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Harvest Home

Anne-Marie Ford    -    1 September 2013

At Hawridge in Buckinghamshire on 12th September 1814 a marriage took place between Thomas Fisher, a harvest man, “now of this parish” and Seabro/Sabrah Swift, a harvest woman. Thomas signed, Sabrah made her mark, as did the witness, Sarah Taylor. The Commons at Hawridge and nearby Cholesbury provided regular camping sites for Travellers and Gypsies who frequently performed the tasks of casual labour for the local farmers. Their presence is marked by the records of the period with births and marriages and, later in the century, by census records.As early as 1762 the baptism of Letitia Draper is registered in Cholesbury, the daughter of Traveller Valentine Draper and his wife. Buckinghamshire was home territory for Valentine, who also baptised Lucy at Fingest in 1778, Martha in 1782 at West Wycombe, Valentine in 1789, at HighWycombe, and Ann in Nettlebed, just over the border in Oxfordshire.

The Fisher family appear to have travelled to Hawridge for farm work quite regularly and the parish records show them baptising children and marrying in late August and early September.The witness at Thomas and Sabrah’s marriage is especially interesting. She is Thomas Fisher’s sister, and the wife of Gypsy Jeremiah Taylor, whose violent death at the hands of another Traveller, on Wimbledon Common in the spring of 1831, caused considerable, if brief, media interest. Her own death, drowned in the Hartlake disaster, was to be scarcely less tragic; 30 casual labourers who had been hop-picking, mainly Gypsies and Travellers, died in an accident on their way back to their campsite in October 1853.

Sarah, together with her brothers Thomas and William Fisher, were more frequently found in Bushey in the county of Hertfordshire, where Sarah and Jeremiah baptised many of their children. During these years Thomas and Sabrah Fisher and William and Hannah Fisher were also baptising offspring, and Jeremiah, Thomas and William were all recorded as basket-makers. William had married Hannah Ensworth in 1816 in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire and they baptised Elizabeth Anne on 13th February 1817 in Bushey, whilst Thomas and Sabrah, also in Bushey, baptised Joseph on 10th December 1815, Isaac and William on 1st November 1821 and Jeremiah on 3rd April 1825, this last presumably in tribute to Sarah’s husband. Another son, Thomas, was baptised at St Mary’s Church, Watford on 30th May 1819.

Sabrah died, probably sometime between 1825 and 1830, since Thomas Fisher, a widower, married Charlotte Andrews in Hitchin, Hertfordshire on 20th June 1831. Again, he signed, whilst his wife and the witness, Joseph Fisher, made their mark; this Joseph is likely to have been Thomas’s son by his first marriage, aged about 16 or 17 by this time. The 1841 census finds the family at Flint Hall, Bushey, with Thomas and William Fisher, Sabrah’s sons, and the elder Thomas’s family with Charlotte, John, born about 1832, Edward, born the following year, and Sarah, named after Thomas’s sister, born about 1835.

Hawridge Common sustained Gypsies and Travellers throughout the year, however, since local brickmaking and tile making were also common in the area. Because of the ideal quality of local clays and sand, as well as the proximity of wood for fuel, many Gypsies and Travellers were involved in this occupation, the busy months being the early winter and the spring. The Hearn family were a significant Gypsy tribe who frequently worked as brickmakers and the registers of Hawbridge record their presence. The year before Thomas Fisher and Sabrah Swift married, on 17th January 1813, Norris and Abigail Hern (sic) “Travellers or Gypsies” baptised a son, Josiah, who had been born on 8th January that year. Of course, there were many other Hearns, from the same specific family, who had also baptised a child at the local church; as early as 16th December 1801 MullenderHern (sic) and his wife Elizabeth baptised their son, Mark. Travellers Emmanuel and Elizabeth Hearn also baptised a son, Solomon, in November 1832 and a daughter, Abigail, in 1835 and in April 1834 a Frances Leatherland, daughter of Samuel and Charlotte, “Travellers and Gypsies,” had been also been baptised at Hawridge.(Samuel and Charlotte being first cousins, a common enough marriage practice amongst the Gypsy fraternity.) Samuel Leatherland’s mother was formerly Elizabeth Hearn, and sister to the Thomas who was Charlotte’s father. Elizabeth Leatherland was an especially famous Gypsy, believed to have lived to be 111 years of age, and the Elizabeth married to Emmanuel Hearn was another of her many children children.

The market town of Chesham, with its common land at Ley Hill,also formed part of the Chilterns and here, too, the Hearns can be found in the early winter and spring. The town sits on a bed rock of chalk, alluvial gravels and silt, and periods of subsidence and submergence deposited clays and flints, all materials required in activities such as brick making and lime burning. In the January of 1801 Moses and Sarah Hearn baptised their son, Joseph, at Chesham and at the end of the same year, on 27th December 1801, John and Mary Hearn baptised a son, Moses. By the 31st October 1802 Moses and Sarah Hearn were again baptising another son, this time called John. The Hearns alsomarried in the area and, on 3rd April 1820, Chesham was the chosen location for the union of Joseph Hearn and Ann Taylor.

On Chesham Common many of the Gypsies and Travellers who stopped there also took advantage of the nearby woodlands to make shovels, brooms, spoons and brushes from the wood available, as well as carving pegs and mending and making chairs. There had been considerable planting of beech between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries which sustained these crafts. By the time of the 1881 census many of these Traveller families were still present in the local population, often having moved off the Common, but maintaining their prior occupations. Samuel Hearn, with his wife Sarah at Waterside, Chesham, is recorded as a traveller. At Waylands, Chesham, a James Hearn, living with his wife, Bertha, and daughter Martha, is a brush hawker and at Church Street, Chesham the widowed Caroline Hearn, claiming to have been born on Ley Common, is a straw plaiter. Straw plaiting, of course, was a local industry that was a regular occupation for the wives and daughters of agricultural labourers, and was frequently as casual as the farm labouring itself. Caroline’s son Henry is recorded as a farm labourer and another son, Richard, is a worker in wooden ware, maintaining a traditional craft.

The Travelling families who lived on the Commons were, in fact, essential to the local economy, both in times of harvest and when general agricultural labourers were needed. But they also brought other skills important to the rural population, such as scissor and knife grinding, the hawking of household implements and the mending of old pots and kettles and umbrellas. They made the bricks and tiles essential for building purposes, as well as using the chalk deposits to make lime for the farmers to use on their land. In addition, many of this transient population were musicians, playing in local pubs and at village feasts and fairs.

Nevertheless, the presence on the Commons of these outsiders was also a source of anxiety, as well as labour, for the local farmers and landowners. John Cartwright of Piggott’s Farm wondered “whether I should summon Norris Hearn’s son and daughter for cutting two beech trees in SprionCoppis,” and several Gypsies found themselves in court, prosecuted for damaging hedges, poaching, hawking without a licence, vagrancy or drunkenness. Hawker Elijah Welling, born at Lye Green, can be found there with his parents Francis and Lydia, and siblings Eli, Rebecca, Joseph and Isaac, in the 1851 census, claiming to be 16 years of age. Eight years later, and residing at Cholesbury, he was prosecuted for hawking, presumably without a licence. By1872 Elijah had managed to rack up sixteen convictions, and on this occasion was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. Cholesbury, adjoining Hawridge, and providing rough grazing for the horses, brush for fuel, and wood for peg making and chair-mending, was a popular stopping site for Gypsies and Travellers. Many of the hawkers, perhaps Elijah among them, sold the items they made, such as pegs and brooms, the materials for which came from the Commons and nearby woodland.

Never appearing to move far from the area, Lydia Welling died in the June quarter of 1859 in the registration district of Amersham and Francis just three years later. Joseph Welling’s death is recorded in the same district in the June quarter of 1866, “aged 37,” and by the 1881 census Elijah is found living with his elder brother, Isaac. By 1891 Elijah, too, has disappeared from the records, but Isaac is still to be found in the Chesham area, in the gloriously named Wooden Babylon, as a hawker of toys. Brother Eli, together with his wife, Mary Ann, is also in the parish of Chesham, where he is now the publican of the White Horse, and claiming birth at Lye Green.

Much of the anxiety of local landowners was unfounded, for the Gypsies and Travellers gave more than they took, and contributed to the life of the farms and villages in the Chilterns, and many of their descendants became part of the local population as social change brought about a different way of life. By 1891 Samuel Hearn, for examples, a retired brush hawker, still living at Waterside, within the ecclesiastical parish of Christ Church, with his wife, Sarah, his widowed daughter, Jane Sophia White, and his two granddaughters, Sarah Jane and Emily Annie. Both of the granddaughters are working in local industries, Sarah Jane as a French polisher and Emily as a boot machinist.

Copyright © 2013 Anne-Marie Ford