The Norwood Gipsies

Published 1967

It is hard to discover how long the Gipsies frequented Norwood Common. In 1808, Capper speaks of the place as ‘once the haunt of a numerous horde of gipsies’; but even though they had entirely deserted Norwood (which we are inclined to doubt) they were nevertheless to be found in Dulwich Wood for many years to come. The date of their first appearance in Norwood is a still more doubtful point, and like so much of the history of these wanderers, must be left in obscurity. They must have lived on the Common at a very early date, and in 1668, at any rate, they were well known there; for in that year, under date August 11th, Pepys enters in his diary ‘This afternoon my wife and Mercer and Deb went with Pelling to see the Gypsies at Lambeth and have their fortunes told; but what they did, I did not enquire.’ Shame! Mr. Pepys; we are left to lament your unpardonable lack of curiosity.

The most famous of all the gipsies was their queen, Margaret Finch, who may indeed have been the very person consulted by Deb and ‘my wife’, though this can hardly be said to be probable. She was at any rate the original Norwood Gipsy. Having spent the first part of her life in wandering through the country, somewhere about the junction of the 17th and 18th centuries she came to settle in Norwood when her fame soon spread throughout the district. She was visited by great numbers, and it is related that, from constantly sitting in the same position, on her death in 1740, at the ripe age of 109, her limbs could not be moved and it was necessary to bury her in ‘a deep square box’. The small rustic house in which she lived, stood on Gipsy Hill, and was still standing in1808.

On October 24th, 1740, she was buried in Beckenham Parish Church, where her funeral was attended by a large mass of people. Margaret Finch was taken as the sign of a public house in the Gipsy Road, called the ‘Gipsy House’; its position and general appearance is thus sketched by Lysons; ‘the Gipsy House is situated on a small green in a valley surrounded with woods. On this green a few families of gipsies have pitched their tents for a great number of years during the summer season. In the winter they either procure lodgings in London or take up their abode in some of the more distant counties’. Her niece old Bridget occupied her place as Queen of the Gipsies after her, but not for any great length of time, as she died in 1768 and lies buried in the old graveyard at Dulwich. ‘The queen lived next door to the ‘Gipsey Public House’ in Norwood. Her rank (as inherited by her successor) seems to be merely titular. I do not find that the Gipsies pay them any particular respect, or that they differ in any other respect, than in that of being a householder, from the rest of their tribe. Thus wrote Lysons about 1790 and these records of three generations of Gipsy Queens who made their home in the Northwood, appear to comprise all that is known about them.

The popularity of the Gipsies throughout the 18th century showed no signs of waning; visits were still paid to the fortune-tellers on Norwood Common, and by even greater numbers of people. The amusement was very popular among a certain class; but that class was of a considerably higher rank than the people who indulge in the ‘Dream Books’ and such like of the present day. No less a person than the Prince of Wales (George III) is to be included among the visitors to the Gipsies, for he, as Mr. Tom Taylor tells us in his book on Leicester Square, loved all kinds of amusements. ‘The town was at this time full of gaiety: masquerades, ridottos, Ranelagh in full swing, and the Prince a prominent figure at all, for he loved all sorts of diversion, from the Gipsies at Norwood, the conjurors and fortune tellers in the bye-streets in Leicester Fields, and the bull baits at Hockley-in-the-Hole, to Amorevoli at the Opera and the Faussans in the ballet.’

Towards the dawn of the 19th Century, as an authority we have already quoted seems to imply, the Gipsies disappeared from Norwood. The reason for this is, of course, that both the wood and common were fast disappearing from Norwood, and the enclosures of 1808 naturally deprived the Gipsies of their old home; but they still clung, it seems, to the neighbouring wood of Dulwich. Here at any rate they were constantly visited by Lord Byron, then at school with Dr. Glennie in Lordship Lane, whenever he felt inclined to play the truant.

The curious may perhaps infer from these Gipsies some influence on the after life of the discontented poet. Even now the Gipsies have left us a mark of their occupation of Norwood in the name of Gipsy Hill. Of their great fame in their day we have very clear evidence. In 1777 a pantomime was produced at Covent Garden, under the title of the Norwood Gipsies, and there is a copy of the airs and duets, and a slight ‘pastoral’, included in the entertainment, preserved at the British Museum, but from a literary point of view the production, like so many others of its class, is entirely worthless. Even in our own day, the fame of Margaret Finch is not forgotten. A recent publication, proceeding from Houndsditch, and containing a marvellous illustration, fearfully and wonderfully coloured, bears the title of ‘The Original Norwood Gipsy or universal Dream Book and Magic Oracle of all kinds or visions and dreams, as prophesied by the old Gipsy’, while even Glasgow has given us ‘The Norwood Gipsy Fortune Teller, containing the art of Telling Fortunes by cards, the signification of moles, etc’ The contents of these two works do not soar above the stock-in-trade of the ordinary village fair, but a few extracts may prove amusing. ‘If a man hath a mole athwart his nose, he will be a traveller.’ ‘To dream that you see a Negro indicates joyful tidings.’ ‘To dream of onions (touching reflection!) portends much suffering.’ ‘To dream of elephants is a sign of prosperity, and that friends will greatly assist you and that you will marry above your present condition.’ Who, we may well wonder, ever did dream, in a casual kind of way, of barbers and apples, onions and Negroes, elephants and such things? Let us hope the fame of Margaret Finch was not based on such sorry stuff as this.

The very name of the gipsies seems to have drawn authors into grandiloquent language. ‘Norwood,’ says Weatherhead in 1832, was in ‘the memory of several of the inhabitants still living an entire forest of oaks and the well-known resort of those vagrant Egyptians who waylay the path of the too credulous maiden, to bid her hope or fear events which often guide the future tenor of her life, realising in dreams fortunes as unsubstantial and visionary as the flattering and deceptive vehiclesthat for a happy while depicts their ideal existence on the slumbering imagination’ Mr. Weatherhead, had he been living now, might have even stood a chance of admission into the select circle of novelette writers of the present day: but he has a very formidable competitor. An anonymous writer in 1834 soars into the heights of rhetoric as follows: ‘The village of Norwood is delightfully situated in the skirts of an extensive wood, and has long been famed for the salubrity of its air and the beauty of its surrounding scenery. In olden time the nut-brown Gipsy pitched his camp under the shades of its forest: to them the lovesick maid and the anxious swain resorted to have destinies unravelled by, but the improvements that covered the uninhabited heath and the tangled forest with smiling villas and blooming flower gardens have driven these rustic deceivers to pursue their vocation in a distant land and amongst a simpler people. The ancient allurement of Norwood has passed away, and an attraction more adapted to the well-being and mode of thinking of the present age has arisen.’ This more modern ‘attraction’ was, of course, Beulah Spa.

Extract from “Norwood and Dulwich, Past and Present” by Allan M. Galer, 1890.

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