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V0016271 A physician examining a gypsy child with a stethoscope outsi Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A physician examining a gypsy child with a stethoscope outside a tent on the side of the road. Halftone by Swain after W. Small, 1898. 1898 By: William Small and Swain.Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Gypsies Tramps and Thieves

Gypsies tramps and thieves
We’d hear it from the people of the town
They’d call us gypsies tramps and thieves
But every night all the men would come around
And lay their money down

~Gypsies Tramps and Thieves by Cher 1971

Gypsy and Romani Travellers

A unique people, the Romani do not have the tradition of a homeland, but rather their culture has a history of freedom and travelling from one locale to another with no ties or origins. They are a tight knit community who are thought to have originated in Northern India, making their way to Europe and then Britain somewhere around a thousand years ago. They have since migrated to the Americas with over a million Roma in the United States and an equally significant number in South America. Today, there are an estimated 12 million Romani or Gypsies living around the world.

The Romani culture values family above all. Marriage often occurs at an early age, and some traditional families still follow the practice of the men’s family paying a bride price to the woman’s family. Their language has its linguistic roots in Sanskrit and speakers often inherit words from the countries they live in making for many different dialects or versions of the Romani language. They follow many religions, from Catholicism and Protestantism to Muslim and Hindi. But despite this diversity, the Romani people have many common customs and are often employed as peddlers or traders of livestock or some other easily transferable occupation.

Although historically, they were sometimes referred to as dirty gypsies by outsiders, in practice, the culture has a long history of strict codes of cleanliness that guide their behaviours and they often regard non-gypsies as unclean. Equally, the gypsies were often regarded by society as tramps and thieves, although in reality, they were under represented in the criminal system.

A farmer considers a Gypsy good watch dog whilst the latter lingers around his premises; but a ‘neighbour’ he looks upon as being well worth watching. 1Sheffield Iris – Tuesday 18 October 1842 – page 3.

The first known Romany Gypsy appeared in Britain in the early sixteenth century. They were distrusted, perhaps because of their foreign appearance, and in 1530, Henry VIII ordered their expulsion from the kingdom and forbid them to re-enter. By 1554, the death penalty was imposed for any Gypsy who did not leave the country within the month.  Despite the persecutions, and the attempts by authorities to regulate the lives of the Romani people, many chose to remain in England, often keeping to themselves in travelling communities who camped in the countryside, away from society’s rules.

In 1881, the following Gypsy family was enumerated during the census in Symondsbury, Dorset. If Charles and Mary Hodges were really only aged 10 and 12 respectively when their daughter Alice was born, this would serve to reinforce the idea that the Romani culture married very early, perhaps even as children:

  • Charles Hodges, head, married, aged 40, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Mary Hodges, wife, married, aged 42, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Alice Hodges, daughter, unmarried, aged 30, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Mary Hodges, daughter, unmarried, aged 26, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Lucey Hodges, daughter, unmarried, aged 24, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Sarah Hodges, daughter, unmarried, aged 22, , Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Jane Hodges, daughter, unmarried, aged 20, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Charles Hodges, son, unmarried, aged 18, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • John Hodges, son, unmarried, aged 15, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • Joseph Hodges, son, unmarried, aged 13, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire
  • George Hodges, son, unmarried, aged 11, Traveller (Gypsy) Hawker, born in Hampshire 21881 Census: Class: RG11; Piece: 2125; Folio: 33; Page: 27; GSU roll: 1341513

Gypsy Lore Society


Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society

In 1888, the Gypsy Lore Society was founded in Britain with Mr. C. G. Leland as President and Mr. D. MacRitchie, of Edinburgh as Secretary. The Society published a journal beginning in July of that year, in an effort to circulate accurate information about the Romani and Gypsy Travellers and to dispel the rumours that had been circulating for many decades such as the following account from 1816:

THE GYPSIES. Of late years some attempts have been made to reduce the numbers, or at any rate to civilize the habits, of that vagabond and useless race, the Gipsies. In pursuance of such purpose, society gentlemen have been making all the preliminary enquiries requisite to a proper understanding of the subject. series of questions has been proposed competent persons in the different counties in England and Scotland and answers have been received. Our readers will, we think, be amused with the following specimens of these answers:
  • Gipsies suppose the first of them came from Egypt.
  • They cannot form any idea of the number in England.
  • The Gipsies of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, parts of Buckinghamshire. Cambridge, and Huntingdonshire, are continually making revolutions within the range of those counties.
  • They are either ignorant of the number of Gipsies the counties through which they travel, or unwilling disclose their knowledge.
  • The most common names are Smith, Cooper, Draper, Taylor, Bosswel, Lee, Lovell, Loversedge, Allen, Mansfield, Glover, Williams, Martin, Stanley, Buckley, Plunkett, and Corrie.
  • The gangs in different towns not any regular connexion or organization; but those who take up their winter quarters in the same city, or town, appear to have some knowledge of the different routes each horde will pursue; probably with design prevent interference.
  • In the county of Herts it computed there may sixty families having many children. Whether they are quite so numerous in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Northamptonshire, the answers are not sufficiently definite to determine. In Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire. Wiltshire, and Dorsetshire, greater numbers are calculated upon. various counties, the attention has not been competent to the procuring data for any estimate of families or individuals.
  • More than half their number follow no business : others are dealers in horses and asses; farriers, smiths, tinkers, braziers, grinders of cutlery, basket makers, chair-bottomers, and musicians.
  • Children are brought up in the their parents, particularly to music and dancing, and are of dissolute conduct.
  • The women mostly carry baskets with trinkets and small wares: and tell fortunes, Too ignorant to have acquired accounts of genealogy, and perhaps indisposed by the irregularity of their habits.
  • In most counties there are particular situations to which they are partial. In Berkshire is a marsh, near Newbury, much frequented by them; and Dr. Clarke states, that Cambridgeshire their principal rendezvous near the western villages. It cannot ascertained whether, from their first coming into the nation, attachment to particular places has prevailed.
  • When among strangers, they elude inquiries respecting their peculiar language, calling it gibberish. Don’t know of any person that can write it, or of any written specimen of it.
  • Their habits and customs in all places are peculiar.
  • Those who profess any religion represent to that of the country in which they reside; but their description of it seldom goes beyond repeating the Lord’s Prayer and only few of them are capable of that. Instances of their attending anyplace of worship are very rare.
  • They marry for the most part pledging to each other, without any ceremony. A few exceptions have occurred when money was plentiful.
  • They teach their children no religion.  3Cambridge Chronicle and Journal – Friday 26 July 1816, page 4


1Sheffield Iris – Tuesday 18 October 1842 – page 3.
21881 Census: Class: RG11; Piece: 2125; Folio: 33; Page: 27; GSU roll: 1341513
3Cambridge Chronicle and Journal – Friday 26 July 1816, page 4
  1. Another good post. Thanks!

    I have one bit of family lore that references Gypsies, though I have no idea if is even remotely true. My mother told me that when my great-grandfather was a young boy living in Lithuania his family had a white pony. One day a group of Gypsies came along while my great-grandfather was alone, tending the pony. They supposedly bought the pony from him for what must have seemed to him to have been an enormous amount of money. His parents were not the least bit pleased when they found out. I don’t know if or how he was punished, or if the family ever saw the pony again.

    1. It could well be a true story since I believe that a lot of the Gypsies made a living by trading in horses or similar occupations that they could do while pursuing a nomadic lifestyle. No doubt your great-grandfather was in quite a bit of trouble over it. My own family lore about Gypsies comes from my mother who believes that a set of coral beads passed down from her great-grandmother from Sheffield were originally owned by a Gypsy Queen. It always sounded like such a romantic tale that I’ve chosen to believe it. I recently learned that in nineteenth century Sheffield, another term for a community sale or bazaar was a ‘Gypsy Encampment’, so now I find myself wondering if the story of the Gypsy Queen might have grown from that.

      1. How lovely to have an heirloom with such a good story attached!

        It’s interesting to me that the community bazaar was called a “Gypsey Encampment.” It would be fun to learn the history behind that. Do you think these events evolved from market days prior to the industrial revolution? Or were they more along the lines of a community fund raiser?

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