The Royal Epping Forest Gipsy Encampment
International Exhibition, Liverpool. 1886
The 1886 Exhibition was a landmark event in Liverpools civic history, being the first great International Exhibition to be held outside London. It took place in buildings specially erected for the event on a site that lay due east of the present day Wavertree Park and Botanic Gardens in Edge Hill, with Edge Lane as the northern boundary of the grounds. A special railway station was also constructed to bring visitors to the exhibition, called Exhibition Road.
Opened by Her Majesty Queen Victoria on 11 May 1886, the exhibition is reported to have attracted no less than 2.5 million visitors and hosted 450,000 exhibitors in the seven months it was open, so earning itself a deserved place on the list of World Fairs of the Victorian era. It closed on 8 November 1886. (A useful point of comparison is the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in Hyde Park, London, which attracted 6 million visitors and had some 14,000 exhibitors in its five month duration.)
The International character of Liverpools Exhibition was personified by the presence of a number of different native peoples who appeared as exhibits - something that may seem shocking in these politically correct days. In 1886, however, the Victorian passion for things foreign and exotic was at its height. Without the benefit as yet of cinematography the only way for most people to see foreigners in the flesh going about their normal everyday business, was either by travelling abroad or by attending events such as these. The contemporary newspapers reports which George Smith has added to the biographical section of this book, shows that groups of Laplanders, Indians and Hottentots were on show in Liverpool, amongst others. As curious as these people probably were to British eyes, they were seemingly eclipsed by the popularity and the drawing power of the English Gipsies in the shape of George Smith and his immediate family who, on the evidence provided by advertisements for the exhibition which appeared in the Liverpool Echo suggests the Gipsy Encampment made its debut on Monday 14 June 1886.
George Smiths ancestry
George Smith - or Lazzy Smith as he is sometimes known - was a member of the East Anglian Smith family. By his own account he was born in 1830 at Mousehold Heath in Norwich, Norfolk, one of the two places in the eastern counties that these Smiths saw as their headquarters, the other being the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk.
George took the surname Smith from his mother, Elizabeth. She was the sister of Ambrose Smith, the Jasper Petulengro of Borrows novels. Georges father was in fact a Buckley - Elijah. The oral history has it that Elijah Buckley was killed in a brawl in a public house at High Beech, Epping Forest, by a certain Gypsy Stephens when George was very young and that his family never used the surname Buckley from then on. There is documentary evidence that seems to support this, although admittedly without any suggestion of murder or manslaughter being involved. An entry in the burial register of the Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross, Waltham Cross, Essex, records that on 19 September 1832 an Elijah Buckley was buried there, being described as a 34 year old brazier from High Beech. However, Georges own account in the following pages doesnt tally with this when he tells us that his father died at the age of 81.
This anomaly may be explained by the fact that George Smith was not adverse to embroidering the truth when it suited his circumstances. Indeed as a firm example of this trait, when he found himself in financial difficulties in Edinburgh at the beginning of the 20th century, George is understood to have covered his tracks by faking his own death - even to the extent of having his own In Memoriam cards printed. The story circulated that he died of stewdiation - translated as going insane. It isnt surprising therefore that when his close kinsfolk in Birkenhead, Cheshire were informed in 1909 that George was still alive and living with his daughter Alice in South Wales, the news was met with amazement and incredulity.
According to the autobiographical account that follows, it was George who first had the idea of travelling Great Britain and at each stopping place opening up his encampment to the public and charging people an admission fee to enter and see the gipsies in their home environment at close quarters. this attraction was enchanced by the provision of music for dancing - not provided by the Gipsies themselves but usually by local bands hired for the occasion. These came to be known as the Royal Epping Forest Gipsy Balls.
By his own claim George was the leader of this band of ball-giving Gypsies - but as he was considerably younger than some of the other family members he travelled with, one wonders what his elders would have said about this upstart behaviour.
Whoever was responsible for the idea or its management, the group found great success during a tour in the 1860s and 1870s when they held dances in many large cities and towns, not only on the British mainland but also in the Isle of Man and Ireland, George runs briefly through some of their itinerary in the following pages. But to give a more detailed idea of how the dances were staged and what they included, an eye-witness account of the ball they gave in March 1871 at Binsey, Oxfordshire, is included.
With the help of the considerable media coverage the group received from local newspapers wherever they went, supplemented by the use of birthplaces of the children in the group as given in census returns, it has also been possible to plot their course around the British Isles.
A number of the 19th and 20th century Gypsiologists - such as T. W. Thompson and Eric Otto Winstedt - were also fascinated by the group and obviously researched them extensively, using both contemporary newspaper reports and the memories of Gypsies associated with or related to group members. They have fortunately left us their findings in the pages of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. These articles are listed as suggestions for further reading.
However previously unrecorded sightings of the group are continuing to come to light even in the 21st century - as in a recent discovery by John Andrews, a member of the Romany & Traveller Family History Society, of a newspaper report of a ball given by the group at Shrewsbury Racecourse in 1868.
Books written by Gypsies themselves rather than by non-Gypsy observers continue to be rare. So we must count ourselves lucky that Georges admirable showmanship led to the creation of this work in the first place - and then also that this fragile piece of ephemera has managed to survive the rigours of more than a century to alert us to the existence of the curious phenomenon of the ball-giving Royal Epping Forest Gipsies.
The text in the following pages is presented as in the original pamphlet sold at the exhibition. Although ostensibly an autobiography, it was probably ghost written for George from biographical information and press reports that he supplied. No attempt has been made to correct spelling, punctuation or inconsistencies.
The Life of a Gipsy
Many writers have spent months and years of their lives in studying the language, character, and customs of the Romany Rye. Many able pens have written volumes on the subject.
For my part I shall simply give an unvarnished statement of facts, as they occur to me, so that my readers may glean some little information as to the general life and incidents in the career of a Gipsy.
With regard to the language of the Romany, whether heard in the most distant parts of the globe or in the Liverpool Exhibition (as spoken by my family), it is the same as in different countries in the United Kingdom and in different provinces of continental countries, a slight patois may be observable, but in the main the initiated know that the Romany holds its own with the nomadic people the world over.
For character, climate, and circumstances, may in many instances vary the Gitano, Romany, or Bohemian, as we are called, but custom (go where the traveller may) remains the same, the nature and habit of the true Romany prompting him, or her, to a wandering life, and to revel as it were, in natures solitude. To begin with, I was born on the 3rd of May, 1830, my birthplace being on the common called Mousehold Heath, Norwich, Norfolk, my parents having but a few months previously left their old camping ground in Epping Forest, near London.
George (Lazzy) Smith and family at the Liverpool International Exhibition 1886.
George Smith Midora Smith Margaret Smith Alice Smith Cecilia Smith Nathan Lee
Ernest Smith and child Corinda Smith Wallace Boswell
For many, many years, my ancestors recognised the Forest of Epping as their headquarters, and to this day at intervals we visit the spot, a sort of pilgrimage to Mecca as it were, but alas, how different a form it presents to that which it did in my boyhoods days.
House dwellers often have remarked as to the life we lead, many have suggested it to be unhealthy. Now to prove to the contrary, my dear old mother died at the age of 75, and my father at the age of 81.
I think speaking of one family only, this will be a sufficient answer as to whether the life of a Gipsy, breathing natures own atmosphere, is as good as a dweller in houses or not. My family consists of seven children - three boys and four girls - the oldest of whom is now 28, the youngest reaching 16.
As a boy I travelled the greater part of the United Kingdom, when, reaching twelve, my aptitude for trading in horses (thanks to my fathers tuition) began to exhibit itself. My first business transaction consisted in receiving a present of a pony. One day, shortly after the Epping Fair of 1842, I was sent by my parents to the Manor House , at Loughton, with some basketware. Being some distance from our camp, one of the upper servants very kindly attended to my inner wants, and having packed the silver for the ware, for safety, in a piece of brown paper, in my breeches pocket, I started off for the forest. After leaving the lodge, to my astonishment, I found the lady of the manor which I had just left, coming to grief down the road. Without the slightest idea of fear, young as I was, I stopped the pony, both of us being down. On rising, I found myself unhurt, the only damage done being the fright of the lady and her friend, and one of the shafts of the little carriage broken. My pockets were, as a rule, a general receptacle for everything, so, in a few minutes, by the aid of a piece of string, a couple of nails, and a stone as a hammer, I had repaired the damage, and Improvised a curb for the pony, and saw things straight.
Prior to the lady leaving me, she desired me to drive the pony home, after doing which, she presented me with a crown piece, and, seeing me so pleased, she told the stud groom I might have the pony, as she would never trust it again - to my great astonishment - and with my new possession, and the addition of many thanks, I rode off again for home, as proud and as happy as any king. The precise spot being, as I remember, the famous old oak wherein King Charles hid in the Forest of Epping - the tree has long since been a thing of the past. Many a time have I, in my boyhood, heard my great-great-grandmother tell our visitors at the time, when the shadow of its branches covered an acre of ground.
A chartered fair has for many years been held on the spot, taking place on the first Friday in July, and even now, Londoners may be seen, on the Sunday after the first
Friday, wending their way, thousands in number, some in conveyances of every sort and style, some footing it to Epping from the Mile End Road, Whitechapel, and environs. The cockneys well attend the one remaining link of the past, "Fairlop Fair". Some few years since, splendidly built full rigged boats were taken on trolleys by the Limehouse block makers to the fair at Fairlop, the boats being drawn by splendid teams of grey horses, beautifully caparisoned, and well decorated with oak leaves, the drivers and artisans wearing the old fashioned blue coat, white hat, and top boots. Even now, in my ears, I remember the old-fashioned doggrel chorus, sung by them on the spot of the old Oaks resting place.
"The Charter we have got
We claim this grand old spot,
Old Fairlop, Fairlop Fair,
This be our refrain,
Shall flourish and flourish again and again."
I need not say Fairlop Fair was a little gold mine to the members of our tribe. The cockneys to the present day consider the Gipsies to be part and parcel of the festival and annual gathering, none being so happy as the favoured ones who could boast of having had tea in a Gipsys tent.
My horse dealing propensities grew with me as I grew.
When I arrived at the age of 26, I then took to myself a wife. Long may we both live to be in the future, as in the past, a comfort to each other. Corinda Lee, daughter of the then recognised heads of the Lee tribe of Epping Gipsies, mother of my children and joy of my life, long may we yet travel this journey of life up hill and down hill together. Our marriage in the old village of Waltham Abbey brought together over fifty families of Gipsies for junketings and sports, so freely indulged in in the good old times, lasting as they did over the three days.
I had been married but three months when the first offer of settling down took place. A gentleman named Hewitt, of the firm of Huggins Brewery Co., for whom I had purchased many valuable horses, offered to place me in a livery stable then for sale in Clerkenwell parish, the price of the same being £1,700. I suggested the acceptance, having the chance on very good terms to pay out of the profits. My wife, however, flatly declined the, to me, favourable opportunity, her objection to living amongst chimneys being too great to combat, like the sailor in the storm pitying the poor landsmen. Unlike many of her sex, to this day she has not changed her mind.
Shortly after this I was appointed the head of ten Gipsy families, and I started a tour of the United Kingdom. After a few days a more orderly company could, I think, be scarcely organised. Our tents, caravans, horses and harness were greatly admired, trading in our usual form, with baskets or our own make, and selling horses, we caused at times almost too much attention, so much so, even at our meals we could not keep people out of our tents, although located at some distance from the towns and villages, so I determined to rent or hire fields for our camping grounds. Even then it was impossible to keep intruders out, at length a happy idea struck me, viz., to charge a fee for admission to those wishing to gratify their ofttimes intrusive curiosity, in doing which I am pleased to say we were more than successful in a monetary point of view.
Many offers of engagements were made to me, but never liking the idea of being a servant, I refused them, and as I started so I have lived - making a bargain for my requirements, and being satisfied with my returns,. The Romany, doubtless, are superstitious - they like to be free. That old customs still adhere to us, I admit, our language is our own, and a true Gitano is as jealous of its possession as his honour. Nothing can lower one of us more than learning the house-dweller our Romanis. Strange though it is, whilst listening, as I have done lately, to the many words I have heard spoken by the Tamill, Hindoo, and Ceylonese Indians in our Exhibition, we find numerous words similar to our own, and bearing, as I understand the same meaning.
Travelling as I have in nearly every town of note in Great Britain, it is only natural I should know and be known, I am pleased to say, in all. I have met and left many friends whom it is not easy to forget. The press of the several places have very kindly expressed an interest in us, so many, in fact, to repeat would take up too much space in a little book of this description. Suffice it to say the remarks of the Liverpool press alone, as attached to these lines will be readily taken by the reader as the expressions of all, and I here thank them for the kindly interest they have displayed in me and my family. Many articles have been written in papers by clever writers who have made our people a subject of thought as to our origin, yet it seems to me an unanswered question and a mystery.
During our travels in Scotland, I hired a field near Arthurs Seat, Newington, Edinburgh, wherein I gave a Gipsys fete and gala. During my three weeks stay there the amount of admission money came to £700. Many of the elite of Edinburgh, visited us, amongst others the Duke of Buccleugh and party. At Aberdeen a great success attended us. In fact, in every Scottish town we visited we were the recipients of many favours, gratefully remembered. At Dunbar the highest honour ever accorded us was the visit of our most gracious Sovereign Queen Victoria to our tents.
Whilst at Oxford, when giving our galas in the field at Binsey Lane, near the Perch, we were patronised by many of the Collegians, amongst whom we had a frequent visitor in the person of the son of the Khedive of Egypt, who evinced great curiosity as to our people and their habits. At Leeds our galas at the Cremorne Gardens in 1865, during the Whit week, brought in over 70,000 persons, in the same year we exhibited at the Royal Oak Park, Manchester. Our procession of the entire tribes filled thirty conveyances, many thousands witnessing our procession lining as they did the streets from Newton Heath to Cheadle, both going and returning. In Manchester we remained one month, our tents being crowded day after day. In Dublin for some months we held levees in the famous Rotunda Gardens.
Dr J. Guiness Beatty, of the exhibition staff, well remembers our success there, he then being Assistant Master of the Rotunda Hospital, so successful were we, that Mr James Dillon the Dublin Advertising Contractor, offered us £500 for the gate receipts during the latter portion of our stay, which offer |I must add, as with others, was very respectfully declined.
Whilst in Ireland my time was fully occupied by purchasing horses for the French and Belgian Armies, an occupation now followed by my eldest son and my brother, who visited every large fair held there. After travelling Ireland for over five years, so contented was my brother with the reception accorded us, that he decided to remain, and is now permanently settled in his encampment on the Circular Road, Dublin, carrying out his calling as a Horse Dealer. Amongst many of our patrons and visitors, I may mention Lady Butler, Lords Mayo and Clonmell, who always exhibited towards us a genial and kindly interest. During my stay in Ireland I must mention the pleasure I feel at the advancement in their education my children received by visiting the Marlboro Street Schools in Dublin. Many times have I in England extended my stay in various towns for the sake of educating them, and it is with pleasure I feel in having done so, it will assuredly be to their interest and welfare. Knowing as I do that when a boy, all we of the Gipsy tribe read from and of was "natures own book".
During the years I have travelled I have held conversations with many wishful of learning our language. Some have gained a slight knowledge of our lore but, I am pleased to say, not from our family. In many instances when they (the would be learners) have spoken to me, I have heard them use terms clearly showing them to be the most gullable of the gulled.
Seeing the announcements of the International Exhibition of Liverpool, stating it was the intention of the Executive Council to present originals and models of the different means of travelling as used in past and present times, I ventured to address a letter, asking to become an exhibitor of my caravan and tent, within which I and my family have travelled the greater portion of the United Kingdom. Thanks to their consideration, permission was kindly given me to erect my encampment on the south-east corner, through their General Superintendent, Samuel Lee Bapty, Esq. Since our entry on the ground we have had the distinguished honour of a visit from the Mayor and Mayoress (Sir David and Lady Radcliffe), several members of the Executive Council, and others, and trust to receive the same favour from you, my reader.
I could go on, but the printers boy says he thinks I have said enough for the few pages this little emanation from yours obediently should occupy, but I cannot say "Good bye" without expressing a few sentiments on this, the past subjects of my life, by adding that as the sere and yellow leaf creeps over me, I think and often dream of the many well loved spots on this beautiful land I have visited in my boyhoods days when all was health, glee, and happiness. Now, alas! where are they? gone! The busy work of the builders have covered those places once so dear to me. After even a short absence I seek a place once so well known and loved to find what? a block of houses thereon, and the fairy-like home I have travelled far to see vanished in the past. For the future, what bodes, fresh fields and pastures new! is an old and true saying, with me, as with others, so must it be, but where can I find those scenes I cannot forget, scenes and times where one fiftieth of the worlds goods now obtainable, was all that was necessary to exist in peace and plenty. Smoky chimneys, the roaring of machinery and noise of mills, never dreamed of in days gone by, now meet my sight and ears, Oh! how different. Perhaps my readers may think I am getting sentimental, perhaps so, if so kindly forgive,
Your very obedient Servant
Gipsy Encampment, International Exhibition,
Liverpool. June 1886
Extract from Our Gipsies in city, tent and van by Vernon Morwood (published 1885)
Describing one of the dances held at Binsey, Oxfordshire during March 1871.
"A few summers ago a tribe of gipsies numbering altogether about sixty men, women and children gave a gipsy ball in a field at which we were present. The field had been rented by the gipsies for a month and in it were eight tents and four or five vans. The arrangements for this ball were almost unique. In the middle of the field, which was about five acres in extent, and encircled with high trees, a piece of ground about fifty feet in diameter, was inclosed by poles and ropes reaching from one pole to another. In the centre of this plot, and planted firmly in the ground, was a very high pole, and from the flag-staff at the top of it floated the Union Jack. At the bottom of this centre pole a quadrille band was stationed. Naptha lamps in great numbers were suspended on it nearly twenty feet from the base, and on the top of each of the circumference poles other lamps were placed. As soon as the evening shadows deepened into night the lamps were lighted, the yellow glare of which gave the field and its surroundings a strange and romantic appearance. Although the charge for admission was sixpence each person, there were present at this ball about two thousand people of both sexes, and of nearly every condition of life.
Some of the gipsies who took part in the ball were gaily and expensively dressed. One of the women, who was about twenty-four years of age, wore a black and yellow satin dress so long in the skirt that it trailed on the ground. She had on red slippers; round her wrists were costly bracelets; on her fingers were several rings; a gold chain and beads were suspended from her neck; and on her head was a kind of coronet, pendent from which were six golden fuchsias; her hair, which was as black as the raven's wing and of great length, hung in glossy ringlets over her shoulders. Another gipsy woman was attired in a costly blue satin dress. Trinkets, eardrops, and chains of almost every pattern, red cloaks and shawls, neckerchiefs, and long sashes of nearly every colour, were worn by the other females.
Some of the young gipsy men who took part in the ball wore black dress coats, white vests and collars, satin neckties, black trousers, and patent-leather boots. Although we have little or no knowledge of the Terpsichorean art, we may venture to say that the dancing on this occasion was said to have been both easy and graceful. Although two or three gipsy men danced with a few of our girls, we noticed that the gipsy women either would not, or they were not allowed to, dance with any one but the men or females of their own race. The dancing lasted until about eleven o'clock."
Extract from the "Liverpool Courier," June 16th, 1886.
The King and Queen (Mr. George Smith and Mrs. Smith) were "at home," and they and their four comely daughters were the cynosure of all eyes. A distinguishing feature of these "Epping Forest" Gipsies is their extreme cleanliness. Their tent is scrupulously neat and tidy, its appointments are comfortable not to say luxurious, and the caravan reveals the snug sleeping chamber of the daughters of their majesties. Fortune-telling is not the stock-in-trade of the tribe, but the dark-skinned "Gitanos" do not absolutely refuse to have their palms crossed if the credulous ladies will insist in peering into the future. We understand that these descendants of Romany Ri have had the honour of appearing before the Queen in Dunbar, Scotland, and although the King does not impress one by his tawny skin he is a genuine ruler and speaks Romany.
Extract from the "Liverpool Review," June 19th, 1886.
The poor Laplanders have now to play second fiddle to another wandering tribe whose origin is lost in the mists of antiquity. Ever since their celebrated moonlight flit the little northerners had been under a cloud, but their social extinction has been completed by the advent of the "Epping Forest gipsies". The King and Queen of these nomads bear the prosaic name of Smith. Nevertheless, they claim to be in the line of descent of "Romany Ri". It is an open question whether the Gitano complexion - the tawny complexion, the vellum of the pedigree they claim - cannot be whitened by partaking of gin and water in unfair proportions. This result is sometimes brought about among certain vagabond followers of Isis, but it would be the height of injustice to suggest that such retributive facial pallor can be laid to the account of Mr George Smith, the ruler of the Exhibition gipsy encampment. The absence of swarthiness in his Majesty's case must be attributed to other causes, for if rumour is correct we believe the monarch is a staunch teetotaler.
Like the great majority of Bohemians, he is addicted to trafficking in horses, while his Royal consort and her young princesses do a good business in basket selling and fortune telling. The Queen is well known in the neighbourhood of Everton, hers being one of the most familiar figures to those who are in the habit of travelling to town in trams. For some time past she has chosen Liverpool as her winter residence, pitching her camp on the waste ground near Walton Breck, and during the absence of her lord and master in Ireland her caravan has been the resort of credulous nursemaids and naïve servant girls. A more respectable tribe than that of the Smiths never trod the open heath. They might be objected to as being a little too genteel.
The interior of their camp is more like a Turkish divan than the good old smoke-begrimed vagrant habitation. Indeed they are so highly civilised as to boast of the patronage of Queen Victoria, who it appears paid them a special visit in Scotland. Another instance of the process of modern refinement on these Pharoahites is that they occupy exactly the same position as the other hirers of stands - they have paid for the privilege of showing their peculiar method of travelling and mode of life. Unlike the Laps, they have not been engaged as one of the attractions of the Exhibition, and in coming forward on their own account they display a business enterprise which does credit to their commercial instincts.
On Whit Monday they did a roaring trade, many of the ladies of social standing persisting in having their fortunes told - "just for the fun of the thing, you know." The female gipsies were attired in gaudy garments and quite captivated crowds of young "mashers" who had come to see what they were like. For the moment the new comers are all the rage, and have snuffed out the blighted Laplanders.
Extract from the "Liverpool Review" June 19th, 1886
Her Majesty is not the only Royal visitor who has honoured the Exhibition with her presence. Another has made his appearance lately and set up what I suppose must be styled his "palace" near Cross's Indian Pavilion and in the middle of what may be called a quagmire. The "palace" of course is not a very imposing erection, the only difference between it and an ordinary gipsy tent being that it is a little larger and that the stuff with which it is covered is red in colour, the accommodation being supplemented by a travelling caravan which is decidedly more gaily painted than such vehicles usually are. His Majesty is not likely to suggest to any one the phrase "every inch a king", his appearance being more like that of a gamekeeper, though it was sufficient to attract a large crowd of starers, who however showed no disposition to have their fortunes told, probably fancying that they knew them well enough already. This was the more remarkable as King Smith had been called upon by the Queen while in Scotland, and might therefore claim to be a Royal fortune teller "by appointment" with more accuracy than is generally observed by using the phrase.
Extract from the "Liverpool Courier", June 19th, 1886
Whence came these guests who, unknown and uninvited, migrated into Europe in the fifteenth century? The question, which has puzzled the fertile minds of many historians, was the one that naturally presented itself to me as I wended my way to the gypsy encampment in the grounds of the great International Exhibition. I confess I had no poetic or sentimental ideas in regard to the tribes who own Bohemia as their birthplace. On the contrary, I was afflicted with the common prejudice that these nomadic individuals were nothing more nor less than itinerant thieves and natural vagabonds, whose existence is a social anomaly, and who constitute a standing protest against the rigour of our game laws. The entrance to the red cloth-covered tent was surrounded by a crowd whose curiosity appeared to be as insatiable as their credulity; and it was with no small difficulty that I succeeded in breaking through the serried ranks of the gaping throng. The whole aspect of the place was totally different from the conventional notion of a gypsy camp. The public picture to themselves a few dilapidated and ragged shanties, begrimed by smoke, and worn by long service; a like number of painted and bedizened carts, shaggy, unkempt and ill-tended horses, and an indefinite number of dark-eyed, dark-skinned children. But here the conditions are entirely reversed.
The interior presented an air of oriental luxury. A rich carpet covered the floor; cushioned seats invited to repose; and there were not wanting other accessories to remind one of the sybaritic elegance of a Turkish divan. The squalid children were not there, but in their stead appeared a bevy of handsome damsels with Gitano complexions. The comely girls were attired in robes of the brightest hues, scarlet, pink, and yellow; and from their ears depended large silver rings, which imparted to them a dashing Bohemian mien.
But it is on beholding the King and Queen of these Pharoahites that one's preconceived ideas sustain the rudest shock. I must confess to a feeling of disappointment on being ushered into the presence of the King. Instead of being confronted with a picturesque old gentleman of dirty and forbidding look, I saw before me a perfectly respectable middle-aged man with a quiet, self-possessed air, and wearing the very unimposing garments prescribed by nineteenth century civilisation. There was nothing striking about his bearing, and I searched in vain for any indications of royal characteristics. His Majesty may be a true descendant of "Romany Ri"; he may boast of the blood of the genuine Zingarri, but he certainly does not show it in the "tawny skin, the vellum of the pedigree they claim". His countenance strikes one as being more English than Egyptian, and were it not for the slight swarthiness observable about the eyes no one would suspect that he had the remotest connection with the "vagabond followers of Isis".
His Royal Consort, who at the time I entered was engaged in the homely occupation of peeling potatoes, is much darker. Indeed her visage has assumed a saffron hue, and amongst her own people she must have been regarded as a very preposessing specimen of a gypsy twenty years ago. The King received me with the utmost courtesy, and on being informed of the object of my visit insisted on my taking a chair while he squatted on the carpet. His Majesty was not only ready but eager to supply the information which I required.
May I be favoured with your name? Oh, certainly - George Smith. "It strikes me that I have heard that name before," was the comment which instinctively came to the lips, but I refrained. "Ah, you may say that it is a common name for a Bohemian like me to bear, but I can tell you that the Smiths are as old a tribe as the Stanleys, the Lovells, the Hernes and the Coopers." "What is the extent of your family here?" "Well, the occupants of this tent and that covered cart which you see outside are myself and my wife, four daughters and their two female cousins, and four sons there" - and he pointed with his finger to a group of strapping young fellows who had just entered the camp.
"Can you trace your descent far back?" "Oh, yes." At this point his Royal Consort exclaimed with evident pride. "I can remember my great-grandmother. She and her tribe never lived out of tents." The King: "You see, sir, it's a kind of mystery where we came from. Some says we are from the Rekkybites (Rechabites) and others says as how we are the lost tribes. It has been a great puzzle to me as to where we have originated." "Do you speak the gipsy language?" "Yes, to be sure. We talk Romany." As if to convince me of the truth of his assertion he addressed a few words to the Queen in that mysterious lingo which I regret not to have been able to follow.
"It is said that, like the Red men, you gipsies are being civilised out of being?" "It's this way, sir. There's good and bad among us. Some wander about the country, and by their depredations get a character that's not very nice; but now we are more prosperous than the generality of our class." "May I inquire what is your principal source of income?" "Oh, bless you, I and my sons do a great deal in the way of horse dealing; and we don't employ our idle time, like some of the strollers, in tinkering. We go to Ireland very often and buy horses for the French army; and the English Government as well."
"Will you allow me to ask whether you practice fortune-telling at all?" "Well, the fact is we don't go in for that. But if ladies insist, we don't object to do it. My wife and the girls tell fortunes when they are asked. I would rather you didn't say much about that."
"Given the mysteries of gypsy life, and the curiosity of the public, I suppose your camp is crowded every day since your arrival?" "Why, sir, on Whit-Monday we were so full as almost to be suffocated. The people came in droves, and the entrance was blocked up with them all the time."
"It strikes me that I have seen her Majesty in the neighbourhood of Everton for some time past?" "Well, you see we have been camped there, but we come from Epping Forest. The Queen visited us when we were in Dunbar in Scotland. And if we weren't real gipsies Her Majesty would not have come to see us." The King at this juncture said he should be exceedingly obliged if I would put in the papers the fact that their habitation was scrupulously neat and clean, and that the sanitary arrangements were of an exceptional character - which I told them I should have much pleasure in doing.
"There is another thing which you might mention, too" he added, in a whisper. "We don't herd together, higgledy-piggledy, like some wanderers. My wife and I pass the night in that end of the tent, and at the opposite end, which is curtained off, my boys sleep. And as for the girls, they occupy the caravan." His Majesty then conducted me to the covered cart outside, and showed me a veritable boudoir for comfort and elegance. He was careful to point out every detail of the well-appointed vehicle, and to exhibit the gee-gaws and showy dresses which the ladies wore on gala days.
"Look here, sir, some people think that we gipsies are a little loose in our morals. But I can tell you that it's nothing of the sort. We are very particular people. Our daughters' virtue is very dear to us, and rather than see them injured we would sooner see them dead." And by the powerfully self-restrained manner of Mr Smith, I could see that he meant what he said.
In reply to the question as to whether he really preferred gipsying to the ordinary mode of life, he said "It's our regular way of living, and if you gave me the grandest house, I would not give up my camp for it." And the Queen chimed in, "Our ancestors always lived in tents, and so shall we. I am happier as I am than if I was in a palace. Indeed, I would not live in one, and no more would my daughters."
Observing an ancient-looking parrot in a gaudy cage, I ventured to ask if it belonged to the family. "Bless your life," replied the Queen, "we have had that ere bird for more than fifteen years. It knows our ways, and can talk Romany. But it only speaks when the spirit moves it." Just at that moment Poll was in one of her most taciturn moods, and could not be induced to open her beak, but no doubt, like the traditional bird of that ilk, she thought the more.
"Have you any history of your tribe or biographical records of yourself?" I inquired; to which his Majesty pathetically answered. "Unfortunately, I have not. Ah, if I had only got one-half the accounts that the Scotch reporters put in about us, they would be worth any money to me now. However I have given some particulars to a gentleman who is going to put it in a little book for me."
"Are you permitted to do any trafficking here?" "Well, yes, a little. Mr Bapty allows us to sell a few fancy baskets if we like." "And then perhaps the ladies do not offer insuperable objections to have their palms crossed?" To this soft impeachment the gipsy monarch only returned a knowing wink, as much as to say, "Why should we not humour the whims of our fair visitors?"
Extract from the "Liverpool Review", June 26th 1886
The gipsies are still the rage at the Exhibition, and each day King Smith and his Royal consort receive the homage of well-dressed crowds of lady admirers. With the prestige gained by the patronage of Queen Victoria, they come with confidence before a credulous public, and so far their levées have been pecunarily successful. Their cleanly and well ordered encampment was visited this week by the Mayor and Mayoress who were much interested, if not edified, by their interviews with these ultra respectable Bohemians. Selling little fancy baskets is ostensibly the only traffic carried on by the olive complexioned family; but this is not their only stock-in-trade. It is surprising to witness the large number of grandes dames who enter the tent for the sole object of having their fortunes told. This strange curiosity was supposed to exist only amongst domestic servants but Mary Jane's mistress seems quite as anxious to dive into the mysteries of the future. Many ladies feel ashamed to patronise chiromancy in the Exhibition, but have asked for private appointments with her Majesty Mrs Smith. Not a few in their eagerness to penetrate into futurity conquer their natural timidity, and boldly enter. In such cases, it is an amusing spectacle to observe the furtive manner in which the operation is conducted, and how the fair ones make a hurried exit as if conscious of having done something very foolish and ridiculous. As a rule it is the Queen whose palm is crossed, but some young mashers prefer having their fortunes told by one of the princesses.
Editors note. I have queried with Sharon the figure she
gives of 450,000 exhibitors. This information came from a fairly scarce book
published c 1900 titled Liverpool Worthies. This figure plus the
attendance figures are cumulative totals, so if five people were employed on
a stand and they worked six days a week for seven months this would be listed
as about 850 attendances.