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The Rosherville Gypsy

Anne-Marie Ford    -    1 November 2014

The Era was a weekly theatrical newspaper published in London, and, as well as details about theatres, actors and music hall, it also noted the deaths of significant performers. In the June of 1864, this tribute to Gypsy fortune teller, Avis Lee, appeared:

All visitors to Rosherville Gardens who have ever had their fortunes told in the sylvan retirement of that popular resort will regret to hear of the decease of the old occupant of the Gypsy tent. Since the opening of the Gardens she had filled her usual post, but her health was visibly affected and, a few days ago, she expired in about the fiftieth year of her age. Her funeral was followed by a large number of the Gypsy tribe, who came from all parts of Kent and Surrey to attend the ceremony. The deceased was a genuine member of the roving fraternity, and thoroughly believed in the art she professed. Her name was Avis Lee and for six-and-twenty years she had settled at Rosherville as an avowed fortune-teller… She had two sons serving at Delhi at the time of the late Indian Mutiny, and they were among the 17 rescued by the Highlanders, under Lord Clyde, when the rest of the companions had been massacred. . . With the red handkerchief gracefully twisted round her head, from which a mass of black corkscrew curls flowed down in picturesque profusion, she often supplied artists with a study. Her successor is a daughter who has not yet reached her twentieth year.

Avis Lee was born Avis Ayres, daughter of Samuel, a hawker, and Prudence (nee Ellis) and baptised on 18th April 1813 at St Mary’s in the Marylebone Road, London. Her known siblings, all baptised at the same location, were Bathana (?Bethany/Parthenia), baptised 3rd November 1805; Prudence, baptised 26th April 1807; Elizabeth, baptised 26th February 1809; Sarah, baptised 28th October 1810; Frances , baptised 19th March 1815; Lavinia, baptised 9th March 1817; Samuel, baptised 6th June 1819; Constant, baptised 17th June 1821.

By the 1841 census Prudence Ayres is a widow, living with her daughter Lavinia and son-in-law William Dark. Lavinia and William had married in the registration district of Fulham in 1832 and were to have a relatively large family. The next census finds them in Hammersmith, Middlesex, where William is working as a brickmaker. Prudence has aged 17 years since the previous census, claiming to be 78 years of age and Lavinia and William are parents to Samuel, 18; John, 11, Lavinia, 10; Frances, 8; George, 4; Robert, 2. In addition, there is a niece, Mary Ann Ayres, 16, living with the family, who is presumably the daughter of Lavinia’s brother, Samuel.

Avis’s first partner was Lawrence Lee, and with him she had two sons, Noah, born in Marden, Kent in 1838 and Henry, baptised at Northfleet, Kent on 20th October 1839, son of Lawrence and Aves (sic). Lawrence, however, was to die of smallpox the following year, and his death certificate, in the December quarter of 1840 in the registration district of Shoreditch, claims that he was 35 years of age, the son of Sophia Lee, who was present at his death. So by 1841 Avis was, like her mother, a widow, but she was to eventually marry Amos Lee, son of Christopher and Lucy, at Northfleet, Kent on 17th September 1855, by which time she and Amos had several children. Christopher, named for Amos’s father, was baptised at Gravesend, Kent on 26th July 1843; Walter at Rochester St Margaret, Kent on 2nd March 1845; Priscilla at Milton St Peter, Kent on 26th September 1847; Lucy, named for Amos’s mother, at Northfleet, Kent on 1st July 1849; Prudence, the name of Avis’s sister and her mother, at Milton Holy Trinity, Kent 4th July 1851; Lavinia, also named for a sister, at Charlton, Dover, Kent on 27th November 1853.

By the 1851 census the family, probably wintering out, are resident at 53 Star Street, Milton, Kent and appear on the census records, although curiously divided by the census-taker. Amos Lee, 34, and More (Noah) Lee, 13, Gypsies, are recorded towards the end of the census, with a note explaining they were “omitted from page 16.” Here the rest of family can be found. Avis, claiming to be 32, born in Middlesex; Henry, 12, born in Northfleet; Christopher, 8, born in Gravesend; Walter, 5, born in Rochester; Priscilla, 3, born at Milton; Lucy, who was 18 months, born in Northfleet.

The other people living at 53 Star Street at the time were George Loveridge, 23, a labourer, born at Dartford, his wife, Jane, 21, and their young son, George, two years old, as well as a Forder (sic) Lee, 17, born at Rayleigh in Essex. This is, in fact, Flora Lee, a cousin of Amos’s, and daughter of another Amos, who had been baptised at Chatham, Kent on 13th September 1801, son of Thomas and Rose, paupers. (Lucy Lee, probable sister of Thomas, was the younger Amos’s mother.) The elder Amos had several children with his wife, Mary Ann: Thomas, baptised Playden, Sussex 15th July 1821; Philimore, baptised Warehorne, Kent 21st May 1826; Noah/John, baptised East Barming, Kent 10th May 1829; Belcher, baptised Hollingbourne, Kent, 2nd December 1832; Flora, baptised at Rayleigh, Essex on 22nd March 1835; Moses, baptised Northfleet, Kent 24th June 1838; Sylvester, baptised Chediston, Suffolk 31st October 1840, son of Amos and Emily (sic).

The 1861 census finds Avis as a lodger in Gravesend, Kent, with daughters Lucy, Priscilla and Lavinia, and Avis declares her occupation as that of “fortune teller.” Amos and the younger sons are not with them, and neither is little Prudence, Her death, of convulsions,is recorded in the registration of North Aylesford, very much on the Lee patch, in the September quarter of 1859. (Amos, who was younger than his wife, having been baptised at Winchelsea, Sussex on 15th August 1819, was to outlive Avis by 24 years, dying in the workhouse at Dartford, in Kent, in March 1888, claiming to be 71 years of age.)

Three of the daughters of Amos and Avis were to marry three brothers, children of Henry and Sophia Lee, which would suggest another close blood tie with Amos, through one of his Lee parents, with either Thomas or Sophia, who was also a Lee prior to her marriage. Priscilla married Joseph Lee, the son of Henry and Sophia, a musician, widower, in Strood, Kent in 1865; subsequently, following Joseph’s death, she married Hope Boswell at Kensington St Clement, Middlesex on 12th January 1869, the son of Levi Boswell and Mary Ann Lee. Lucy married John Lee, son of Henry and Sophia and together they had seven known children: Sylvester, Priscilla, Leonard, Arthur, Frances, Walter and Albert. Lavinia married Walter Lee, another son of Henry and Sophia, and children Patience, Sophia, Major, Britannia, Joseph, Lucy and John were all born in Kent. Avis’s eldest son with Amos, Christopher, also, like his sister Priscilla, married into the Boswell family, uniting with Hope Boswell’s sister, Celia. This couple had eight known children, Henry, Celia, Annie Maria, Lucy, Silvester, Walter, Lottie and Christopher.

Priscilla died in 1871, so it cannot have been she, but a younger daughter of Avis and Amos, who took over the role of fortune teller at the Rosherville Gardens, since a Mrs Lee is mentioned in the Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald of 6th September 1879:

The annual garden fete on behalf of the Herne National Schools was held in the beautiful grounds of Strode Park . . . It was attended with the usual success. The weather was beautifully fine, a large party attended and, thanks to the exertions of the Rev. J. R. Buchanan and several gentlemen who so readily gave him their assistance, there was no lack of amusements. The East Kent Militia Band “discoursed sweet music;” Mrs Lee, of Rosherville Gardens, was engaged to tell fortunes; and several pastimes, such as croquet, lawn tennis etc., were freely indulged in.

The most likely daughter is Lucy, who married John Lee; in the 1871 census she is still, after all, on the family patch in Medway Kent. When she was widowed Lucy removed to Brighton, in Sussex, to live with her eldest son and his family and can be found there in the 1901 census with Wester (Sylvester), his wife, Fanny, and their baby son, Leonard Sylvester. It was here, at Devil’s Dyke, just a few miles from Brighton, that Lucy Lee enjoyed considerable fame as a Gypsy fortune teller, indicating that she, in every way, was her mother’s successor.

So, in 1879, fifteen years after Avis Lee had died, was it Lucy who maintained the tradition of a Gypsy fortune teller at the Rosherville Gardens?

Copyright © 2014 Anne-Marie Ford