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History of the Gipsies
Chapter II - English Gipsies


The first arrival of the Gipsies in England appears to have been about the year 1512, [Hoyland.] but this does not seem to be quite certain. It is probable they may have arrived there at an earlier period. The author from which the fact is derived published his work in 1612, and states, generally, that "this kind of people, about a hundred years ago, began to gather an head, about the southern parts. And this, I am informed and can gather, was their beginning: Certain Egyptians, banished their country, (belike not for their good condition,) arrived here in England; who, for quaint tricks and devices, not known here at that time among us, were esteemed, and held in great admiration; insomuch that many of our English loiterers joined with them, and in time learned their crafty cozening.

The speech which they used was the right Egyptian language, with whom our Englishmen conversing at least learned their language. These people, continuing about the country, and practising their cozening art, purchased themselves great credit among the country people, and got much by palmistry and telling of fortunes; insomuch that they pitifully cozened poor country girls both of money, silver spoons, and the best of their apparel, or any goods they could make." [A quarto work by S. R., published to detect and expose the art of juggling and legerdemain, in 1612.]

From this author it is collected they had a leader of the name of Giles Hather, who was termed their king; and a woman of the name of Calot was called queen. These, riding through the country on horseback, and in strange attire, had a pretty train after them. [Hoyland.]

It appears, from this account, that the Gipsies had been observed on the continent about a hundred years before they visited England. According to Dr. Bright, they seemed to have roamed up and down the continent of Europe, without molestation, for about half a century, before their true character was perfectly known. If 1512 was really the year in which these people first set foot in Ennlaucl, it would seem that the English government had not been so easily nor so long unposed on as the kings of Scotland, and the authorities of Europe generally. For we find that, within about the space of ten years from this period, they are, by the 10th chapter of the 22d Henry VIII, denominated "an outlandish people, calling themselves Egyptians, using no craft nor feat of merchandise, who have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire, and place to place, in great company; and used great subtlety and crafty means to deceive the people-bearing them in hand that they, by palmistry, could tell men's and Women's fortunes; and so, many times, by craft and subtlety, have deceived the people fox their money; and also have committed many heinous felonies and robberies." As far back as the year 1549, they had become very troublesome in England, for, on the 22d June of that year, according to Burnet's History of the Reformation, "there was privy search made through all Sussex for all vagabonds, Gipsies, conspirators, prophesiers, players, and such like."

"The Gipsies in England still continued to commit nurnberless thefts and robberies, in defiance of the existing' statutes; so that each succeeding law enacted against them became severer than the one which preceded it. The following is an extract from the 27th Henry VIII: "Whereas, certain outlandish people, who do not profess any craft or trade whereby to maintain themselves, but go about in great numbers, from place to place, using insidious means to impose on his majesty's subjects, making them believe that they understand the art of foretelling to men and women their good and evil fortunes, by looking in their hands, whereby they frequently defraud people of their money; likewise are guilty of thefts and highway robberies. It is hereby ordered that the said vagrants, commonly called Egyptians, in case as thieves and rascals .... and on the importation of any such Egyptians, he, the importer, shall forfeit forty pounds for every trespass." So much had the conduct of the Gipsies exasperated the government of Queen Elizabeth, that it was enacted, during her reign, that " If any person, being fourteen years, whether natural born subject or stranger, who had been seen in the fellowship of such persons, or disguised like them, and remain with them one month at once, or at several times, it should be felony without benefit of clergy." (English acts of Parliament.) It would thus appear that, when the Gipsies first arrived in England, they had not kept their language a secret, as is now the case; for some of the Englishmen of that period had acquired it by associating with them. (This does not appear to be necessarily the case. These Englishmen may have married Gipsies, become Gipsies by adoption, and so learned the language, as happens at the present day.—ED.)

In carrying out the foregoing extraordinary enactments, the public was at the expense of exporting the Gipsies to the continent ; and it may reasonably be assumed that great numbers of these unhappy people were executed under these sanguinary laws. A few years before the restoration of Charles II, thirteen Gipsies were executed " at one Suffolk assize." This appears to have been the last instance of inflicting the penalty of death on these unfortunate people in England, merely because they were Gipsies. (Hoyland.) But although these laws of blood are now repealed, the English Gipsies are liable, at the present day, to be proceeded against under the Vagrant Act; as these statutes declare all those persons "pretending to be Gipsies, or wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians, shall be deemed rogues and vagabonds``.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth it was thought England contained above 10,000 Gipsies; and Mr. Hoyland, in his historical survey of these people, supposes that there are 18,000 of the race in Britain at the present day. A member of Parliament, it is reported, stated, in the House of Commons, that there were not less than 36,000 Gipsies in Great Britain. I am inclined to believe that the statement of the latter will be nearest the truth; as I am convinced that the greater part of all those persons who traverse England with earthenware, in carts and wagons, are a superior class of Gipsies. Indeed, a Scottish Gipsy informed me, that almost all those people are actually Gipsies. Now Mr. Hovland takes none of these potters into his account, when he estimates the Gipsy population at only 18,000 souls. Besides, Gipsies have informed me that Ireland contains a great many of the tribe; many of whom are now finding their way into Scotland. (The number of the British Gipsies mentioned hero is greatly understated. See Disquisition on the Gipsies.—Ed.)

I am inclined to think that the greater part of the English Gipsies live more apart from the other inhabitants of the country, reside more in tents, and exhibit a great deal more of their pristine manners, than their brethren do in Scotland. (In no part of the world is the Gipsy life more in accordance with the general idea that the Gipsy is like Cain—a wanderer on the face of the earth—than in England ; for there, the covered cart and the little tent are the houses of the Gipsy; and he seldom remains more than three days in the same place. So conducive is the climate of England to beauty, that nowhere else is the appearance of the race so prepossessing as in that country. Their complexion is dark, but not disagreeably so; their faces are oval, their features regular, their foreheads rather low, and their hands and feet small. The men are taller than the English peasantry, and far more active. They all speak the English language with fluency, and in their gait and demeanour are easy and graceful; in both respects standing in striking contrast with the peasantry, who, in speech, are slow and uncoutb, and, in manner, dogged and brutal.—Borrow.—ED.)

The English Gipsies also travel in Scotland, with earthenware in carts and waggons. A body of them, to the number of six tents, with sixteen horses, encamped, on one occasion, on the farm of Kingledoors, near the source of the Tweed. They remained on the ground from Saturday night till about ten o'clock on Monday morning, before they struck their tents and waggons.

At St. Boswell's fair I once inspected a horde of English Gipsies, encamped at the side of a hedge, on the Jedburgh road as it enters St. Boswell's Green. Their name was Blewett, from the neighbourhood of Darlington. '1'lie chief possessed two tents, two large carts laden with earthenware, four horses and mules, and five large dogs. He was attended by two old females and ten young children. One of the women was the mother of fourteen, and the other the mother of fifteen, children. This chief and the two females were the most swarthy and barbarous looking people I ever saw. They had, however, two beautiful children with them, about five years of age, with light flaxen hair, and very fair complexions. The old Gipsy women said they were twins; but they might have been stolen from different parents, for all that, as there was nothing about them that had the slightest resemblance to any one of the horde that claimed them. Apparently much care was taken of them, as they were very cleanly and neatly kept. (It does not follow, from what our author gays about these two children, that they were stolen. I have seen some of the children of English Gipsies as fair as any Saxon. It sometimes happens that the flaxen hair of a Gipsy child will change into raven black before be reaches manhood.—ED.)

This Gipsy potter was a thick-set, stout man, above the middle size. He was dressed in an old dark-blue frock coat, with a profusion of black, greasy hair, which covered the upper part of his broad shoulders. lie wore a high-crowned, narrow-brimmed, old hat, with a lock of his black hair hanging down before each ear, in the same manner as the Spanish Gipsies are described by Swinburn. He also wore a pair of old full-topped boots, pressed half way down his legs, and -wrinkled about his ankles, like buskins. His visage was remarkably dark and gloomy, he walked up and down the market alone, without speaking to any one, with a peculiar air of independence about him, as he twirled in his hand, in the Gipsy manner, by way of amusement, a strong bludgeon, about three feet long, which he held by the centre. I happened to be speaking to a surgeon in the fair, at the time the Gipsy passed me, when I observed to him that that strange-looking man was a Gipsy; at which the surgeon only laughed, and said he did not believe any such thing. To satisfy him, I followed the Gipsy, at a little distance, till lie led me straight to his tents at the Jedburgh road already mentioned.

This Gipsy band had none of their wares unpacked, nor were they seIIing anything in the market. They were cooking a lamb's head and pluck, in a pan suspended from a triangle of rods of iron, while beside it Iay an abundance of small potatoes, in a wooden dish. The females wore black Gipsy bonnets. The visage of the oldest one was remarkably long, her chin resting on her breast. These three old Gipsies were, altogether, so dark, grim, and outlandish-looking, that they had little or no appearance of being natives of Britain. On enquiring if they were Gipsies, and could speak the language, the oldest female gave me the following answer: "We are potters, and strangers in this land. rube people are civil unto us. I say, God bless the people; God bless them all." She spoke these words in a. decided, emphatic, and solemn tone, as if she believed herself possessed of the power to curse or bless at pleasure. On turning my back, to leave them, I observed them burst out a laughing; making merry, as I supposed, at the idea of having deceived me as to the tribe to which they belonged.

The following anecdote will give some idea of the manner of life of the Gipsies in England.

A man, whom I knew, happened to lose his way, one dark night, in Cambridgeshire. After wandering up and down for some time, he observed a light, at a considerable distance from him, within the skirts of a wood, and, being overjoyed at the discovery, he directed his course toward it; but, before reaching the fire, lie was surprised at hearing a man, a little way in advance, call out to him, in a loud voice, "Peace or not peace?" The benighted traveller, glad at hearing the sound of a human voice, immediately answered, "Peace; I am a poor Scotchman, and have lost my way in the dark." "You can come forward then," rejoined the sentinel. When the Scotchman advanced, lie found a family of Gipsies, with only one tent; but, on being conducted further into the wood, he was introduced to a great company of Gipsies. They were busily employed in roasting several whole sheep —turning their carcasses before large fires, on long wooden poles, instead of iron spits. The racks on which the spits turned were also made of wood, driven into the ground, cross-ways, like the letter X. The Gipsies were exceedingly kind to the stranger, causing him to partake of the victuals which they had prepared for their feast. He remained with them the whole night, eating and drinking, and dancing with his merry entertainers, as if he had been one of themselves. When day dawned, the Scotchman counted twelve tents within a short distance of each other. On examining his position, he found himself a long way out of his road; but a party of the Gipsies voluntarily offered their services, and went with him for several miles, and, with great kindness, conducted him to the road from which he had wandered.

The crimes of some of the English Gipsies have greatly exceeded those of the Scottish, such as the latter have been. The following details of the history of an English Gipsy family are taken from a report on the prisons in Northumberland. The writer of this report does not appear to have been aware, however, of the family in question being Gipsies, speaking an Oriental language, and that, according to the custom of their tribe, a dexterous theft or robbery is one of the most meritorious actions they can perform.

"Crime in Families. William Winters' Family.

"William himself, and one of his sons, were hanged together for murder. Another son committed an offence for which he was sent to the hulks, and, soon after his release, was concerned in a murder, for which he was hanged. Three of the daughters were convicted of various offences, and the mother was a woman of notorious bad character. The family was a terror to the neighbourhood, and, according to report, had been so for generations. The father, with a woman with whom he cohabited, (himself a married man,) was hanged for house-breaking. His first wife was a w o-man of very bad character, and his second wife was transported. One of the sons, a notorious thief, and two of the daughters, were hanged for murder. Mr. Blake believes that the only member of the family that turned out well was a girl, who was taken from the father when he was in prison, previous to execution, and brought up apart from her brothers and sisters. The grandfather was once in a lunatic asylum, as a madman. The father had a quarrel with one of his sons, about the sale of some property, and shot him dead. The mother co-habited with another man, and was one morning found dead, with her throat cut. One of the sons, (not already spoken of,) had a bastard child by one of his cousins, herself of weak intellect, and, being under suspicion of having destroyed the child, was arrested. While in prison, however, and before the trial came on, he destroyed himself by cutting his throat."

This family, I believe, are the Winters noticed by Sir Walter Scott, in Blackwood's Magazine, as follows:

"A gang (of Gipsies), of the name of Winters, long inhabited the wastes off Northumberland, and committed many crimes; among others, a murder upon a poor woman, with singular atrocity, for which one of them was hung in chains, near Tonpitt, in Reedsdale. The mortal reliques having decayed, the lord of the manor has replaced them by a wooden effigy, and still maintains the gibbet. The remnant of this gang came to Scotland, about fifteen years ago, and assumed the Roxburghshire name of Wintirip, as they found their own something odious. They settled at a cottage within about four miles of Earlston, and became great plagues to the country, until they were secured, after a tight battle, tried before the circuit court at Jedburgh, and banished back to their native country of England. The dalesmen of Reedwater showed great reluctance to receive these returned emigrants. After the Sunday service at a little chapel near Otterbourne, one of the squires rose, and, addressing the congregation, told them they would be accounted no longer Reedsdale men, but Reedsdale women, if they permitted this marked and atrocious family to enter their district. The people answered that they would not permit them to come that way; and the proscribed family, hearing of the unanimous resolution to oppose their passage, went more southernly, by the heads of the Tyne, and I never heard more of them, but I have little doubt they are all hanged. (It is but just to say that this family of Winters is, or at least was, the worst kind of English Gipsies. Their name is a by-word among the race in England. When they say, "It's a winter morning," they wish to express something very bad. It is difficult to get them to admit that the Winters belong to the tribe.—Ed.)


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