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TIP TWO: Use the descriptions in original records to establish Gypsy ethnicity.

Eric Trudgill    -    3 July 2011

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 TWO: Use the descriptions in original records to establish Gypsy ethnicity.

Sharon Floate helpfully lists four signs of Gypsy ethnicity: a traditional Gypsy surname, like Boswell, Buckland, Lee or Smith; a distinctive Gypsy forename, like Bendigo, Dangerfield and Joiner among the men, or Cinnaminta, Fambridge and Levithan among the women; a typical Gypsy occupation, like among the men various kinds of metal-workers, cane-workers and hawkers; and a typical Gypsy mobility, evidence that the people in question, though they might see out the winter in the same place for a few years, or return to a favourite church for baptisms, marriages and burials, were essentially, until the late 19th century, nomadic, of no fixed abode.

There are of course traps here for the unwary. Gypsy names are often identical to gorjer names: when Gypsies arrived in Britain, they adopted British surnames (like Boswell, Buckland, Lee and Smith), and they adopted common British forenames (eg John and Mary, William and Ann) as well as uncommon British forenames, which may be mistaken for distinctively Gypsy names (eg Major and Richenda). And Gypsies didn’t have a monopoly on certain occupations (you’ll find plenty of gorjer tinkers, basketmakers and hawkers) or a monopoly on mobility and vagrancy (you’ll find plenty of mobile gorjer agricultural labourers and gorjer rogues and vagabonds). But though the four signs of Gypsy ethnicity are rarely conclusive if found in isolation, they are generally reliable when found in combination, and this is why Parish Registers are so crucial, supplying as they do explicit or implicit ethnic descriptions omitted from the big genealogical indexes available on the internet.

Up to the Church Registration reforms of 1813 these descriptions usually identify Gypsies as such, or as Egyptians (Gypsies were so called because they were assumed to have come from Egypt; some of them had), or vagrants, wanderers, itinerants, strollers, ramblers, travellers or strangers: travellers and strangers were of course often respectable gorjers, and vagrants unrespectable gorjers, so with these descriptions you’ll need the secondary information you get from reading Registers (you’ll need to know your cleric in a particular parish, and note the distinction if he writes Gypsy traveller or Gypsy vagrant hi one place and merely traveller or vagrant in another). After the Registration reforms of 1813 the explicit and implicit ethnic descriptions hi Birth Registers were far more numerous and much more detailed: clerics were now required to specify Place of Abode (eg Gypsy itinerant or of no fixed abode) and to specify Profession or Occupation (eg brazier or chairbottomer). After further reforms in 1837 this applied to Marriage Registers as well. And from 1841, and especially 1861, the census supplied supplementary evidence of ethnicity.

Where you find ethnic descriptions, it can instantly solve problems created by the abbreviated transcripts on the internet: in Lincolnshire, for example, from the 1820s to the 1840s there are two families, each headed by a John and Frances Clayton, which are undistinguishable in the big internet indexes but quite distinct in the Registers, one a family of Gypsy travellers, one a family of geographically mobile, gorjer domestic servants. And where you don’t find ethnic descriptions, which is often the case before 1813, the Registers can still illuminate. If you find somebody on the net baptised with the right name, date and area for your 4x great grandfather, and the Register has no ethnic description for him, don’t assume he’s one of the many Gypsies of that period not identified as such. Check the Birth Register for further evidence: whether, for example, it identified someone else as a Gypsy, not a good sign. And check the Burial Register, which your internet index almost certainly ignored: you wouldn’t want your 4x great grandfather to illustrate the high incidence in that period of infant mortality.

Copyright © 2011 Eric Trudgill