05 Jun 2024
by Sharon Heppell

Mosaic of old photographs of people, several in hats, one playing a fiddle, another holding a dog.
A series of portraits of British travelling people from the late 19th and 20th century. (RTFHS collection)

There's a common belief that before the Industrial Revolution most of the population of Britain tended to be born, live and die in the same village or town, rarely venturing more than a dozen miles from home. But this overlooks the surprising number of people who lived life almost permanently on the road. These were the Romany Gypsies, the Showmen, the proprietors of circuses and travelling menageries, itinerant musicians, marionette masters and theatre groups, drovers taking livestock to market, hawkers and pedlars.  

How do you trace ancestors who were always on the move?

Once upon a time any family historian who discovered an ancestor from one of these groups would see it as an instant brick-wall. The Romany and Traveller Family History Society (RTFHS) was founded in 1994 to help people break through those walls. We have three main aims: firstly, to encourage people to embrace their out-of-the-ordinary forebears and join forces with those with a common interest; secondly, to show that it is possible to trace their roots, culture and customs across centuries; and thirdly, to highlight to the wider public the vital contribution that travelling people have made to the social, economic, and popular entertainment history of Britain, in the case of Romany Gypsies for the past 500 years.

There is a wealth of historic records relating to travelling people and travelling life preserved in the nation's archives, museums, libraries and photographic collections and online if you know how and where to look - and the RTFHS can be your guide.

What's more, today's family historians - and particularly RTFHS members - have the opportunity to add to that national treasure by documenting their own ancestors' family tree, memories, stories and photos for posterity through the medium of RTFHS journals and other publications. All of these are deposited with Britain's five copyright libraries as well as with Trinity College, Dublin: in trust, as it were, for the descendants of travelling people of tomorrow.

Text logo of the Romany & Traveller Family History Society

Some Traveller stories

The fortune tellers

"You haven't been to Blackpool unless you've had your fortune told..." 'Gipsy Sarah', fortune-teller (1822-1904)

The summer months - April to September - were traditionally when Britain's Romany Gypsies took to the road, taking advantage of better weather, better road conditions and better opportunities to earn an income at feasts, pleasure fairs and markets. However, there were instances of some groups creating a semi-permanent camp at a location where they could be confident of customers coming to seek them out.

Such was the case of the community of Gypsies who arrived on the sandy wasteland at South Shore, Blackpool, Lancashire, in the 1870s and made it their summer home until about 1910.

Photographs of the time show numerous vans and tents dotted across the sands. What made them unusual is that most had a signboard advertising the name of its fortune-teller occupant. The community had spotted the potential to attract some of Blackpool's millions of visitors to have their palms read. In doing so, they became one of the resort's most popular sights and destinations. And so they continued - very profitably - until a fairground began to grow among them, starting in 1896 with a single roundabout but eventually becoming the Pleasure Beach.

Old, tinted, photograph of camp on a sandy beach. Domed tent with flags outside and a very large sign for Madam Townsend.

The fortune-telling booth of Richenda Townsend née Lee on Blackpool's South Shore circa 1904. (RTFHS collection)

The artists

Some may have a romanticised view of Romanies always living in a brightly coloured van but this is a relatively recent introduction, not appearing until the mid-19th century and then only as the home of wealthier families.

Both Gypsy vans and Showmen's wagons would be ordered from specialist builders and custom-built according to each customer's choice of style, decorations, carvings and fitments. In a similar way, Showmen wanting a new fairground ride would head to a small number of expert builders. The structures of these vans and rides were beautifully crafted but it was the hand of the sign-writers and painters that individualised them and brought them to life.

The Romany Gypsies and the Showmen were artists too. They had a lifetime's experience in working with their hands and an expert knowledge of both the traditions and newest trends in the design of living wagons and fairground architecture. It was therefore second nature to them to repair, renovate and repaint their own possessions.

Painted carousel horse

A traditional set of hand-painted gallopers, part of Carter's Steam Fair. (RTFHS collection)

The royal rat catcher

Princess Victoria, later Queen Victoria (1819-1901), is widely recognised as a talented artist. Perhaps less well known is that a favourite subject, both in her sketchbooks and her diaries, was the family of Romany Gypsies she befriended at Claremont House, Esher, Surrey, and later at Windsor Castle.

These were the Coopers, people who often camped in Windsor and Hampton Court even though their travels took them from Cornwall to Kent. Because of their frequent presence near Windsor Great Park it was once known as "Cooper country".

One of their number was Matty Cooper (1811-1900), a man whose many rural craft skills attracted the Royal Household to such a degree that they appointed him the royal rat-catcher. Matty is also held in high esteem by a number of RTFHS members who count him as an ancestor. They naturally carry that royal connection with pride.

Sepia oval shaped photograph of older man with white beard standing in a garden in a pale suit, hand on hip and waving a bowler hat
Matty Cooper, the Romany on the staff of the Royal Household. (RTFHS collection)

Find out more

  • Romany and Traveller Family History Society: The website is the best place to find out about the Society, the first steps in researching travelling ancestors and the benefits of membership. The site also includes free databases of Romany, Traveller, Fairground and Circus individuals discovered in historic documents, galleries of photographs, specialist research sources and publication lists.
  • Romany and Traveller Family History Society Facebook page
  • Romany And Traveller Heritage Day, Saturday 22 June 2024: June has been celebrated in Britain as Gypsy, Roma & Traveller History Month since 2008. On Saturday 22 June 2024, the RTFHS is hosting a Romany And Traveller Heritage Day in partnership with the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, Berkshire, to mark this special month. It is free and open to the public - no need to book. More information is available at the Museum's website.
  • Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month - Excellent resources here include a timeline poster and schools education pack.

Related topics