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Under Lock and Key

Anne-Marie Ford    -    5 November 2012

An “exciting conflict with Gypsies” is how the Hertfordshire Advertiser of 15th March 1890 reported a case at the Barnet Petty Sessions, although it is unlikely that any of those involved found it particularly exciting:

“Thomas Chapman, 55, a Gypsy, was charged with assaulting George Hancorn of Tilehouse Farm, Elstree, on 9th inst. The complainant stated that, very early on Sunday morning, he was aroused by a constable, who informed him that some strange horses were in of his fields. He got up and brought the horses into his farmyard, placing one in his stable under lock and key.

Between six and seven o’clockthe prisoner and two other Gypsies came and asked where the horses were. The complainant informed them that he had them in ‘pound’ and said they would have to pay 5/- for each horse, making 20/- in all. The prisoner kept him in conversation with regard to the price to be paid, and meanwhile the other Gypsies released the three horses from the straw-yard. The complainant told them he should not release the horse in the stable until the money was paid, whereupon the two Gypsies burst open the door and one of them mounted the horse. When he attempted to stop him, the prisoner and the other Gypsy collared him and lacerated his hands, so that he was forced to let go. The man then rode away and was followed by the other men. Subsequently, a constable arrived and the prisoner was apprehended in a caravan, but the other two men escaped. The prisoner was fined 20/- with 8/- costs.”

Thomas Chapman, a hawker, and his family, appear to have favoured Hertfordshire and the North London area; he can be found with his family, claiming birth in 1834, in the 1881 census at Harmondsworth, Middlesex, in a caravan. His wife, Esther, was a Colbert before her marriage and their two eldest sons had been baptised in Bushey, Hertfordshire: Frederick as the son of Thomas Chapman and Esther Colebut (sic), on 3rd April 1859, born 10th March 1859, the son of a licensed hawker, who claimed Islington as his abode; George, son of Thomas and Esther Chapman, nee Colbert, on 8th October 1862, born on 1st August 1862, the son of a hawker who, once again, claimed Islington as his base. A daughter, Matilda, was baptised on 14th October 1866 in East Barnet, Hertfordshire, and, in the census, Jane, aged about nine, claims birth in New Barnet, Hertfordshire, whilst a son, William, born about 1874, is recorded as being born in Harrow, Middlesex, and Thomas at Pinner, in Middlesex in 1877.

On 20th July 1880, at Brentford, in Middlesex, Frederick Chapman, of full age, the son of Thomas Chapman, a licensed hawker, married Macey Light, also of full age, the daughter of Joseph Colbert, an ostler. The fact that her father was a Colbert, as was Frederick’s mother, suggests that this was probably a cousin marriage, very common amongst Gypsies and Travellers. By the 1891 census Frederick in no longer in the Hertfordshire/London patch, but can be found at Whistley Green, Berkshire, travelling with his family and two of his wife’s sisters. Recorded as “hawkers in travelling caravans” are Frederick Chapman, 32, his wife, Macey, 30, and children Matilda, the name of one of Frederick’s sisters, aged 11, Joseph, named for Macey’s father, aged nine, Lindon, a daughter, aged four, Ambrose, just two years old, and an unnamed infant. Macey’s sisters are Jane Light, said to be 18 years old, and Patience Light, claiming to be 15 years of age.

By the June of 1891, however, Frederick is back in Hertfordshire, where he appears in court, accused of being drunk and disorderly at Codicote. Six years later, also in Hertfordshire, the local newspaper, in its 23rd March 1897 edition, reported a “Tragic End to a Gypsy Row,” involving both Frederick and Thomas, when “Frederick Chapman, travelling hawker, was brought up on remand, charged with doing wilful damage to the property of the late Mr Edward Bird, at Abbots Langley . . . and also with being disorderly and refusing to quit . . . the Railway Arms, on 8th March.” The article continued to record evidence given, some of it conflicting, in which, on the day in question, “three men named Smith, of the Gypsy race, went into the Railway Arms. Their conduct was perfectly quiet. Afterwards the defendant came in and there was a family feud between the Smiths and Chapman. This was an act in a very long drama, and words ensued, and blows followed the words. Mrs Bird ordered the whole of the men, who were sober, to leave the house . . . and Mr Bird, the landlord, who died the following morning from heart disease, opened the door. A disturbance ensued, in the course of which the window was broken.” Mrs Bird then gave evidence, stating that “Thomas Chapman, James Smith and Henry Smith came into the house . . . the defendant came in before they did, having ridden upon a horse, and the others followed him from the vans.”

A witness to the incident, Albert Timberlake, of Railway Terrace, also gave evidence, explaining that he “saw Thomas Chapman (defendant’s father), and the two Smiths. [The] defendant followed them in. They started jangling, and there ensued a disturbance, the men were ordered to quit. Mr Bird held the door open, but the men fought, and two of them fell on the floor. The window was broken. Defendant refused to go out when ordered. Defendant’s father left the house quietly.”

Curiously, Abbots Langley was also the village where a Joseph Colbert, son of Joseph and Margaret, was baptised on 2nd September 1827; surely this is the Joseph Colbert who formed a partnership with Ada/Macey Light and was the father of several daughters, including Macey, Jane, Patience and the Sarah Light, daughter of Joseph Corbett (sic), who married Henry Goodwin at St Andrews Hertford on 22nd December 1884. Surely, too, his father, Joseph, is the Joseph Colbert, “alias Gypsy Joe,” who was called to answer a charge at the Watford Petty Sessions of 22nd December 1837 of “having in his possession a male ass . . . which had been stolen from an enclosure on Amersham Common.”

It was clearly a village that provided a convenient stopping place for the Chapmans, since Thomas can be found at the Watford Petty Sessions in the February of 1897, charged with “obstructing the Highway” at Abbots Langley, and Frederick, for the same offence, at the same place, in the winter of 1901.

And the court case reported in the Hertfordshire Advertiser in 1897? Frederick Chapman obviously had a history with Henry Smith, and had been in court for a fight at Ware which involved both of them in the summer of 1893. So, although his recounting of the events at the Railway Arms were colourful: “Frederick Chapman said he was staying at Crouchfield with his vans, and, having been to Watford New Town, called in at the Railway Arms as he went home. He detailed the fracas from his point of view, he being assailed, knocked down, and having to plead for mercy,” he was fined 5/- and 19/6d costs and the Chairman remarked, “there is a long list of convictions against you, Chapman,” to which the defendant replied “there might be more yet, your worship.” There was laughter in the court.

Copyright © 2012 Anne-Marie Ford