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TIP SEVENTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Church records.

Eric Trudgill    -    30 September 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 SEVENTEEN: Be alert to the misinformation inherent in Church records.

If national censuses began in 1841 and have stopped effectively since 1911, parish registers began over three centuries earlier and haven’t stopped at all. But the larger span of Church records isn’t quite as helpful as it looks: parish priests, before the registration reforms of 1813, regularly wasted little ink on here today and gone tomorrow transients, regularly omitting at Gypsy baptisms the forename of the mother, and often of the child and father too, or, where recording these, regularly omitting evidence of their ethnicity (it’s for this reason you should be wary of armchair genealogists tracing Gypsy families back to the 17th or even 16th century).

Even when consulting post-1812 parish registers, you should be wary of being misinformed. A priest, recording data in his church or home supplied by respectful Gypsies hoping for a christening or wedding present, had an easier job than a census taker, extracting data in the field from a mob of uncooperative Gypsies, impatient for him to go. But a priest’s data might be just as inaccurate. He was now required to record gypsiological data, but he might purvey misinformation as unhelpful to us, if not spotted, as his predecessors’ non-information.

A priest might be too lazy to struggle with unfamiliar Gypsy forenames: Riley Scamp’s wife was given accurately enough as Clavency at a baptism in 1815, but inaccurately as Hannah in 1819 and Sarah in 1821, and as a blank in 1823. A priest might be too lazy to record date of birth as well of baptism: a Nicolson couple, looking for christening gifts, baptised the same two daughters 1831-40in over 200 churches from Devon to Yorkshire, with few priests bothering to note the children’s age; and it’s standard to find priests christening a catch-up job-lot of siblings, gorjer as well as Gypsy, as though they’d all just been born together.

A priest, if not lazy when recording birth data, might easily be confused. He might be confused by the unusual forenames of child or parent: I was puzzled for years by a joint baptism in 1835 of the toddler Sophia Whithent Herring and the just born Love Whithent Herring, daughters of Francis, travelling cutler, and then I realized they were the daughters of Big Frank Heron given by the gypsiologists as Sophia and Levithan (often pronounced Lewithan), the priest assuming a misheard Withan was part of both girls’ surname. Or the priest might be confused by the presence at a christening of other family members: muddling the child’s mother with his grandmother, as when recording Jasper and Catherine Smith’s Arkles as son of Jasper and Sarah (Jasper’s mother); muddling the child’s father with his grandfather, as when recording Leonard and Phyllis Cooper’s Thomas as son of Henry and Phyllis; or muddling the child’s parents with her uncle and aunt, as when recording Mark and Louisa Smith’s Gonzaletta as daughter of Henry and Ann (Mark’s sister, Vansi, and her husband, Henry).

The commonest muddle of this kind is between son and father (Samuel Evans christened as son of Samuel, not Uriah, Esau Young as son of Esau, not Perrin,etc), though the muddling of daughter and mother is also pretty common. What may be happening in these cases of course is less the priest’s confusion when officiating than his forgetfulness when recording. Where census takers and registrars recorded their birth data as they were given it, priests mostly wrote up their baptisms at a convenient time, often relying on an all too fallible memory. This accounts for why we know Brington Clayton’s Mary Ann was christened in 1807 in Church Brampton, Northants (when and where she several times claimed to have been born), even though the register shows a joint baptism of Louisa Cleden and Mary Boon, children of gypsies.

But even where Church records don’t offer misinformation because of priests’ laziness, confusion or forgetfulness, they can still misinform because priests were themselves misinformed: the Aaron Boswell christened in 1794 son of Henry and Peggy was really son of Lawrence, the latter evidently getting his brother to stand in for him rather than christen a child with Peggy three days after, in the same church, christening a child with Carnation; LaviniaSmith christened four children she bore her own father, naming their parents successively as Lavinia, Charlotte (her grandmother), Alabon (her grandfather) and Lavinia, and finally the truth, Arkles and Lavinia; Bethiah Smith christened three children with the father named as her husband, James Mobbs, and in between christened one child with the father named as William Gray, her temporary co-husband, and two more with the father named as James Gray, mixing the names of both her husbands!

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill