Barbara Lee *

In August 1864 the London Evening Standard, along with several other London and national newspapers, reported on the death of a Gypsy, Barbara Lee, and the subsequent inquest at the Greyhound Tavern, Old Ford Road, Victoria Park, which leads into Bethnal Green. She was described as ‘a celebrated member of the Gypsy tribe, aged 90 years, who died in a Gypsy tent.’

Actually Barbara, who claimed that she had been born c1792 in Kent, declared that she was 69 years of age in the 1861 census, so her death just three years after this meant that she was actually 72 at the time of her demise at Bethnal Green, Middlesex, on 20th August. The newspapers offer considerable detail:

The body of the deceased was lying on the cold turf covered with a white sheet . . . the first witness was Keziah Lee, a young Gypsy, who said that she was a traveller and had no settled residence. Witness was the wife of Benjamin Lee, a Gypsy who attended races and fairs, and obtained a livelihood by keeping ‘Aunt Sallys’ and ‘Cockshies.’ The deceased was a widow and witness was her daughter-in-law . . . On Saturday night the deceased ate a hearty supper in her tent, and there were several persons present who slept there all night. There was a fire burning until the morning. About eight o’clock the witness awoke and heard the deceased making a gurgling noise in the throat. The witness got up and ran for Dr. Davey, who immediately attended and pronounced life extent.

It is possible that Barbara had been born a Lee, as a baptism in November 1791 in Faversham, Kent, may be hers. What we know for sure, however, is that she had borne the name of Lee for some time, since her first and second husbands were both members of this tribe. Her first husband was Edward Lee, son of Christopher Lee and Lucy Scamp, and together they had three children, Eliza, who was born in Sussex in 1808, Edward in Kent in 1811, and Barbara in 1813, baptised at Eastbourne in Sussex. We know, too, that the younger Edward formed a partnership with a Charlotte, with whom he had several children. The 1851 census recorded the family in Lewisham with Gentila, 14; Mizellie, 12; Patience, 9; Charles, 5; Leonard, 3; Samuel, an infant. Leonard was to die young, but the couple were to have another son, Solomon, in 1856.

Barbara’s second husband was William Lee, the son of David Lee and Sophia Stanley, who had been baptised in Hertfordshire in 1792. The couple had seven known children, using names that were considerably more creative than those of Barbara’s first family, between 1816 and 1825: Miselle, Methuselah, Sampson, Dyphaney, Solomon, William and Dangerfield. Dangerfield, who also used the name Benjamin, is the son who was present in the camp when Barbara died, and Keziah, his wife, had also been a Lee before their union.

Three years earlier, at Mile End Old Town in 1861, Barbara, a widow, had been with another son, Sampson, himself a widower, and his family, Joseph, 17; Cinderella, 16; Fambridge, 12; William, 8, in a tent. In an adjoining tent is her daughter Miselli, and her husband, William (Plato) Boswell. Sampson/Samuel had baptised his family, together with his sister’s daughter, in 1850, when Miselli and Plato (a grinder), took Betty to the church in Folkestone, Kent. Samson/Samuel (a tinker), with his wife Patholenia (Parthenia), baptised an entire brood: Deana/Dianna, Cinderella, Joseph and Phambridge (Fambridge). Their youngest son, William, was born in 1853 at Bow Common, Middlesex, where his mother, Parthenia Lee, died in 1855. Subsequently, Sampson would go on to partner a Siberanie.

One confusion that has arisen is with Barbara, born c1792, and her daughter, another Barbara Lee, born in 1813; Barbara, daughter of Barbara, married a Thomas Rossiter in Canterbury, Kent, on 21st October 1833. This has led some to conclude that the elder Barbara’s maiden name was Rossiter.

Thomas Rossiter was also a traveller, described as such in various baptismal records, as well as, on occasion, a labourer, and sometimes a toy seller. Their family was considerable, and the 1861 census records them in Kent with James, Caroline, Sally, Harriet, Naomi, Thomas, Walter, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jacob. together with a twenty-year-old James Lee.

And Barbara Lee? The inquest returned a verdict of natural causes and she was thereafter buried ‘with great ceremony’ in the Victoria Park Cemetery, near Bethnal Green, by which time some newspapers were claiming she was 96 years of age, and, in one case, ‘nearly 100!’

* This article first appeared in Romany Routes