Lace and Prophecies

in 1907, on 25th July, the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported on a case of fortune telling involving a Gypsy named Britannia Manley:

Florence Tytherleigh, domestic servant . . . stated that the prisoner called at the house, in the absence of her master and mistress, and tried to sell her some lace. She refused, whereupon [the Gypsy] said it would be better for her in the end of she bought some. She eventually purchased some lace for 1/6d, and handed the prisoner 2/6d. The woman then wanted to tell the witness her fortune, and taking her hand made certain statements. Witness demanded the 1/- change from the 2/6d, but [the Gypsy] went away without paying. When charged, the prisoners declared that she kept the money for lace purchased by the girl.

Britannia Manley was sentenced for one month, with hard labour. An unremarkable story, but seven months later another event created much interest in the prophecies made to Florence Tytherleigh, who was employed by Walter Hellier, a miller, of Forton Mills. The Western Times recalled the Gypsy’s fortune telling and the subsequent events in its story of 22nd February 1908:

She said Tytherleigh’s mistress was in an asylum and would never come home again, that her master was very fond of her and that she (the maid) was very fond of him; that he would ask her to go on a long journey across the seas with him, and would make her a handsome present.

[Britannia] took her sentencing with ill-concealed rage. Turning to Tytherleigh she declared, ‘you will come to bad for telling wilful lies, and when I come out I will make you bad for it.’ The amazon was then taken away in custody.

The circumstances of the case have now been recalled by a sensation in the little Hamlet of Forton, where the parties lived, for about a fortnight ago both Mr. Hellier and his maid servant, and the former’s two children, suddenly disappeared, and a letter since received by his friends, and written on ship’s notepaper, indicates beyond doubt that the pair are indeed taking a long journey to a foreign country. For some time previously it had been remarked that Mr. Hellier seemed to be turning a lot of things into cash, and this was undoubtedly the case, unfortunately for his creditors, who, it is alleged, are somewhat numerous . . . a sale of the miller’s effects by a trustee appointed by the creditors is announced, and the affair has caused a great sensation in the neighbourhood.

Perhaps the prophecy had given the couple the idea, but the prophecy, nevertheless, occasioned a certain amount of local fame for Britannia Manley. She was born Britannia Roberts, the daughter of Frederick and Rebecca, in about 1866, probably in America, and her known siblings were Mary Ann, born c1855; James, baptised 28th March 1858 at Perranarworthall, Cornwall; Sarah, baptised at South Perrott, Dorset, on 13th November 1859; William born c1862; Mark, born about 1864, like his sister, in America; Thomas, as with all the later siblings, was born in Devon c1868; Henry was born c1870; Martha in about 1872; Trinet in the spring of 1874; Joseph about two years later. These last two children were baptised together at the church of St. Mary, Uffculme, Devon, on 23rd April 1876, as Trynet and Joseph, children of Frederic and Rebecca, a brick-maker.

Frederick and Rebecca can be found in the 1881 census camping at Bridport, Dorset, with children William, Mark, Britannia, Thomas, Henry, Martha, Trinet and Joseph. (There was to be a later addition to the family, Christopher Roberts, born after the census.) Together with these Roberts in 1881 was a James Cooper, his wife, Sarah, and their little son, William. Surely Sarah is the daughter baptised in 1859 and the little William Cooper a grandson of Frederick and Rebecca Roberts.

Frederick and Rebecca Robert’s daughter, Britannia, formed a union with Powers Manley, born in about 1864, who, as a young man of 22 or so, had joined the Fourth Battalion Devonshire Regiment; by 1891, however, he is recorded in the census at Crewkerne, Somerset as a licensed hawker. Here can also be found Britannia, incorrectly listed as Elizabeth, and the couple’s first known child, an Elizabeth, aged one. In addition, there is Powers’ aged mother, recorded as Emily, but actually Matilda, a widow and licensed hawker, with son Charles and grandson Henry. Powers’ brother, James, is also camped with the rest of the family, together with his wife, Sophia, and children Sophia, Henry, Phillis and James.

Powers and Britannia were to have a relatively large family and the 1911 census finds them at Blackdown Crewkerne, Wayford, Somerset, with daughter Bessie, as well as a daughter with a name transcribed as Plumes (actually Fiance, the name of Britannia’s sister-in-law), Matilda, named for Powers’ mother, Henry, Eliza, William, Martha, James and Maly. The West Country was home territory and in 1911 three of Britannia’s brothers, Thomas, Henry and Mark, are also recorded in the region. Mark is at Wellington, Somerset, described as a horse dealer, together with wife Frances (Fiance), and children Henry, named for his brother, Mark, Joe, the name of another brother, Sophia, Frances and Rebecca, his mother’s name.

Britannia’s brother Thomas is at South Molton, Devon, with his wife Defiance, formerly Orchard, with eight children, also named with reference to the wider family: Mark, Rebecca, Frederick, Sophia, Caroline, Thomas, Joseph and Christopher. But by far the largest family is that of Henry Roberts and his wife, Caroline. In 1911 they are encamped in a field at St. Teath, Cornwall, with children James, Fred, Thomas, William, Mark, Joseph, Edwin, Janey, Martha, Robert, Defiance and Benjamin.

Although Powers occasionally made the newspapers, particularly in the winter of 1895, when food may have been scarce, he never achieved his wife Britannia’s fame. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 3rd January 1895 however recorded a brief court appearance, when ‘Bob Orchard and Powers Manley [were charged] with trespassing in search of conies on Luppitt Common; they were fined 14/- inclusive.’ In February the same newspaper noted that ‘Powers Manley, a Gypsy, was summoned for trespassing in pursuit of game. Fined 2/6d and costs of 13/6d.’ Britannia had a brief skirmish with the law in 1899, which the Devon Journal of 26th October reported, ‘two Gypsies, Emma Cooper and Britannia Manley, who hawk baskets throughout North Devon, were charged at Taunton, with stealing £11 in gold and a silver watch and chain, the property of Bessie Notley . . . by means of a trick.’ Of course, the trick was fortune telling, but it was Emma Cooper, rather than Britannia, who was considered the chief miscreant, and the case against Britannia was dismissed.

The case of 1906 eventually brought Britannia much notoriety, but after that, and the subsequent events of 1907, it seems to have been relatively quiet; both Powers and Britannia continued to live in the West Country, with only brief references to their attendance at family funerals, and both had long lives: Powers’ death is recorded in the registration district Honiton, Devon in the December Quarter of 1951, aged 87 and Britannia’s in the December Quarter of 1956 in the registration district of Devon central, claiming to be 92 years of age, which was, after all, only two years out.