"Your great great grandmother was the daughter of a Gypsy girl!" This intriguing scrap of family history was the only piece of information I had to lead me through one of the most mysterious stories told by our family history. My mother claimed it was where her dark hair came from, and a meeting with a distant cousin yielded a couple more foggy clues, namely that this all but forgotten ancestor was a "true Romani Gypsy of the Bodie line."
I was already confused from the research I had carried out, at a torturously slow pace, on my Hodgkins family who hailed from Uttoxeter. My great great grandmother was Charlotte Hodgkins - fondly remembered as Granny Betts after she was widowed and married the local verger, George Henry Betts, a Royal Artillery veteran who had seen service in India, Burma and South Africa. But before that she was married to my great great grandfather, William Hodgkins, with whom she had a number of children. I soon found out she had two other names to go by, besides Betts and Hodgkins; Sherriff was eventually discovered as her true family name, but some of the children's birth certificates gave her name as Charlotte Claydon.
Charlotte's father was Joseph Sherriff, a maker of umbrellas and cane seating, a grinder and hawker. The 'remembered' Gypsy girl in the equasion was called Eliza and all I knew of her is that she was born in Lichfield sometime in the mid to late 1820s. Certainly, judging by Joseph's occupations, it was not just Eliza who had Romani blood in her veins (if indeed she did), it was the Sherriffs who had the proud Gypsy pedigree - not of the 'Bodie' line, it turned out, but of the famous Romani Boswells.
Joseph Sherriff's father was William Sherriff, a cutler and chair mender, and in 1832 he married Mary Ann Tracey Boswell (known as Tresi). The Boswells possibly go back to Francis Boswell and his son Haniel, baptised in London in 1583 and titled 'King of the Gypsies'. Though the earlier ancestors are often disputed, the line does come down through such colourful characters as Black Jack Boswell, The Flaming Tinman and Hairy Tom.
But where did the Claydon name come into it? A family rumour told how Joseph Sherriff was originally called Joseph Claydon, but decided to change his name to Sherriff after his family disowned him for marrying a Gypsy girl. With further research and digging this was easily disproved - Joseph was a Gypsy and his siblings and cousins can be found throughout the Victorian era living in tents and vardos, peddling their trade as hawkers, knife grinders and cane seat makers, and making regular appearances in the local papers for poaching, vagrancy and a drunken fight or two (or three, or four...).
The family name of Claydon, or Clayton, is woven tightly into the Sherriff and Boswell pedigrees. Joseph Sherriff's aunt, Patience Sherriff, married a Joseph Clayton (though her first husband was the aforementioned 'Hairy' Tom Boswell - also Joseph's maternal great uncle); another aunt, Ann Sherriff, married Joseph Clayton's brother, William Clayton, and they had several children including another Joseph Clayton (more of him soon); his brother, Perrin Sherriff, married Maria Clayton, the daughter of Levi Clayton, cousin to Patience's second husband Joseph; and another brother, Uriah Sherriff, married Maria's sister, Susannah Clayton.
But eventually I did find a closer Claydon connection. Charlotte's mother, Eliza, used the name Hodgkins and Hodgkinson on two of her children's birth certificates, but after twelve years I finally found her and Joseph Sherriff's marriage certificate (turns out they were married after they'd had all their children, not before like my more sensible ancestors!). This revealed that her true maiden name was Johnson (her father was Thomas Johnson, a chimney sweep from Sheffield), the name Hodgkins/on came from her mother, Jane, and the name Claydon was from her first husband - she was a widow when she married Joseph Sherriff in Uttoxeter in 1871, and her first husband was one Joseph Clayden.
As it turned out, I already knew this Joseph Clayden, or Clayton - he was the previously noted eldest son of Ann Sherriff and William Clayton, thus making him the first cousin of Eliza's second husband, my ggg-grandfather, Joseph Sherriff. To add one more ingredient into this already over-egged saga, he was born out of wedlock and was initially baptised as Joseph Sherriff too. So, the story of the name change might not have been true, but it certainly seemed to be an echo of the truth after all.
The blood of the Romanies runs thick, but it can also be hot, and relations between cousins were not always cordial. A news snippet from March 1900 describes how Thomas Sherriff (at that time a private in the Sherwood Foresters, and son to Joseph's youngest brother, Hope - aka 'Gipsy Jack') suddenly attacked one Henry Clayton, without provocation, in the Market Place at Wirksworth. Joseph himself was not without a criminal record - on 20th February 1880 he and his son, Alfred, robbed an 18-year old domestic servant, Lucy Rock, in broad daylight in Bagot's Park in Uttoxeter, resulting in three months hard labour for them each.
But a far more serious crime was to come, in January 1903, with what the papers referred to as 'The Burton Tragedy'. This involved Hope Sherriff and four of his sons, the previously mentioned Thomas, his brothers Joseph, John and William, and their brother-in-law, Arkless Holland.
It started with the theft of three ferrets from a farm. A policeman, P.C. William Ezra Price, went to investigate and found himself at the nearby Sherriff encampment where matters escalated and Price got entangled in a fight with some of the Sherriff boys - it got violent and the policeman's truncheon was used against him, resulting in a head wound from which he later died. Thomas, Joseph and John went on the run and the rest of the family decamped - the theft of ferrets had become a murder.
The Sherriffs were eventually apprehended (another policeman was attacked trying to arrest them) and they ended up in court. Hope and Arkless were acquitted, and Thomas, John and Joseph were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to fifteen years penal servitude. They were lucky not to hang - as they would have had the verdict been murder. A fund to aid the widow and three children of P.C. Price was set up and received generous contributions from the community and local worthies. Family lore pointed the finger at Thomas Sherriff as the one was actually reponsible for the policeman's death. He was released to join the war effort and was killed at the battle of the Somme in July 1916.
If the Sherriff family were giving up their secrets none too easily, then the Hodgkins were also holding out! Great great grandfather William Hodgkins died in 1910 at the age of 55, leaving little in the way of clues to his origins. He had worked as a hawker and seemed to have vague Gypsy connections. Later he worked as a brick labourer, a colliery labourer and a farm bailiff. No concrete evidence could be found concerning his birth in Uttoxeter around the year of 1855. His marriage certificate (to Charlotte Sherriff) mentioned his father to be a James Hodgkins, but if there's one thing I've learned looking into Gypsy families - nothing should be taken for granted, least of all names.
For a long while I had a theory William Hodgkins might have actually been born William Nield (1854), youngest son of Thomas Nield and Maria Hodgkins, and adopted early in life by Josiah Hodgkins/on - possibly Maria's cousin (Maria died just a few weeks after William's birth and Gypsies in that situation often live with their mother's relatives and take on their name).
I eventually discovered that this William Nield sometimes used the name of Clement and he married Rosanna Wright in 1885 (not to be confused with another Uttoxeter-born Clement William Nield, who married Hannah Mitchell in 1880).
The name Clement provides an interesting backstory ... Maria Hodgkins' first husband was one John Grundy, though their marriage lasted less than 24-hours after he was killed in a fist fight with John Nield (brother to Maria's second husband, Thomas) ... John Grundy's father was Clement Grundy, though why William should come to use the name, I don't know (the other William Clement was a grandson of Clement Grundy through his second marriage).
So, as it turned out, the name of James Hodgkins as the father on the marriage certificate was correct after all, and it seems my gg-grandfather, William, his son, was actually born in January 1852, his mother being Hannah Duffield (her father's surname was Allen, Duffield was probably her mother's name).
James was a knife grinder, an occupation he inherited from his father, also called James, and in turn from his grandfather, Thomas Hodgkinson. I've identified several other children of the elder James and his first wife, Constance (most likely the daughter of Robert Hodgkins and Elizabeth Hollins): Thomas, Jane Maria, Joseph, Millicent, William, Edward, Josiah (baptised Cheziah), Elizabeth and Robert.
Elizabeth married Nathaniel Hudson, and their daughter, Rachel, would go on to marry one of Eliza Johnson's brothers - William. I strongly suspect that the Johnsons' mother, Jane Hodgkinson, is the same as James and Constance's daughter, Jane Maria (the census returns put Jane as b. Tutbury c.1801, whereas Jane Maria was baptised in Tutbury 1806). Robert, described as a 'traveller' on his marriage to Sarah Thorley, worked as a chair bottomer in Cheadle. The 1891 census rather startlingly describes him as 'found in a cabin', and a widower, while in 1901 he is to be found in the Cheadle workhouse, alongside the previously mentioned William Johnson.
Josiah stayed in Uttoxeter and adopted the already-mentioned William Clement Nield, while brother William married, firstly, Hannah Powell, and then, after moving to Leek and becoming a widower, Mary Ann Tunstall.
Hannah and Mary Ann were sisters - their parents being George Tunstall, a potter, and Elizabeth Powell. After William Hodgkins died in 1877, his widow, Mary Ann, married his younger brother, Josiah, himself now a widower after his first wife, Ann Smallwood, had died a couple of years earlier (her father, Benjamin, was described as an "infamous character, leader of a gang of thieves for 20 years ...", he was transported to Australia for stealing a hat and a pigeon). Back in 1871, Josiah and Ann had been witnesses on the marriage of Joseph Sherriff and Eliza Clayton/Johnson.
This can bring us back to William Hodgkins, who would marry Joseph and Eliza's daughter, Charlotte Sherriff, in 1885. He had eight siblings that I know of ... the first two, Edward and Thomas, were born out of wedlock and eventually took on their mother's maiden-name of Duffield.
Thomas was a troubled soul and found himself several times at loggerheads with the law, at one point earning himself a seven-year sentence for stealing some meal with his younger brother, Henry. Henry was given six months, and within three months of his release he joined the 95th Foot, though he deserted three years later.
Third son Joseph married a girl from Mayfield near Ashbourne, Harriett Waller. She disappeared in the 1870s (possibly died, or went off to Lancashire and started a new family), and with his two children Joseph took up with a woman named Mary Ann Birch - his housekeeper on the census returns, but also the mother of 10 of his children over the next twenty years.
The youngest Hodgkins boy was John, and he married Annie Hodgkinson in Uttoxeter in 1880. I don't know if Annie was related - there are spare Hodgkins and Hodgkinsons all over the place: older sister Sarah married a William Hodgkinson, son of Emanual and Mary Ann Hudson, though their children would become Hodgkiss; as already mentioned, Eliza Johnson's mother was Jane Hodgkinson, parents as-yet unidentified, though her son, Joseph Johnson, married an Eleanor Hodgkinson, parents Edward and Sarah (Mayer). This couple were witnesses on the marriage of my gggg-grandparents, William Sherriff and Tresi Boswell. The Neilds can come back into the equasion as a Sarah Hodgkinson married John Nield - the man, you'll remember, who was repsonsible for killing John Grundy on his wedding day in 1835, so perhaps she is related to his widow, Maria Hodgkins, whose parents were William and Elizabeth Hodgkinson.
John and Annie can be found on the 1881 census as hawkers in a 'travelling van' near Rugeley, along with older brother Thomas Duffield and family. This was just before John joined the Militia, whose annual trainings he would attend until 1907 - well, except for a six-year gap, for which he was confined with heavy labour for 21 days. John and Annie drifted apart - so much so that Annie and two of the surviving children ended up in Wales, while John, in 1901, can be found in the Union Workhouse back in Uttoxeter.
Returing to solid ground, we know the Boswell and Sherriff Gypsy traditions all but died out with the union of William and Charlotte. Although it seems as though Charlotte's parents hadn't travelled for a number of years anyway, they kept their Romani occupations until their deaths in the early 1900s. William and Charlotte's family saw dark times - out of 11 children born, six of them died before they reached two years old.
But my great grandfather, Charles Hodgkins, survived, and was called up into the 4th North Staffordshires when the Great War blew across Europe. He served in Gallipoli in the later days of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, and although he made it home, he was dogged by ill-health forever after and died at just 34 years of age in 1925.
Earlier, whilst recovering from bronchitis at the Lichfield Military Hospital at Whittington, he met my great grandmother, Minnie Lees, who went there regularly delivering fresh eggs for the soldiers from her home at Darnford Mill Farm. They married on Christmas Day in 1916, and lived at Bunker's Hill in Lichfield. Charles worked as a baker's carter in the town where his two daughters were born, Millie in 1918 and my grandmother, May, in 1919.
Research note: There are a number of family trees online that have William Hodgkins (married Charlotte Sherriff, Mar 1885, Uttoxeter) as the son of Thomas Nield, adopted by Josiah Hodgkins. This is an error that has been copied from my own mistaken early research into the family. The adopted William was William Clement Nield and he married Rose Hannah (Rosanna) Wright in Feb 1885, Uttoxeter.
Research into the Boswell, Sherriff and Hodgkins and related families is ongoing.
If you have further information, stories or photos, or are a family member who would like to know more, please get in touch.