NEHEMIAH PERRY AND HIS GYPSY BRIDE: Adultery, divorce and homicide in nineteenth-century Strethall by Martin Rose (The Catmere Press 2022 iv+44pp no ISBN) 

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The author’s engagement with this story of the relationship between a wealthy farmer and a Gypsy cannot be faulted for its careful and detailed research into the family lives of both parties, which is revelatory and fascinating in its exploration of social and cultural boundaries and gender politics in the first half of the nineteenth century in rural Essex.


Marriages between Gypsies and gorjers, or non-Gypsies, were rare, but not entirely unheard of, and became more usual as the century progressed. Since Sarah Anne Shaw’s family travelled the boundaries of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex, the Perry family, as local farmers, would have known them and often hired the Gypsies as casual labour for seasonal work, frequently allowing them to camp on their land.  

Perry was in his late thirties when he wed the young Sarah Anne, the daughter of Moses and Jemima Shaw, some fifteen years his junior, and already heavily pregnant with their first child.  The male infant died, but three other children followed, two girls, Sarah Ann and Elizabeth Mary, and a boy, Thomas, who died when he was just 6 months old.

The marriage had taken place at St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch, London, and the author has used material published by the Gypsy Lore Society which asserts that high-caste Gypsy families married in church, as opposed to those members of the fraternity that had a simple, though not legal, Gypsy wedding.  In fact, although the Gypsiologists of the period strove to collect the language, stories and family connections of the Romani, even as their way of life was changing rapidly, and to be as accurate as possible, this comment about such unions is without foundation.  Many of the high-caste Gypsies chose to mark their marriage in the way of their people, and continued to do so well into the nineteenth century.

Fascinatingly, Nehemiah Perry’s precarious mental state, along with those of other members of his family, is discussed; his sisters Mary Ann and  Elizabeth both appear to have been consigned to a lunatic asylum, and Nehemiah’s paranoia was evident in his response regarding his son Thomas’s death, when he accused his wife of poisoning the baby and of trying to poison him.

The court case in which Nehemiah sued for a legal separation from his wife, following the death of little Thomas, relied heavily on evidence given by friends or employees of the Perrys, claiming Sarah was adulterous, and often drunk, whilst Nehemiah’s assertions regarding poisoning were also given some credence.  Sarah did not attend these proceedings, but she did strive to keep her two daughters with her; on one occasion she refused to allow them to return to their father after a visit, the second time she took the girls from his house while he was away, and the servants at dinner.  Nehemiah was to prove violent in his response to these events, and prevented Sarah from seeing her children, both of whom were to die as young women, Elizabeth was only eighteen and Sarah about twenty, probably dying in childbirth, following her marriage to a Doctor Browne.

In 1849 Nehemiah was involved in a murder, shooting a burglar at Strethall Hall at point blank range, for which he was generally praised locally, even being presented with an award.  He sent the body of the man he had killed in a hamper to the anatomy school in Cambridge, with a note, ‘Dear Dr. Paget, I have shot a man! N. Perry.’ The subsequent inquest was held at Strethall Hall, and the foreman of the jury was a friend of Nehemiah’s, the local miller Edward Bewsher.  A heavy drinker, both at home and, on market days, at the Old Sun Inn, Nehemiah began to travel everywhere with a loaded shotgun, and there is no doubt that his behaviour points to an unbalanced mind.  

Nehemiah died in 1861, but, although he was believed to have had many affairs with local women, it was Sarah’s affairs following their separation that were considered adulterous, and therefore it was decided that this prevented her from benefitting in any way from Nehemiah’s will, which, anyway, was involved in legal wrangling for some considerable time. This aspect is discussed in fascinating detail by the author, and indicates a good deal of sharp practice both by the Perry family and their lawyers.

Sarah had lived in a cottage near the Hall for some time, but eventually returned to her previous wandering life, and long outlived Nehemiah; she is found in the 1871 census in a tent in the registration district of Saffron Walden, using her married surname and describing herself as a ‘widow, formerly a farmer’s wife.’  She is with her sister, Elizabeth, and her cousin, John Shaw, a Gypsy fiddler, and Elizabeth’s second husband. A cousin union was quite a common occurrence between major Gypsy families.

Rose explores class boundaries, gender values and prejudices about ‘the other’ that informed the legal separation between the couple, as well as the death of the burglar, with considerable intellectual rigour, and provides clear and helpful family trees of both the Shaw and Perry families, as well as a map of the area, which inform the narrative as a whole.  The booklet also contains images, both in black and white and colour, that add to the tragic story.

Considerable references in the footnotes offer the opportunity for further reading and research, but I wonder if the Catmere Press has not done itself a disservice by using such a small typeface, which may make it hard going for some readers.  The story itself is a fascinating one of a Gypsy marriage, murder and violence in the Essex countryside nearly 200 hundred years ago, bringing that world to light in episodes of love, passion, anger and loss.