven’t lost my money and purse and all,’ he recalled, and then searched about, but could find nothing.

The local constable was then sent for and searched the prisoner, finding a bag of money in his pocket and a purse “from out of the cap which he then had upon his head.” If Harrison was an opportunist, he was clearly neither a quick, nor an imaginative, thinker. He insisted that the purse, although similar to that of Hodgkins, was one he had owned for two years, and when asked why he kept it in his hat, replied, “my little girl must have put it in.”

Riley Hodgkins was then cross-examined, informing the court that he “had the purse, which I lost, from the witness Collins,” adding that it had been obtained at “Mrs Rimmer’s [where] we had two quarts of ale . . . and there were a lot of us to drink it.” He also confirmed that at the beginning of this drinking bout, he had “taken about 13 shillings that day on my rounds.” This is a considerable sum for the time, and it would seem that Riley was intent on drinking most of it away, although he insisted, during the questioning, that he “was not intoxicated.”

Mary Collins, who made purses, said the particular design of purse she had sold to Riley Hodgkins was identical to that found on Harrison’s person. Mary Hodgkins also confirmed the details of her husband’s story, admitting, “I asked my husband for some money and he pulled the purse now produced out of his pocket. He opened it and pulled some money out and began counting it in his hand. He asked me how much I wanted and I told him all, but he refused to give me any.” Perhaps it was a mistake for ask for all!

Mary concluded her evidence by confirming that she remained there “about ten minutes, and then left my husband and the prisoner drinking together.” Both Riley and Mary Hodgkins signed their depositions with a cross, and, since the case seemed clear-cut, Harrison was committed for trial.

Riley Hodgkins was not, of course, the only descendant of this Gypsy family to bear the name of Riley in the area at the time; he had a cousin, Riley, who, like other Gypsy Rileys, was sometimes ‘William Riley,’ and sometimes simply ‘William.’ He was baptised in Aston Cantlow, Warwickshire on 18th April 1841, the son of Joseph and Ann Hodgkins; Joseph being a son of Edward and Penelope, and a brother of Thomas.

This Riley made a rather different career choice, becoming a boatman, or ‘water-gypsy.’ Like his cousin, he also married in 1861, on 30th September, at Birmingham St Martin, Warwickshire, the son of Joseph, to Sarah Dovey, the daughter of Joseph Dovey, labourer. The witnesses were Ann Hodgkins, probably his mother, and Thomas Hodgkins, who is likely to have been his brother; the Thomas Hodgkins who was baptised at Temple Grafton, Warwickshire, on 17th February 1839, the son of a tramper of Tanworth.

The Birmingham-Stratford on Avon canal ran through the Hodgkins family’s ‘territory,’ and was to become home to Riley/William and his wife, Sarah, as well as his brother, Thomas and his wife, Harriet Smith. Boats were also to be a way of life for their children, too.

Thomas and Harriet’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Richard Wilkinson, on 27th March 1893, and both described their abode as the boat ‘Maud.’ Her sister, Harriet, was living on a boat called ‘Suskin,’ when she wed Walter Oakey, who was residing on the boat ‘Collector,’ on 13th December 1886; upon being widowed, she married a Richard Oakey, probably Walter’s brother, in 1894.

Thomas and Harriet’s daughter, little Ann Maria, was even born on a boat, on 22nd January 1870, but died the following year in the district of Chester. However, their son, William, born around 1868, is found, in the 1881 census, training for life at sea in Anglesey, and claiming birth “on board a barge” in Staffordshire.

The same census shows Riley Hodgkins and his wife, Sarah, on a “canal boat passing Fradley Junction,” in Staffordshire, with their daughters Clara, Esther, Agnes and Ellen aboard, and Riley recorded, under his alternate name of William, as “Captain of the boat.”

Copyright © 2011 Anne-Marie Ford