The definitions of Gypsy, Traveller or Roma ancestors cross all sorts of ethnic and non-ethnic boundaries, encompassing communities that have a nomadic culture, history or lifestyle.
One of the best places to find out more is a page from within this month’s expert choice – the home of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society.
The article ‘Was your ancestor a Gypsy?’ looks at some telltale signs that may point to Traveller kin in your family tree, including typical Romany surnames, unusual forenames, and certain occupations
A typical Romany occupation might be hawker, pedlar, brushmaker, knife grinder, dealer, chimney sweep or horse dealer.
Another piece of evidence from a census return would be different places of birth for each child.
The very nature of Traveller communities means paper trails are ethereal, but this month’s crop of websites can help you build up a picture of everyday life and work.
This great-looking website is the by-product of Gary Stanley’s research into his Roma roots, which ballooned from simple genealogy into this one-community heritage project.
Gary (who you can follow on Twitter) hunts down Romany ancestors, carefully logging and recording anything of interest that crops up in his research, before sharing it here.
The net is wide, tracking and recording any mention of Romany Gypsy families and individuals between 1500 and 1900, in the UK and the USA, normally from census returns, newspapers or birth, marriage and death records.
There are also miscellaneous items, such as entries from Queen Victoria’s journals about the Cooper Romany Gypsies encamped near Claremont in Esher, Surrey.
Via the Hathi Trust website you can explore free digitised volumes published by the Gypsy Lore Society, a group founded in Edinburgh in 1888 by scholars interested in the songs, stories and language of Romany Gypsies.
The society’s journal was published in four series (with gaps), and the titles are arranged here by series, volume and date.
A quick browse of the contents and index pages will give you a flavour of the kinds of subjects covered in the journal.
The parent society, which is now based in the USA, is still going strong.
Robert Dawson is one of Britain’s foremost experts on Gypsy history and culture, who in 1998 donated his collection to the Romany and Traveller Family History Society. To make it more easily accessible to researchers, the society subsequently deposited it with the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading.
The collection includes not only important published works, but also Robert’s own notebooks and manuscripts, in which he recorded family histories, observations and other research, in addition to illustrations, ephemera, postcards, photographs, plans of caravans, press cuttings, sheet music and video recordings. See Go Further section as well.
Although the cultural overlap between showmen and showwomen, circus folk and Romany communities is complex, this Sheffield University website is a fascinating place to find out more about the transient fairground community.
The archive preserves material from fairground, circus and allied entertainments such as early film, sideshows, magic, boxing, variety and amusement parks.
There’s a useful article on researching family history, and you can find out about the archive’s collection of 150,000 images, 4,000 books/journals and more than 20,000 items of ephemera including posters, handbills and programmes.
This page details the University of Liverpool’s Special Collections and Archives, which include manuscripts and records relating to the aforementioned Gypsy Lore Society – from 1907 to 1973 the society was based in Liverpool, where many of its most active members were closely associated with the city and its university. Other highlights include photographs by anthropologist and ethnographer Ivor Evans taken between 1924 and 1932, recording Gypsies around East Anglia and south-east England. You can also read Serbo-Bosnian Romani tales – typescript copies of stories collected in and around Sarajevo between 1937 and 1940.
A Gypsy camp in Notting Hill in the 1870s (Credit: John Thomson/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)
Chosen by Vanessa Toulmin, research professor, National Fairground & Circus Archive:
“The Romany and Traveller Family History Society (RTFHS) was founded in 1994 for researchers with Romany Gypsy, Traveller and fairground roots. The website is not only a useful starting point for genealogical researchers, but also a hub of information for anyone interested in these communities.
“There are various research guides, as well as descriptions of important archival collections across the UK, many of which reside in university libraries and museums.
“There are details of society publications too, including the quarterly journal Romany Routes and specialist titles such as A Surrey Gypsy Bibliography, and non-RTFHS volumes such as My Ancestors Were Gypsies which is published by the Society of Genealogists.
“There are several free indexes available as well, including the UK-wide baptism/birth, marriage and burial/death indexes. The former includes extracts from parish registers and birth certificates – some entries are free to all, others will form the basis of a members-only area currently in development.
“There are also county-level collections covering Berkshire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, the majority donated by RTFHS member Anne Armstrong. These are particularly interesting for seeing how the ways that Traveller folk were recorded in parish registers and other records changed over time. The Berkshire spreadsheet, for example, is in surname order and begins with the baptism of a tinker’s daughter in 1707, followed by the son of “walking people” in 1659, and later the baptism of a travelling showman’s son in 1881.
“If you’re literally just starting out, I recommend that you begin by reading this concise eight-step introduction.”
This website shares stories and traditions from the East Midland Gypsy community.
This charity works to end discrimination against Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Its website has a section on heritage, including audio recordings.
Enjoy a day out in a traditional horse-drawn vardo in the Lincolnshire countryside. The museum is open from Easter to September.
This informative website wasn’t working properly at time of writing, but you can access a cached version via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
This page details material held by the Special Collections department at Leeds University, which reaches back to the 16th century.
Discover the work, writings and research of Gypsy and Traveller specialist Robert Dawson.
The website of this old University of Manchester project includes a searchable dictionary.
This is another dated website, but it features interesting information about the earliest recorded ‘Egyptians’ in Scotland.
For the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice, don’t miss Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine March 2020