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Strawberry Fields.

Anne-Marie Ford    -    29 June 2018

In Locks Heath, Fareham, Hampshire, several baptisms of the children of Gypsies and Travellers attest to their presence there in the summer months. Men, women and children arrived for the strawberry picking in May, and left around the end of July. The area had become famous for its strawberries and basket makers were needed too, in order to carry the fruit, which was then loaded onto a horse and cart to be taken to the station, where the train would speedily transport the strawberries to markets countrywide.  The parish records of the church of St. John the Baptist in Locks Heath list the names of several well-known Gypsy families during the early twentieth century: Cooper, Hicks, Jeffs, Smith, Doe, Barney, Sheen and Stanley amongst them.

The summer of 1914 seems to have been particularly busy.  Here Sampson Stanley and his wife, Phoebe Rowe, whom he had married in the registration district of Lymington, Hampshire in 1889, baptised their daughter, May, on 28th June 1914, whilst their eldest son, William, and his partner, Patience Cooper, baptised their son Sampson. Absalom and Elizabeth Jones baptised a boy, George, and Oliver and Martha Sheen baptised a son Amos; Henry and Edith Sheen gave the name Sampson to their son, whilst another Amos, the son of James and Beatrice Pidgley, was also baptised. These last three couples, like the Stanleys, were family. Beatrice was a daughter of Oliver and Martha, Henry was Oliver’s brother. (Oliver’s elder daughter, Emily, had also married a Pidgley, William, a hawker, in 1911).  All were recorded as Travellers, and their presence in the parish noted, perhaps a little anxiously, as merely temporary.

The following year there were five baptisms of Traveller children in the church records: Mary, the daughter of Charles and Elizabeth Hicks, Gypsies, on 11th July, and, on 25th July, Thomas, the son of Henry and Harriet Cooper; Charity Lavinia, the daughter of Emmanuel and Charlotte Golby; Alfred and Sophia, the children of Joseph and Victoria Hicks, of Tadley, near Basingstoke

July 1916 saw the baptisms of just four Traveller children during the strawberry picking season: James, the son of James Walter and Ellen Jeffs; Alfred, the son of Alfred Angel, alias Edwards, and his wife, Louie; Sidney Herbert, the son of Sidney Herbert and Ethel Smith; Sophia May, the daughter of Henry and Eliza Barney. However, by the next year, on 1st July, six baptisms of Traveller children were listed: Britannia, the daughter of Henry and Patience Doe, travellers of Christchurch, Hampshire; George, the son of Henry and Mary Ann Ray, of Brighton; Annie, daughter of Nelson and Deborah Doe of Odiham, Hampshire; Ivy, daughter of Vanslow and Mary Cooper; Sarah and Violet, daughters of James and Sarah James.

Many of these families can be traced in the earlier census record of 1911, travelling the southern counties of Hampshire, Surrey, Dorset or Wiltshire.  Nelson and Deborah Doe are in a tent at Ash Vale, Surrey, with children Charles, 6, Louisa, 3, and baby Mary (Nelson, the son of Charlie Doe, was to wed Deborah Franklin in the registration district of Farnham, Surrey in 1915). Henry and Patience Doe are to be found in 1911 amongst a large Gypsy encampment at Kinson, Dorset, with their children Alice, 15, Patience, 13, Henry, 11, Liberty, 9 Nelson 5, and William, aged just one.  Joseph Hicks, who had married Victoria James in the registration district of Basingstoke in 1895, is camping at Mulfords Hill, Tadley, Hampshire, at the time of the census with his wife, and what is already quite a considerable family: Louisa, 15, Mary, 13, Henry, 11, Emily, 9, Joseph, 6, Annie, 4, and a baby, Polly.

When Sampson and Phoebe Stanley baptised little May, who was probably their last child, they, too, were already parents to a large family, and are recorded in the 1911 census in Poole, in Dorset. Sampson is described as a licensed hawker of flowers and clothes pegs and their children are listed as William 20; Phoebe, baptised on 24th July 1892 at Portsea St. Mark, Hampshire; Amelia, who been baptised at the same location on 26th August 1894; Charles, baptised at Harting, Sussex on 23rd September 1900; Caroline, also at Harting on 6th September 1903; James, baptised at South Hayling, Hampshire on 26th February 1905; Violet, baptised at Talbot Village, Dorset on 13th June 1909; Sampson, also at Talbot Village, on 15th January 1911.

Oliver and Henry Sheen were sons of Alfred/Albert and Eliza Sheen, and, thanks to a brief note in the Salisbury Times of 1st April 1904, we know they married sisters, “Oliver Sheen, Henry Sheen, Martha Rose and Edith Rose . . . were summoned for encamping within the War Office Area on Salisbury Plain and burning a large wood fire.” The two couples chose not to appear, and were sentenced in their absence. Such unions as the Sheen boys formed were not uncommon practice amongst the Gypsy and Traveller population; all were to claim Wiltshire, where they had been born, as their home territory. Here Henry and Edith’s marriage took place in the district of Wilton, Wiltshire, in 1915.

These legal unions in the first year of the war appear to have been made in the light of the men serving in battle, ensuring support for their wives and families should they be killed. Many were, but the Sheen brothers survived, as did Sampson Stanley. After the First World War strawberry growing had declined in Locks Heath, growers turning to other crops. Houses were built on the land, Gypsies and Travellers, many returning from battle, chose to settle. By the time of the 1939 records the social fabric of the country had changed significantly.

Oliver Sheen and his wife, Martha, together with a son, Henry, named for his brother, have settled in their home county of Wiltshire; Oliver is still working as a marine store dealer and Martha as a drapery pedlar and hawker. Oliver died in 1948, leaving £442 and his son Amos, who had been baptised at Locks Heath, now a bricklayer, was granted probate. Oliver was buried at Hindon, in Wiltshire, where his memorial stone reads ‘Oliver Sheen, husband of Martha.’

Henry Sheen and his wife, Edith, meanwhile, had settled in Dorset, where they are living in 1939 with a son, William, a dealer in firewood, Oliver, a bricklayer, and daughters Beatrice, Caroline and Ellen. Henry, younger than Oliver by about 10 years, died in 1955 and was buried at Sixpenny Handley, Dorset. Dorset was also the county of choice in which to settle for Sampson and Phoebe Stanley, who are found in the registration district of Poole, where Sampson is now an invalid and blind. On the eve of another war the remnants of an old way of life are only just discernible.

Copyright © 2018 Anne-Marie Ford