On 26th January 1850 the Sherborne Mercury carried a brief article, ‘A Gypsy Funeral,’ recording a burial at Uplyme, Devon:
‘An old woman named Wells, who has been known in the neighbourhood a great number of years, was seized with smallpox about a fortnight ago, whilst encamped near Wootton Fitzpaine, and died on 17th inst. Her remains were enclosed in a coffin ornamented somewhat expensively and followed by seven or eight of her relatives and were interred on the following Saturday at Up-Lyme, where her parents were, some years since, buried, and a stone erected to their memory. Deceased was in her 63rd year and was of the Gypsy family of Smalls. A considerable number of the tribe stood in the churchyard during the burial, but in consideration of the infectious nature of the disease, did not approach the grave.’
The ‘old woman’ was Ruth Wells, wife of James Wells, and the daughter of James and Jane Small, both of whom had indeed been buried at Uplyme in November 1825 and 1833 respectively, nor were they the only family members in the plot, for Ruth’s niece, Keziah Small, the daughter of Moses and Cinderella, had died in infancy, and was buried there just two days after her grandmother, Jane.
In July 1810 Ruth’s parents were recorded in the Dorcester gaol, together with young sons William, 8, and Moses, 5, all charged with vagrancy. James claims to be 54, giving him a birthdate of about 1756, which makes him 14 years older than his wife, Jane, who gives her date of birth as 1770. Along with his general description, giving his height as 5’7″, with very dark hair, and dark complexion and dark blue eyes, is the note that he has had his left hand ‘off at the wrist,’ but he is, nevertheless, a ‘lusty’ rogue and vagabond. When James is buried at Uplyme his birthdate is given as 1759, which is probably nearer the truth; Jane’s remains resolutely as 1770.
Could Jane possibly be the child found in the Dorset removal records for Milton Abbas, where the little family of John Stanley, his wife, and Jane, their daughter, aged about nine months, are removed to Owermoigne on 2nd February 1771? The location and age are persuasive, and this is surely the child baptised at Owermoigne the previous June, as Jenny, the daughter of John and Edith Stanley.
Certainly, we know the families travelled together; in 1824 Moses and Robert Small were charged with vagrancy, along with Benjamin and Owen Stanley, and all four given one month’s hard labour in Dorchester.
However, there are other reasons for contemplating the idea that Ruth’s mother may have been a Stanley, all circumstantial, but taken together may perhaps be persuasive: James Small, Jane and James’ eldest son, married an Elizabeth Stanley in Church Knowle, Dorset, in 1810, and another son, Robert, baptised a daughter with an unusual name, but one favoured by the Stanleys, Elgani/Algenny. The little girl, the daughter of Robert and Charlotte Small, was baptised at Fowey, Cornwall, on 6th March 1811. Her early death, as Algeny Small, is recorded at Knowle St. Giles, in Somerset, ‘aged 17 years.’ In addition, a Benjamin Stanley was also buried at Uplyme, in 1818; the age at death is indistinct, but it appears to be that of a one-year-old child.
Following Ruth’s funeral on 19th January 1850, there was, however, also a cause for celebration, since her son, Robert Wells, ‘a huckster,’ of Sturminster Newton, Dorset, and his wife, Amelia, baptised a little girl with the name of one of his siblings – Matilda.