September 2010

A Gypsy in the Family

By Geof Lee

Geof gave us an account of the research he had carried out since he discovered he was descended from gypsies.

These people originally came from an area north of Pakistan and spread around the world; no-one seems to know why. Due to their skin colour word spread that they came from Egypt. Approximately 100,000 came to Great Britain.  There is a record of gypsies in Scotland in 1505 and in England in 1514.

Over many years, various Acts of Parliament have been introduced to either control the movement or get rid of these dark skinned people. Examples are:-

1530  Egyptians Act – banned from entering the country, 16 days to leave

1554  Death penalty for remaining longer than one month

1562  Extended to “counterfeit” Egyptians

1596  Poor Law – all Egyptians were rogues or vagabonds

1662   Settlement Act – controlled free movement

1697   Licensing Act – included hawkers and peddlers

1739-44 Various Acts involving imprisonment of gypsies

1783  Egyptians Act repealed

1822  Turnpike Road Act – fines for camping on roads

1824  Vagrancy Act – punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds

1876  Commons Act – closed to gypsies

1885  Housing the Working Classes Act – included tents, vans and hop-pickers

1891  Sanitary Regulations, Public Health Act – included houses, vans and tents

1894  Local Government Act – controlled the use of greens

        1908  Childrens Act – education for gypsy children

About half a million gypsies, particularly from Romania and Germany, were victims of the Holocaust.

Many young people were dealt with by way of child transportation due to their “dark skin, being dirty, having inadequate food, cannibalism, neglect and lack of education”.

Up to the mid 1800s their homes were “bender” tents made from bending ash poles with a waterproof covering. In the late 1800s highly decorated caravans, shaped like bender tents, became popular. With motorisation, wagons were adapted. Some had bathrooms and extending sides. The silver caravans, which are no longer produced, were made by Vickers Trailers to a very high standard. They were sumptuously decorated with cut glass and had all mod cons like fitted kitchens and bathrooms.

A main component of their diet was rabbit particularly as farmers would employ them to trap rabbits damaging their crops.

The Romani language is not a written one; not all gypsies can speak it or understand it.

Many professions often attributed to gypsies include wood working, fortune telling, cutler, horse dealer, hawker, lacemaker, basket maker, hop picker, seller of china goods and scrap metal, peg maker. They were interested in music, some formed professional bands; musician David Essex is now patron of the Gypsy Council. Another aspect of gypsy life was prize fighting, both bare knuckle and with gloves.

As for marriage, first cousins were preferred to second cousins and ceremonies, at one time, involved jumping over a broom or joining hands in front of witnesses or drinking from the same cup then breaking it. Most now marry in church. The four most common surnames for gypsies are Boswell, Smith, Scamp and Lee. Unusual forenames are also common.

Life expectancy for gypsies was shorter than most of the population; for women it was 12 years shorter and 10 for men. Funerals are elaborate affairs with many gypsies attending. They are often buried in unconsecrated ground. Some are buried with their valuables then their caravans are torched.

For those interested in gypsy research, Geof recommended the following sources of information:-


“My Ancestors Were Gypsies” by Sharon Sillers Floate

“Gypsies of Britain” by Brian Vesey Fitzgerald

Various books about gypsy life written by Robert Dawson (available via the internet)


Parish Registers, Censuses, Civil Registration, Settlement Examinations, Memorial Inscriptions, Vagrancy Records, Hawkers and Peddlers Licences, Gypsy collection held at Liverpool University, Romany collection held at Leeds University, Robert Dawson collection held at Reading University.


Romany Genes (

Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month (

The Gordon Boswell Romany Museum ( (You can enjoy a day out in a Romany caravan and a meal cooked in the traditional Romany way at this museum in Spalding.)

Angela Evans