Am I descended from Gypsies?

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.

Gypsy children, circa 1930

Despite 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 for those wanting to discover more about their Roma, Gypsy or Traveller past.

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People from Roma, 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.

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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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Family and friends

“Family members and friends will often mention something in passing that has a far greater significance than they realise,” said the late Mary Horner (maiden name Hearn). Mary founded and ran the Romany Road website that was rich in detail for those interested in their heritage but has closed since her death in 2018.

Asking around the family is the best place to start, but like Mary, be prepared to find yourself up against unexpected skeletons in cupboards: the illegitimate child, the bigamist husband, the relative with a prison record (although that, ironically, could make them easier to follow through public records).

The Travelling community is renowned for its networks. Showing one family a photo will often trigger some rich reminiscences. The Romany Road facebook page has a community where you can share photographs and invite comments from others.

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Census records

Those living outside of houses or institutions were not included in census counts before 1851. Census records can be searched online using subscription websites such as Ancestry, Findmypast or TheGenealogist or free websites such as FamilySearch (although search options are limited). You can usually search censuses for free in libraries and archives. Watch out for unusual addresses in the census such as “Under the River Bridge”, “Bender” (a tent made from hazel twigs covered with a canvas) or “Tent on Common”.

You can find Roma, Gypsy and Traveller encampments using the keyword search facility. Choose the census year you are interested in and type ‘bender’, ‘wagon’, ‘tent’ or ‘caravan’ in the keyword search. TheGenealogist is best for this method of searching but you can get some results using other subscription websites.

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Local records

County or city archive offices are the historical treasure troves in our midst.

Not only do they hold local civic records, they may have special collections that could be an invaluable resource for confirming those hinted-at details gained from talking to relatives. Many Travelling people had no marriage or birth certificates so you may need to think creatively about what records may exist.

Arrange to visit the archive office serving the area where your distant relative lived (or died) and then be guided by the staff or volunteers working there. Some local archives, such as Surrey History Centre, have online guides to relevant collections. Contact them in advance to check whether you need to bring any identification.

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Regional sources

English Romanies and English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish Travellers moved amongst their own people and gathered at traditional stopping places.

Despite the term Traveller, many remained local to a particular area: Doncaster, Leeds, Cardiff, west London. There are also historical rural concentrations of Gypsies and Travellers in rich agricultural regions like Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Kent, Somerset and Worcestershire’s Vale of Evesham.

Local organizations, often Gypsy-led, can be a useful source of information. They include Leeds Gate Gypsy and Traveller Exchange and the East Midlands website Patrin. The Travellers Times also provides articles about regional communities, both current and past.

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Going national

The Romany and Traveller Family History Society provides one of the richest and most specialised resources for anyone exploring their Gypsy roots.

A small annual subscription brings you their quarterly journal Romany Routes, with advice and information on British Gypsy families. At one of their open days you can pick up booklets on some of the famous Gypsy families from the Hearns and Loveridges to the Samsons, Scamps and Buckleys, or buy online. They also carry useful links to sites such as www.gypsygenealogy.com.

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Academic archives

Liverpool University Library houses the archive of the Gypsy Lore Society.

Based in Liverpool from 1907 to 1973, the Society published its members’ researches in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society (digitised by the Hathi Trust, with the online version featuring detailing searchable name indexes).

To help provide access to the Society’s unpublished material, Liverpool University Library has made a collection of name packs providing copies of photographs, notes towards family trees, and press cuttings. “Researchers cannot expect to find nice, neat family trees”, says Liverpool’s Katy Hooper, “but the packs can provide a fascinating snapshot of the contacts between the Society and Romany families”.

There are over 30 name packs covering names such as Ayres, Birch, Buckley, Doe, Gaskin, Lock and Loveridge available. For a full list of names and details on how to obtain them contact Katy Hooper via the website.

This and the important Romany Collection  at Leeds University (see a video guide to what’s available) are the two principal collections in the UK. But check out the Robert Dawson collection at the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) or, if you are looking for Showmen, the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University.

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Old photographs

Not only were Gypsy encampments a popular subject for photographers, but family photographs were popular with Roma, Traveller and Gypsy families.

School education was intermittent at best for most children in the travelling community. Most boys would join their fathers and grandfathers in the family work, while the girls busied themselves with calling (knocking door to door with pegs or baskets for sale) or the domestic duties of home.

It may have led to low levels of literacy, but it made family photos worth a thousand words . As well as the University collections, many regional museums like Hartlebury Castle Museum in Worcestershire have photo displays to accompany their exhibits.

Pinterest hosts a number of images including personal ones uploaded by those researching their Romany roots. Local archives may also hold collections either left by notable Traveller families or by photographers who often romanticised the Gypsy lifestyle. MERL also has photographs, not just in the Robert Dawson collection, mentioned above, but also the JE Manners collection.

Hartlebury Castle Museum also has an important collection of vardos, or Traveller wagons and many examples can be seen on the Gypsy Wagons website.