Chiltern Romany & Travellers

The Chilterns stretch in a South-west to North-east drection, from Goring-on-Thames in Oxon to the Commons at Woodcote, Nettlebed & Stokenchurch, through Bucks where the Commons include those at Naphill, Hawridge & Cholesbury, then into Herts and the Common Land at Berkhamsted & Northchurch, reaching close to Hitchin, but also taking in the Beds Commons of Whipsnade Heath & Dunstable Downs. The Sites of the Commons themselves, together with Newspaper reports & records from preceding Centuries, allow us a glimpse of the Economic & Social Life of those who lived and worked on the Commons, many of whom were Romanies & Travellers – the people known as Gypsies.

The Commons at Hawridge & nearby Cholesbury provided regular Camping Sites for Gypsies who frequently performed the tasks of Casual Labour for the local Farmers. Their presence is marked by the Records of the Period with births & marriages and, later in the Century, by Census Records. As early as 1762 the Baptism of Letitia Draper is Registered in Cholesbury, the daughter of Valentine Draper, a Gypsy, and his wife. Bucks was Home Territory for Valentine, who also Baptised Lucy at Fingest in 1778, Martha in 1782 at West Wycombe, Valentine in 1789 at High Wycombe, and Ann in Nettlebed, just over the Border in Oxon (uncertain, but believed to be in 1791). Cholesbury provided rough grazing for the Horses, Brush for Fuel and Wood for Peg Making & Chair-Mending, was a popular stopping Site for Gypsies & Travellers. Many of the Hawkers sold the items they made, such as Pegs & Brooms, the materials for which came from the Commons and nearby Woodland. The Commons were close to Farmland and casual Farm Labouring was another source of Income for the Gypsy population. Usually staying on the commons, in Tents, Carts or, later in the 19thC, in Caravans, the Gypsies could also gather Broom & Heath from the Site to make Besoms to Sell, and could Pasture their livestock.

Hawridge Common could sustain Romanies & Travellers throughout the year since local Brick & Tile Making were also Common in the area. Because of the ideal quality of local Clays & Sand, as well as the proximity of Wood for Fuel, many Gypsies were involved in this Occupation, the busy months being the early Winter and the Spring. At Hawridge on 12th September 1814 a Marriage took place between Thomas Fisher, a Harvest man, “now of this Parish” and Seabro/Sabrah Swift, a Harvest woman. Thomas signed, Sabrah made her mark, as did the Witness, Sarah Taylor. The Fisher Family appear to have travelled to Hawridge for Farm Work quite regularly and the Parish Records show them Baptising Children & Marrying in late August & early September. The Hearn Family were a significant Romany Tribe who frequently worked as Brick Makers and the Registers of Hawridge record their presence. The proximity to the various Commons at Aldbury, Whipsnade & Hawridge indicate their Stopping Places, and confirm their Territorial circuit.


Many members of the Hearn tribe were Churched predominantly in the area around Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, especially in Tring and Bovingdon. The Hearns were also often to be found, with other Gypsies, working in the Brick Kilns on the Commons, especially at Aldbury & Northchurch. Although also favouring other Counties to the North, West & South of London, the Hearns were a significant Presence in the Tring area of Herts. A Herts Farmer recorded, as early as the 1740s, that there was a swelling of numbers of Gypsies in the area, notably Boswells & Hearns, and that “Herne (sic) had clothes of Silver Lace, kept a couple of Race Horses, was always full of money and acted as a Chieftain,” adding that “this Herne got so much into the good Graces of the Owner of a Brick Kiln near Berkhamsted Common that he had leave to take possession of the Brick Kiln House, and it was here that he resided near half-a-year together, with near 30 Gypsy men & women, who strolled about the Country.”
Evidence of the Hearns in local Church Records date back to Senia Hearn, Baptised in Berkhamsted on 3rd March 1750, the daughter of Robert Hearn, a Traveller, and Elizabeth, and buried 10-days later at the same location.
Brick Making was then a Seasonal occupation and one commonly undertaken by the Travelling population in the 19thC and earlier. Firstly, the Clay had to be
weathered in the Winter Frosts, so that it was dug out in the Autumn and left over the colder months for the Frost to get at it and help break it down. In the Spring the Clay was turned over and the Stones & Pebbles removed before further refinement, such as adding Sand, left the Clay suitable for Brick Making. After Moulding in Wooden moulds, which were coated with Sand to prevent the Clay from Sticking, the Bricks were left to dry before Firing. The Baptisms of the children indicate a Seasonal pattern in terms of the presence of the tribe, since tasks such as Brick Making were carried out in the late Autumn, and then concluded in the Spring when the Winter Weather had helped break down the Clay. Sojourning (or staying somewhere temporarily) over the Winter months, when Travel was often difficult & sometimes impossible, meant that the Gypsies were available for the Seasonal Labour of Brick Making, so popular in the area, and could spend the Winter mending their material Goods, making Besoms & Clothes Pegs and, of course, Churching their children in the Villages close to the Common Land on which they Camped. Another reason that so many Romanies & Travellers were involved in Brick Making was that many of the Kilns could be found on the Commons, frequently the Poorest Land in the locality. This meant that the Topsoil was thin and therefore easy to strip away in order to dig out the Clay necessary for making the Bricks; in addition there was local Woodland, Gorse or Brush, for Firing the Kilns. This made the Sites where Gypsies often Camped perfectly suited to this, and the Travellers provided a ready Workforce, some acting as Sandcarriers, as well as Brick Makers & Brick Burners. Articles in local Newspapers often focused on the Brick Works, which were considered such a significant part of life in the area. Reporting Accidents, Sale of a Yard, or appealing for Workers at Sites, became commonplace. Whilst the Workforce rarely made much money out of such seasonal activity, the Owners could sometimes do very well indeed. Typical of an Advertisement at the beginning of the 19thC is one carried in the Herts County Chronicle of 1st June 1819, in which a Mrs Hooper, probably a Widow, offered “by Private Contract the valuable Lease & Goodwill of a lucrative Brick & Lime Trade at Cobden Hill”. In addition to Bricks & Earthenware, the Kilns were often used for Lime Burning, using any Chalk found beneath the Clay. Since Lime was used to enrich the soil, Farmers began to have small Lime-kilns on their Land, and Travellers were often useful Employees, being able to act as casual Agricultural Labourers, as well as occasional Lime-burners or Brick Makers. It also became common to find the Job of Brick Maker linked with another occupation, Farmer perhaps, or Beer Seller. It was, after all, thirsty work and such an opportunity was not to be missed! Inevitably, the Traveller Community also ran into trouble with the Law on many occasions, and Local Newspapers recorded such Events, leaving us Documentary Evidence of the presence of these Families in the Neighbourhood.

Elizabeth Leatherland, an aged Gypsy, at 107-yrs-of-age.

The Bucks Herald of 29th August 1874 was to acknowledge the significance of the Hearn Family in a reference to Elizabeth Leatherland, a Hearn before her marriage:
The Gypsy Family of Hearn, of which she claims to belong, is well known in the counties of Herts, Bucks & Oxon, and was better known before the Gypsy Encampments were disturbed by the Law; and ‘Old Betty,’ in her Red Cloak a Figure well known to almost everyone. Although Elizabeth, the daughter of Thomas Hearn, was to Baptise her children with Joseph Leatherland in Kent, Bucks & Herts, it was in Tring, Herts, that she was finally laid to rest, on 23rd January 1875, claiming to be 111-yrs-of-age. Such proximity to the Commons of Northchurch & Aldbury, in particular, are significant indicators of the Seasonal, but regular, Occupations available for the Hearn tribe, and their Presence on the Commons.

In the early Winter & Spring the Hearns could be found in the Market Town of Chesham, with its Common Land at Ley Hill. The Town sits on a Bed Rock of Chalk, Alluvial Gravels & Silt, and periods of subsidence & submergence deposited Clays & Flints, all materials required in activities such as Brick Making & Lime Burning. Many of the Gypsies or Travellers who stopped on Chesham Common also took advantage of the nearby Woodlands to make shovels, brooms, spoons & brushes from the Wood available, as well as carving pegs and Mending & Cane Bottoming Chairs. The considerable area of Beech throughout the Chilterns sustained these Crafts. Nevertheless, the Presence on the Commons of these Outsiders was also a source of Anxiety, as well as Labour, for the local Farmers & Landowners. John Cartwright of Piggott’s Farm near North Dean wondered “whether I should Summon Norris Hearn’s son & daughter for cutting 2 Beech Trees in Sprion Coppis”, and several Gypsies found themselves in Court, prosecuted for damaging hedges, poaching, Hawking without a Licence, vagrancy or drunkenness. Much of the anxiety of local Landowners was unfounded, for the Romanies & Travellers gave more than they took, contributing to the life of the Farms & Villages in the Chilterns,
and many of their descendants were to become part of the local Population as social change brought about a different way of life. By the time of the 1881 Census, many of these Families were still present in the local population, often having moved off the Commons, but maintaining their prior occupations. Samuel Hearn, with his wife Sarah at Waterside, Chesham, is recorded as a Traveller. At Waylands, Chesham, a James Hearn, living with his wife, Bertha, and daughter Martha, is a Brush Hawker and at Church Street, Chesham the Widowed Caroline Hearn, claiming to have been born on Ley Common, is a Straw Plaiter. Straw Plaiting was a local Industry that was a regular occupation for the wives & daughters of Agricultural Labourers, and was frequently as casual as the Farm Labouring itself. Caroline’s son Henry is recorded as a Farm Labourer and another son, Richard, is a worker in Wooden Ware, maintaining a traditional craft. By 1891, Samuel Hearn, a retired Brush Hawker, is still living at Waterside, Chesham within the Ecclesiastical Parish of Christ Church, with his wife, Sarah, his widowed daughter, Jane Sophia White, and his 2 granddaughters, Sarah Jane & Emily Annie. Both of the granddaughters are working in local Industries, and leading a settled existence, Sarah Jane as a French Polisher and Emily as a Boot Machinist.

Hawker Elijah Welling, born at Lye Green, can be found on the Common there, aged 16, in the 1851 Census, with his Parents Francis & Lydia, and siblings Eli, Rebecca, Joseph & Isaac. Eight years later, and residing at Cholesbury, he was prosecuted for Hawking, presumably without a Licence. By 1872 Elijah had managed to rack up 16 previous Convictions, and on this occasion was sentenced to 14-days Imprisonment. The Hertford Mercury & Reformer of 1st December 1848 noticed that, at the Hemel Hempstead Petty Sessions, “Edmund Hearn & John Hearn, 2-Gypsies, were charged with releasing a Horse from the Pound”, adding that the Case was “Adjourned to Berkhamsted, in order to get the Attendance of another Witness”. In 1841 concerns were raised about the Gypsies living on the Commons near Bow Brickhill in Beds. Although not in the Chilterns, the following Report, from the Beds Archives, part of the Russell Correspondence, addresses this:
“The Boundary of Wandon Heath Plantation is a great resort for Gypsies, having Aspley Heath on one side and Bow Brickhill Heath on the other (both Commons). We are obliged to keep 1, and often times 2 or 3 men, to keep watch to prevent Depredation, but the Plantations suffer more damage from people who have been permitted to Build on the Heath of both Parishes, than from Gypsies – the Donkeys can get nothing in the Plantation but Heath, of which they will not eat much, but the Gypsies put the Ling (Heath) for Besoms and then go to the Woods and cut strong Poles to make the Handles for their Besoms. In spite of all our lookout they can and do occasionally make Inroads upon their resident Neighbours on the Heath [and] do not hesitate to steal a Fir tree or 2 occasionally and when that happens, by getting a Search Warrant and looking over the Premises of the worst Characters, [it] keeps them in order for a time, but considering the extent of Boundary with these 2 Heaths and the sort of lawless people who adjoin them, the damage sustained is less than might be expected”.

Netting Shushi

The Drapers, Smiths & Loveridges were amongst the Romany & Traveller Families that counted the area around Aspley as Home Territory. Kisby Draper, bearing a 1st name specific to the tribe, and a Gypsy Horse Dealer, was arrested and sentenced to Imprisonment in Aylesbury Gaol in 1859. He names Aspley as his place of birth, and the notes on his Prison Record remark that he was “of Gypsy appearance”, and also, in the opinion of the Writer, “alien to good feelings”. Nevertheless, such events did not seem to trouble the local Landowners overmuch as they continued to happily employ the Gypsy Community as Casual Labourers. The 1881 Census records a Spencer Draper, 54, living with his wife, Ann, 48, a Pedlar, and 2 sons, Edmund, 25, & Nelson 22, on Aspley Heath. All 3 men are Employed as Agricultural Labourers. However, small scale Offences were dealt with severely by the Local Courts, although it is worth pointing out that most of the Poor were dealt with in a similar manner for their many & frequently Petty infringements of the Law.

Often, the Crimes committed by the Gypsies & Travellers were specific to their way of life, but Gypsies and the local Population alike found themselves in Court for Crimes such as stealing Hay or Poaching a Rabbit and given harsh Sentences for these misdemeanours. What makes the Court Records of the appearance of Gypsies & Travellers important is not whether they were more or less inclined to Criminality than the Settled Community, but that we can learn important details about them and their way of life. The local Population in the Villages adjoining the Commons also, like the Farmers, depended on the Traveller Community who mended pots & kettles, sharpened tools & knives & mended umbrellas. Little boys with their Pocket Knives & the Household Scissors would run after the Gypsy & his Grinding Machine, and watch the sparks fly from the Grindstone, perhaps also buying a Paper Windmill for a Penny. So, if the relationship with the Travelling fraternity was one of wariness, it was also one of inter-dependence.

Many Travellers were accomplished Musicians and the Village Feasts, Local Fairs, Morris Dancing & Dancing Booths were all Events that provided the Gypsy Fraternity with the opportunity to make money by playing for the local population. These Financial rewards bolstered the casual Labouring work, fruit picking, hop picking, pea picking and the summer harvest, as well as apple picking, hawking & Brick Making, all important occupations for the Traveller population. As well as providing much of the Music and running the Dancing Booths & Shooting Galleries, the Gypsies also Hawked Goods they had made, pegs, lace, shawls, wax flowers or real ones, the latter often gathered from the Woodland that abutted the Commons. In the Spring, in particular, the Travellers would gather the Flowers growing wild, primroses, bluebells, snowdrops, and later in the year broom & heather, to fashion them into Bouquets & Bunches to sell. Carpets of such wild flowers were nurtured by the tribes, and the results can still be seen in Woodland Copses, where the Gypsy Families would often return to the same Camping spot year after year, and made sure of this source of Income.

Happy Family

“Do you ever dik any Romanitshels on the drom?” (see any Gypsies on the road)
“Bring that shushi (Rabbit) out o’ the guno (Sack).
Bless my soul, do you think I’d buy a hoppy grai like dova?” (a lame Horse like that)
She had taken me for a dinelo gawjo (gentile simpleton)
His grandson, who told me that the vâdo (Cart) had been hotsherdo (Burnt)
“How did you jin we were akai?” (know we were here)

Wayside Chalk
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