In the summer of 1874 an article appeared in The Times in which Sir Duncan Gibb, MD, claimed Elizabeth Leatherland, a Gypsy whom he had examined, was more than a hundred years of age, yet remained physically in good health. He developed the story of her life, her birth as Elizabeth Hearn, a member of a Gypsy tribe well-known in the counties of Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, born about 1763 and baptised in Chinnor, Oxfordshire, the daughter of a traveller, ‘Thomas Horam.’
Details of her life, her marriage to a soldier named Joseph Leatherland when she was 22 years of age, and the birth of her five children, the first being born when she was about 29, followed by twin sons and then two daughters, formed part of Gibb’s recounting of her history. There was the tragedy of several members of her family drowned in the Hartlake disaster of 1853, her youngest daughter’s family living at Chesham, and, having attained the age of 111, she could still make nets to support herself, whilst living in lodgings in Tring, Hertfordshire. When she died the following January, Gibb performed an autopsy, and gave a paper to The Lancet.
The article in The Times did not go unchallenged. The late vicar of Tring, Henry Harvey, disputed the details, asserting that there was no proof of Betty’s considerable age, and that much of the information gained by Gibb when he questioned the old lady was without substance. A Mr. William Thoms also took exception to the cavalier assertions made by Gibb, and did a little research himself, some of which was to prove fascinating in terms of shedding light on the life of Betty and Joseph Leatherland, in an article he also submitted to The Times.
In reality Elizabeth Hearn was probably born in the 1780s, a daughter of Thomas Hearn, she had a brother of the same name. In March 1803 Joseph Leatherland, having joined the Bucks Militia, was stationed at Aylesbury, which is where he probably met Betty. By that autumn he had been posted to the Harwich barracks and, on 26th September 1803, Joseph Leatherland of the Royal Bucks Militia married Elizabeth Hearne (sic) at Dovercourt, Essex, a village adjacent to Harwich, into which it is now subsumed.
Although Betty appears to have been right about the order and number of her children the assertion that she did not have a child until she had been married seven years is entirely incorrect; her first son, Samuel, was baptised at Maidstone, Kent, on 10th March 1805; William and Thomas were baptised together at Welford, Nottinghamshire, on Valentine’s Day in 1808, Elizabeth was born about 1811 and finally Sabirah was baptised at Bovingdon, Hertfordshire on 21st May 1815, with an additional clerical note asserting her birth on 20th March the same year.
The connection with Elizabeth Leatherland’s extended family clearly continued, in spite of the various postings Joseph undertook. When Betty’s brother, Thomas, married Frances Smith at Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, in 1812 his witnesses were Joseph and Betty Leatherland, and her eldest son, Samuel, was to marry his first cousin, Thomas’s daughter Charlotte. William Thoms believed that Joseph was from Welford, Nottinghamshire – two things would seem to back this up: the location of the baptism of their two boys; and his statement that the payment of an annual dole from the Trustees of the St. Thomas’s of Welford was given to Betty Leatherland, which she collected from Mrs. Montague at the local post office.
How accurate is this? There are certainly several generations of Leatherlands at Welford, and there is a baptism of a Joseph Leatherland (sic) baptised there on 17th August 1777, son of William and Ann. Significantly, during Betty’s time living in Tring, at the Red Lion, in Frogmore Street, where she was described in the 1871 census as a professional vagrant and Gypsy, aged 102, born in Bledlow, the post mistress was indeed Elizabeth Montague. Thoms also argued that Joseph Leatherland died at Carrick-on-Shannon, where the militia had been sent, in February 1814 at the regimental hospital – others insist that it was 1816.
In June 1828 Elizabeth, Betty’s elder daughter, married at Hawridge, Buckinghamshire, into the extended Hearn family when she wed Emmanuel Hearn, the grandson of Benjamin Hearn, who was probably Betty’s uncle, a brother of her father, Thomas. The other union that year in Hawridge, in October, of Thomas Hearn and Charlotte Maple is surely that of Betty’s brother, now a widower, for he and Charlotte can be found in the 1841 and 1851 census records at Tyler’s Green, Buckinghamshire; Thomas is recorded as a pauper and he claims a birth date of 1783, very much the decade in which he and Betty would have been born, children of Thomas senior.
Precise dates and ages were clearly not a preoccupation in the Leatherland family; in 1849 the marriage of Betty’s son, William Leatherland, to Lydia Norwood, took place in Hertfordshire – William claims to be 37, actually, having been born in 1808, he was 41 and Lydia, claiming to be just 22, was actually born in 1819, so was 30 years of age – Betty witnessed their union, marking with a cross, as did a William Brown – clearly a family member since Lydia was the daughter of Thomas Norwood, a brickmaker, and his wife, Frances Brown.
If, according to the records, Sabirah was not born until March 1815, whilst Joseph may have died in February 1814, there is no doubt that she certainly believed he was her father. When she married William Wright, a bricklayer, in 1838 at Amersham, Buckinghamshire, she named her father as the late Joseph Latherham (sic). By the time Betty Leatherland had become something of a celebrity only Sabirah is present in the locality, living in Amersham. In 1851, listed as Saybea, she is with her husband and children Samuel, Ann, Kate, Mary, Eliza and Rebecca, and by 1861 they have added John, Amelia and Emma to their family. Like her mother, Sabirah had a long life, and is still present in the 1901 census, a widow claiming birth in 1813, and living at the Amersham Union Workhouse. The last of Betty’s children, she died in 1903, listed as Sabrina Wright, and although actually about 89, claimed to be 99 years of age . . .