Gypsies and travellers

This guide was last updated in 2011

Tracing your family roots is never easy, but searching your family’s Gypsy or Traveller past can be fraught with difficulties. Bill Laws explores some rich resources.

“We keep ourselves to ourselves.” The speaker, Shanterlena, is an English Romany and, at the age of 21, she doesn’t care much for family history. Yet her family tree, like Tracey Emin’s, winds back through the rural Midland shires.

Other, older people have a deep, often frustrated, need to know. “I knew all about my Gypsy roots,” says Mary Horner, maiden name Hearn and founder of Romany Road. “It was my gorja [non-Gypsy] background I could never trace because no-one would talk about them.” It turned out that her maternal great grandmother, a servant, had had two children by a fairground worker known as Gypsy Jim.

Yet, despite the obstacles – a paucity of domestic written records and the community’s reluctance to engage with a profoundly prejudiced society – there are some rich avenues for research.

People from Gypsy or Traveller backgrounds have the advantage of possessing some striking first names: Vanslow, Shady, Hezekkiah and Kadilila. British Gypsies also share some common surnames such as Boswell, Buckland, Codona, Lee, Gray (or Grey), Holland, Smith, Young and Hearn. Thanks to a decade of development on the web, names such as these can make members of the community highly searchable.

Travelling people have always been intensely proud of their ancestry. Now, however, many are prepared to celebrate it online. It all makes life easier for the hard-working researcher.

 

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