On 1st May 1845 at Wimborne Minster in Dorset a Gypsy woman named Sylvia (Selbea) Fletcher was laid to rest, ‘aged 89.’ She was actually just 85, having been baptised at Hampreston, Dorset, on 20th May 1760, daughter of Peter and Sarah Stanley, but had, nonetheless, survived to what was a great age for the time.
Selbea’s father, ‘a razor grinder and tinker,’ had been subject to a settlement hearing at Corfe Castle, Dorset, in May 1792, where he named his seven children as William, Selbea, Aaron, Peter, Sabra, Paul and Henry. (Gypsies frequently alternated the pronunciation of a ‘v’ with a ‘b’.) Most of these children were, like their parents, to make the county of Dorset their home, travelling the villages, and when Peter died in 1802 he was buried at St. Mary’s church, in the village of Puddletown, Dorset; his headstone read ‘Peter Standley (sic), King of the Gypsies.’ This title, such as it was, referred to significant tribal leaders, rather than ideas of majesty, but the Gypsy population was quite happy to let it stand.
Selbea appears to have moved between Hampshire, where her father had been born, and Dorset, as two vagrancy records of the period attest to. She was apprehended as ‘Silvia’ Stanley on 8th December 1777 in Southampton and removed to Little Canford, Dorset, and, three years later, together with cousins Clarinda and Caroline, appeared at the Winchester quarter sessions, charged with being a rogue and vagabond. Hampshire was also the location for her marriage to William Fletcher, at Millbrook in June 1781, where her name is recorded as ‘Silby.’
The couple were to have a considerable family, their first child, Gentillia, was baptised in Hampshire, but the remaining ten were all baptised in the villages of Dorset, and four of her daughters, Kezia, Jemima, Kerenhappuch and Matilda, married into the local population and adopted a settled life.
Preference for the county of Dorset meant that Selbea continued to remain in contact with her family, as well as her extended family. At Wimborne Minster a cousin, William Stanley, and his wife Repentance baptised a son, Josiah, in 1811, and it was also to be the location where Selbea’s husband, William Fletcher, was buried a dozen years before her death, in the June of 1833. He claimed birth in 1747, but this was likely to be as much as eight years out, and he is probably the William Fletcher, son of William,baptised in 1755.
The same year that Selbea/Sylvia was buried at Wimborne Minster a grand-daughter, Matilda, child of Paul and Sarah Fletcher, married there, as did three of her sisters, Selina, Louisa and Emma. In 1846 there was another family burial at Wimborne Minster, Selbea’s daughter Kerenhappuch, who had married a local postman, William Mitchell, died aged just 49.
Although at least two of her daughters, Gentillia and Sarah, and two of her sons, Paul and Henry, continued to travel, Paul had a limited beat, confining himself to the villages of Dorset and he can be found from the 1851 census until his death in 1889, at Wimborne Minster, where he plied the trade of tinman, brazier and grinder. In 1851 his eldest son, William, was working as a rat catcher and daughters Selina and Mary as ‘outdoor servants,’ almost certainly working on a local farm.
Paul had declared himself to be 99 years of age at his death, but he was actually in his 90th years, having lived into extreme old age; he was buried at Wimborne Minster, as his wife, Sarah, had been in 1884, ‘aged 78.’
Perhaps the greatest change in the lives of Selbea’s descendants was not that some became part of the settled community, but that some of her grand-children went further afield, to America, or to London, and some, like her grandson Henry, would become a cattle dealer with a comfortable income. The most extraordinary social change in the Victorian era was that of three of Jemima’s daughters, who received an education at a local charity school, went to London and eventually married into the social elite.
Selbea’s grand-daughter Catherine, determined and intelligent, with a sense of adventure, was to find a position for herself at a riding school off Oxford Street, London, run by the famous jockey Jem Mason. Soon she and her two sisters, Susan and Mary, were performing as equestriennes at Astley’s Amphitheatre.
It is unlikely that Selbea would have been surprised at the skills themselves, Gypsies were well known for their affinity with horses and the sisters would, in spite of living a settled life, have surely known and spent time with their many Gypsy relatives, who also favoured the county. What would have amazed her, however, would have been the marriage into the social elite that all three young women forged – and Catherine most of all, for she was to wed one of the richest young men in England, George Harry Grey, the Earl of Stamford and Warrington.
The story of Selbea’s family and the life of her remarkable grand-daughter, the Countess of Stamford and Warrington, is now available to buy online. The Gypsy Countess can be purchased from the Romany & Traveller Family History Society (see their website) or through the Genfair website, price £16.00 plus p & p.