Was your ancestor a Gypsy?

Is there a story in your family that one of your ancestors was a Romany Gypsy? Or have you come across people in your own research that look as though they may led a travelling lifestyle? If so, how can you establish a firm connection with a Gypsy family?

Not everyone described as a traveller, vagrant or hawker in historic records was a Gypsy, but many were. By gathering other types of information about a person or a family, it may be possible to confirm that you have Gypsy blood.

There are four main characteristics to look out for in an individual:

  • Typical Romany surname: common ones include Cooper, Smith, Lee, Boswell, Lovell, Doe, Wood, Young and Heron. But take a look at our Famous Families books for many more examples.
  • Typical Romany occupation: descriptions such as hawker, licensed hawker, pedlar, basket maker, mat maker, beehive maker, brush maker, chair bottomer, sieve bottomer, tinker, tinman, razor grinder, knife grinder,dealer, general dealer, marine store dealer, wardrobe dealer, peg maker, umbrella mender, chimney sweep, horse dealer, marine store dealer, general dealer or Egyptian.
  • Evidence of mobility: for example, a description in a document such as tent dweller, van dweller, stroller, itinerant or of no fixed abode. Or, in a census return, a different place of birth for each child.
  • Unusual forename: Romany parents often gave their children names that aren’t generally found in the settled community. Female examples include Anselina, Athalia, Britannia, Cinderella, Clementina, Dotia, Gentilia, Lementeni, Sabina, Tryphena, Urania, Fairnette, Freedom, Mizelli, Ocean, Reservoir, Sinfai, Unity and Vancy. Male examples include Elijah, Goliath, Hezekiah, Nehemiah, Noah, Sampson, Shadrack, Amberline, Belcher, Dangerfield, Gilderoy, Liberty, Major, Nelson, Neptune, Silvanus and Vandlo. You will, however, also find some British Gypsies with more familiar forenames such as John, Mary, Elizabeth and William.

Like to find more clues?

Start with a specialist family history research guide. There are two available from the RTFHS: On the Gypsy Trail by Alan McGowan, published by the RTFHS; and My Ancestors were Gypsies by Sharon Sillers Floate (3rd edition, 2010), published by the Society of Genealogists. See them here.
This page last updated: 16 September 2013.