Farnborough has a long association with the Gypsy community. This article written in 1977 gives a brief history of the Gypsies and how they lived.  

H.G. Wells in his ‘Outline of History’ says that gipsies were refugee Eastern people who appeared about the end of the 14th and early 15th centuries in Greece and were believed to be Egyptians, (hence Gipsy). They have also been known by other names, such as Romanies, Hungarians, Tartars and Bohemians.

They had probably been drifting about Western Asia for some centuries before the massacres of Timurlane in the fifteenth century drove them to the west. They may have been dislodged from their original homeland much earlier by the great cataclysm of Jenghiz Khan and his Mongols in the early part of the 13th century. They spread slowly westward across Europe, strange parts of nomadism in a world consisting mostly of towns and farmland, driven from their ancient habitat to find resting places on commons, woodlands, roadsides and any neglected patches. They have not kept the true tradition of their origin but many have retained their distinctive language which it is thought, indicates their lost history. They are found in all European countries today.

They are tinkers, pedlars, horse-dealers, showmen, wood-carvers, artificial flower makers, fortune tellers and beggars. To some imaginative minds their wayside encampments with smoking fires, their hobbled horses, their brawl of sunburnt children, their apparent freedom and their lack of responsibilities, have a strong appeal.

Gipsies always become more or less mixed with the inhabitants of the countries in which they travel. Didicois are of this mixed blood. It is known that in the Orpington area they mixed with the Irish workers who first came to the area in the 1800s during the Irish potato famine, to work in the local paper mills. Never-the-less the gipsies were here before the present population.

For generations they wintered in Corke’s meadow, a large field in St. Mary Cray, near Orpington, which was eventually developed as an industrial site. During the summer they used to travel around the countryside doing potato, hop and fruit picking, and in the winter they settled in the Bromley area and lived by repairing pots and pans sharpening knives, making pegs etc., and hawking them around the houses. Machines and local labour are now used in the potato, hop and fruit fields and no one has pans repaired or knives sharpened by gipsies any more.

During the war when the Government asked that scrap metal should be collected for the war effort, the gipsies turned to this trade, which now relies very much on their work, which is why their sites are so often an unsightly mess of old cars and scrap metal.

One of the most remarkable people buried in Beckenham churchyard was probably Margaret Finch, a queen of the gipsies. She was a person of great notoriety and was said to have been 109 years old when she died in 1740. She had been accustomed to sitting on the ground with her chin on her knees and a pipe in her mouth. Eventually she could not rise from this position and when she died an ordinary coffin was of no use, and a deep square box was made in which she was placed and buried. A big crowd gathered in Beckenham on the occasion of her funeral and all the gipsies for miles around attended.

A well-known family of gipsies, reputed to be true bred Romanies, was the Boswells, who lived in a little bungalow at Willow Walk, Tugmutton Green, which is at the back of Farnborough Hospital. For over 200 years the family carried on the business of providing “ fairtackle” to county families in connection with private sports gatherings. Levi Boswell was known at every horse fair and fete in the county and was reported to be without equal as a horse dealer. He had a herd of donkeys and for over 70 years the family had a stand for donkeys on Blackheath, just opposite the main gates of Greenwich Park. Kanza Boswell was 8 years old when he first helped his father Levi, with the donkeys, and every morning they were driven to Blackheath and in the evening back to Farnborough.

Levi Boswell died in 1924 at the age of 77 and the local newspaper reported that there was an attendance of over a thousand at his funeral, 'which took place at St. Giles’ church, Farnborough. But his funeral was surpassed by that of his widow who died nine years later, when she was 81 years of age. She was Mrs. Urania Boswell and was generally known as Gipsy Lee and although she resided at Farnborough, normally spent about six months of each year travelling with fairs and circuses as a palmist and fortune teller. It was said that she forecaste her own end, and it was estimated that there were 15,000 present at her funeral, for Gipsy Lee was the queen of all the Kent gipsies YouTube video

See also Corke's Meadow St. Mary Cray

Reproduced with permission from the December 1977  magazine of the
Bromley Borough Local History Society

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