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Friday, 14 February 2014

Tracing the Family Gypsies

My grandmother was Romany and when I set about finding my ancestors, I thought it would be difficult.  Being as they didn't settle anywhere until the last nineteenth century, and being as they had their own traditions and didn't comply with the legal ones, I thought they would be impossible.

I joined and found many of my Lee relatives had been there before me and already done most of the work.  I was fascinated by the way they lived, having each many children, sometimes as many as eighteen or nineteen, and they travelled about the country living in tents.  The romantic notion of a Romany Vardo, which is the traditional painted wooden caravan, was not for my family alas.  They were reserved for the wealthier romanies as far as I can work out.

I picked up a little booklet at the Public Records Office in London called "Tracing your Gypsy Ancestors" which said that throughout the nineteenth century, the church would pay the gypsies to have their children baptised.  So the Romanies would go about different parishes having the same child baptised!  Served the church right for trying to interfere with other traditions and cultures.

The word 'gypsy' comes from the early census records where nobody really knew where they originated and the census takers would put 'Egyptian'.  This got shortened to gypsy over the years, but it is far more likely that they originally came from India some time in the sixteenth century, although nobody knows for sure.

It seems that my great grandfather, Sampson Lee, and his brothers and sisters, of which there were many, were among the first of the family to settle in houses and they chose the Bethnal Green area of London.  This is where most of the census records take us but Sampson himself was probably born on Wimbledon Common - no, he wasn't a Womble!

The records show the whole family living in tents in places like the Common, Hampstead Heath, Wanstead Flats, and other such commons around the London area.  A direct ancestor, my great-great-grandfather's grandather, one Duke Lee, was hanged in 1766 at Maidstone Prison for horse theft, which is an interesting snippet to find in one's family tree.

It also appeared that many of the men among the tribes lived to be well into their nineties and died in workhouses.  I believe that was deliberate, that they were too old to travel and fancies dying in a bed.  We shall never know, but it is fascinating anyway.

Another fascinating fact, which would have horrified my very moral mother, was that many of them had children before they married.  Her own grandparents, Sampson and Jane Sophia Lee, had four children before their marriage, all of whom sadly died, and her great grandmother, Isabella, was pregnant when she married in 1827.

Isabella is a bit of a mystery, at least I think she is.  The last census entry for her appears to be the 1841 census and the birth of a son in the same year.  The next census record, in 1851 has her husband living with their children and a woman called Elizabeth, named as his wife.  There is no further mention of Isabella until a death registered in 1869 from another address.  I have no way of knowing if this is the same Isabella, if the couple separated, or if she is buried in the garden somewhere, now under an office building.  But she is nowhere to be found in the 1861 census, so it is something of a mystery.

I think it is a great shame that my mother died before the advent of the internet.  She would have loved all this, and I could have asked her about Isabella.


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