Gypsy past: Am I descended from Gypsies?

We reveal where to start in tracing Gypsy, Roma and Traveller family history

Gypsy children, circa 1930

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. Tracing Gypsy family history can be hard because of the lack of written records. However, Tracey Emin discovered she was related to the “massive Hodgkins Gypsy clan” on Who Do You Think You Are?, and there are clues you can also look out for that suggest you had Gypsy ancestry, and resources out there for Gypsy research.

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Where do Gypsies come from?

Roma Gypsies are thought to have arrived in Britain from the northern Indian sub-continent around 1500. The first reference to Gypsies in England occurs in 1514. The term ‘Gypsy’ derives from the fact that they were thought to have come from Egypt.

Irish Travellers are a separate cultural group who can be traced back to 12th century Ireland and started migrating to Britain in the early 19th century. There are other groups of Travellers, such as English, Scottish and Welsh Travellers. Travelling showmen, and more recently New Age Travellers, are also groups of people who lived on the road.

Common Gypsy names

You may have Gypsy ancestry if your family tree includes common Gypsy surnames such as Boswell, Buckland, Codona, Cooper, Doe, Lee, Gray (or Grey), Hearn, Holland, Lee, Lovell, Smith, Wood, Young and Hearn.

Gypsies sometimes gave their children unusual first names, so you should look out for female names such as Anselina, Athalia, Britannia, Cinderella, Clementina, Dotia, Fairnette, Freedom, Gentilia, Lementeni, Mizelli, Ocean, Reservoir, Sabina, Sinfai, Tryphena, Unity, Urania and Vancy.

Male Gypsy names include Amberline, Belcher, Dangerfield, Elijah, Gilderoy, Goliath, Hezekiah (or Hezekkiah), Liberty, Major, Nehemiah, Nelson, Neptune, Noah, Sampson, Shadrack, Shady, Silvanus and Vandlo.

Census records for Gypsy ancestry

You may well suspect that you have Gypsy ancestry if it was mentioned in family stories. However, it’s also worth checking whether your ancestors appear in census records. Gypsies may have recorded unusual residences such as ‘Under the River Bridge’, ‘Bender’ (a tent made from hazel twigs covered with a canvas) or ‘Tent on Common’.

Another clue for Gypsy ancestry is all the children in the family being born in different places. You may also see common Gypsy occupations such as hawker, pedlar, basket maker, mat maker, beehive maker, chair bottomer, sieve bottomer, tinker, tinman, razor grinder, marine store dealer, peg maker, umbrella mender, brushmaker, knife grinder, dealer, chimney sweep, horse dealer or just ‘Egyptian’.

Gypsy camp at the beach of Epsom, England, Photograph, Around 1930
A Gypsy camp at the beach of Epsom, c. 1930 

Regional sources for Gypsy information

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 Gypsy organisations such as Leeds Gate Gypsy and Traveller Exchange can be a useful source of information. The Travellers Times also provides articles about regional communities, both current and past.

University collections of Gypsy history

Liverpool University Library houses the archive of the Gypsy Lore Society. Their journals can also be viewed on the Hathi Trust database.

The other principle collection of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma records in the UK is at the University of Leeds. The University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) holds the papers of experienced Gypsy, Roma and Traveller researcher Robert Michael Dawson. If you are looking for travelling showmen, try the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield.

Old Gypsy photographs

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

Pinterest hosts a number of images including personal ones uploaded by those researching their Romany roots, such as this one from Chris Shields. 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. Many photographs of vardos, or Traveller wagons, can be seen on the Gypsy Wagons website. The Romany and Traveller Family History Society also has a collection of old photographs.

Other websites for Gypsy family history

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 Roma, Traveller and fairground families.

In addition, don’t miss Romani, the website of Gary Stanley. It began with Gary’s research into his Roma roots, which ballooned from simple genealogy into a 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.

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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.