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Anne-Marie Ford    -    30 September 2018

On 1st May 1845, at Wimborne Minster in Dorset, a Gypsy woman named Sylvia Fletcher was laid to rest, “aged 89.”  She was actually just 85, having been baptised at Hampreston, Dorset, on 20th May 1760, daughter of Peter and Sarah Stanley, but had, nonetheless, survived to what was a great age for the time.

Selbea’s father, ‘a razor grinder and tinker,’ had been subject to a settlement hearing at Corfe Castle, Dorset, in May 1792, where he named his seven children as William, Selbea (this is Sylvia, Gypsies frequently alternated the pronunciation of a ‘v’ with a ‘b’), Aaron, Peter, Sabra, Paul and Henry. Most of these children were, like their parents, to make the county of Dorset their home, travelling the villages, and when Peter died in 1802 he was buried at St. Mary’s church, in the village of Puddletown, Dorset; his headstone read ‘Peter Standley (sic), King of the Gypsies.  This title, such as it was, referred to significant tribal leaders, or members of important Romani families, rather than ideas of majesty, but the Gypsy population was quite happy to let it stand.

Selbea appears to have moved between Hampshire, where her father had been born, and Dorset, as two vagrancy records of the period attest to.  She was apprehended as ‘Silvia’ Stanley on 8th December 1777 in Southampton and removed to Little Canford, Dorset, and, three years later, together with cousins Clarinda and Caroline, appeared at the Winchester quarter sessions charged with being a rogue and vagabond.  Hampshire was also the location for her marriage to William Fletcher, at Millbrook in June 1781, where her name is recorded as ‘Silby.’

The couple were to have a considerable family, their first child, Gentillia, was baptised in Hampshire, but the remaining ten were all baptised in the villages of Dorset, and four of her daughters, Kezia, Jemima, Kerenhappuch and Matilda, married into the local population and adopted a settled life.  

Preference for the county of Dorset meant that Selbea continued to remain in contact with her family, as well as her extended family. At Wimborne Minster a cousin, William Stanley, and his wife Repentance, baptised a son, Josiah, in 1811, and it was also to be the location where her husband, William Fletcher, was buried, a dozen years before her death, in the June of 1833. He claimed birth in 1747, but this was likely to be as much as eight years out, and he is probably the William Fletcher, son of William, baptised in 1755.

The same year that Selbea/Sylvia was buried at Wimborne Minster a grand-daughter, Matilda, child of Paul and Sarah Fletcher, married there, as three of her sisters, Selina, Louisa and Emma, were also to do in later years. In 1846 there was another family death, Selbea’s daughter, Kerenhappuch, who had married a local postman, William Mitchell, died aged 49.

Although at least two of her daughters and two of her sons continued to travel, Paul had a limited beat, confining himself to the villages in Dorset, and he can be found from the 1851 census until his death in 1889, at Wimborne Minster, where he plied the trade of tinman, brazier and grinder. In 1851 his eldest son, William, was working as a rat-catcher and daughters Selina and Mary as ‘outdoor servants,’ almost certainly working on a local farm.

Paul had declared himself to be 99 years of age at his death, but he was actually in his 90th year, having lived into extreme old age; he was buried at Wimborne Minster, as his wife, Sarah, had been in 1884, ‘aged 78.’

Another son, Henry, who had been baptised in 1802, and continued to work as a tinman and grinder, moved away from Dorset, and he and his wife, Tabitha, baptised their children in Somerset, including, in 1847, a daughter, Silvia, named after his mother.

Perhaps the greatest change in the lives of Selbea’s descendants was not in that a few became part of the settled community, but that some of her grand-children went further afield, to America, or to London, and some, like her grandson Henry, son of her daughter Jemima, would become a cattle dealer and dairy farmer with a comfortable income. The most extraordinary social change was that of three of Jemima’s daughters, who, having received an education at a local charity school, went to London to seek their fortunes.

Selbea’s grand-daughter Catherine, determined and intelligent, with a sense of adventure, was to find a position for herself at a riding school off Oxford Street, London, run by the famous jockey Jem Mason. Soon she and her two younger sisters, Susan and Mary, were performing as equestriennes at Astley’s Amphitheatre. It is unlikely that Selbea would have been surprised at the skills themselves, Gypsies were well known for their affinity with horses, and the sisters would, in spite of living a settled life, have surely known and spent time with the many Gypsy relatives who also favoured the county of Dorset. What would have amazed her, however, would have been the marriages into the social elite that all three young women forged - and Catherine most of all, for she was to wed one of the richest young men in England, George Harry Grey, the Earl of Stamford and Warrington. The story of Selbea’s family and the life of her remarkable grand-daughter, the Countess of Stamford and Warrington, is now available to buy online.  The Gypsy Countess can be purchased from the Romany and Traveller Family History Society (see their website), or through the Genfair website, price £18.00.

Copyright © 2018 Anne-Marie Ford