By A. Brodribb Morgan.
Can you remember seeing years ago that gipsy encampment in the New Forest? A rare sight, nowadays! If you did, and you were very cautious, your eyes beheld a muddle of crazy caravans (the 'Keir vardo' or gipsy waggon), some two-wheeled traps, a rude tent or so, broken-winded horses, mules and donkeys, with a couple of lurcher dogs playing with half-naked little brown urchins.
Watching a copper stewpot over the fire was the only woman visible, an evil-looking toothless old crone. All the other women were away, either peddling their wares or telling fortunes to credulous servants and others at back doors at sixpence a time. You noticed several men sitting cross-legged, expertly with their knives (chiris) making skewers and clothes-pegs, singing as they worked in the old Romany tongue;
Can you speak the Roman tongue?
Can you play the fiddle?
Can you eat the prison loaf?
Can you cut and whittle?
This work is known as 'chinning the cost'. Other occupations are basket and mat-making, tinkering, with seasonable jobs like hopping and fruit-picking. Last but not least, horse coping or faking. A fiddler was the aristocrat of the road.
Go into some of our large towns, into their obscure slums. There they are, not living, but merely existing, pale-faced, hollow-cheeked, and listness. Ask Puro Rom (the old man), he will say;
Don't ask me, Rai. We forget we are sons of Egypt. We try to live like the white-mouthed Gorgios do ... It means death to us.
Then comes spring. A budding crocus gives the signal. The gipsies load up their carts with pots, pans, brushes, and mats. The boys and girls sing a hymn to the sun. The long 'trek' commences.
On April 23rd (St. George's Day) in Eastern Europe gipsies held high festival. It was the feast of the 'Copper Pans'. That day fiddles and dancers kept company. That night torchlight processions wound through the woods, with music and song. Spring was in the air.
But 'other times, other manners', a Wessex gipsy king, William Johns, said in 1930;
Our race is dying out. In a few year's time there will be hardly an encampment left.
Let 'Puro Rom' continue the gipsies lament;
Nowadays life is too rapid for us. We cannot keep up with the speed ... Horses? ... Mules? ... The motor-car has come now. Even we poor Romanies travel the country in saloon cars! ... Oh! they were good old days when the world went slower. We gipsies have a devil of a time nowadays, what with the police, the Customs officers, the tax collectors, and the rest.
Gipsies are very proud of their ancestry. They claim to be the 'chals' (sons) and the 'chies' (daughters) of Rome. The half-breeds are the 'Churdi'. People like you and I are merely 'Gorgios'. Of remote Egyption origin, they came over from France in 1480. A 'race apart', they were regarded by suspicion. Penal legislation made life very difficult for the tribe in the reign of Elizabeth. Regarded as Spanish spies and disguised Romish priests, 'chals' were executed, 'chies' were branded. An Act dated 1530 stated;
That all outlandish people calling themselves Egyptions were to be refused entry at the ports.
The 1534 Act declared that;
No gipsy shall remain in England after 20 days from the proclamation of the Act, except those Egyptions who shall leave their idle, naughty, and ungodly life and serve some honest householder.
The 1563 Act went further in saying that;
No-one to continue one month in any company of vagabonds commonly called Egyptions. (Repealed 1783)
Sometimes the Church was kinder than the State. Under the heading of 'Lone of vessels' in the Yeovil Churchwardens Accounts an entry of 1564 (since nearly deleted);
Received of the Gipsians for the Parish House (called the Corner House) ... (deleted) via ... (deleted) ...
Martock Church Records read;
Baptism - Oct. 4, 1624. Elizabeth, daughter of Cornish Eqyptians.
In more tolerant times (i.e., the 19th century) a lady born 1837 recalled a camping ground in a lane always used by gipsies, called Burden's Ash, near Creech St. Michael (West Somerset).
Gipsies elect kings. In Hampshire there are at least two graves of kings, of Joseph Lee, died 1844, at Beaulieu, and Richard Stanley at Highcliffe. In Wiltshire, at Calne, on a stone built on to the church wall, one reads;
King of the Gipsies, Ivor Boswell, died 1744.
A Somerset farmer's son, for love's sake, gave up kindred and prospects, and became a gipsy 'King' in course of years. His Romany wife lies at Yatton Churchyard, and the words run;
Here lies Merrily Jowles,
A beauty bright;
She left Isaac Jowles,
Her heart's delight.
Stanley is a well-known New Forest name among the Romanies, but there are others, e.g. Boswell, Cooper, Chilcoot, Lovell, Young, etc. The names below frequently occur in 'The Gipsies Greeting';
Who's your mother, who's your father?
Do thous answer me in Romany,
And I will answer thee.
A Hearne I have for mother,
A Cooper for my father.
Who's your father, who's your mother?
I've answered thee in Romany,
Now do thou answer me.
A Smith I have for father,
A Lee I have for mother.
True Romans both are we,
For I've answered thee in Romany
And thou hast answered me.
Gipsies are skilled herbalists. They love animals, they make pets of snakes. A gipsy boy was forcibly feeding one with small frogs when Eva Booth (the present Salvation Army General) stormily intervened.
How can you do such a wicked thing? Have you no idea, boy, that it is a sin to be so cruel to God's creatures?
The urchin - flabbergasted - fled. That same bright lad was much more successful in dodging a school attendance officer. He scented danger, and, armed only with a catapult, made such excellent practice that the enemy was vanquished.
What are 'patrins'? Said a Romany 'chal;
Patrins is the signs we gipsies leave to guide them who follows after. We flings handfuls of grass down at the bend of the road we takes, or we makes with the finger a cross-mark on the ground, or we sticks up branches of trees by the side of the hedge. But the true 'patrins' is handfuls of grass flung down, for 'patrin' or 'patten' in the old Roman language is the leaf of a tree.
The Romany way to cook a fowl is to tie it up - feathers and all - in a coating of clay, put it in the fire for little over half-an-hour. When burnt feathers and clay are removed, and the inside waste taken away, it is a food good enough for a queen to eat without salt.
A gipsy urchin was begging a halfpenny, his mother, sitting near, called out - in English;
Leave off, you dog; come here, don't trouble the gentleman.
She added (in Romany);
Beg on, brother!
With the result that the gentleman in desperation flung a sixpence at the youngster.
The 'chies' are adept in fortune-telling, and sometimes are weirdly accurate.
A friend living near Bournemouth told the writer the following, stating emphatically that,
Each time the gipsies called they asked for, were told, and were given nothing.
At each visit the introductory sentence ran;
I have come to give you a message.
In her young girlhood days a gipsy, crossing her path, told her that her life would be successful. Ultimately a happy marriage would ensue. The second experience was at her New Forest home. The 'chie' - a complete stranger - told her that shortly she would be journeying to a distant land of great mountains and rivers, a hot country. In a fortnight - quite unexpectedly - she was on her way to Kenya. That prediction was verified in full.
Only recently, in her home near Bournemouth, a third stranger materialised, calling three times. Again the strange introduction! The 'message' was that 'though the young lady had refused offers of marriage, saying 'No! No! No!' the time had now come to say 'Yes' to the lover still wooing her and waiting (This was correct). In reply to questions, she happily exhibited her engagement ring, exclaiming;
We shall be very happy, I know, I know!
She recalled that the 'chies' had every time called her 'My chie' (my daughter). Her great-grandfather had happily married a Romany. Since that time the young lady has married!
With Thanks To:
The British Newspaper Archives
Original Article/Image Copyright:
Image © Local World Limited. Image created courtesy of The British Library Board.
The Western Gazette and Flying Post - Friday, 16th June 1939
Click here to view the original page @ The British Newspaper Archives.