Gypsy Romany and Traveller sources held at Surrey History Centre
Our many original and published items can be searched using our online Collections Catalogue or through our Exploring Surrey's Past website which has Gypsy, Romany and Traveller theme pages.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list of our sources, which are continually growing, so please check back regularly.
Many articles are published in local history society magazines which can be searched on our periodicals database using ESP. 'Romany Routes' the journal of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society is one good place to start but otherwise here is our Top 10 for Romany, Gypsy and Traveller family history:
- Sharon Sillers Floate, My Ancestors were Gypsies (Society of Genealogists, 2005)
- Dawson, Robert, A Romany in the family: aspects of Romany Genealogy (R Dawson, 2005)
- Dawson, Robert, Gypsy names for genealogists, vol 1, Surnames; vol 2, Forenames (R Dawson, 2000)
- McGowan, Alan, 'On the gypsy trail: sources for the family history of gypsies' (RTFHS, 1998)
- Edmonds, Jenifer A, 'Gypsies, tramps and strangers', vol 4, Family History Shop (2004); vol 5, Family History Shop (2005)
- Chandler, Keith, More Gypsies, Hawkers & other Travellers in the English South Midlands including East Anglia and the Home Counties (2007)
- Keet-Black, Janet, 'Some Travellers in the 1891 census', vols 1, 2 & 4 (RTFHS, 2000 & 2002)
- Keet-Black, Janet and Horner, Mary, 'Travellers remember: hopping time' (RTFHS, 2003)
- Miles, Henry Downes, Pugilistica: The History of British Boxing, vols 1-3 (John Grant, 1906)
- Wright, Alan, 'Their Day has passed: Victorian and Edwardian Gypsies in Surrey' (Grosvenor House Publishing, 2017)
For more see our detailed Gypsy Romany and Traveller history bibliography pdf below.
Local newspapers are a good source of material regarding Gypsy and Traveller interactions with settled communities, although this material may sometimes be prejudiced. Newspapers often carry reports of sporting events such as prize-fights, legal proceedings, land disputes and evictions, as well as reports of markets and fairs.
Surrey History Centre holds a number of local newspapers on microfilm including:
- Sussex Agricultural Express, 1838-1903 (covers whole county)
- Surrey Advertiser, 1864 to date (Southwest Surrey Guildford/Godalming area)
- Surrey Comet, 1854-1981 (Kingston area)
Not all newspapers are indexed which can mean a lengthy search but cuttings do exist as part of other archive collections; for example, the West Surrey Times for 18 Oct 1884 reports 'The death in a caravan' of hawker John Matthews, who was buried at Guildford Cemetery with 40 or 50 relatives in attendance (SHC ref 5400/2/1). Online newspaper sources such as The Times and British Newspapers 1800-1900 are also worth searching. These are available on the Surrey Libraries online reference shelf.
Surrey History Centre holds a vast collection of photographs, postcards and illustrations, including:
- Photographs taken for the Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey (SHC ref 7828) in the early part of the twentieth century include fairs at Bletchingley and Haslemere (Clay Hill).
- Postcard albums (arranged by town), also include images of Bletchingley, Merstham and Mitcham fairs, Gypsies at Cobham and Godstone, and Rodney 'Gypsy' Smith's evangelical mission at Guildford, 1907.
- Other illustrations include photographs and prints of the Epsom Derby and Epsom Downs and Travellers on the heath at Thursley.
- It is also worth searching our Archives Index for archive collections that may also include photographs.
The census was taken every ten years from 1841 and although we hold copies of the Surrey census returns 1841-1901, all the returns, including those for 1911 are now available online through Findmypast or Ancestry. Many Travelling families were excluded from the 1841 census because enumerators were instructed only to record persons living in dwellings. Later returns can also cause problems; for example the 1901 census for Ash shows the Green, Ayres, Lee and Brazill families listed together in one group at the end of the census, not as the enumerator would normally have recorded them. They are all described as 'hawkers' with 'birthplace unknown in most cases'.
Surrey's parish registers are littered with Traveller references, although they are not always defined as such. Gypsy marriages were often strictly private affairs with evidence existing for only about a third of these, whereas baptisms are more common. Treatment of Travellers varied greatly from parish to parish. Some clergy refused to bury Gypsies (or the expense was too much for the family), hence the occurrence of wayside burials. Most of the Surrey parish registers, 1538-1987 are now available to search and view online at Ancestry. If you have a Surrey library card you can search the records free of charge at Surrey History Centre or in any local library in the county.
Poor law records
References to Travellers being moved from one parish to another can be found among the records of the parish overseers. Travellers would often rather spend a night in an open field than in the workhouse but in hard times some did turn to the workhouse for temporary relief. The Poor Law Union application and report books for Epsom, Godstone and Chertsey are fully indexed and all make reference to Travellers; the indexes for Godstone and Chertsey are available online.
Electoral registers record all those eligible to vote from 1832 onwards but until universal enfranchisement in 1918 (adult men) and 1928 (adult women), many people were not eligible. Travelling life would have excluded Travellers from appearing in these registers but as more families settled they did begin to register. The Ash electoral register for 1939 for example, lists occupants of caravans in Government Road and the Quadrant, including the Carey, Bath, Jones, Ayres and Perfect families (Ref CC802/56/4).
The Philip Bradley Fairground Collection
Fairground enthusiast Philip Bradley (1920-1999) spent his life compiling a photographic record of every fair he visited from 1936 until his death. Highly regarded by fairground people his vast collection of notebooks and photographs provides an invaluable history of twentieth century fairgrounds and the showman's way of life (SHC ref 6790). The collection mostly covers Surrey and areas of London but does occasionally extend to the south west, Midlands and beyond. We also hold copies of The Fairground Society publication Platform, dedicated to the history of Britain's showmen. See our research guide, The Philip Bradley fairground collection.
Contrary to popular myth, Travelling men served in all the armed forces, particularly in the First and Second World Wars. Women served as auxiliary nurses and in the ATS, Land Army and munitions. We hold the records of the Surrey regiments. See our research guide for tracing military records.
Crime, punishment and legal records
- Letters from Elizabeth I's Privy Council to Sir William More of Loseley in 1569 order the arrest of 'Egyptians' (SHC refs 6279/11/52 & LM/COR/3/561.
- From c.1700 to 1850, the court of Quarter Sessions dealt with both minor offences, such as assault, fraud and petty larceny and more serious crimes (SHC ref QS/-). Records for the whole judicial process from arrest to sentencing can be traced and cases were often reported in local newspapers.
- Vagrancy hearings were held at Quarter Sessions, including the case of several persons found living in tents in Lingfield in 1811, selling pins and ballads and claiming to be Travellers (SHC ref QS2/6/1811/Mids/63-67).
- Some Badger (itinerant corn dealer or food seller), pedlar and hawkers licenses also survive in the archive.
- From the nineteenth century court business was reported in local newspapers so these are worth checking. For example Bell's Weekly Messenger for 17 Oct 1803 describes the prosecution of 'female Norwood gipsies' for fortune-telling brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality (SHC ref G52/12/5).of 'female Norwood gipsies' for fortune-telling brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality (SHC ref G52/12/5).
We hold records of many Surrey schools including admission registers, log books and punishment books. Travelling life did not always allow for regular schooling but as families settled the children were encouraged to attend. Surrey Education Committee opened 'the first school for gypsies' at Hurtwood, near Shere, in 1926. Later that year, the committee reported that in just 4 months the school had been a resounding success, with 70 children and 59 adults attending morning, afternoon and evening classes, with no truants. As a result of the school's popularity, the encampments which had been dispersed around the area became concentrated around the school. Some records survive (see SHC ref 2570) but unfortunately no admission registers for the school have been traced. For more about the school see the theme page on our Exploring Surrey's Past website. The traditions of travelling work often still applied regardless of school attendance and records for Walsh Memorial School, Ash, record children hop-picking in the 1870s (SHC refs Z/562/4 & CC1181).
Oral history and film
Oral history is of huge significance within the Traveller community. We hold a collection of oral history interviews provides a fascinating insight into the life and customs of Surrey's Travelling community (SHC ref 8368). The DVD Travellers Tales is a series of digital stories celebrating the culture and contributions of Surrey's 10,000 strong Gypsy and Traveller community.
Collections deposited by Romany, Gypsy, Traveller and Fairground families or their descendants include family trees, photographs and family documents. For example:
- SHC ref Z/561 relates to the Manning family of Showmen and their links to the Taylor and Smith families, whilst SHC ref Z/562 is a collection of Traveller material relating to Ash.
- Folk song collector Lucy Broadwood's papers refer to the Gypsy Lore Society and her collecting Gypsy songs, music and legend, 1907-1911, featuring songs from 'wild gipsy tramps by the name of Goby' (SHC ref 2185/LEB/1/564-575).
- Papers relating to William Hannaway Rowe, known as Sequah, a travelling showman who frequented Mitcham Fair (SHC ref 4414/5/1).
Files available to download
- Gypsy Romany and Traveller history bibliography (PDF)
Bibliography of published sources relating to Gypsy, Romany and Traveller history in Surrey