Share this page

TIP NINETEEN: When tracing a Gypsy family, be wary of identical names.

Eric Trudgill    -    3 December 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 NINETEEN: When tracing a Gypsy family, be wary of identical names.

Every Romany family arriving in Britain in the late 1400s soon adopted a British gorjer surname, and every indigenous Briton who took up travelling had a gorjer surname from birth. It follows you always need to be sure your Lee or Smith, say, was a Gypsy Lee or Smith. Every Romany family soon used common gorjer forenames, as well as uncommon ones or exotic ones of their own invention, and non-Romany travellers, until they’d been absorbed into Romany culture, used predominantly common gorjer forenames. It follows you always need to be sure a John Lee or Mary Smith you’ve found is the one you’re looking for. A Boswell pedigree has been published whose core blood-line involves a John Boswell, baptised in 1662, whose son John had a John, who married two Marys and had a John, who married a Mary and had a John, who married a Mary in 1780 and had a John, with no documentaryproof that any of these were Gypsies, let alone the right ones. This isn’t a style of genealogy I would recommend.

It’s risky making assumptions about Gypsies, actual or alleged, with a common forename, but it can be just as risky when the forename is uncommon, like, for example, Major. The gypsiologist, TW Thompson, saw the burial of a Major Lovell in 1875 in the grave used 24 days earlier for his son, Louis, as disproving the view of the gypsiologist, George Hall, that this was the same Major Lovell as the husband of Anna Twigg and father of George and Arkles, the Major who’d died in 1853. But Thompson himself was wrong, not knowing that the Major Lovell who married Rosanna Twigg was a third one and had died in 1865. What neither of these brilliant genealogists had allowed for was the tendency of uncommon names to run in families: Major, father of George and Arkles, was baptised in 1779, son of a fourth Major baptised in 1748, and he was the brother of a William (father of a fifth Major baptised in 1821), and the cousin of another William (father of a Major by each of his two wives -- one, baptised in 1807, was the father of Louis, and the other, born about 1827, was the husband of Rosanna Twigg).

Uncommon forenames ran in families (and in some cases are still running): for example Salathiel in the Boswells, Purify in the Bucklands, Damon in the Lees, Diverus in the Smiths, Levi and Mary Defiance in the Burtons, Damaris and Siberetta in the Fletchers, Esau and Shadrach in the Scarrotts, Diaphaney and Vandelo in the Stanleys. And because such distinctive forenames ran in families, they’re a boon to experienced Gypsy genealogists, a genetic marker distinguishing one family from another with the same surname: you find Salathiel only in Viney Boswell’s, Purify only in Barrington Buckland’s, Damon almost exclusively in the Hampshire/Sussex Lees, Diverus almost exclusively in the Northamptonshire Smiths, and so forth. But because such distinctive forenames ran in families, they’re a hazard for inexperienced Gypsy genealogists, a trap for the unwary: if you’re looking for someone with, you think, a uniquely unmistakeable name, and you settle for the first you find with roughly the right date and place of birth, you may settle for the cousin, uncle/aunt or nephew/niece of the one you really want.

Uncommon names are especially treacherous when they come in a husband and wife combination. You’re not likely to muddle the Elisha and Phyllis Lee, who christened children in Kent 1733-39, with the Elisha and Phyllis Lee who christened a child in Buckinghamshire in 1787 aged 17; or to muddle the Elisha and Tryphena Cooper, who christened children 1795-1809, with the Elisha and Tryphena Cooper who christened a child in 1860. But plenty of people have muddled the Mackenzie and Matilda Boswell who christened children in the West Midlands 1867-73 with the Mackenzie and Matilda Boswell who christened children in the Stockport area 1881-89. Plenty of people have muddled the Zachariah and Charlotte Lee who christened a child in Suffolk in 1830, claiming to be of Romford, Essex, with the Zachariah and Charlotte Lee who, according to the census, had a daughter born in Essex about 1834. And plenty of people have muddled the Wisdom and Hannah Smith, who christened children in Lincolnshire 1837-50, with the Wisdom and Hannah Smith who christened children in Lincolnshire 1844-66. In the next two months I’ll suggest ways of avoiding this kind of muddle.

Copyright © 2012 Eric Trudgill