Beginners won’t find tips here on finding research material: for that they can use the internet, join the Romany & Traveller FHS, and buy Sharon Heppell’s excellent book, My Ancestors Were Gypsies. What they are offered here are tips on evaluating and interpreting the material they find.
Tip One: Expect to make mistakes, especially if you don’t consult original records.
The first thing to say about Gypsy genealogy is that we all make mistakes, the most experienced of us as well as the least. It’s full of traps for the unwary, and even when you know them and try to avoid them, you still fall into them, most commonly when you misidentify someone, or their parents, spouse or children. The second thing to say is we should always be grateful, not embarrassed, let alone annoyed, when a well-informed researcher suggests we’ve fallen into one of these traps: we all have gaps in our knowledge, we all make false connections, and we should therefore all be delighted to be put right – where’s the benefit in being wrong?
The third thing to say is that while we can’t eliminate mistakes, we should do our best to do so, not only for our own sake, but to avoid perhaps misleading and wasting the time (and money) of others. There are many ways of reducing our mistakes. A crucial one, if you’re a beginner in Gypsy genealogy, is to consult original records to test and amplify the data you find in publications and especially on the internet (here included) to test the accuracy and the relevance of that data before you make it a basis for your research. This means using indexes like Ancestry or Find My Past if their relevant entries are dignitized, or visiting or phoning the relevant Record Office.
Always test for accuracy what you find on self-published family trees; all of us make mistakes, but some researchers are exceptionally careless. Always test for accuracy what you find on invaluable genealogical indexes like the Mormons’ IGI Family Search: In such a huge enterprise there are inevitably countless transcription errors (unusual Gypsy forenames in particular mangled out of all recognition), and there are a lot of compilation errors, entries left out or put in wrongly – before you transfer a significant entry into your family tree, make sure in hasn’t been garbled, the right person present in the parish specified but on a different date, or on the date specified but in a different parish, or in the right right parish in a half-right date and with a half-right name. And always test for accuracy what you find on invaluable genealogical indexes like Ancestry and Find My Past: they are excellent where the entries are digitized, but often incomplete and inaccurately transcribed where they are not.
Similarily, always test for relevance what you find on self-published family trees: some researchers seem to prioritize quantity over quality, swelling the numbers of their ancestors with people who are not even Gypsies, or, if they are, members of a quite different family. Always test for relevance what you find on all genealogical indexes that transcribe only part of their entries, stripping out details that’s often vital if you want to be sure certain people are Gypsies or the particular Gypsies you think they are. Given the fact that all British Gypsies in recent centuries had surnames, and often forenames, identical to those used by non-Gypsies, it’s easy to confuse the two, and given the fact that many Gypsy families and clans favoured a particular, unusual distinctively Gypsy forename, it’s easy to put someone in the wrong branch of a family or the wrong family altogether. But if you go to the original records to amplify as well as check what you found in a transcript, usually after 1812 and often before, you’ll find evidence of ethnicity, as I’ll demonstrate in Tip Two, and sometimes really helpful evidence of family position, as I’ll illustrate in Tip Three.
TIP TWO: Use the data in original records to establish Gypsy ethnicity
Sharon Heppell in My Ancestors Were Gypsies helpfully lists four signs of Gypsy ethnicity: a traditional Gypsy surname, like Boswell, Buckland, Lee and Smith; a distinctive Gypsy forename, like Bendigo, Dangerfield and Joiner among the men, and Cinnaminta, Fambridge and Levithan among the women; a typical Gypsy occupation, like among the men various kinds of metal-workers, cane-workers and hawkers; and a typical Gypsy mobility, evidence that the people in question, though they might see out the winter in the same place for a few years, or return to a favourite church for baptisms, marriages and burials, were essentially, until the late 19th century, nomadic, of no fixed abode.
There are of course traps here for the unwary. Gypsy names are often identical to gorjer names: when Gypsies arrived in Britain, they adopted British surnames (like Boswell, Buckland, Lee and Smith), and adopted common British forenames (eg John and Mary, William and Ann) as well as uncommon British forenames (eg Major and Richenda). And Gypsies didn’t have a monopoly on certain occupations (you’ll find plenty of gorjer tinkers, basketmakers and hawkers) or a monopoly on mobility and vagrancy (you’ll find plenty of mobile gorjer agricultural labourers and gorjer rogues and vagabonds). But though the four signs of Gypsy ethnicity are rarely conclusive if found in isolation, they are generally reliable when found in combination, and this is why Parish Registers are so crucial, supplying as they do explicit or implicit ethnic indicators omitted from many genealogical indexes available on the internet.
Up to the Church Registration reforms of 1813 these indicators usually identify Gypsies as such, or as Egyptians (Gypsies were so called because they were assumed to have come from Egypt; some of them had), or vagrants, wanderers, itinerants, strollers, ramblers, travellers or strangers: travellers and strangers were of course often respectable gorjers, and vagrants often unrespectable gorjers, so with these indicators you’ll need the secondary information you get from reading Registers (you’ll need to know your cleric in a particular parish, and note the distinction if he writes Gypsy traveller or Gypsy vagrant on one page and merely traveller or vagrant on another). After the Registration reforms of 1813 the explicit and implicit ethnic indicators in Birth Registers were far more numerous and much more detailed: clerics were now required to specify Place of Abode (eg Gypsy itinerant or of no fixed abode) and to specify Profession or Occupation (eg brazier or chairbottomer). After further reforms in 1837 this applied to Marriage Registers as well. And from 1841, and especially 1861, the census supplied supplementary indicators of ethnicity.
Where you find ethnic indicators, it can instantly solve problems created by the abbreviated transcripts on the internet: in Lincolnshire, for example, from the 1820s to the 1840s there were two families, each headed by a John and Frances Clayton, which are indistinguishable in at least one index but quite distinct in the Registers, one a family of Gypsy travellers, one a family of geographically mobile gorjer domestic servants. And where you don’t find
ethnic indicators, which is often the case before 1813, the Registers can still illuminate. If you find somebody on the net baptized with the right name, date and area for your 4 times great grandfather, and the Register has no ethnic indicator for him, don’t assume he’s one of the many Gypsies of that period not identified as such. Check the Birth Register for further evidence: whether, for example, around the time of his birth it identified someone else as a Gypsy (not a good sign). And check the Burial Register, which your internet index may have ignored: you wouldn’t want your supposed 4 times great grandfather to illustrate the high incidence in the period of infant mortality.
TIP THREE: Use the descriptions in original records to establish family structure
In Tip 2 I stressed how important it is in establishing Gypsy ethnicity to use the descriptions in the Parish Registers that are often omitted in genealogical indexes, descriptions giving evidence of typically Gypsy occupations and typically Gypsy impermanence of abode. When asked at baptisms of their children about their place of abode, occasionally up to 1812 and routinely from 1813, Gypsies often interpreted abode, not having a fixed one, as place of origin or settlement, ie where they, their father, or even some distant patriarchal ancestor, had been born. And this besides confirming their ethnicity often gives us invaluable clues to the identity of their forbears and other close relations.
Looking up in the Register a child’s baptism you’ve found in an internet index will often give you its father’s baptism and thereby the name of its grandparents. Look up Mark Hearn’s baptism in the Register, where his father is Mullender Hearn of Princes Risborough, Bucks, and you can then find Mullender’s in 1776 in Princes Risborough son of Benjamin and Ann. Look up James Smith’s in the Register, where his father is Neptune Smith of Horton, Wilts, and you can then see Neptune is the one, on the internet, baptised in Potterne, Wilts in 1781 son of Thomas and Ashey (Potterne being next to Horton, which didn’t then have its own church).
Being able to find the father’s baptism like this is especially valuable where his forename, unlike Mullender’s or Neptune’s, is a common one. Look up James Burton’s baptism in the Register, where his father is Henry Burton of Arborfield, Berks, and you can then find Henry’s in Arborfield son of Ambrose and Sarah. Look up Menanette Cooper’s baptism in the Register, where her father is Francis Cooper of Cobham, Surrey, and you can then see Francis was the son, christened in Cobham in 1837, of the famous Matty Cooper and Eliza, and Menanette’s mother was a previously unknown wife of Francis.
Evidence of origin or settlement is often equally invaluable in illuminating family structure. If it guides you to the father and grandfather when you know the child, it also guides you to the child when you know the father or grandfather, a real boon in distinguishing different sections of a large family. The four Clayton brothers, identified as of Sandford at least 20 times at the baptism of their children and grandchildren, marked themselves for our convenience as sons of the James Clayton christened in 1773 in Sandford on Thames, Oxon son of Francis and Mary travellers. Sulgrave, Northants was a similar genetic marker for a particular Nehemiah Smith’s offspring; Steeple Claydon, Bucks for a particular Wisdom Smith’s; Macclesfield, Cheshire for a particular John Boswell’s; Willenhall, Staffs for a particular John Sherriff’s; Barwell, Leics for a particular Robert Holland’s; Meldreth, Cambs for a particular Charles Gray’s; Shuckburgh and Tanworth, Warwickshire for respectively a particular Joseph Buckland’s and a particular Edward Hodgkins’.
Evidence of origin can guide you to a new understanding of family structure even when you thought you knew it quite well. Look up John Lee’s baptism in the Register, where his father is Elijah Lee of Bredon, Worcs, and you can then find Elijah’s in 1815 in Bredon son of Samuel Lee, of Enborne Berks, in a triple baptism with a daughter of Riley Scamp and Elijah’s known sister Clevansy, and a son pretty obviously of Elijah’s previously unknown brother, Thomas Lee, and his wife Oceana. Samuel’s place of origin in 1815 will give you his baptism in 1766 in Enborne son of John and Phillis Lee, gypsies, which will in turn identify the Robert Lee married to Xantippe Smith as the son Samuel christened jointly with Clevansy in 1792 (Robert was of Enborne at the christening of a daughter in 1824). You don’t get a pay-off like this every time you check out a Register, but you get one often enough to keep you hopeful.
TIP FOUR: Expect to make mistakes if you don’t develop trees
All of us make mistakes. All of us identify people as probable Gypsy ancestors who turn out to be not Gypsies or not ancestors. Sharon Floate (now Heppell), as I indicated in Tip 2, can help you avoid the first mistake, help you confirm a particular ancestor was a gypsy, with her four signs of Gypsy ethnicity (typical Gypsy surname, forename, occupation, and mobility). And it may be I can help you avoid the second mistake, help you confirm a particular Gypsy was an ancestor, with my four tests for consanguinity (congruity of time and place, intra-family marriages, travelling ties, and significant forenames).
If you’ve found a particular Gypsy with the right forename and surname, don’t assume he’s your ancestor: early 20th Century gypsiologists, without our easy access to the records, regularly confused identically named Gypsies of different generations and areas; and modern genealogists less forgivably have sometimes had Gypsies producing children before they were born themselves, after they were dead, or while they were in a completely different part of the country or even hemisphere.
If you’re sure your Gypsy was of the right time and place, look for intra-family marriages that will show he’s in the right family: Gypsies liked to keep things in the family, marrying their cousin, their sibling’s in-law, or their deceased spouse’s sibling. Tommy Boswell of Berkshire, for example, married a cousin, had two sisters who married brothers, and had a father and a grandfather who each married his first wife’s sister.
Or look for travelling ties that show your Gypsy is in the right family: Gypsies usually travelled with family members, so if you find them in the census with people who are apparently unrelated, look a little deeper (the travel companions, for example, of Plato Boswell and his wife Mizelli will turn out to be Mizelli’s mother and brother, Barbara and Sampson Lee). The same applies when you find couples, apparently unrelated, baptizing their children together on the same day in the same church.
Or look for significant forenames that show your Gypsy is in the right family. Gypsies liked to repeat the same forenames through the generations, sometimes, when the forenames were very unusual, offering invaluable genetic markers: for example, if you find a Salathiel Boswell, he’s sure to be one of Viney Boswell’s descendants, offspring of one of Viney’s sons, William, George, Osery or Phoenix, and if you’re puzzled by the name of one of
Phoenix’s sons, baptised Rowarasbah, you’ll probably find what it was meant to be in the name of one of Rowarasbah’s nephews, baptised Raoul Asprey.
My four tests won’t necessarily stop you misidentifying ancestors. Experienced and highly intelligent gypsiologists who knew the famous Selina Buckland, wife of Edmond Smith, and discussed her family with her, believed she’d previously been married to Job Cooper, but though Selina would pass all four of my tests, the 1861 census shows, while she’s with Edmond Smith in Middlesex, a different (though closely related) Selina is with Job Cooper in Berkshire. Given the nature of Gypsy genealogy I can’t stop you, or myself, from misidentifying people, but applying my tests will, I believe, reduce your risks, whilst offering opportunities for enriching your researches.
And you’ll further reduce your risks and enhance your opportunities, I believe, if you prioritize trees over data-banks. Trees encourage you to discriminate, data-banks to merely aggregate. Laying out your research diagrammatically, as opposed to piling it up, perhaps piecemeal without always checking your additions are compatible, will protect you, I’ll suggest in Tip 5, from making mistakes, and enable you, I’ll suggest in Tip 6, to spot possible ways of progressing your research.