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TIP TEN: If you want to trace Gypsies, use a map and a gazetteer.

Eric Trudgill    -    6 March 2012

Research Tips For Beginners In Gypsy Genealogy

Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Floate’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.

TIP TEN: If you want to trace Gypsies, use a map and a gazetteer.

Never underestimate the importance, as a research-aid, of a modern Road Atlas, supplemented (where villages have vanished and county borders changed) by a hard-copy or internet gazetteer.

Always look up on a map any sighting you find of a Gypsy you’re tracing (in the census, Church records, press reports etc), to see where the place in question is, what’s next door and what’s reasonably close. Establishing what’s next door will sometimes give you baptisms: you realize the Neptune Smith, who at least three times claimed he was born in Horton, Wilts, was the one baptised in 1781 next door in Potterne, and the Young Dimiti Buckland who said he was born in Hawkesbury, Glos was the Jerusalem (a family name) baptised in 1824 next door in Wickwar. Even more usefully, establishing what’s reasonably close will help you find your Gypsy’s travel pattern.

People who haven’t tried often think you can’t trace Gypsies before the late nineteenth century, when they more and more settled, lived in houses and took regular jobs. But Gypsies had never wandered about on a whim: there had always been a pattern, indeed patterns, in their travel.

Firstly, they’d always travelled on business, to provide for their family, and almost invariably they’d travelled on foot, carrying their possessions, at the speed of their slowest family members. Necessarily they’d work a particular territory: they’d stick to familiar circuits, to avoid wasting time and effort by misjudging their route or stopping in places where they were unwelcome or unable to do adequate business; and they’d stick to regular arrival times to ensure they could harvest the raw materials for their manufactures, exploit local fairs and feasts, and meet up with relatives and friends where their circuits crossed. They might make a special effort on occasion to attend a wedding or the burial of a famous patriarch or matriarch, but generally they’d travel on business.

Secondly, they’d always been short or long travellers. Short travellers worked a particular territory all their lives and often through successive generations: for example, the Northamptonshire Smiths and Loveridges, the Kent Lees and Scamps, and the Londonside Coopers and Hearns. Long travellers usually worked a consecutive series of short territories: for example, Edward Boswell, nephew of the famous Lawrence, married Phyllis Lee in Middlesex in 1799, and in the next 25 years had or christened children successively in Kent, Hampshire, Devon, Somerset, Northants, Essex, Dorset, Oxfordshire and Worcestershire. Less commonly long travellers worked remarkably large circuits: for example, a Daniel Lovell was sighted between 1767 and 1776 in Lancashire, Staffs, Northants and Herefordshire, and his son, Major, was sighted between 1771 and 1781 in Leicestershire, Lancashire, Wiltshire, Northants and Worcestershire.

Thirdly, Gypsies had always been patrilocal or matrilocal travellers. Dora Yates, a pioneer gypsiologist, once wrote of “the matrimonial law still surviving among the English Gypsies of men leaving their own clan and joining that of their wives, with whose families they thenceforward travelled.” My own view is that patrilocal travelling, with women joining their husband’s clan, was much more common than matrilocal. However, in the next two months I’ll be exploring the importance, when tracing Gypsy travel patterns and thereby family connections, of keeping an eye open for all four travel patterns, short and long, patrilocal and matrilocal.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill