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Tracing gypsy families back despite the lack of records. Fourteen:William and Mary Penfold

Eric Trudgill    -    6 July 2014

The William Penfold in question claimed to be 78 in the 1861 census, married Mary Collins in Kent in 1805, and, to my present knowledge, christened four children (John, Elizabeth, Ann Collins and Rachel) in Kent and Surrey 1806-22, to whom we should add, I suspect, a James born about 1811. I’ve somewhat arbitrarily placed William as the oldest of five siblings, on the basis of their earliest confirmed children, even though the first of these siblings claimed in 1861 to be two years his senior. I don’t as yet have a baptism for any of the five to help establish their kinship, let alone parentage, and I’m therefore using circumstantial evidence to fill the gaps in the records.

The first of William’s siblings was the well-known John Penfold, husband of Charlotte, who christened John junior (husband of Harriet James), Olive, Maria and William in Wilts and Hants 1809-34, to whom we should clearly add Robert (husband of Amelia Page) and Rachel (wife of James Franks), born about 1815 and 1827. The second was the Robert Penfold who married Lydia Collins in Sussex in 1811 and christened in Kent or Surrey 1812-35 Priscilla, Robert junior (husband of Phyllis), Mary, a presumably short-lived William, Patience, Lydia, and another William. The third was the Priscilla Penfold who married, in Surrey in 1825, James Page (christened in Mereworth, Kent in 1780 son of James and Jane) , and christened in Sussex 1817-37 Amelia, James junior, Priscilla and Amos Page (the father in the first three cases identified as a hawker or traveller of Mereworth). And the fourth was the James Penfold who married a Susanna and christened Rachel, Frank and James junior in Kent 1820-27 and Robert in Essex in 1829.

When we’ve plugged the sizeable gaps in the offspring of all five siblings, it will be easier to establish the latters’ birth order and their fondness for particular forenames (already we know William, John and James each named a child Rachel, a not very common name), which in turn will help confirm their sibling status and perhaps point us to further siblings and even their parents. But some facts, even with so many gaps in the records, are pretty striking, especially with respect to intra-familial connections and favoured locations.

Gypsies regularly married a sibling’s sibling-in-law: so it’s striking that William and Robert Penfold within six years each married a Collins, perhaps sisters (Robert’s witness incidentally being a John Penfold, presumably his brother). Gypsies regularly married a cousin: so it’s striking that that John’s son, Robert Penfold, in 1836 married Priscilla’s daughter, Amelia Page, with Priscilla’s husband, James, as witness. And Gypsies regularly married relatives of other family members: so it’s striking that James and Priscilla Page’s daughter, Priscilla, was christened jointly in 1833 with Amos Thompson son of Amos and James Page’s sister, Priscilla, and that Amos junior and his siblings, Henry and Priscilla Thompson, married John and Charlotte Penfold’s children, Olive, Maria and William.

Similarly Gypsies often chose a “family” church for their children’s baptisms. So it’s striking that William and Mary Penfold christened their first child, John, in Hythe, Kent in 1806, and that he christened two of his children there, in 1825 and 1834, that Robert and Lydia Penfold christened their first child, Priscilla, in Hythe in 1812, and were “of Hythe” when christening another in Surrey in 1832, that James and Susanna Penfold christened their first three known children there in 1820, 1825 and 1827, James in each case being recorded as a hawker of Hythe. William and Robert re-centred their activities from Kent to Surrey and James re-centred his from Kent to Essex, but it’s striking that John (husband of Charlotte), who had centred his activities early on in distant Wilts and Hants, not Kent, and his son John (husband of Harriet) each christened a child in Hale, Hants in 1834, describing themselves as travellers of Hythe (surely reflecting the fact that they’d attended the baptism of William and Mary’s granddaughter in Hythe just a few weeks earlier).

Gypsies also often chose a “family” ancestral home, thus providing genealogists with an immensely valuable genetic marker when distinguishing different branches of a family. So it’s striking that three out of our five siblings claimed to be from the Reading area in Berks. William, when christening a child in 1819, and Robert, when christening a child in 1835, described themselves as of Tilehurst, Berks, just outside Reading, while John’s John junior (husband of Harriet), when christening children in 1832 and 1845, described himself as of Theale, Berks, just outside Reading, and John’s Robert (husband of Amelia), when christening a child in 1838, said he was of Reading itself (like one of John’s grandsons in Cornwall as late as 1872 and 1876). I’ve yet to trace any appropriate 18th century Penfolds near Reading (Gypsies’ “ancestral homes” rarely figure in the registers), but if we find more Penfolds “from” that area, that could help us trace our five siblings further back.

Copyright © 2014 Eric Trudgill