An Illustrated Family History Archive

The Romani Line

Boswell, Sherriff & Hodgkins

© 2005 Garen C. Ewing. Last updated: May 2021
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A Romani mystery

"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.

The Boswells

Charlotte's father was Joseph Sherriff, a maker of umbrellas and cane seating, a grinder and hawker. Her mother, the 'remembered' Gypsy girl in the equasion, was called Eliza and all I knew of her, at first, was that she was born in Lichfield sometime in the mid 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.

Gypsy Tent by Octavius Oakley (1850). Oakley painted a number of scenes and people of the Derbyshire Boswell clan.

Joseph's father was William Sherriff, a cutler and chair mender, and in 1832 he married Mary Ann Tracey Boswell (known as Tresi). The Boswells make up several famous Gypsy families, including those of Shadrach, Lawrence, Bartholomew and John - probably all related, though the earlier ancestors are the subject of much theory and discussion.

When Abraham Wood, a Gypsy, was sentenced to death for highway robbery against one of his own kind in September 1737, he left behind a statement accusing several of his fellow travellers as his final legacy. These included the "Bozells", headed by '"John Bozell the elder" and including his four sons, Peter, John, George and William.

"The said John Bozell's way of life is mostly in pretending to tell fortunes, and fraudulently getting people's money by telling them, that by giving him such a sum of money, in such a place they shall find a great sum, and has brought a great many ignorant people to ruin."

Although there are other candidates, it's possible his son, John, was the 'Old Jack' Boswell who gave rise to the later famous Derbyshire Boswell clan. It seems fairly well accepted that John and his brother Edmond also went by the name of Boss, sometimes also called the 'Kak' Boswells, on account of a lazy eye, or eyes of a different colour. One reputed daughter went by the title of 'Gall-Eyed Licia', so I tend to blame the Boss family genes whenever yet another photo of me emerges with one of my eyes half-closed!

Edmond was the husband of Eldorai Boss, said to be a sister of Shadrach Boswell, and one of their children was Eliza, who became the wife of Anselo Boswell (often recorded as Joseph Boss), the son of Edmond's brother John. Anselo's siblings included a number of well-known Boswells - Viney, Hairy Tom, Black Ambrose and John. It was this John, or perhaps his father, who has been claimed as 'The Flaming Tinman' of George Borrow's popular Lavengro, but it was more likely to be the son given that his age was described as "not much under fifty" in 1825.

'The Flaming Tinman' - after his fight with Borrow (E. J. Sullivan).

John Boss (the father) has been recorded as marrying one Mary Newberry in Loughborough, Leicestershire, in 1780, but this seems unlikely. Mary's maiden name was Wood, and she married the recently widowed William Newberry, a Loughborough butcher, in 1775. They had a daughter, Parnell, in 1776 (she would go on to marry a cavalryman and then work in the Royal household), before William died in 1779. In 1778 he had taken an apprentice, John Boss, most likely his cousin, and it was this John, apprentice butcher, who married his master's widow in 1780. Little of this has the Gypsy stamp upon it.

Anselo and Eliza had a number of children baptised across Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Lincolnshire and Cheshire. One of these, in 1812, was my 4xg-grandmother, the aforementioned Tresi Boswell. Her husband, William Sherriff, was allegedly a mumper - a slightly derogatory term the Romanies used for someone less than a true Gypsy, a beggar, a vagrant, a hedge dweller. But the Sherriffs themselves have a pedigree of travelling, at least back into the beginning of the 18th century. Some of these Sherriffs married into the Hodgkins and Clayton families, and others into Tresi's Boswell clan. William Sherriff's sister, Patience, was a wife of Tresi's uncle, 'Hairy Tom' Boswell.

William and Tresi had a dozen or so children, with several marrying into 'good' families - Claytons, Hollands and Boswells. The Gypsyologist Thomas W. Thompson wrote that "no marriages have been recorded" for four of the Sherriff children - Alfred, William, Lorcni and Joseph. My own research shows that William had a son with an Ann, and then lived for a number of years with an Elizabeth Allen, before being killed in a fight at Ripley. As for Joseph, he was my 3xg-grandfather and husband of the "Gypsy girl", Eliza.

A name from nowhere

So where did the Claydon name come into all this? 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. But further research showed Joseph was himself a Gypsy, his siblings and cousins found throughout the Victorian era camping in lanes, fields and tents, 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 (her second husband after Tom Boswell); another aunt, Ann Sherriff, married Joseph Clayton's brother, William Clayton - 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 I did eventually find a closer Clayton 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 - it 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 a 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 may have used the name 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.

However, this threw up a new problem - was my gg-grandmother, Charlotte Sherriff, the daughter of Joseph Sherriff, as I had thought, or of Joseph Claydon? After all, she was born six years before her supposed parents' marriage, and she used the name of Claydon on a number of her own children's birth certificates. If it was the latter, then I was not related to the Boswells at all and would not be able to blame them for my sometimes lazy eye. Could it even be that Joseph Sherriff and Joseph Claydon were the same person? Both Josephs were chair makers, and both had fathers called William, also chair makers.

Although they married in 1871, Joseph Sherriff was with Eliza and the eldest child, Alfred, on the 1861 census, with Joseph's age and birthplace consistent with previous and later census returns to indicate he was the Boswell descendant. On the 1871 marriage certificate, Eliza is described as a widow - and further research at last proved that to be the case.

In 1844 Joseph Claydon was involved in the violent robbery of a house in Mancetter, near Atherstone, belonging to 89-year old Thomas Worthington. Initially John Hudson was arrested for the crime and transported to Australia, but over a year later Claydon was apprehended as well. Despite alibis provided by his parents, Joseph was found guilty and transported for life. He was sent aboard the John Calvin, and arrived at the remote Norfolk Island in September 1846 where, seven months later, he died from dysentery. Perhaps the late marriage to Sherriff indicates his fate was not known until then, or perhaps Eliza never even knew his fate.

The darker side

PC William Ezra Price

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.

Hodgkins of Uttoxeter

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.

But after much research and a few wrong turns, I was able to confirm that his father was indeed James Hodgkins, a knife grinder, and a member of the extensive Cheslyn Hay and Wyrley Bank Hodgkins/Hodgkiss/Hodgkinson familes - some who took up the full Gypsy lifestyle, travelling widely and marrying into the more well-known Romany clans, and others who kept their wandering to a few Staffordshire towns, plying their traditional trades of knife-grinding, hawking, and besom-making.

William’s father, James, was born in Tutbury somewhere around 1815 and was a middle son of James Hodgkins and his wife Constance Hodgkins (daughter of Robert and Elizabeth, and probably a cousin). Thanks to the elder James remarrying in 1840, we know his father was Thomas Hodgkins, with strong DNA matches and other evidence identifying him as the husband of Joan Windsor, father to a number of the Hodgkins who married into the Holland and Sherriff Gypsy families, as well as of Margaret Hodgkins who married Joshua Booth in 1803.

The Knife Grinder by Robert McGregor (1878).

Thomas was also the likely the brother of Edward Hodgkins who married Mary Woods in 1780, and whose line was examined by respected Gypsiologist Eric Trudgill in the 2011 episode of Who Do You Think You Are. This featured artist Tracey Emin, a descendant of Edward's Warwickshire Hodgkins, and my 7th cousin, if the genealogy is correct (DNA matches with that branch suggest it is).

As an aside, I also have a number of DNA links with the descendants of a Worcestershire or Herefordshire Hodgkins family who went out to Massachusetts in the early 1600s, and according to family historians are said to have "pure blood Romany Gypsy" roots - but whether that story came from within the family or by later researchers who noted the Midlands Gypsy Hodgkins, I'm not sure.

This article would quickly become (even more) cumbersome if I was to begin detailing all the various Hodgkins connections, but an overview shows Hodgkins families as far back as the 1730s being recorded as ‘of Wyrley’ and ‘of Cheslyn Hay’, and as travellers and pedlars. Families took root in these places, as well as Cannock, Brereton, Penkridge, Church Eaton and Wolverhampton, with many later in Rugeley and Uttoxeter, while others travelled further. When James Hodgkins was baptised in Leicestershire in 1781, his parents were noted to be “of Chlesea Hayse or Warley Bank in Staffordshire’, while another presumed son, Joseph Hodgkins, baptised a child in Warwickshire and was recorded as “of Cheslyne Hayes near Cannock, Staffordshire”.

A number of the Staffordshire familes intermarried. Strong connections can be found between the children and grandchildren of James and Constance of Uttoxeter, William and Mary of Penkridge, James and Kerrenhappuch of Brewood, Richard and Keziah of Wolverhampton (Kerrenhappuch and Kezia were Gypsy Lovell sisters), and Edward and Sarah of Wolverhampton - to name just a handful. The research to connect these branches up continues ...

A family of Uttoxeter

Two of James and Constance’s children were my own direct ancestors - son James, already mentioned, who married Hannah Duffield in Uttoxeter in 1841, and daughter Jane, who married Thomas Johnson, chimney sweep, in Cannock in 1824. The Johnson family eventually settled in Yoxall and have a number of interesting connections. Eldest son Joseph married Eleanor Hodgkinson, whose parents, Edward and Sarah, were likely the witnesses present at the marriage of William Sherriff and Tresi Boswell in Rugeley in 1832. Daughter Rhoda married into the Mayer family who have other connections to the Hodgkins, as well as to the Gypsy Florences. Son William Johnson married Rachel Hudson, his cousin and daughter of Elizabeth Hodgkinson, Jane and James’ younger sister. The Hudsons are another family with interesting connections in this story (John Hudson, transported to Australia, already mentioned above).

The Johnson’s eldest daughter, Eliza, was my 3xg-grandmother, and the “Gypsy girl” who started off this tale - first husband Joseph Claydon, second husband Joseph Sherriff, and mother of Charlotte, already mentioned. Her husband, William, would have been her first cousin once-removed, their common ancestors being James and Constance Hodgkins.

Another interesting sibling of James and Jane was Josiah Hodgkinson who partnered and later married Ann Smallwood (both were witnesses at the marriage of Eliza Johnson and Joseph Sherriff). Ann’s father was Benjamin Smallwood, described as an "infamous character, leader of a gang of thieves for 20 years", and eventually transported to Australia for stealing a hat and a pigeon. Josiah and Ann adopted William Nield, son of Thomas Nield and Maria Hodgkins, who died soon after childbirth. Maria’s 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 her second husband - the Nields are another intriguing family with many relevant connections. Josiah helps define another Hodgkinson relationship as on the 1851 census he is described as the nephew of the widowed Mary Hodgkinson. She was Mary Wright, the wife of Josiah’s namesake and brother of Constance, whose children included the Collier family of Burton upon Trent and Lullington.

"I am a besom maker, come listen to my tale"
The Besom Maker (illustrated by Heywood Sumner, 1888)

After Ann died in 1876, Josiah remarried to his brother William’s widow, Mary Ann Tunstall. She was actually William’s second wife, his first being Mary’s sister, Hannah Powell (their parents were George Tunstall and Elizabeth Powell). It doesnt take long for any of these Hodgkins family connections to get tangled up … any attempt to draw the family tree quickly degenerates into crossing arrows, wiggly dotted lines, doubling up of names, and a thousand explanatory footnotes.

Turning to James Hodgkins and Hannah Duffield, their first two children were born out of wedlock and retained the name of Duffield throughout their lives. Duffield was actually most likely Hannah’s mother’s name, her father reportedly being one John Allen. Second son Thomas Dufffield 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 Hodgkins. Henry, who had less of a rap-sheet, was given six months, and within three months of his release he joined the 95th Foot, though he deserted three years later.

Daughter Sarah Hodgkins married William Hodgkinson (later Hodgkiss), son of Emanuel Hodgkinson and Mary Ann Hudson (sister of the John Hudson, transported) of Cheslyn Hay. Joseph Hodgkins, James and Hannah’s fourth child, married a girl from Mayfield near Ashbourne, Harriett Waller. She disappeared in the 1870s (possibly moving to Lancashire and starting a new family there), and with his two children Joseph took up with one Mary Ann Birch - his housekeeper on the census returns, but also the mother of 10 of his children over the next twenty years. Son James married Sabina Bowler, who lived until 1919 despite consuming rat poison after a neighbourly dispute in 1868.

The youngest Hodgkins child was John, and he married Annie Hodgkinson in Uttoxeter in 1880. With all the connections you would suspect Ann to be another of the Cheslyn Hay cousins, but so far she appears to have come from a settled Mayfield family, perhaps not related. Having said that she certainly took up the Gypsy lifestyle quite fully, separated from her husband and travelling to Wales (as a number of the Midlands Gypsies did) where she and her daughter were described as musicians.

Charlotte Hodgkins and her son, Charles, who fought at Gallipoli in 1915.

The Great War

We know the Boswell and Sherriff Gypsy traditions all but died out with the union of William and Charlotte Hodgkins. 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.

Peace Day (1919) at Uttoxeter.

Research notes: 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 may have 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, also not to be confused with Clement William Nield who married Helen Mitchell in Uttoxeter in 1880.
Other family connections I believe to be mistaken (after researching them as fully as possible) are that John Boss and Mary Newberry of Loughborough were not Gypsies, the parents of William Sherriff (c.1811) are not Richard & Phoebe of Birmingham, neither are they Edward & Mary of Birmingham. Also that Thomas Johnson, chimney sweep of Yoxall, married Jane Hodgkinson, not Jane Rhodes of Audley. I am more than happy to share my research on these, and even more happy to be corrected.

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.