Historical Gypsy

In The Days We Went A-Gipsying

When as a lad I trudged along in the brick-yards, now more than forty years ago, I remember most vividly that the popular song of the employees of that day was

“When lads and lasses in their best
Were dress’d from top to toe,
In the days we went a-gipsying
A long time ago;
In the days we went a-gipsying,
A long time ago.”

Every “brick-yard lad” and “brick-yard wench” who would not join in singing these lines was always looked upon as a “stupid donkey,” and the consequence was that upon all occasions, when excitement was needed as a whip, they were “struck up;” especially would it be the case when the limbs of the little brick and clay carrier began to totter and were “fagging up.” When the task-master perceived the “gang” had begun to “slinker” he would shout out at the top of his voice, “Now, lads and wenches, strike up with the:

“‘In the days we went a-gipsying, a long time ago.’”

And as a result more work was ground out of the little English slave. Those words made such an impression upon me at the time that I used to wonder what “gipsying” meant.

Somehow or other I imagined that it was connected with fortune-telling, thieving and stealing in one form or other, especially as the lads used to sing it with “gusto” when they had been robbing the potato field to have “a potato fuddle,” while they were “oven tenting” in the night time. Roasted potatoes and cold turnips were always looked upon as a treat for the “brickies.”

I have often vowed and said many times that I would, if spared, try to find out what “gipsying” really was. It was a puzzle I was always anxious to solve. Many times I have been like the horse that shies at them as they camp in the ditch bank, half frightened out of my wits, and felt anxious to know either more or less of them. From the days when carrying clay and loading canal-boats was my toil and “gipsying” my song, scarcely a week has passed without the words

“When lads and lasses in their best
Were dress’d from top to toe,
In the days we went a-gipsying
A long time ago,”

ringing in my ears, and at times when busily engaged upon other things, “In the days we went a-gipsying” would be running through my mind.

In meditation and solitude; by night and by day; at the top of the hill, and down deep in the dale; in the throng and battle of life; at the deathbed scene; through evil report and good report these words, “In the days we went a-gipsying,” were ever and anon at my tongue’s end. The other part of the song I quickly forgot, but these words have stuck to me ever since.

On purpose to try to find out what fortune-telling was, when in my teens I used to walk after working hours from Tunstall to Fenton, a distance of six miles, to see “old Elijah Cotton,” a well-known character in the Potteries, who got his living by it, to ask him all sorts of questions.

Sometimes he would look at my hands, at other times he would put my hand into his, and hold it while he was reading out of the Bible, and burning something like brimstone-looking powder—the forefinger of the other hand had to rest upon a particular passage or verse; at other times he would give me some of this yellow-looking stuff in a small paper to wear against my left breast, and some I had to burn exactly as the clock struck twelve at night, under the strictest secrecy.

The stories this fortune-teller used to relate to me as to his wonderful power over the spirits of the other world were very amusing, aye, and over “the men and women of this generation.” He was frequently telling me that he had “fetched men from Manchester in the dead of the night flying through the air in the course of an hour;” and this kind of rubbish he used to relate to those who paid him their shillings and half-crowns to have their fortunes told.

My visits lasted for a little time till he told me that he could do nothing more, as I was “not one of his sort.”

From: Gipsy Life, by George Smith, 1880

Romany or Gypsy Caravans


The sight of a Vardo or Romany caravan (often known to the non-travelling population as a ‘gypsy caravan’) is exciting for its rarity and conjures up an unhurried, picturesque pre-industrial lifestyle: images of Wind in the Willows, of a bow-topped roof with extravagantly carved and painted woodwork proceeding slowly behind a large and placid carthorse along narrow hedged lanes.

Referred to by travellers and gypsies as a ‘vardo’ or ‘wagon’, the horse-drawn caravan has been in use in the British Isles since the mid-nineteenth century. Initially made by the travellers themselves, the wagons began to be built by dedicated craftsmen around 1880, when the best examples began to be developed and their distinctive characteristics emerged. Fred Hill, Bill Wright and Duntons are some of the famous builders of the time. This particularly creative period lasted until the 1920s, but the wagons have continued to be made – though on a much more modest scale – until the present day.

There are five main types of vardo: The Brush, The Reading, the Ledge, The Bow Top and the straight-sided ‘Showman’s’ wagon; but within these categories no caravan is exactly the same. There are, however, typical characteristics – the pull-out bed, the child’s cupboard bed, plenty of cupboards and drawers; a little stove on the left-hand side; intricately carved and painted woodwork; pretty floral fabric lining the interior of the roof; and usually a window to the rear. The entrance was either ‘open-lot’ (open, but with curtains or canvas panels for protection) or fixed up with ‘stable’ doors with lace-clad windows.

The inhabitants took great pride in their caravans and enormous pains to decorate both inside and out as beautifully as possible. For the matriarch of the family, the caravan was both a status symbol and embodiment of domestic capability. The best china would be positioned so that it was visible from outside when the curtains were drawn aside or the doors flung open; copper pans would hang sparkling from pegs; lace, embroidery and fringing would embellish every surface and cushion; and the whole place would be spotlessly clean and tidy. Although small, a wagon would have been a permanent home to a travelling family. With plenty of imaginative storage, including a pan cupboard and a rack to the outside rear, life inside would have been perfectly manageable. The small stove heated up the space very effectively, so that the wagon provided a year-round living space. The wagons were light enough to be pulled easily by one dray horse.

On the road, the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves, the gentle sway of the wagon and the scent of fresh air through the front opening must have made it a wonderful form of travel. Many is the story where gypsies have been forced for one reason or another to abandon their wagons and live in ordinary houses, subsequently experiencing unhappiness – even depression, as well as bad cases of claustrophobia.

Horse-trading was an obvious vocation for gypsies, and the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria every summer was an essential destination. For many years, decorated wagons and brightly painted wares have made the event on Gallows Hill just outside Appleby one of the most colourful in the country. A place for gypsy families to catch up with each other’s news as well as for deals to be made and fun to be had, The Appleby Horse Fair is one of the largest and most important in romany fairs in Europe. In the 1960s, town councils began to ban fairs (failing in the case of Appleby) and make it very difficult to strike camp on roadsides. This kind of persecution, as well as the increase in motorised traffic, is one of the reasons why the gypsy caravan disappeared so quickly from view.

Nowadays, there is a revived interest in the authentic Vardo, partly for its antique value. Also, entrepreneurs are setting up horse-drawn holidays or letting out caravans to film or TV companies. And small businesses who deal in original and replica vardoes are doing a brisk trade.

From: Cottage Holiday Wales

How Gypsies Became Fortune-tellers

The following is an excerpt from: Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling,  a book written in 1891 by Charles Leland, President of the Gypsy Lore Society in London. It’s a bit of a hard read, but I found it interesting, so I’m sharing it here:

As their peculiar perfume is the chief association with spices, so sorcery is allied in every memory to gypsies. And as it has not escaped many poets that there is something more strangely sweet and mysterious in the scent of cloves than in that of flowers, so the attribute of inherited magic power adds to the romance of these picturesque wanderers.

Both the spices and the Romany come from the far East–the fatherland of divination and enchantment. The latter have been traced with tolerable accuracy, If we admit their affinity with the Indian Dom and Domar, back to the threshold of history, or well-nigh into prehistoric times, and in all ages they, or their women, have been engaged, as if by elvish instinct, in selling enchant. merits, peddling prophecies and palmistry, and dealing with the devil generally ill a small retail way.

As it was of old so it is to-day:

Ki shan i Romani– Adoi san’ i chov’hani.
Wherever gypsies go, There the witches are, we know.

It is no great problem ill ethnology or anthropology as to how gypsies became fortune-tellers. We may find a very curious illustration of it in the wren. This is apparently as humble, modest, prosaic little fowl as exists, and as far from mystery and wickedness as an old hen. But the ornithologists of the olden time, and the myth-makers, and the gypsies who lurked and lived in the forest, knew better.

They saw how this bright-eyed, strange little creature in her elvish way slipped in and out of hollow trees and wood shade into sunlight, and anon was gone, no man knew whither, and so they knew that it was an uncanny creature, and told wonderful tales of its deeds in human form, and to-day it is called by gypsies in Germany, as in England, the witch-bird, or more briefly, chorihani, “the witch.”

Just so the gypsies themselves, with their glittering Indian eyes, slipping like the wren in and out of the shadow of the Unknown, and anon away and invisible, won for themselves the name which now they wear.

Wherever Shamanism, or the sorcery which is based on exorcising or commanding spirits, exists, its professors from leading strange lives, or from solitude or wandering, become strange and wild looking. When men have this appearance people associate with it mysterious power.

This is the case in Tartary, Africa, among the Eskimo, Lapps, or Red Indians, with all of whom the sorcerer, voodoo or medaolin, has the eye of the “fascinator,” glittering and cold as that of a serpent. So the gypsies, from the mere fact of being wanderers and out-of-doors livers in wild places, became wild-looking, and when asked if they did not associate with the devils who dwell in the desert places, admitted the soft impeachment, and being further questioned as to whether their friends the devils, fairies, elves, and goblins had not taught them how to tell the future, they pleaded guilty, and finding that it paid well, went to work in their small way to improve their “science,” and particularly their pecuniary resources. It was an easy calling; it required no property or properties, neither capital nor capitol, shiners nor shrines, wherein to work the oracle.

A Collection of Quotes

Some of these quotes are about Gypsies, some are by Gypsies. What they really show is how badly, inhumanly,and unfairly Gypsies were treated, as well as the strength they had to stand together and fight!

“No we were not always slaves; see our brothers who live in the mountains. They know nothing of chains, neck irons, whippings and hunger and thirst…Let us go free!!”
~Mateo Maximoff

“They scarcely ever stop in one place more than thirty days..they move from field to field with their oblong tents, black and low, like arabs.”
~Simeon Simeonis, a monk in Crete in 1322

“Their ears be nailed to a tree, and cutted off, and them banished the county; and if thereafter they be found again that they be hanged…the idle people calling themselves Egyptians.”
~Scottish law against vagrants, 1579

“I saw a woman guard kill four Gypsy children for eating leftover food.”
~Barbara Richter 1963

“We are people of worth, not thieves or murderers. History has played with us, thrown us down and split us up. But we must seek our destiny..by coming together as one people.”
~Jarko Jovanovic, 1978

“Well this policeman stopped my motor and asked where I live. ‘First tree I come to I can climb.’ I said”
~Gypsy Girl 1972

“It is true, as the Lovara Rom say, “Amari shib si amari zor” ‘Our language is our strength.”
~Dr Ian Hankock, a Gypsy 1975

“Gypsies express in their music their grief and their joy…Music accompanies their life from the earliest childhood until death itself.”
~Dr Jan Cibula 1978

“The greatest strength of Gypsies is their invisibility…they merge into the mass of strangers in the street.”
~Ronald Lee 1971

More to come but that’s all for now.
~Sovereign Brigand 1998

For Peace At Someone’s Death


For Gypsies there is far more concern for the living than for the dead. Yet the Rom believe there must always be a family vigil prior to the death of a family member. After the death there will be the funeral, which must be followed by a proper period of mourning.

English Gypsies believe that the owl is a harbinger of death. If they hear an owl hooting away in the distance, then it means someone close to them will die. If the owl is close by, with its cries loud and clear, then the person who will die is distant.

When an elderly member of the tribe is ill, and certain that he or she is going to die, work is sent out to all family members whereverthey happen to be scattered. They will immediatly return home, no matter from how far, for this is the one event that takes precedence over all others. The family members gather around the dying person’s bed, or outside around the tent or vardo.

There is always someone seated at the bedside until the death. It is a time for much socializing, with very little emotion shown regarding the dying man or woman.

Once dead, the person is caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead. He or she will stay there until buried. In order to ease the stay there, and to prepare them for the transition to the world of the dead, there is a simple ritual that is sometimes performed by the shuvani(often without the knowledge of any of the other members of the tribe).

A small fire is lit – quite separate from any cooking fire – as soon as possible after the last breath. The fire should be laid carefully so that it can be started with one light and so that it will burn for a sufficient time without having to have more fuel added. Onto the fire are thrown thyme, sage, and rosemary, in that order. The dead person’s name is chanted repeatedly as the shuvani walks backwards (widdershins, or counterclockwise) seven times around the fire, which is then left to burn itself out.

From Gypsy Love Magick
Art by Ann Falcone

Romani Realities

It is easy to find images of the gypsy portrayed in vibrant colors, airy skirts and head scarves, but this is a personification of the abstract. This post serves as a grim reminder of what is all too often the harsh reality of Romani life in today’s world.

Approximately one million Roma lived in Europe before the second World War. The largest community which totaled about 300,000, was actually in Romania. This population was known for leading a nomadic life, and their employment included trading, wood and other crafting, merchants, laborers, and of course, musicians. Today, there are “officially” 620,000 Roma living in Romania; however, this is a controversial estimate, as leaders indicate their may be between 1 to 3 million in population. It is believed that the controversy in numbers exist from discrimination, as the gypsies often do not acknowledge their actual ethnicity.

The Roma have existed through a long and sometimes violent history which has kept this population as largely misunderstood. They have been characterized as social outcasts and through the existence of extreme poverty, they have been known as thieves and beggars. This has forced the majority of Roma Gypsies to live in very harsh conditions – has affected them mentally, spiritually, physically and economically – for generations. The reality for these folks today, particularly in northern Romania, is that they are living in make-shift houses constructed of old boards and plywood, and there are apparently political and cultural clashing and extenuating ramifications for which there has been no solution.

Romania is not the only country which hold disdain for this population, as the gypsy culture is steeped ‘twixt and ‘tween all of Europe, (Great Britain, Italy, Spain, France are currently “problem areas”), Russia and pretty much around the world.

According to Spain’s Guardia, no less than 95% of thievery crime is committed by gypsy children who are under 14 years of age, and due to this minor status, they are forced to release them back into the community, at large.

As depicted in the photos below, dailymail.uk gives the story of a mayor building a wall around an area where the gypsies live, along with many pictures of current living conditions in which the Roma exist today.

Craica has no sewerage, indoor water or power supplies, and ramshackle huts lie between heaps of rubbish. Some residents admit to drawing electricity cables from nearby blocks. Even so, there are many who want to stay and are resisting being moved.

‘I lived here for the last 20 years. My woman died here and I want to also die here,’ said 59-year-old Trandafir Varga, one of the oldest residents and a community leader, surrounded by younger Roma who nodded their head in approval.

‘There, we would be isolated. Here, we have horses, pigs,’ Varga said. ‘It’s like a concentration camp there at Cuprom, we aren’t going there. We want to stay outdoors and cannot stay in blocks.’

According to Catalin Chereches, this was part of a grand scheme to improve the lives of deeply impoverished families in the northern Romanian town who have been struggling to survive for generations.

About 980 Roma lived in Craica before the rehousing started in June. Some 100 families have so far been relocated to three administrative buildings of the former plant.

However, human rights groups claim that the 33-year-old Vienna-educated economist is racist. They have accused him of imprisoning the population in a ghetto and making their plight even worse.

‘This is completely wrong. We need to find solutions that integrate, not segregate,’ said Dezideriu Gergely of the European Roma Rights Centre. ‘There is a danger because dealing in such a manner with Roma issues only triggers the resentment and prejudices that already exist.’

Craica is a sharp contrast to the rest of the city, which has a well-preserved medieval center generously dotted with gothic churches, cafes and artisan shops.

Some Roma from Craica work as garbage collectors for the municipality and some at a furniture plant. Most are jobless, seasonal laborers or eke out a living from selling scrap metal.

Living conditions are so grim that many of those who have been moved say they are thankful to Mr Chereches, even though their new housing at the Cuprom offices leaves much to be desired, with only two bathrooms on each floor of several apartments.

‘I lived in a single room with six children and my wife at Craica,’ said 40-year-old Sandu, a seasonal construction worker rehoused to a small apartment with wooden furniture and an LCD television, bought with his own money. ‘My wife is jobless. I thank the mayor for giving me this place.’


Photographs shot in the heart of the slum – and at a dilapidated communist-era blocks where some of the families have been rehoused – show scenes of appalling poverty with families struggling to survive in temperatures which can plummet to -26C.

The concrete wall measures 1.8 metres high – built on an embankment, it appears much higher when you are inside the slum.

It is constructed on one side of a Roma neighborhood of crumbling apartment blocks, but because it links with other buildings and walls, it encloses the area with few access points. Mr Chereches says it was built to keep children safe from a main road.

He claims living conditions have improved by moving families away from a slum where naked children play in the dust with stray dogs and cats. But it still keeps Roma separate from other people and lacks space and bathrooms.

‘It’s clear, conditions there are not similar to the Hilton or Marriott. But this doesn’t mean this is not a step forward towards their civilization and emancipation,’ Mr Chereche explained in his tidy and modest office.

Faced with such conditions, it is hardly surprising that many Romanians say they would like to move to Britain in January 2014 when they gain the right to live and work unrestricted under European ‘freedom of movement’ rules.


Sources: Vermont Deadline and Daily Mail

The Gypsy Vardo

There are six design types. They are known by various names but are perhaps best called the Reading, the Ledge and the Bow-top. The Bow-top is the most typically Romani; the now extinct Brush – characteristic of brush, broom, rush and wickerwork makers; the Burton – most typically showman; and, the more modern one, the Open-lot.


Being individually built, no two wagons are exactly alike. They vary according to customer requirements, price, skill and location of builder and period. At the same time they have certain exterior features in common, and with few exceptions the interiors conform to a set plan or layout. Thus, the vardo is always one-roomed on four high wheels, with door and movable steps in front (the Brush wagon the only exception), sash windows, a rack called the ‘cratch’ and a pan-box at the rear.

Only minor variations in design occurred after about 1910, with the exception of the more modern Open-lot. Even the home-made vans – ‘peg-knife wagons’, supposedly shaped with the aid of that tool – tended to be along the same lines as the professionally built wagons. It was not uncommon for a traveler to add or remove features of an old wagon, re-mount a body on underworks other than its own, or replace unsound wheels by ones that differed in weight, size or structure from the original, thus altering the proportions.

colchesterstove-fxInside the wagon the atmosphere is snug and homely, and the finer vans have an almost regal splendor. Almost everything one needs is to hand. Even in winter you need never be cold. The fire in the stove, if built up with windows closed for half an hour, will so heat the rails near the roof that they will be too hot to hold. One of the Coopers once claimed that he could bake a cake in his van by stoking up the fire, shutting the windows, and leaving the mixture in the tin on the table!

Inside the wagon the cabinet work may be either dark red polished mahogany or stained pine, and the walls are grained or scumbled in light-golden brown. In the vans that have had a lot of wear and tear the original wood finish has often been painted or grained over.

Internal layout, which varies little from type to type or van to van, has not changed for a century. The basic needs of the resident are the same and, in such confined space, there is only one sensible way to meet them. The entrance is frontal and half-doored. Through it, and on your immediate left, you find a tall, narrow wardrobe and beneath it perhaps a small brush cupboard.

the-hostess-stoveThe fireplace stands next, and is always on the left as you enter, for on that side the chimney pipe is in less danger from roadside trees. From a point about two feet above the top of the stove, the fireplace is boxed in to form an airing cupboard. On the front of this cupboard and above the fireplace is a brass-railed shelf and next comes the offside window, and beneath a locker seat for two.

To the right, as you enter, is a bow-fronted corner cupboard; the top part , usually having glass doors, is probably used for displaying china, and the cupboard below for boots and cleaning gear. Opposite the fire there is another locker seat, and of a cold winter’s day it is good to sit there, lean back and place your stockinged feet on the brass guard rail on the front of the stove. Next to the seat is a bow-fronted chest of drawers.

Filling in the back of the van is a two-berthed bed-place, the top bunk just below the rear window, and beneath it are two sliding doors. These in the daytime shut away a second, shorter bed-place in which the children sleep. Light is supplied from a bracket oil-lamp above the chest of drawers, the surface of which is used as a table. More light may come from candles.

©From The English Gypsy Caravan by C.H. Ward-Jackson and Denis E. Harvey 1973 Edition

Origin of the Name ‘Gypsy’


When the Roma arrived in Europe from the East, given their dark skin and eyes, they were believed to be from Turkey or Egypt. The word gypsy is derived from the word Egypt (gyp) and the people just called them gypsies. At that time the word did not have a negative connotation, but only identified the group as a people.

Also called travelers in many countries, they were nomadic people who rarely set down roots, traveling in wagons from place to place—always on the move—and sleeping in tents until the mid-1900s.


Gypsy Fortune Telling

gypsy-woman-reading-mans-palmGypsy women, as long as we have known anything of Gypsy history, have been arrant fortune-tellers. They plied fortune-telling about France and Germany as early as 1414, the year when the dusky bands were first observed in Europe, and they have never relinquished the practice. There are two words for fortune-telling in Gypsy, bocht and dukkering. Bocht is a Persian word, a modification of, or connected with, the Sanscrit bagya, which signifies ‘fate.’ Dukkering is the modification of a Wallaco-Sclavonian word signifying something spiritual or ghostly. In Eastern European Gypsy, the Holy Ghost is called Swentuno Ducos.

Gypsy fortune-telling is much the same everywhere, much the same in Russia as it is in Spain and in England. Everywhere there are three styles – the lofty, the familiar, and the homely; and every Gypsy woman is mistress of all three and uses each according to the rank of the person whose vast she dukkers, whose hand she reads, and adapts the luck she promises.

There is a ballad of some antiquity in the Spanish language about the Buena Ventura, a few stanzas of which translated will convey a tolerable idea of the first of these styles to the reader, who will probably with no great reluctance dispense with any illustrations of the other two:

Late rather one morning
In summer’s sweet tide,
Goes forth to the Prado
Jacinta the bride:

There meets her a Gypsy
So fluent of talk,
And jauntily dressed,
On the principal walk.

“O welcome, thrice welcome,
Of beauty thou flower!
Believe me, believe me,
Thou com’st in good hour.”

Surprised was Jacinta;
She fain would have fled;
But the Gypsy to cheer her

“O cheek like the rose-leaf!
O lady high-born!
Turn thine eyes on thy servant,
But ah, not in scorn.

“O pride of the Prado!
O joy of our clime!
Thou twice shalt be married,
And happily each time.

“Of two noble sons Thou shalt be the glad mother,
One a Lord Judge,
A Field-Marshal the other.”

Gypsy females have told fortunes to higher people than the young Countess Jacinta: Modor – of the Gypsy quire of Moscow – told the fortune of Ekatarina, Empress of all the Russias. The writer does not know what the Ziganka told that exalted personage, but it appears that she gave perfect satisfaction to the Empress, who not only presented her with a diamond ring – a Russian diamond ring is not generally of much value – but also her hand to kiss.

The writer’s old friend, Pepíta, the Gitana of Madrid, told the bahi of Christina, the Regentess of Spain, in which she assured her that she would marry the son of the King of France, and received from the fair Italian a golden ounce, the most magnificent of coins, a guerdon which she richly merited, for she nearly hit the mark, for though Christina did not marry the son of the King of France, her second daughter was married to a son of the King of France, the Duke of M-, one of the three claimants of the crown of Spain, and the best of the lot; and Britannia, the Caumli, told the good luck to the Regent George on Newmarket Heath, and received ‘foive guineas’ and a hearty smack from him who eventually became George the Fourth – no bad fellow by the by, either as regent or king, though as much abused as Pontius Pilate, whom he much resembled in one point, unwillingness to take life – the sonkaypè or gold-gift being, no doubt, more acceptable than the choomapé or kiss-gift to the Beltenebrosa, who, if a certain song be true, had no respect for gorgios, however much she liked their money:

Britannia is my nav;
I am a Kaulo Camlo;
The gorgios pen I be
A bori chovahaunie;
And tatchipen they pens,
The dinneleskie gorgies,
For mande chovahans
The luvvu from their putsies.
Britannia is my name;
I am a swarthy Lovel;
The Gorgios say I be
A witch of wondrous power;
And faith they speak the truth,
The silly, foolish fellows,
For often I bewitch
The money from their pockets.

Fortune-telling in all countries where the Gypsies are found is frequently the prelude to a kind of trick called in all Gypsy dialects by something more or less resembling the Sanscrit kuhana; for instance, it is called in Spain jojana, hokano, and in English hukni. It is practised in various ways, all very similar; the defrauding of some simple person of money or property being the object in view. Females are generally the victims of the trick, especially those of the middle class, who are more accessible to the poor woman than those of the upper. One of the ways, perhaps the most artful, will be found described in another chapter (What is The Hukni? and What is Cauring?)

From: Romano Lavo-Lil

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