One thing I really enjoy about my blogs ramblings is that I never quite know in what direction they’ll take me next.
I love the fact that people often contacted me from all around the world. Some telling me that I’ve written about a long lost ancestor of theirs or about a place they once lived. Sometimes their messages are accompanied by photos or personal snippets to go along with the tales.
Well, recently a lady got in touch with me with some interesting information about her husbands ancestors, who way back used to be Romany gypsies who settled down in Weymouth around the turn of the century.
With her husbands permission, (thought I’d better check that first just in case!) this blog will tell a little of their fascinating story.
Not knowing a great deal about the history of the Romany travelling community I decided to do a little digging first, it was riveting. For the history our South West area has with the genuine travelling people follow the link below.
(Picture kindly supplied by the Lyme Regis Museum; the James(or possibly Jones,) family camped at Puddletown.)
I clearly remember from my childhood the swarthy skinned gypsy women hawking in town with their baskets of heather My mum would always buy a bunch and stick it in a little pot on our windowsill, she was convinced that it brought good luck. (A fear of not buying a bunch thereby inducing bad luck may also have played a role!)
And those weather-worn men travelling men who would congregate at Dorchester market on livestock sales days, crooked hazel stick in hand, their sharp eyes fastened on those horses for sale.
Anyway, I digress somewhat…back to the tale.
This story concerns the James family who ended up living in the row of stone cottages four doors down from the public house that is now called the New Inn at Littlemoor.
The father Thomas, (christened Andrew Thomas) was born in Shirley, Hampshire around 1855. His wife, Martha, was a cousin, she had been born at Tolpuddle or Blandford around the same time. (It is hard to sometimes pin down their exact place of birth because they travelled so often between places, and frequently their supposed birthplace changed from census to census.)
They both grew up knowing a hard life on the road, travelling the lanes of the Victorian countryside in their wagons or vardos with their families, they would pitch in a group where ever they arrived that day.
In the 1871 census we find an unmarried Thomas along with his parents, Dennis and Laura, and many others of the extended family on Kinson Common, Dorset. (Kinson did and still has a connection with the gipsy community.)
Within a few years Thomas married cousin Martha and a succession of children arrived, Louisa, Dennis, Andrew, Caroline, Laura, Leonard and Vardlow, their assorted places of birth in Dorset proof of their continued travelling life style.
By the time of the 1891 census their family were encamped on the village green at Fordington. In the vardo next door was Thomas’s aged parents, the enumerator listing them as travellers.
By the time their last child, Elsie, arrived in 1895, the James family had left the road behind them, having moved into a little stone built cottage in Littlemoor.
They might have left behind the tradition of travelling the Dorset and Hampshire highways in their vardo but they hadn’t given up completely on the lifestyle.
The 1901 census enumerator lists them both as hawkers, ( describing them as gipsies in brackets in the occupation column.)
Thomas and Martha’s sons were in steady work, employed on nearby farms or in building trades, but Mum and Dad were reluctant to let go of old traditions. They might have been confined by four solid cottage walls, but every day they ventured forth, far and wide, hawking their wares in surrounding towns and villages.
Life must have been fairly interesting for their neighbours, this colourful couple with their lively antics causing no end of delicious gossip over garden walls.
Their closest neighbours were George and Jane Guppy on one side with their two young daughters and Isaac and Mary Powell and their family of 3 boys and a girl on the other.
Around the same time the family moved in, so appeared in the newspapers one of many frequent sensational stories of their somewhat nefarious doings.
On a Tuesday, the 24th September 1895, Thomas and Martha stepped outside into the fresh morning air, they were on their way into Weymouth where Martha would ply her trade, her trusty old wicker basket slung on her arm, selling what she could to bring in a much-needed penny or two.
But this was going to be no ordinary day for either of them…one would end up seriously injured, and the other behind locked doors.
The couple alighted train at Upwey station and made for Weymouth.
After tramping Weymouth’s streets that morning, Martha went to meet Thomas at the public house where he had installed himself for the duration. He was not in a good mood it seems, he demanded some of Martha’s hard-earned coins, but she far was too slow in handing them over for his liking.
With that an irate Thomas raised his stick and beat her over the head with it.
By the time the somewhat now well-inebriated couple had finished for the day in Weymouth, they staggered their way back to the station where they boarded the 3.30 train.
Laura James, Thomas’ mother, had joined the couple, she by all accounts was as inebriated as the other two.
What happened on journey home appeared as sensational headlines in the papers a couple of days later.
A WOMAN FOUND INSENSIBLE.
According to the Western Gazette’s lengthy news report, Edward Hansford, a Great Western Railway packer, had been busy working on the line between Lawton Bridge and Two Mile Copse that Tuesday afternoon, when he came across the seemingly lifeless body of a woman lying besides the line.
The guard on the Great Western 3.32 Weymouth train had reported seeing a woman fall out onto the line.
On reaching Upwey, the guard informed station master, 42-year-old Richard Harry Dyke, who then proceeded back down the line only to find the motionless form and a flustered Mr Hansford attending it.
But the limp body wasn’t completely lifeless, a strange gurgling noise revealed life. Richard Dyke quickly turned her over and a thick stream of congealed blood drained from her mouth. He had literally saved her life. The victim, which was our Martha, had been virtually drowning on blood pouring from a gaping head wound into her mouth.
By now, her flustered husband arrived on scene, having jumped from the train before it reached Upwey station, having raced all the way back down the track to where his wife’s unconscious, battered and bloodied body lay.
When asked what happened, a flustered Thomas replied that his wife had said something about going to Southampton. She was out the door before he could do anything!
Martha’s limp form was placed upon a hastily fetched wicker hurdle and conveyed to their cottage, about a mile away.
You can only imagine the neighbours surprise when they saw a gang of men with their strange baggage coming along the road and into the James’ cottage.
Chins must have wagged for Dorset.
Dr Pridham was sent for. Things didn’t look too good for Martha. For the next four hours she didn’t stir, deeply unconscious .
Of course, before long the long arm of the law were knocking on the James’ door, Sergeant Legg and P.C. Carter entered the cottage. Carter sternly confronted the still drink-befuddled and flustered Thomas,
“James, I wish to see your wife.”
Thomas could do little else but allow them entry, he sulkily replied
“All right, she is upstairs.”
Martha, having at last regained consciousness, managed to give her statement, accusing her wayward husband of virtually beating out of the carriage door.
“I, Marth James, saith I am the wife of Thomas James and reside with him at Littlemoor. We get our living by hawking. On Tuesday the 24th Sep, I and my husband went to Weymouth. I hawked while he walked about. He asked me for some money while we were there, and because I would not give him some at once he struck me across the head with a stick. We came back to Upwey by the 3.30 p.m. train. Mrs Dennis James, my husband’s mother, got into the same carriage with us. As soon as we were in the carriage my husband began abusing me, and struck me down on the seat. I stood up, and he struck me again up against the door, and by some means it opened. I know I did not open it. I do not remember anything more until I found myself home in bed.”
Unable to read or write, Martha slowly and painfully raised her head from her pillow and signed her damning statement with a simple cross.
Thomas was then summonsed to the bedroom, his battered accuser laid before him, the charges were read out by P.C. Carter,
“You wife has made a statement respecting you, which I have taken down, and which I will read to you.”
Thomas’ reply, not surprisingly, was a complete denial, he snapped
“Then I must say it is a lie then”
But there was only one place he was going, heading for the nearest lock-up. A fiercely protesting Thomas was led out of the cottage by two policemen.
However, when their case finally came before the local courts, not everything was quite as it had at first seemed.
Evidence was produced that put doubt on Martha’s story and showed Thomas in a slightly better light, (not that beating his wife over the head with a stick could ever be described as ‘better.’)
The attending Dr Pridham, said when visited Martha at her home, she was indeed deeply unconscious but he rather thought a lot of that was down to having imbibed far too much drink that day.
In the carriage next to the fiercely feuding James family had been three servants on their way back from Weymouth, also heading for Upwey.
Elizabeth Lane, a servant at Nottington House, had seen something, which she took to be a coat fall past their carriage window. Curiosity getting the better of her, Elizabeth got up, looked out of window and saw the door of the next carriage open and someone stood at door waving their hand and shouting.
Mary Woodrow, a second servant, added her statement. All three had heard a right old commotion going on from the James’ carriage, one hell of an argument.
Thomas’ mother’s statement was read out in court, not that it held much validity, she couldn’t appear in person that day, too intoxicated!
According to her written words, Martha had opened door herself, sat down on the floor, rolled back then just fell out the door. Exactly sort of statement you might expect from a mother protecting her precious son from a serious charge of attempted murder…that is were it not for corroborating evidence from an independent source.
Probably the most damning evidence of all as far as Martha was concerned, that of 32-year-old James Bulley, the brakesman in charge of train. He claimed to have seen a hand projecting out from the carriage window, it then turning the handle of the door, at which point the door opened and a woman jumped.
Then Martha herself took to the stand, relaying her version of those days events.
She said about 1 o’clock that fateful day she had gone to an underground public house by the Quay where she met her husband Thomas. He demanded money, but because she hadn’t been quick enough in handing it over, he’d lost his temper and proceeded to bash her over the head with his stick. At this point she grabbed the coins out of her pocket and chucked them at him.
According to her testimony, not overly pleased with his wife’s contrary actions, he growled between gritted teeth that
“He would swing for her.”
Instead, he threw her basket at her and sent her on her way to earn some more money. Sadly Martha’s lucky heather obviously wasn’t up to its magical scratch that day, her good luck had run out…she didn’t earn a further penny.
The couple met again later at the station, Martha penniless and Thomas in a foul mood. Once in their carriage, an irate Thomas pushed her down hard into the seat, yelling at his weary wife
“Sit down there.”
An aggrieved Martha demanded to know his problem,
“You have been quarrelling with me all day; what is the matter with you?”
She recalled their violent row in the carriage, and Thomas hitting her again and again with his stick, but very little else until she awoke back in her own home, battered and bruised and feeling very sorry for herself.
When she came round, Thomas brought her up a strong drink of rum and beer which she pushed away saying she couldn’t face it. With that Thomas’ anger erupted again, he shoved her hard in the chest and according to Martha he shouted
” he wished he had picked me up dead.”
Martha also told the magistrates how Thomas used to beat her so often with his stick sometimes, causing her to go into fits.
When questioned about the possibility of her having leapt from the train of her own free will, (fuelled by alcoholic stupor) supposedly to go and see her missing daughter, she quickly and vehemently denied that.
Martha claimed she didn’t even know if her daughter was in Southampton, she had walked out of the family home about 12 months ago…in fact, so unbothered by her sudden disappearance was she that she had almost forgotten her by now!
The case of Grievous Bodily Harm against Martha by her husband was considered serious enough to be referred up to the Dorset County Assizes.
However, when the County Court sat at their next session, as they went through the list of cases to be heard it was decided in their infinite wisdom that there was insufficient evidence to bring the James incident before the courts.
Yes, they agreed Thomas had not been the most affable of men where his wife was concerned, but there was very little evidence to prove that he had in fact deliberately attempted to harm her by throwing her out of the moving carriage.
In fact the evidence of the guardsman pointed to the contrary. Consequently the serious charges of Grievous Bodily Harm upon Martha by Thomas were discharged. He was a free man…for now!
But poor old Martha’s woes weren’t to end there. Only a few months later and she was at the receiving end of Thomas’s alcohol fuelled anger again.
One June evening of 1896 she retired to her bed. For whatever reason a drunken and angry Thomas burst into the room and set about her in a vicious manner. He lunged at her, squeezing his hands tightly around her throat, nearly throttling the very life out of her. His hot, fetid breath in her face as he declared he would do for her and that he would swing for her
“in the same way as two men had swung on Tuesday morning.”
Finally managing to break from Thomas’ grasp and make her escape, Martha barricaded herself in the next bedroom.
The following morning, while Thomas still slept, she slipped out of her cottage and made her way to the nearest police station. A very determined Martha was going to make her errant husband pay for his misdeeds.
So once again, Thomas found himself arrested, thrown into jail and then hauled before the magistrates charged with violent assault and the attempted murder of his wife.
This time he didn’t escape so lightly, for his sins he was sentenced to one month prison with hard labour.
Mind you, Martha wasn’t exactly whiter than white, she too had encountered the courts wrath on a few occasions.
True to traditional gipsy life Martha continued to pedal her wares wherever the road took her, selling bunches of heather for good luck or telling fortunes to the unsuspecting females who hung on her every word, which brought her before the courts frequently.
In September 1891 she appeared before Salisbury magistrates, charged with stealing a silver brooch of the value of 2s, the property of Louisa Bragg of 8 Egerton Place, Windsor Road, Fisherton.
Martha had knocked the door and offered the woman some wares from her trusty basket. When the lady refused to buy anything, Martha then induced her to part with a few unwanted items, a brooch, jacket, pillow case and other bits and pieces of clothing, with the promise that she could foretell her future.
Getting well into her stride, Martha declared she was one of the mysterious and select Seven Sisters, holding such strong powers that she could work her magical charm on the lady’s wedding ring, promising her eternal happiness. All the good lady had to do was to place a simple glass of water on the mantle-shelf and if she got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and peered into it she would see the features of her husband.
The magistrate, not surprisingly, was not quite so taken in with Martha’s mystical powers, or worried by any hideous hexes she may inflict upon him, he committed her to 6 weeks in prison.
In December 1915 Martha found herself before the Weymouth courts again. This time accused of
“Telling Fake Fortunes and Selling Dragon’s Blood.”
Martha, now in her 60’s, was still up to her old tricks.
She was in the habit of going into the seed shop of Mr Courtenay in Bond Street to purchase bits and pieces. A young girl who worked behind the counter suddenly found herself under Martha’s steely gaze and was soon pulled into Martha’s mystical world of spells and magic.
After a few months of listening to Martha’s mutterings, for which she paid dearly, the terrified girl confessed her fears to the shop keeper and the police duly informed.
The shop bell rang out as Martha made her next visit into the store, the young assistant waiting nervously behind the counter, beginning to feel very silly now having been taken in all this time. Martha purchased her goods and turned her attention to the young girl.
“How is your young man? You are looking better.”
Then looking around carefully to see who was listening she sidled up to the girl and whispered
“You have got a silver coin in your pocket?”
the girl nodded, a sixpence she admitted,
“That will do, hand it to me”
Martha brusquely demanded.
With coin given, Martha spat on girls hand and passed the silver coin over it. With that ‘magical charm’ not only came the promise of a long and happy marriage to her beau but also the great delights of her own prosperous business to look forwards to. Her parting shot as she left was
“God Almighty bless you and good luck.”
She might not have been quite so quick to bless the assistant had she known that a certain P.C. Pitman was concealed inside the shop to witness this exchange of money and ‘magic.’
Hauled before the magistrates Martha’s once mysterious magical methods were revealed for all and sundry to hear, bringing forth a great deal of mirth and laughter from those disbelievers attending the lively court session.
The shop assistant revealed that she had only handed over her money because she was so scared of her, what the gipsy would do if she didn’t give her silver when asked for. She didn’t want any bad luck in her life. So far, over the last few weeks, she had given Martha nearly a sovereign of her hard earned money.
No wonder Martha was a frequent visitor to the shop, it had become a very lucrative stop.
The girl continued her tale of woe. She said that at one stage Martha had handed her a tiny, but very expensive…
“half a crown that cost me!”
bottle containing a strange red liquid. Dragon’s Blood Martha firmly assured her, containing great powers. The girl was told to tip just three drops of this magical blood onto a piece of paper when it was a new moon, which she did… and when it was a full moon she was to burn it. Those listening to the young girl as she carefully explained the spell couldn’t contain their mirth.
When asked if she had indeed
“had good luck ever since?”
she innocently replied
“I do not know, I did not burn the paper.”
Even the Magistrates Clerk couldn’t resist gently mocking the witness
“She did not complete the process, so that was not giving the charm a fair chance,”
which brought forth peals of laughter.
When it was Martha’s turn to stand in the box, she of course had a perfectly logical explanation for everything. It was purely out of the kindness of her own sweet heart that she had told the young girl about her beau coming back to marry her, it was just to keep the her happy. The same way that the money the girl handed her was only from kindness, she had freely given it to her for a drink…nothing at all to do with fortune telling. As for the Dragon’s Blood?…she knew nothing about that, hadn’t even seen it before!
Martha received a proverbial slap on the wrist, a fine and a dire warning that if she appeared in the courts again she would find herself in serious trouble.
I doubt whether either old Thomas or Martha could have completely given up on their gipsy roots, their old way of life. So ingrained in their family history from centuries of a life on the road and the stories passed from generation to generation.
Martha passed away in 1924 and Thomas followed in 1931, both are buried at St Nicholas church Broadwey.
So a way of travelling life passes into history, a few tales of these colourful old characters of the open road all that remains of their fascinating story.
Pictures of the James, (or possible Jones,) family while on the road kindly leant by the Lyme Regis Museum Archives.