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TIP FOURTEEN: Donít trust excessively the information provided by the gypsiologists: test it in the records

Eric Trudgill    -    3 July 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 FOURTEEN: Don’t trust excessively the information provided by the gypsiologists: test it in the records.

We owe a huge debt to the late 19th, early 20th century gypsiologists who pioneered Gypsy genealogy in this country, to some extent by accessing Church and civil records, but mainly by trudging about the country in their spare hours looking for travellers who might be willing and able to give them genealogical data, and, having got some from one of them, then looking for others to provide independent corroboration. The best of them did brilliant, meticulous work in the most difficult conditions.

However, you shouldn’t trust any of their information, and especially their 18th and early 19thcentury information, until it’s been confirmed in the records, lest it skews your research in unprofitable directions, and stops you recognizing relevant data when you find it. The gypsiologists had very few records available to them, and were often working with fragmentary, and unreliable, information. The result was a tendency to mis-structure a pedigree from the very beginning with spurious parents, spouses and siblings.

They claimed, for example, that Elijah Boswell and Mordecai (brother of Matilda) Boswell were grandsons of the famous Dan via their respective fathers, Elijah LizacBoswell (husband of Elizabeth Smith) and Edward Boswell (husband of Phyllis Lee), but from adding census birth-data to baptisms, we can now see Elijah was the son of Viney and Lucy, and Mordecai of Absalom and Mary (and Edward, husband of Phyllis, was in any case son of Robert and Mary). It’s hard to blame the gypsiologists for these spurious parents and grandparents: Edward, husband of Phyllis, was the only Boswell they knew of the right vintage with a daughter called Matilda, and Dan the only one with the right vintage and profile to be Elijah’s grandfather.

Spurious spouses came from the same kind of fragmentary and untestable information as spurious parents. The gypsiologists claimed Charley Penfold was married concurrently to Ruth Lovell and Louisa and Matilda, her daughters by either of her other husbands, Samuel Lee and John Chilcott. But while a Ruth Lovell had two sons by Charley Penfold baptised in Norwich, Norfolk in 1833 and 1840, she was presumably not the mother of the Louisa Print and Matilda Smith who had children by Charley baptised in the same Norwich church 1838-39, and clearly not John Chilcott’s wife, who, besides being too old to have a child in 1840, was recorded as Ruth Boss at the christening of a child of John’s in 1825.

Again spurious siblings regularly appear, when we test the gypsiologists’ data, as they themselves couldn’t, in the records. Elijah Boswell didn’t, as they claimed, have a brother, Phoenix, married to Trenit Wainwright: census birth-data combine with baptism records to show Phoenix was a son of Israel and Siberani Boswell. Righteous Lee, husband of Penelope (baptised, it turns out, in 1770 son of John and Mary) was not, as the gypsiologistsclaimed, brother of Richard Lee, husband of Rhoda (baptised, it turns out, in 1794 son of Samuel and Hannah). And OseryGray, husband of Eliza, was not, as the gypsiologists claimed, brother of Jack and Pyramus, but as his baptism shows son of their uncle, Osery

But the gypsiologists’ account of the father of Jack andPyramussuggests there was often more to their blunders than fragmentary and unreliable information. They claimed one of them at least had been told by Jack’s daughter, the wife of Pyramus’ son,that their sharedgrandfather was not, as we now know from the records Thomas Gray, husband of Susanna, but the famous Fowk. It’s hard to believe wife and husband were both ignorant of their grandfather’s identity; much easier to believe a gypsiologist,struggling with his Romany, misunderstood them, or they the gypsiologist. After all the gypsiologists collected data about Clark Boswell’s family from his grandson Sampson, son of Allen, not appreciating that Abel Boswell didn’t exist (except as an alternate name for Clark), that Allen’s daughter Mizelli, wife of Clark’s son Plato, didn’t exist (Sampson Lee, brother of Plato’s Mizelli, had got muddled with Sampson Boswell), and Clark wasn’t, as they assumed, a son of the famous Shadrach Boswell, but his nephew. And George Hall had a long conversation with Enoch Booth about his mother, whom he mistakenly took to be not Emily Smith, but her older sister Ebonni, a belief that survives to this day amongst Gypsy genealogists who don’t check the gypsiologists’ data in the records!

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill