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Mahala Gray*

Anne-Marie Ford    -    3 August 2018

In 1858, on board a ship bound for South Australia, a baby daughter, Lydia was born to a couple who were emigrating with their young family.  Edward and Mahala Woolard had married in Bottisham, Cambridgeshire in 1843 and the 1851 census shows them living in the area with a young son, William John, who had been baptised at Bottisham on 5th May 1850; Edward is described as a labourer.  William was named after Edward’s father and in 1856 another son, James, named after Edward’s brother, was baptised on 17th February, but it was Lydia’s birth in 1858 that paid homage to Mahala’s family, for this was her mother’s name.

Mahala Gray was born in 1822, the daughter of Riley Gray and his wife, Lydia Sly.  Both were Gypsies, members of the important Gray tribe, who favoured, in particular, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.  The union between Riley and Lydia was that of cousins, a common enough practice amongst the Romani; Riley was a child of Charles Gray and Aquilla Smith, born in 1789, the third son in what was to be a very large family.  Lydia was the daughter of Charles’s sister, Sophia, and her husband, James Sly, and was baptised in 1790; the couple also baptised a daughter, Sophia, in 1793 and a son, Edward, in 1796.  Sophia married Aaron Shaw when she was just 17, and, like her sister’s husband, Riley, he was a well-known fiddle player.

Riley and Lydia had several children, although three of these were to die early; tragic, but hardly unusual in the nineteenth century.  Their first child, Foundness, had been baptised in 1811 at Isleham, Cambridgeshire, and was to have a large family of his own. Riley and Lydia had three subsequent children following Foundness’ birth: Riley, born c. 1812, Edward, born c. 1813, and Sophia, baptised in 1815, all of whom were to die when young; Riley was buried in 1814, aged 2, Edward died in infancy, and Sophia in 1818, at 3 years of age.  Riley and Lydia used these names once more, however; in tribute to both Lydia’s sister and her mother, Sophia Sly, they baptised Sophy, in 1820, the daughter of ‘a tinker,’ and another Riley in about 1824.

Riley Gray was subject to a removal order in May 1835, when he and his family were moved from Herringswell, Suffolk to Ashwell, in Hertfordshire, and this offers us a little more information about their family.  Although Riley had been born in Fen Ditton, Cambridgeshire, he claimed settlement at Ashwell since his father, Charles, had been baptised there in 1765, ‘the base born son of Cadilla [Cordelia] Gray.’ The removal order gives us details of eight of their children, with whom they were travelling, and their approximate ages: Lydia, 18; Sophy, 16; Mahala, 14; Riley, 11; Lawrence, 8; Honor, 6; Joseph, 4; Christiana, 2. (This youngest daughter had been baptised as Nancy in 1832), and subsequently Lydia would have another child, Sarah, probably in 1835, which would have contributed to Herringswell’s desire to move the family out of the parish speedily.

The next reference to Mahala Gray is her marriage to Edward Woolard, described as a labourer. Whilst Riley’s occupation is recorded as a brazier, a common Gypsy trade, Edward’s father, William, is also a labourer. Perhaps in forming this union Mahala was already changing her life by marrying into the settled population, as the nineteenth century progressed this was becoming a rather more common occurrence. And when Mahala and two of her sisters, Lydia, and Sarah, chose to emigrate with their husbands this, too, was not unusual. In the mid-nineteenth century, in particular, many Gypsies and Travellers chose to emigrate to America, Canada and Australia, in search of a new life and greater opportunities. Sarah Gray had married Edward Woolard’s brother, James, and Lydia is said to have wed a James Harper, and believed to have emigrated three years before Mahala. All three sisters would build new lives in their adopted country - Australia.  

Did Mahala’s descendants know of their Romani heritage?  Few of the old Gypsy names are found amongst the children born in South Australia, but her eldest son, William John, used the name Riley for one of his sons, and Ambrose, a name also favoured by the Grays, for another, so perhaps they did.  Perhaps Mahala told them stories of her parents and the life she had led before her marriage. It is, of course, likely that William, would have remembered his Gypsy family, and have known his larger-than-life grandfather, and the wider community of the Gray family; he was eight years old before he set sail for a new life in South Australia.

Riley Gray, playing the fiddle at local fairs and dances, was a familiar figure for the settled population as he travelled around his beat, particularly favouring Cambridgeshire, sometimes straying into Suffolk or Hertfordshire.  When Riley’s violin was stolen the local newspapers reported this important fact quite colourfully.  His grandson, Shadrach, the son of Riley and Lydia’s eldest son, Foundness, and his wife, Constantia Smith, was the thief, and that was not his only transgression, as the Norwich Mercury of 28th October 1871 reported:

At the Bottisham Petty Sessions on Wednesday Shadrach Gray (26), a deserter from the 16th Regiment of Foot, was brought up under remand charged with stealing a violin, value 5/-, at Bottisham Lode on 5th inst., the property of his grandfather, Riley Gray, a well-known Gypsy.  It appears that Shadrach had taken French leave from his regiment and, while visiting his friends, he fell in love with Riley’s fiddle.  Riley gave information to the police and the prisoner was apprehended near Newmarket, with the fiddle in his possession.

Riley was to live a long life, until the close of 1874.  He and his wife can be found in the 1851 and 1861 census records, but, after Lydia’s death in 1866, Riley ended his days in the workhouse.  This proved to be another occasion for the local newspapers to mention him.  The Bury Free Press of 2nd January 1875 referred to Riley as ‘an original and genuine Gypsy, well-known for many miles around.’  He had died at an advanced age at the Newmarket Union on Christmas day, and the article mused on the fact that ‘Riley and his numerous family . . . were born in, and brought up to, a migratory and wandering life,’ whilst reminding its readers in this obituary that he was ‘the first and most legitimate fiddler at all the country and other fairs.’

Mahala, too, had a long life; she and Edward were married for nearly forty years, until his death in 1881. Four years later she remarried a James Levett, and lived for another twenty years, dying in the spring of 1905 at the age of 83, on the other side of the world.

* I would like to thank David Adams for so kindly sharing his material about Mahala. This article first appeared in Romany Routes.

Copyright © 2018 Anne-Marie Ford