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New Forest Gypsies

Sitting one wet afternoon inside the Bow-top van of a Romany family high on the downs above Shaftesbury, I watched the man preparing the straw for making baskets. A damp coat was drying beside the hot stove making the air moist which emphasized the smell of the straw. The Romany woman was sitting at the front of the van beside the open canvas flap. Her dark hair traditionally parted in the centre and plaited, framed her tanned face. Her sharp brown eyes twinkled frequently as she smiled when relating a story. From outside came the contented clucking on the bantams which were roosting on the shafts of the van. Beyond them further along the drove tethered at intervals were the traveller’s horses for this family had no motor vehicles they relied entirely on horsepower.

Absorbing this scene I compared the life of this Romany lady who originally came from the New Forest, a member of a very large Cooper family, to the other less fortunate New Forest Travellers who were herded into compounds when they lost their freedom to camp on the Forest. Deciding to continue her nomadic way of life after marrying by travelling away from the Forest, together with her family, she now has an idyllic life style carrying on the Romany traditions, hawking, wreath making at Christmas, attending the horse fairs and above all, being able to camp along the way.

Photo taken by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Photo courtesy of Trish Streeten, Wellspring Media, U.S.A

At one time the Gypsies of the New Forest were free to roam and camp where they liked. It is thought that these wild, dark, mysterious people first came to the Forest as far back as the fourteenth century. However, in recent years officialdom has organized them into compounds, but these soon proved to be unsuitable. One well known site was Shave Green situated in woodland near Minstead.

A typical dwelling there was constructed of old tarpaulin thrown over a wooden framework. The inside was hung with pieces of curtain and in the centre stood an iron stove with a pipe going out through the top of the tent. Another example was a rough shack with perhaps a bed and chair. The fire here would have been smouldering one on the earthen floor, for this the fuel was usually heather roots or turf.

Another site was Millersford Bottom near Fordingbridge. As the word ‘Bottom’ indicates, it was in a valley between two heather-clad hills. With the water running off the clay the camp was surrounded by bog. It was here that the Sheen family lived, still using the old Gypsy bell-type tents. These camps became quagmires when it rained. Eventually all the compounds were condemned and the Gypsy families moved elsewhere, some were even housed.

Fordingbridge is still a stronghold of many Gypsy families particularly the Coopers. One dear lady, Annie Cooper who lived in the village of Hyde was fortunate enough to be able to follow her old way of life to a certain extent by living in a caravan, albeit a modern one opposed to a traditional Romany Vardo, tucked away in a corner on a piece of common land adjoining the Forest. Her water she had to draw daily from a well on the common and for her stove she collected dead gorse wood.

Juliette de Bairacli Levy, bottom right.
Photo courtesy of Trish Streeten, Wellspring Media, U.S.A

The old Gypsy lady remembered as a child sitting around a campfire eating deer stew and she said she still had her bender tent, cooking pot and kettle from the days when camping on the forest; her dream was to erect the tent again and light a campfire.

Although in her eighties Annie walked every day into Fordingbridge and back, an overall distance of three miles. Always colourfully dressed with traditional apron and headscarf she carried a big calling basket filled with flowers. At Christmas you could see her walking along the lanes pushing a pram brimming over with holly.

Possibly Eiza Cooper
Photographer by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Photo courtesy of Trish Streeten, Wellspring Media, U.S.A

November the 26th is the traditional date on which the Gypsies are allowed to start picking holly to sell at the markets to make wreaths. At one time they filled their sacks with moss gathered from the boggy paths on the side of the hill above Abbots Well. This they used as the foundation of the wreaths. But it is no longer permissible to pull moss or any other plant.

In my early days at Abbots Well an old Gypsy lady called occasionally to collect rags and old clothes. Her name was Eiza Cooper, she came she said from the Black Coopers and was known as Black Liz. The term, black blood (Kaulo ratti), means the purest type of Romany.

Eiza possessed the gift of prophecy and also a belief in charms. A charm which was worn only by the New Forest Gypsies was a ring made from plaited horse hair.

Eiza Cooper told a fascinating story as to how she would spend hours trying to approach the wild ponies close enough to pull strands of hair from their manes and tails. But the ponies had to be either skewbald or piebald, as rings made from the hair this colour were believed to bring good luck in the wearer.

The custom among all Gypsy women hawking from door to door was to ask for a drink. Eiza was no exception and she always came in for a cup of tea. Her suntanned face furrowed and lined with years of living and working outdoors, was framed by two grey plaits looped and fastened behind her ears. Whilst she sipped her tea which was always tipped into the saucer first, she would relate stories of the old days when they could camp on the forest. She said she loved to sit by the campfire smoking ‘baccy’ and with a ball of string and a hook, weave nets for the men folk to use when rabbiting. Sometimes she said the nets would be over a hundred yards long. They were placed over the rabbit burrows; then on a windy night when the rabbits could not hear, the Gypsies set their lurchers on them. The rabbits, being unable to escape down their holes, fell easy prey to the dogs.

Possibly Eiza Cooper
Photo taken by Juliette de Bairacli Levy
Photo courtesy of Trish Streeten, Wellspring Media, U.S.A

A forester neighbour remembers back to the days when Gypsy women with their long dark hair carried wild produce from the forest in their big calling baskets and hawked from door to door. There would be heather, rabbits, bunches of wild watercress and of course clothes pegs. Wild flowers in season would also be found in their baskets, such as the early snowdrops, then primroses and wild daffodils gathered from the woods bordering the forest. Although they picked and sold snowdrops the Gypsies themselves were not fond of these flowers and would never take them inside their vans as they feared to do so would bring them bad luck.oo

Eiza Cooper
Photo courtesy of Irene Soper

Apart from the traditional items such as clothes pegs and paper flowers the Forest Gypsies also made ash casks for the foresters’ mead. The New Forest was once famed for the Old English Mead that was brewed by the foresters. To make this potent brew it was necessary to keep bees to produce the honey. At that time the traditional type of hive was the round straw skep. These were also made by the Gypsies who with agile fingers wove and plaited the straw and bramble.

In former days when the Gypsies lived on the forest they picked wild blackberries for the jam factories in the area. Lenn Witt, a forester neighbour, said he used to carry the filled baskets on his horse and cart to a reception depot at Romsey. Here he was given payment – sometimes as much as seventy pounds – to take back to the Gypsy workers.

The forest Gypsies have always worked on the land either in the market gardens or the strawberry fields. Villagers remember hearing Gypsies singing whilst working in the fields around Abbots Well. In the summer it is common sight to see half a dozen women with colourful aprons and headscarves hoeing between the lettuces and strawberry plants in a market garden at Gorley.

The love of horses and ponies still survives in the Romany families of today and Forest Gypsies now settled in the area who live in cottages and drive pickups; deal in ponies and attend all the New Forest sales.

Until recently, in the small New Forest town of Ringwood, there was a covered livestock market where you could bid for anything from a rabbit to a horse. It was here that the Gypsies gathered to buy and sell their horses. Not the big horses at one time associated with the Romanies for pulling their vans but New Forest ponies.

Some years ago there was a dealer in the Abbots Well area called Gypsy Peters. During hard weather he could be seen daily coming up the lane with sacks full of gorse. This furze he would later pound with a mallet to make a forage for the ponies.

As Fordingbridge and Ringwood still have many Romany families living in the area there is naturally from time to time a Gypsy funeral. It is not unusual for the traffic on the route to be halted as it is the custom for the funeral cortege to follow the hearse to the church on foot. It is a moving sight to see the procession of mourners with everyone dressed entirely in black, a mark of respect which is still strictly adhered to by this unique race of people.

Juliette de Bairacli Levy and her son Raffi
Photo courtesy of Trish Streeten, Wellspring Media, U.S.A

Fordingbridge will always remain associated with the New Forest Romanies for it was here that their champion and friend Augustus John lived. The famous painter, known to the Gypsies as Sir Gustus, was looked upon by many of them as their King. As President of the Gypsy Lore Society he fought hard for these people to retain their rights to travel and settle where they liked in the Forest. However, bureaucracy ensured that these ancient rights would not continue despite other traditional uses that were allowed to continue.

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