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TIP TWENTYTWO: Confront the problems caused by missing, or possibly plural, Gypsy names.

Eric Trudgill    -    3 March 2013

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 TWENTYTWO: Confront the problems caused by missing, or possibly plural, Gypsy names.

Genealogists who trace Gypsy families back to the beginning of the eighteenth century and beyond, perhaps don’t spend enough time with Parish Registers, perhaps don’t recognize how invisible most Gypsies were in the Registers before the reforms of 1813. Laying aside the crippling absence of ethnic indicators, there are so many missing names. How common it is with baptisms to find a child identified by forename and surname but not its parents, or the father identified but not the mother or child, or the mother identified but not the father or child, or a child or a parent half-identified, given a forename or a surname but not both, or all three denied all personal identity by the entry consisting of no more than the dateand the much-used formula, “a child of the Egyptians”. How common it is with marriages to find the bridal pair identified but not their parents, let alonethe witnesses. And how common it is with burials to find no more identification for the deceased than “a gypsy child” or “a vagrant”,

Genealogists who rely on the gypsiologists to trace Gypsy families back to the mid eighteenth century, perhaps don’t recognize how elusive many Gypsies were because of their use of plural names. Gypsies would often have three or four forenames: perhaps an official one for gorjers, an informal one for other Gypsies, and a private one for close family. The gypsiologists knew the long-dead Lewis Boswell’s father as Siterus, but didn’t find him in the records because there he was always Bartholomew. Researchers today know from the gypsiologists that Letitia or Taishan Boswell’s father was Anselo, but won’t find either in the records because there they were always Sarah and Joseph.

Many Gypsies didn’t reserve one of their plural forenames for the records: some used two like Elijah Boswell, who several times was recorded as Lazarus, his own baptismal name; some used three like CharlesGray, husband of Charlotte, who also called himself John and Thomas ; and some used four like the father of Timothy Turnit, who mainly called himself Doctor, but was sometimes Timothy, Joseph or Henry, And some Gypsies gave their children plural baptisms with plural baptismal names: George Florence, husband of a Lucy who on at least five occasions called herself Tryphena, christened six children in the normal way; he then christened his daughter, Saney, at least nine times,and, presumably anxious about the clerics who were donating christening presents, gave her four different forenames; he then, presumably no longer anxious, christened his last three children at least 37 times in total without varying their forenames once.

The trick is to recognize the problems caused by missing and plural names, and to deal with them. And to deal with them properly: not by filling in a missing name or “finding” a plural name that solve problems in your research, but aren’t substantiated by circumstantial evidence. Thus if you come across, say, the baptism in 1780 of a nameless “child of Bossell the gypsy” or, say, the baptism in 1823 of a surname-less Sarah “daughter of a gypsy”, don’t ignore them as unusable or foist on them a convenient identity; look for proper evidence that might supply the right one, that might genuinely fill in the missing names. And if you come across a James and Dinah Boswell, a Noah and Dinah Boswell, a Samson and Dinah Boswell and an Othea and Dinah Boswell, all Gypsies, christening children in Cheshire 1860-94, don’t ignore them or foist on them convenient identities; look for proper evidence that might establish if there were plural namesamong them, and thereby which children were the offspring of which parents. I’ll offer my take on these particular cases and others similar to them in the next two months.

Copyright © 2013 Eric Trudgill