Was Your Ancestor a Gypsy?

Do you suspect that one of your British ancestors was a Gypsy? If so, how can you establish a firm connection with a Gypsy family?

Not everyone described as a traveller or a vagrant was a Gypsy. Not every hawker, basket maker, or chimney sweep was a Gypsy, but many were. By gathering a series of documentary references to an individual or a family, it may be possible to establish a Gypsy connection using a combination of typical occupations, forenames, surnames, and other data.

Descriptions

References to travel or movement may give a clue to Gypsy origins. Most Gypsies lived in tents, though travelling vans were adopted by some from the mid nineteenth century.

  • Gypsy, Egyptian (until the 18th century), traveller, vagrant, stroller, tramper
  • of no fixed abode, living in tents, van dwellers

Occupations

The following occupations were commonly practised by Gypsies, who provided goods and services to local communities in the course of their travels. The terms dealer and general dealer were frequently used by Gypsies from the late 19th century, but the terms were also used to describe other traders and shopkeepers. A marine store dealer was a dealer in scrap materials.

  • hawker, licensed hawker, pedlar
  • basket maker, mat maker, beehive maker, brush maker, chair bottomer, sieve bottomer
  • tinker, tinman, razor grinder, knife grinder
  • dealer, general dealer, marine store dealer, wardrobe dealer
  • peg maker, umbrella mender, chimney sweep, horse dealer

Forenames

Gypsies often used standard forenames - such as Samuel, William, Mary - but they were also fond of unusual names.

Examples of male names:

  • Elijah, Goliath, Hezekiah, Nehemiah, Noah, Sampson, Shadrack
  • Amberline, Belcher, Dangerfield, Gilderoy, Liberty, Major, Nelson, Neptune, Silvanus, Vandlo

Examples of female names:

  • Anselina, Athalia, Britannia, Cinderella, Clementina, Dotia, Gentilia, Sabina, Tryphena, Urania
  • Fairnette, Freedom, Mizelli, Ocean, Reservoir, Sinfai, Unity, Vancy

Surnames

Most surnames used by Gypsies are also common in the "Gorjer" or non-Gypsy population. The best known and most widespread Gypsy families include:

  • Boswell, Buckland, Faa, Hearn, Heron, Lee, Lovell, Smith, Wood, Young.

The following families all travelled in southern England:

  • Ayres, Baker, Ball, Barnes, Barney, Bartlett, Bath, Beaney, Beckett, Birch, Black, Blackman, Bland, Bowers, Brazil, Buckley, Bull, Burton, Bushnell, Butler, Camfield, Carey, Carrington, Castle, Chapman, Clark, Cole/Coles, Collins, Coneley, Cooper, Cox, Cripps, Crocker, Crutcher/Croucher/Kircher, Curtis, Davis/Davies, Dawes, Deacon/Deakins, Dixon, Doe, Draper, Duckett, Eastwood, Elliot, Essex, Frankham, Giles, Golby, Green, Gregory, Griggs, Gritt, Groves, Hall, Harfield, Harris, Hibberd, Hicks, Hughes, Isaacs, James, Jeffs, Johnson, Jones, Keet, Kempster, King, Kircher, Lakey, Lamb, Lambert, Lane, Light, Loveridge, Matthews, Miller, Mills, Mitchell, Mustow, Newland, Odam, Orchard, Page, Pannell, Parker, Pateman, Penfold/Pinfold, Peters, Pidgley, Pike, Proudley, Rawlings/Rollins, Ray, Roberts, Rose, Rowell, Rowland/Rowlands, Sanders/Saunders, Scamp, Scott, Sheen, Sherred/Sherrard, Sherwood, Sines, Small, Stanley, Stevens/Stephens, Stokes, Stratton, Tanner, Taylor, Thompson, Turner, Vincent, Wells, Wenman, Wheeler, White, Willett, Williams, Willis.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Further names are given on the Journal page.

Further Information

The journal Romany Routes, published quarterly by the Romany & Traveller Family History Society, includes much information about British Gypsy families, and gives advice on sources and methods for Gypsy research.

The publications of the Society include research guides and memoirs, as well as transcripts and indexes of documents relating to Gypsies.

Find out more about the Society by using the links on the Site Contents page.

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