Thursday, June 05, 2008

South London Gypsy History

June 2008 is apparently the first Gypsy, Traveller and Roma History Month. As part of it in Lewisham, the London Gypsy Orchestra are playing at Blackheath Halls on June 13th. So here's a bit of South London Gypsy History.

The Gypsy presence in South London is marked in some of the place names, most obviously Gipsy Hill. On a more derogatory note, South Norwood Hill was once known as Beggars Hill. From at least the 17th century to the mid-19th century, gypsies camped in in Norwood, Penge and and Croydon Common, paticularly in the summer months. A 1777 pantomime in Covent Garden was called 'The Norwood Gypsies'.

Margaret Finch, who died on 24 October 1740 at the age of 108 years, was known as the 'Queen of the Gypsies' and lived near the lower end of Gypsy Hill. Her fortune telling was a local attraction. She was buried in Beckenham Parish Church.

According to James Caulfield: 'The most remarkable was Margaret Finch, born at Sutton, in Kent; who, after travelling the whole of England in the double capacity of gipsy and thief, finally fixed her place of residence at Norwood. [She] adopted a habit, and afterwards a constant custom, of sitting on the ground with her chin resting on her knees, which caused her sinews to become so contracted, that she could not extend herself of change her position. [..] The singularity of her figure, and the fame of her fortune-telling, drew a vast concourse of persons from the highest rank and quality to that of the lowest class in life. Norwood, and the roads leading to it; on a fine sunday, resembled the scene of a fair; and, with the greatest difficulty only, could a seat or a mug of beer be obtained, at the place called the Gipsy-house." (Remarkable Persons, 1819)

Margaret was succeeded by her niece, 'Old Bridget, the Queen of the Gypsies' who died 6 August 1768 and was buried in Dulwich college burial ground. She was succeeded in turn by her niece Margaret. Another of her descendents, a Mrs Cooper, was one of the principal fortune tellers at Beulah Spa in the 19th century.

In the nineteenth century, 'the heights of Norwood were the holiday playground of the cockney tripper... Fortune telling by the gypsies was still one of the attractions" (1). Other attractions included the tea gardens at the Jolly Sailor (at the foot of South Norwood Hill), the White Swan, the White Hart (at the corner of Westow Street and Church Road) and the Windmill in Westow Hill. There were strawbery gardens in Beulah Hill and the famous Beulah Spa.

Elsewhere in South London, Samuel Pepys records in his diary for the 11 August 1688 that his wife went 'to see the Gypsies at Lambeth and had their fortunes told'. The church register for St Giles in Camberwell records that on June 2 1687, 'King and Queen of the Jepsies [gypsies], Robt. Hern and Elizabeth Bozwell' were married there (2)

The authorities cracked down on the Gypsy fortune tellers of South London in the late 18th century. In August 1797, police arrested thirty men, women and children in Norwood under the Vagrancy Act. In 1802, the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune-tellers. 'Faced with police repression and subsequent enclosure of the Common, the fortune-tellers finally deserted Norwood' (3). Despite this there has been a traveller presence in South London down to the present.

(1) Alan R. Warwick, The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History (London: Blue Boar Press 1972).
(2) William Harnett Blanch, The Parish of Camberwell (1875).
(3) Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Cultures, 1736-1951 (Manchester University Press, 1999)


izzy cohen said...

Gupta was a dynasty located in northern India. I think it is based on a word meaning "liver", like hepato- in AncGreek. If so, that would explain why it is near Nepal, the navel (from Sanskrit nabhila) on an anthropomorphic map of the area. I suspect the Gypsies emigrated from Gupta.

Hebrew TZi3oNi (using 3 for the letter aiyin) means wanderer and is
cognate with tzigane (gypsy usic). Perhaps the Rolling Stones are
"gypsies on wheels"? A rolling stone gathers no moss possessions).

Like a violet by a mossy stone,
Half hidden from the eye.
Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.
-- Wm. Wordsworth

Do you have any knowledge about the word Gupta that would confirm or refute its association with the liver?

Best regards,

Israel "izzy" Cohen
BPMaps moderator

Anonymous said...

interesting stuff transpontine, and congratulations for resisting using the harvard referencing convention in your blog posts!

. said...

Don't get me started on referencing, I used to work in a library! I would encourage more people to put references on their blogs though, it does help if other people want to follow it up and do more research.

As for Izzy's gupta/gypsy theory I wouldn't know - there's the more widely-held view that gypsy comes from Egyptian, where people used to (mistakenly believe they came from.

Anonymous said...

Izzy Cohen: The idea about the Gupta dynasty might work. Reading accounts, I see that this started in north-central India and expanded eastward(?). I know a little more about the Gypsies of India, because I've been looking into that for a decade or so, ever since the group Musafir came out with their album Gypsies of Rajasthan. Accounts I've read say that the Gypsies began in north-central India and migrated west. This is mentioned, for instance, in a "Gypsies of Rajasthan" page of a Rajasthan tourism site, here:

I have heard, though that the word "Gyspy" did come from the assumption that they'd come from Egypt.

Anonymous said...

P.S. But wait a minute, checking the dates... Gupta dynasty began a couple of centuries A.D. (and didn't expand until much later); the Gypsies far preceded them, migrating from north-central to north-western India in 300 BC! The name might have been applied later, but the Gypsies were in Northern India long before Guptas.

adrienne montes said...

I am a gypsEy frnm South Africa. Our spices originate probably from pesia not india as with out language, sanskrit. It has travelled around the globe and landed in India, I know the indian's like to say it is their language, but not true.

We do not look Indian nor do we eat Curry.The spice route is a good indication of your origins as our traditional food has never changed over time.

We resemble the Egyptians and have always been a mystical tribe.

There are 6 tribes, forune tellers,(The Magi) royalty, entertainers , thieves, metal workers etc. With gypsey names not english. we are gujaresti, spread all over the world.

We are a private tribe so the mystery continues.
My father was a King.

We are not Indian but their was a tribe that lived there and still do.

many thanks

Adrienne Tirana Montes

P.S the most discriminated against of all tribes and yet people love our clothes, music, fortune telling,caravans etc BUT NOT us, especially in england ...people hate us here , as with germany they have and always will hate gypsies.Just read the press. People kicked off their own land, bought and paid for by themselves. unbelievable
many thanks

Anonymous said...

I have just find out that I my have Gypsey blood, from my mothers side. She was a welsh lady from near Cardif. How would you go about finding out more info.. I have always liked to dance and at my mature age have been learning bellydancing and tribal. This maybe why i enjoy it so much , its in my blood.

Unknown said...

Hi Im looking for a destiny teller in south london. Could you advice me one please. Thanks email me to

Anonymous said...

Hi iam looking fortune teller in london please help my email is im from ireland my nan was a gipsy lady. She was a gentle. Out of no where twice in the last two years two different ladies approched me one was an english gipsy and one an irish travelling women and asked to read my fortune the gipsy lady was so good she shocked me. I live in london and would love to see a gipsy lady to make sence of these two ladies that came to me thank you.