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Queen Sentenia

Anne-Marie Ford    -    4 August 2013

The Luton Times & Advertiser of 11th January 1907 carried a brief article entitled “Gypsy Queen’s Death,” in which it announced the passing of:

Henty Smith, at the age of 95, queen of the tribe of Gypsies who for many years occupied the Black Patch, Handsworth, Birmingham. Twelve months ago they were evicted, but the old lady was so distressed that friends rented a piece of land for her. As a young woman she eloped with her late husband, incurring the wrath of her parents, but when he was proclaimed king they relented.

Henty’s death certificate bore the mark of Bertie Smith, her grandson, very probably the son of Henty’s son, James, and his wife, Ellen Clayton.

However fanciful the article was, there is no doubt that Henty Smith was considered an important Gypsy, belonging to a significant tribe. Her forename was actually Sentenia, and she was born a Smith, the daughter of Woodfine Smith and his wife, Sarah Boswell. Since Woodfine was the son of Nehemiah and Elizabeth Smith, and Sentenia’s husband, Esau, was also descended from this couple, who were his great-grandparents, Sentinia and Esau were distant cousins. (Which, of course, makes a nonsense of the romantic idea of parental disapproval.) Esau had been baptised at Brockhall in Northamptonshire on 17th March 1816, the son of Nehemiah Smith and Rhoda.

Esau Smith, too, had received attention from the press on the occasion of his death. The Dundee Courier of 15th March 1901 ran the story of his demise with the title “Death of a Romany Patriarch,” in which they commented that “those of the Romany race still to be found in Birmingham” were in mourning:

Esau Smith had for many years past been head of the little colony of Gypsies who, for close on half-a-century, have made they home at Handsworth. King Smith had reached the advanced age of 94. The dead king lay in his coffin on the floor of the van in which he had passed practically all his life. The members of the tribe approached in every token of respectful homage and reverently kissed the remains of the dead ruler. Then the coffin was borne to its last resting place. The nearest of the king’s numerous relatives rode in the mourning coaches. The rest followed on foot.

The queen, Henty Smith, who is also advanced in years, survives the deceased monarch. The pair had lived happily together for 70 years, and both could claim the distinction of having lived under five sovereigns. Smith leaves behind him 12 children and 200 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Esau’s occupation, according to his death certificate, was that of horse dealer and the informant was “E. Smith, daughter-in-law.” This was surely either Ellen, wife of James (who would herself die just two years later), or Elizabeth, wife of Thomas. Esau’s baptism in 1816 means that he was a mere 85 years of age at the time of his death, in spite of the newspaper report (and his death certificate, which states that he was 92). This exaggeration of aged members of the tribe was extremely common and so, although Henty’s death certificate, just six years later, records her age as 98, it is likely that she was closer to 89, since she was probably born about 1818.

Of their 12 children, as reported in the Dundee Courier (and indeed Esau is said to have had five sons and seven daughters), we know, more or less certainly, of 11: John was baptised in Ryton, Warwickshire on 1st September 1839, and named one of his daughters Centenia, after his mother; Rosanna was baptised at Lea Marston, Warwickshire on 10th February 1842 and also named a daughter Sentinnah, the result of her union with William Lock (aka Davis). There is a burial of a Nehemiah Smith in August 1844, at Duston, Northamptonshire, son of Esher and also the birth of a Mezia in about 1846, according to the 1871 census. Cintamenta was baptised at Hampton in Arden, Warwickshire on 22nd May 18848; Eliza was born at Sutton, in the same county, about 1849; Esho/Asher at Whichford, Warwickshire in around 1852; Camelia was baptised at Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire on 3rd June 1855; James at Leigh with Bransford, Worcestershire on 7th October 1857; Thomas at Whitnash, Warwickshire on 6th January 1861; Joseph, born at Rowington, Warwickshire around 1862.

As was often the case in Romany and Traveller families, a sibling of Sentenia’s, her brother Sidney, formed a union with another child of Nehemiah and Rhoda, Esau’s sister, Mary Ann. Of the nine known children born to Sidney and Mary Ann, a daughter, born about 1850 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire was also given the name of Sentenia. Both she, and a sister, Caroline, were to bequeath the name to their own daughters (Sentenia formed a relationship with Benjamin Birch, with whom she had a Sentenia and Caroline’s union with Joseph Hales resulted in Sentenia Hales’ birth in circa 1882).

The aged Sentenia’s brother, Zachariah, born in Milton, Northamptonshire about 1806, the son of Woodfine and Sarah, formed a partnership with an Ann, almost certainly a Davis, and this couple had nine known children, including, of course, a Cente, baptised at Long Buckby, Northamptonshire on 26th February 1835. As a tribal marker, therefore, it continued to be used in the extended family.

In addition, a son of Zachariah and Ann, Jerusalem Smith (aka Reuben Davis), who was baptised at Barlestone, Leicester on 3rd December 1846, formed a union with a cousin, Camelia Smith, a daughter of Esau and Sentenia. It is hardly surprising then that one of the children resulting from this partnership was a Senty, born in Staffordshire in about 1883. She can be found in the 1911 census, in central Birmingham, claiming birth at Handsworth, Staffordshire and listed as Sentenia Davies (sic), a street hawker of pegs.

In the June quarter of the same year this Sentenia Davis married John Lewis, in the registration district of Birmingham and, although they do not appear to have given this family name to any of their children, Sentenia Davis’ youngest brother, another Zachariah, did. Baptised at Handsworth St James, Staffordshire on 7th September 1890, this Zachariah married Nellie Embury in 1912, at the age of 22. Their union resulted in five known children, three sons and two daughters, one of whom was named Sentenia.

Copyright © 2013 Anne-Marie Ford