Charlotte & the Romany Line:
"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 Romany 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.
The Boswell Gypsy King
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 around 1824-29. Certainly, judging by Joseph's occupations, it was not just Eliza who had Romany blood in her veins (if indeed she did), it was the Sherriffs who had the proud Gypsy pedigree - not of the 'Bodie' line, but of the famous Romany Boswells.
Joseph Sherriff's father was William Sherriff, a cutler and chair mender, and in 1832 he married Mary Ann Tracey Boswell (also known as Tresi). The Boswells quite likely go back to Francis Boswell and his son Haniel, baptised in London in 1583 and titled 'King of the Gypsies'. Their line comes down through such colourful characters as Black Jack Boswell, The Flaming Tinman and Hairy Tom.
A name from nowhere
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 grandmother was most likely Elizabeth Claydon; his paternal aunt, Patience, married Joseph Clayton (though her first husband was Tom Boswell - Joseph's maternal great uncle); his brother, Perrin Sherriff, married Maria Clayton, the daughter of Levi Clayton, cousin to Patience's 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 she was a widow, previously married to a chair bottomer called Joseph Clayton/Clayden, and with a father called Thomas Johnson. Her mother, it seems, was Jane Hodgkins. The certificate held one more surprise as well, but I'll come to that in a minute ...
The darker side
The blood of the Romanies is 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 found himself 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 found themselves 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. 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. Thomas Sherriff 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 these Gypsy families - nothing should be taken for granted, least of all names!
There are two theories concerning William Hodgkins' origins, and both can make a claim. The first says that his father is James Hodgkins, a scissor grinder who married Hannah Duffield in Uttoxeter in 1841. Their son William worked as a labourer in a brickyard for a while but cannot be found in the 1881 census. His elder brother, Thomas (who used the surname Duffield), was constantly in trouble, and in 1870 was sentenced to seven years for a robbery committed with brother Henry Hodgkins. Henry got six months and joined the 95th Foot upon release before deserting for ten years, during which time he got married and worked as a coal miner.
The second theory says that William Hodgkins' father was Thomas Nield and his mother was Maria Hodgkins. Maria's first husband was John Grundy but their marriage didn't even last 24 hours as John was killed that same night in a drunken fist-fight with a friend, John Nield. Maria married John's brother, Thomas Nield, three-and-a-half years later and the couple had seven children together, the last being William, born December 1854. But six weeks later Maria was dead from a mammary abcess (possibly developed through mastitis from nursing her new baby). The next we see of William is as the adopted son of one Josiah Hodgkins and his wife, Ann Smallwood, certainly by 1861 and probably much earlier. Did Thomas blame William for Maria's death, or was he a constant reminder of it? This can only ever be speculation, and the same - at the moment - has to be said for Josiah's relationship to Maria, but there is a good possibility they were cousins.
Thomas Nield was descended from Samuel Nield of Uttoxeter and had many siblings, half-siblings and cousins in the town. His older brother, Job, was transported to Tasmania in 1830 for stealing two asses, though he almost didn't make it as the county van overturned en-route to the hulk at Portsmouth, severely injuring a horse. After fifteen years on 'Van Diemen's Land' Job moved to the mainland, but got into trouble again in 1859 when he was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the murder of two gold miners. He was released when the evidence didn't add up.
What's in a name?
Josiah Hodgkins (sometimes Hodgkinson) brings a link to these two competing theories. That he adopted William Nield there is no doubt, and as well as probably being Maria Hodgkins' cousin, he is also quite possibly the brother of James Hodgkins - the father in the first theory. And remember I mentioned a further surprise from that Joseph Sherriff/Eliza Clayden 1871 marriage certificate? It shows that Josiah and Ann Hodgkins were witnesses to the marriage. This snippet suddenly provides a much stronger link to the William Nield theory - William was, at that time, a 15-year old boarder in Josiah and Ann's house, his adoptive parents, and Charlotte Sherriff was 6 years old. There's a good chance they were both at the wedding and I can at least say they must have known each other - something of a revelation. Trying to keep a grasp of all these connections can be something of a mind-boggling experience!
It is not a leap to suppose that William Nield took on his mother's and adopted father's surname of Hodgkins later in life, it has been a frequent occurrence in this story. The Sherriffs often used Clayton or Claydon as a surname, either from the distaff branch or even from two generations before; Henry Hodgkins' son, Wilfred, changed his family name to Moore, his mother's maiden name, after his father died; and his brother, and partner-in-crime from that robbery in 1870, Thomas, used his mother's name of Duffield, as did his older brother, Edward. And Eliza Sherriff recorded her name as Hodgkins on her children's births, her own mother's maiden name.
The Great War and Gallipoli
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 Romany occupations until their deaths in the early 1900s. My great grandfather, Charles Hodgkins, 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 survived, 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, Lichfield. Charles later worked as a baker's carter in the town.
Names married in:
Into my direct line: Boswell (Boss), Sherriff, Hodgkins, Hodgkinson, Nield (Neild, Neald Neeld), Lees, Higson, Collis
Links of interest:
The Family Trees of Francis and Mary Clayton and John and Mary Booth by Eric Trudghill (2009)
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