One thing that I really enjoy about the ramblings in my blog is that I never quite know in what direction they’ll take me next.
I love the fact that I often have people contacted me from all over the world, some saying that I’ve written about a long lost ancestor of theirs or about a place they once lived, often these 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, but they had 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, and it was riveting the history our South West area has with the genuine travelling people.
(Picture kindly supplied by the Lyme Regis Museum; the James(or possibly Jones,) family camped at Puddletown.)
I clearly recall from my childhood the swarthy skinned gypsy women when they used to be in town with their baskets of heather hawking in the street, my mum would always buy a bunch and stick it in a little pot on the windowsill convinced that it brought good luck.
Or the weather-worn men travelling men who would congregate at the Dorchester market for the animal sales days, crooked hazel stick in hand, their intelligent eyes fastened onto the 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,(actually 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 and they would pitch in a group where ever they arrived that day.
In the 1871 census we find an unmarried Thomas pitched on Kinson Common, Dorset along with his parents, Dennis and Laura and with many others of the extended family. (Kinson was and still has a connection with the gipsy community.)
Within the next few years Thomas had 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 the family were encamped on the village green at Fordington, in the vardo next to them was Thomas’s aged parents, the enumerator listing them as travellers.
(Picture courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum.)
By the time their last child, a daughter named Elsie arrived in 1895, the family had left the road behind them, they had moved into a little stone built cottage in Littlemoor.
They might have given up travelling the highways and byways of Dorset and Hampshire in their vardo but they hadn’t given up completely on the lifestyle.
The 1901 census enumerator lists them both as hawkers, ( he still describes them as gipsies in brackets in the occupation column.) Thomas and Martha’s sons were already in steady work, they were employed in the nearby farms or in the building trades, but Mum and Dad were reluctant to let go of their old traditions. They might well have been confined by the four solid walls of their cottage but every day they travelled forth far and wide to hawk their various wares in the towns and villages around.
Life must have been very interesting for their close neighbours, this colourful couple and their lively antics causing no end of delicious gossip over those stone garden walls.
Living in the same terrace as the James’s were their next door neighbours, George and Jane Guppy on one side with their two young daughters and on the other side were Isaac and Mary Powell and their family of 3 boys and a girl.
Around the same time the family moved in so appeared in the newspapers one of many frequent sensational stories of their somewhat dubious 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 up and down the streets of the town, with her trusty old wicker basket slung on her arm, Martha would be selling what she could to bring in a much-needed penny or two to the household.
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 waited on the platform for the train at Upwey station, boarded it and made for Weymouth.
Once in town, Thomas headed for the nearest watering hole while Martha went about her business.
After tramping the streets around town for a few hours and come lunch time, 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 of Martha some of her hard-earned coins from her mornings travels, 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 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 on their way back to Upwey.
Also in their carriage was Thomas’ mother, Laura James, who by all accounts was not in any less-inebriated state than the other two.
What happened on that fateful train journey appeared as sensational headlines in the papers a couple of days later.
‘Western Gazette 27 September 1895; A WOMAN FOUND INSENSIBLE.’
According to the lengthy news report, Edward Hansford a GWR packer had been busy working on the line between Lawton Bridge and Two Mile Copse on that Tuesday afternoon when he came across the seemingly lifeless body of a woman lying besides the line .
The guard on the GW train that had left Weymouth at 3.32 had also reported seeing a woman fall out of the moving train onto the line.
On reaching Upwey, the guard informed the station master, 42-year-old Mr Richard Harry Dyke, who then proceeded back down the line and found the still form and a flustered Mr Hansford attending it.
But the limp form wasn’t completely lifeless, a strange gurgling noise was emitting from it, the station master quickly turned her over and a thick stream of congealed blood drained from her mouth. Richard Dyke had literally saved her life. The victim, which was our Martha, had been virtually drowning on the blood pouring from a large wound on her head into her mouth.
By now, a flustered Thomas had arrived on scene, having jumped from the train before it had even pulled into Upwey station, he had raced all the way back down the track to where his wife Martha laid, unconscious, battered, bruised and bloodied.
When he was asked what happened, Thomas quickly muttered that his wife had had said something about going to Southampton, and that was that, she was out the door before he could do anything!
Martha’s pale and limp form was placed upon a hastily fetched wicker hurdle and the concerned parties then conveyed it to her house at Littlemoor, which was about a mile away.
You can only imagine the neighbours surprise when they saw the gang of men and their strange baggage coming along the road and make their way into the cottage.
Chins must have wagged for Britain.
Dr Pridham was sent for.
Things didn’t look too good for Martha.
For the next four hours she didn’t stir, she was totally out of it, deeply unconscious .
Of course, before long the long arm of the law were knocking on the James’ door, Segeant 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 very little else but allow them entry, he sulkily replied “All right, she is upstairs.”
They climbed the narrow, creaky wooden stairs up to the bedroom where Martha was laid, she was being being tended to by one of her neighbours, Catherine, from the Guppy family next door.
Martha, having at last regained conciousness, managed to give her statement to the policeman, she was 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 carraige 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.”
Being unable to read or write, when she’d finished Martha slowly and painfully raised her head from her bed and signed her damning statement with a simple cross.
Thomas was then summonsed to the bedroom where his battered wife laid before him, the charges were read out to him by P.C. Carter, “You wife has made a statement respecting you, which I have taken down, and which I will read to you.”
When Carter had read out the charges to Thomas, his reply, not surprisingly, was a complete denial, in a very coarse manner he snapped “Then I must say it is a lie then”
But of course, there was only one place he was going, that was heading for the nearest lock-up. A fiercely protesting Thomas was led out of the cottage door by the two policemen.
However, when the 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 doctor at the time of the incident, Dr Pridham, said when he went to visit Martha at her home, she was indeed deeply unconscious but he rather thought a lot of that was down to Martha 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, they were also heading for the Upwey station.
One of them, Elizabeth Lane, was a servant in Nottington House. She had seen something, which she took to be a coat, fall out 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 also from the adjoining carriage added her statement. All three had heard a right old commotion going on from that carriage, someone had been having one hell of an argument.
Thomas’ mother’s statement was read out in court, not that it had much validity, she couldn’t appear in person that day because she was too intoxicated!
According to her written words Martha had opened door herself and sat down on the floor, rolled back then fell out the door. Just to sort of statement you might expect from a mother trying to protect 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 was that of 32-year-old James Bulley, the brakesman in charge of train. He claimed that he had 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 from the train.
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 had met her husband Thomas. He asked her for 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.
Not overly pleased with his wife’s contrary actions, he had growled between his 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, but 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 bad mood. Once they had climbed into their carriage, an irate Thomas had pushed her down hard into the seat, yelling at his weary wife“Sit down there.” An aggrieved Martha demanded to know what was wrong, “You have been quarreling with me all day;what is the matter with you?”
She recalled the violent row in the carriage, and Thomas attacking her again and again with his stick, but very little else until she awoke and found herself back in her own home feeling battered and bruised and very sorry for herself.
When she woke in her bed, Thomas had brought her up a strong drink of rum and beer which she pushed away saying she couldn’t face drinking it. With that Thomas’ anger erupted again, he shoved her hard in the chest and according to Martha he shouted at her that ” he wished he had picked me up dead.”
Martha also told the magistrates that Thomas used to beat her often with his stick which sometimes causing her to go into fits.
When she was 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.
When the County Court sat at their next session, they went through the list of cases to be heard. Arriving upon the James’ case, it was decided in their infinite wisdom that there was insufficient evidence to bring it before the courts.
Yes, 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 evening in the June of 1896 she had retired to her bed. For whatever reason a drunken and angry Thomas had 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 hurriedly 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, she couldn’t put up with this much more. 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 folklore she pedalled 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.
In September of 1891 she was before the police courts in Salisbury 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 on the door of the house and offered the woman some of the wares from her trusty basket.
When the lady refused to buy anything from her, Martha then induced her to part with a few random old unwanted items, a brooch, jacket, pillow case and other bits and pieces of clothing, with the promise that she could foretell her fortune.
Getting well into her story-telling stride Martha declared that she was one of the mysterious and select Seven Sisters, she held such strong powers that she could work her magical charm on the lady’s wedding ring, promising her that she would be happy for ever after.
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 of 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 had 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 frightened girl had confessed her fears to the shop keeper and the police informed.
On her next visit, the shop bell rang out as Martha made her way into the store, the young assistant was waiting nervously behind the counter, she was 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 replied.
Once the coin had been handed over, 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 to the girl as she left the shop 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 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 to her if she didn’t give her the silver when asked for, she didn’t want no 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, with 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 given instructions 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 told 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.
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