Share this page

TIP TWELVE: When tracing Gypsies, keep an eye on who rules the routes.

Eric Trudgill    -    6 May 2012

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 TWELVE: When tracing Gypsies, keep an eye on who rules the routes.

You need to keep an open mind as to whether a Gypsy family you’re researching werepredominantly patrilocal or matrilocal travellers.

Some Gypsy men unquestionably left their own families and travelled with their wives’. For example, Thomas Boswell (brother of Viney), born he claimed in Berks about 1791, joined his second wife’s Lovell family in South Wales a long way from his own. And Thomas Cooper (brother of Fighting Jack), baptised in Berks in 1801, joined his wife’s Smith family in East Anglia well away from his own around London. But each example, it seems to me, is the exception that proves the rule. Thomas Boswell decamped quite late to Wales around 1840: he’d previously stayed close to the large territories of his long-travelling brothers and nephews, who seem to have been distinctly patrilocal. And if Thomas Cooper decamped quite early to East Anglia, his siblings and their children stayed patrilocally within their two small Thamesideterritories.My guess is a Gypsy’s decision to stay with his family, or go to his wife’s, was based on pragmatism, not custom. If his or his wife’s father was an alpha male, like Dick Heron, Absolom Smith and many others, that alone might settle the matter. If he had a particular way of making a living, if he was a musician like his in-laws but not his own kin, or the reverse, or if he was a brazier, say, unlike his in-laws but like too many of his kin, or the reverse, that too might settle the matter. And positive or negative personal relations could surely also play a part.

Keeping an eye on both possibilities, patrilocal and matrilocal, when you come across ostensible coincidences, can deepen your understanding of family structure. When you find Belcher and Lydia Lee and James and Harriet Cooper christening children jointly in Acton, Middlesex in 1823, you look for a sibling connection; and when you find William and Barbara Lee and Zachariah and Rosetta Lee christening children jointly in Acton in 1826, plus Nathaniel and Mary Lee christening a child there in 1818, you should be able to work it out. Five children of David and Sophia Lee were being patrilocal: in principle Belcher Lee could be one of the five, but you have Lydia’s baptism to prove in fact he and James Cooper were being matrilocal. When you find Riley and Clevansy Scamp christening a child jointly in Bredon, Worcs in 1815 with Samuel and Hannah Lee and Thomas and Oceana Lee, you look for a sibling connection, and again you should be able to work it out. Clevansy was christened in 1792 daughter of Samuel and Hannah Lee (which means Riley was being matrilocal), and, since Samuel was baptised in 1766 and siblings were more likely to travel together when their families were still small, Thomas was probably Clevansy’spatrilocal brother, not her patrilocal uncle.

Keeping an eye on both possibilities, patrilocal and matrilocal, when you come across ostensible anomalies, can also deepen your understanding of family structure. The Spencer Draper baptised in 1784, for example, who had seven children by Elizabeth Carey christened 1811-1831 on his family’s territory in Bucks and Beds, was clearly the one who’d had (by a Sylvia Draper and a Mary) a Spencer, Mary, Beata and Sibarania, christened 1803-1805 in a distant and tiny part of North East Leics, and left them there (we have burials for the first and last in 1821 and 1817). The second Spencer was clearly the same man because he gave the last two children the unusual names of the first Spencer’s mother and oldest sister. I can’t explain Spencer’s anomalous departure from and return to his family’s territory except in terms of matrilocality and patrilocality, which means we should find some time a presently unknown Draper family (Sylvia’s) connected to Spencer’s and associated by 1800 with Leics, not Bucks or Beds. The same logic may well apply to Merrick Lock’s anomalous baptism of his daughter, Patience, in 1807: from about 1805 or before, when his daughter, Eve, apparently was born in Gloucestershire, to his death in 1861 Merrick seems to have barely got out of the county, but in 1807 we find him christening Patience in CotgraveNotts, much further east than we ever see his relatively “long travelling” cousin, Matthew. It seems to me quite likely we’ll one day find Merrick’s wife, Mary Lee, had some connection with the Cotgrave area, and Merrick for once was keeping in with his in-laws, and briefly, like Spencer Draper, the exception that proved patrilocality normally ruled the routes.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill