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Theatrical image of Sarah Egerton as Meg Merrilies. Public domain [?]

Old Meg she was a gipsy;
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare

Full hard against the moon.

But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats o’ rushes,
!
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone! [1]

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

John Keats by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery.

This poem was written by John Keats for his sister Fanny, in either the July or August of 1818, whilst on a walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown. The beauty of the Kirkcudbrightshire coastline with its “craggy moors towering inland[2] reminded Brown of Sir Walter Scott’s evocative descriptions in his book ‘Guy Mannering’. Brown recounted the story to Keats who was unfamiliar with the book.

The character of the gypsy Meg Merillies in particular caught Keats attention. In the novel Meg plays a pivotal role in moving the plot forward and is instrumental in bringing the story to its happy and resolved conclusion. Scott eschews the widely held view of gypsies as criminal (e.g. horse thieves) and sinister and instead presents a romanticised version. Meg is portrayed as mysterious and enigmatic fulfilling the traditional role of the kind and generous wise woman and healer who uses her otherworldly senses to help those around her.

Scott based his character of Meg on the famous Scottish gypsy Jean Gordon who lived in the first half of the 18th century. Jean is described in contemporary sources as being unusually tall (six foot), having a remarkable appearance and an unusual dress sense[3]. She was regarded by all who knew her as honest and respectable, unfortunately for her, her sons were not. On the 5th June 1730 her three sons and two of their wives were hung for sheep stealing at Jedburgh. Two years later, Jean herself was arrested possibly for vagrancy and banished. In 1746 she was grabbed and drowned in the River Eden after angering a crowd with her vocal support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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View of the highlands of Scotland.  Lenora.

Keats’s Meg is as much a part of the physical landscape as she is the world of people. The verses emphasise the harshness of the life she leads and her poverty but for me the overriding impression it leaves is one of freedom. Despite the overall beauty of the words it is the first line of the last stanza ‘Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen’ which always catches my eye. Although it refers to the Scottish Queen Margaret, it conjures up in my mind the image of another Margaret, another queen who fits the theme of the poem so perfectly, that is, Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies.

Gypsy Hill

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Roma generally travelled around the country making a living as best they could, returning to London and its outskirts during the winter months. The largest identified group of Roma congregated in Norwood, Surrey. The main families were believed to be the Lees and the Coopers who “were reputed to be rich, [and]…were not held in disrepute like poorer gypsies in some other areas”.[4]

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Old postcard showing Gypsy Hill Norwood, early 20th Century. Bromley Historic Collection.

The popularity of Norwood was due to its “remote and rural character, though lying so handy for both London and Croydon[5] and this is one of the reasons why Finch and her community decided to settle there. A hill in Norwood originally derogatorily nicknamed Beggar’s Hill eventually due to its strong historical and cultural association with the Roma became known as Gypsy Hill.

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Gypsy encampment. Source uncertain.

A leader of her people

As so very little is known about the life and background of Margaret Finch, her role as the Queen of the Gypsies has to be gauged from other sources. To be named as the Queen is the ultimate accolade so the fact that Margaret was elected to the role shows how important and respected a person she would have been in her community.

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Gypsy fortune-teller. Source unknown.

How old she would have been when she was elected is unknown, it could have been at any age depending on when her predecessor decided to name a successor. Evidence from a newspaper article published on the 2nd August 1899 gives some idea of the characteristics needed to fulfil the role of Queen. The article reports on the election of Laurel Harrison, 17, to replace her grandmother Snake Mary who at the time was 94. Laurel is described as carrying “herself well and has the dignity befitting her new position. She is said to possess the gift of intuition to an unusual degree, being this especially well fitted for her future as the principal fortune teller of her people[6]. It is more than likely that as in the case of Laurel Harrison the role of Queen was passed on in Finch’s own branch of her family as after Margaret’s death her niece ‘old Bridget’ took on the role. After Bridget’s own death in August 1768, her niece, another Margaret became Queen.

In her role, Margaret’s advice would have been sought on any important issues affecting the Roma society. The Roma have an extremely complex socio-political structure made up of nations or ‘natsiia’ which are then broken down into other subgroups with the family being the smallest unit. One of the most important components of the structure is the Kris or Council of Elders which deals with any issues or disputes which are too complex or grave to be dealt with by the bandoliers (rulers of the Communities). Margaret would have had the power to choose each bandolier for each community and would have used her wisdom and experience to choose a suitable candidate. She would have also elected the head of the Kris which unlike the other Elders was a permanent position. As the leader of the combined Gypsy nations she would have had the final word in all decisions or instructions among the tribes with all the members pledging loyalty to her.

It is not surprising then that when Margaret Finch, Queen of the Gypsies chose to settle in Norwood in Surrey it became the beating heart of Gypsy London.

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Queen of the New Forest Gypsies, Hannah Lackey, died 1903.  Photographer John Short c1900.

The most famous gypsy of her age

Finch was a unique individual. As the Queen of the Gypsies she must have inspired fear, devotion and respect from amongst her own people. Not much information is known about her early life but more than likely she had spent the first half traveling throughout Britain. It is only when she grew older and settled permanently in Norwood that descriptions of her appeared. As an old woman she was described as “a withered, wild and grotesque[7] figure with bony, claw-liked hands who lived with an emaciated terrier and smoked a pipe.

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Margaret Finch etching: Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Her singular appearance and behaviour fascinated people who travelled large distances to visit her and ask her advice. According to one report Margaret lived in a conical shaped hut made out of branches at the base of an ancient tree at the lower end of Gypsy Hill.

A report published by James Caulfield a year after Margaret Finch’s death stated that the “oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling draw a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even those of ye lower class of life”[8]

Margaret Finch’s reputation was such that she was considered the greatest and most famous gypsy of her era. This may have been the reason why in his History of Signboardsthe author Larwood tries to suggest the possibility that Margaret was one of the gypsies that Samuel Pepy’s wife visited along with some of her companions in August 1668 at Lambeth[9]. Although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Margaret was at Lambeth on that date and some of his calculations are suspect (he states that Margaret was seventeen at the time but if her age at the time of death was roughly correct, she would have been in her thirties), it does show the depth of her fame.

The role of fortune telling ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

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Gypsy fortune-teller.  Source unknown.

As a foreign people in a foreign land, looked on with suspicion due to their unusual lifestyle, looks and customs, gypsies would have had limited employment choices and so had to make a living as best they could. Their numbers added to those already travelling through the country searching for work i.e people forced off their land due to land enclosures and later the Industrial Revolution as well as war veterans. With the limited opportunities open to them they became pedlars, hawkers, street performers and fortune tellers.

Fortune telling has been an important source of income for many gypsies over the centuries. In general fortune tellers were regarded with suspicion. This situation was not helped by the fact it was known that groups of professional vagabonds disguised as gypsies travelled to fairs to rip off anyone they could. By the late 18th century it was not uncommon to find male con artists dressed in a green robe and wearing a false beard (beards equalled wisdom) purporting to be from the mystical East. Stories abounded of young serving girls allowing in pretend gypsy women who promised to tell them their future for a shilling and then proceeded to steal their master’s silver plate or cloth. It was nearly impossible for most people to differentiate between genuine and fake gypsies. This combined with the pervading fear of the other, those who did not fit into the commonly accepted pattern of social behaviour, made gypsies both fascinating and frightening.

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Gypsy fortune-teller with girls.  Felbrigg Hall, National Trust.

Not only was fortune telling a way to earn money but it would have given Margaret an aura of mystery and magic as well as an opportunity for her to make contacts amongst non gypsies. Usually gypsy society is insular with contact with non gypsies (except when it is necessary) disapproved of but the role of Queen was also seen as a contact point between the two societies. From the people that came to her to find out their futures, Margaret would have been able to learn about changes in the social and political climate and to discover secrets and useful information[10]. Gypsies used many different divination methods to predict the future such as crystal gazing, tea leaves and palmistry, the method that Margaret was believed to favour was cartomancy.

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Cartomancy, whereby a meaning was ascribed to each card in a standard deck was extremely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louisa Lawford in her 1851 book The Fortune-Tellergives a list of the card meanings[11]. Although there is no surviving written record of the meanings that Margaret would have assigned to her cards it is highly possible that they would have been very similar for example,

Ten of Clubs – fortune, successes or grandeur; reversed, want of success in some small matter

Ace of Clubs – signifies joy, money or good news; reversed, the joy will be of brief duration

King of Hearts – a fair liberal man; reversed, will meet with disappointment

Seven of Hearts – pleasant thoughts, tranquility; reversed, ennui, weariness

Ten of Spades – tears, a prison; reversed, a brief affliction

Queen of Spades – a widow; reversed, a dangerous and malicious woman

Seven of Diamonds – satire, mockery; reversed, a foolish scandal

Nine of Diamonds – annoyance, delayed; reversed, either a family or love quarrel

Above all Margaret must have been a shrewd woman as she ran a highly successful business. She would have been well aware how much her image contributed to her popularity. She would not have been so successful if she had given people unfavourable or distressing readings. In was in her interest to keep her clients happy and that included maintaining an exotic and bizarre appearance.

The end of an era

When Margaret Finch died on the 24 October 1740 she was reported to be about 109 years old. She had spent over half a century telling fortunes. She was buried in St George’s, the Parish Church of Beckenham. It is said that a large crowd gathered to see her on her final journey accompanying her body in a procession which included two mourning carriages. In death as in life she remained a strange and unique character. She had to be buried in a deep square box because due to her habit of sitting with her chin resting on her knees, her muscles had become so contracted that she could not alter her position.

 

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Funeral Procession by Thomas Bewick

In one way Margaret was lucky to die when she did as only four years later King George II’s Vagrancy Act was passed. Although bills against vagrancy had been in existence since the mid-16th century (when the number of people with no fixed abode rose due to the dissolution of the monasteries) with punishments fluctuating in severity from slavery and death to whipping and branding and where at one point it was illegal just to be a gypsy, this new law ushered in a new era, establishing strict guidelines on how to deal with ‘vagrants’. The Act allowed the authorities to arrest anyone they didn’t like and those without a visible means of subsistence such as “unlicensed pedlars, fencers, jugglers, bearwards, minstrels, fortune tellers and gamesters[12].

As the century finally due to a close the situation of the Norwood gypsies was becoming increasingly precarious. In August 1797, 30 men and children were arrested under the Vagrancy Act and in 1802 the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against the Norwood fortune tellers. Faced with forced enclosure of the Common and persecution, the gypsy families including the Lees and the Coopers finally left Norwood for good. By 1808, the area was being referred to as the place which was “once the haunt of a numerous horde of gipsies[13]. Remarkably the small building which Finch had lived in was still standing.

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Gypsy Encampment.  Source unknown.

Things did not get any better. In the Vagrancy Act of 1824, Section 4, it is clear that gypsies were being singled out and closely monitored as the authorities attacked them through one of their main means of survival “every person, pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects[14] were to face the full force of the law. The Roma were only removed from the Vagrancy Act in 1989!

The legacy of Margaret Finch

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Romantic image of a gypsy.  Source unknown.

Margaret Finch was considered one of the most remarkable people of her time and her fame and those of the Norwood gypsies continued after her death. For instance, in 1777 a very success and popular pantomime called ‘The Norwood Gypsies’ was performed in Convent Gardens. A number of publications believed to be either written by or inspired by the Norwood gypsies were published including the Norwood Gypsy Fortune-Teller which was extremely popular with all levels of society. The book claimed to be able to teach its readers the art of divination including telling fortunes by grounds of tea or coffee and by lines in the hand, the science of foretelling events by cards and ‘directions to choose a husband by the hair’!

Not only did Margaret earn money for herself and her community but her presence generated income for local businesses, Norwood, and the roads leading to it; on a fine Sunday, resembled the scene of a fair; and, with the greatest difficulty only, could a seat or a mug of beer be obtained, at the place called the Gipsy-house.”[15]. From that time onwards there has always been a pub near the site which has taken it name from its famous inhabitants including the Gypsy Queen and Gipsy Tavern (both of which have now closed). The latest inheritor of the title is the ‘Gipsy Hill Tavern’.

On a last note, in the Victorian artist John McCullum 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church you can see the small figure of a woman on the right. Many believe this to be Margaret Finch. Even today crystals mainly amethysts are left at the lych gate[16]. Amethysts are believed to be a calming and meditative stone which help people make contact with the psychic and spiritual realms. The stones are only ever to be found at this spot in the churchyard. Maybe they are left as a tribute to Margaret Finch or as recognition of the spiritual essence of the place, or simply as a reminder of this area’s unique nature. Whatever the reason the memory of the gypsies of Norwood and their famous Queen lives on.

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John McCullum’s 1851 painting of the lych gate at St George’s Church

Bibliography

Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
South London Gypsy History http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch
Vagabands and Beggar, www.rictornorton.co.uk/gu10.htm
Gypsies and Travellers, www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gypsy-travellers.jsp
19th century fortune telling from the drawing room to the courtroom, https://mimimathews.com/206/01/11/19th-century-fortune-telling-from-the-drawing-room-to-the-court-room
Romani people in fiction, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fictionhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romani_people_in_fiction
Gypsies – Sociopolitical Organization http://www.everyculture.com/Russia-Eurasia-China/Gypsies-Sociopolitical-Organization.html

Notes

[1] Keats: Poems Published in 1820, John Keats
[2]Summary and Analysis of Meg Merillies by John Keats, https://beamingnotes.com/2014/09/21/summary-analysis-meg-merilies-john-keats
[3] Jean Gordon, www.scottishgypsies.co.uk/jean.html
[4] The Norwood Gypsies, http://www.rwhit.dsl.pipex.com/chp14.htm
[5] The Norwood Gypsies, http://romanygenes.com/the-norwood-gypsies/4574799978
[6][6][6] Reading Eagle, August 2nd 1899, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid-19558
[7] South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
[8] ibid
[9] The History of Signposts by John Camden Larwood, 1868
[10] The Gypsy!, http://larp.com/jahavra/gypsy1.html
[11] The Fortune-Teller or peeps into futurity, Louisa Lawford, 1861
[12] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
[13] The Norwood Society, http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/85-the-norwood-gipsies.html
[14] Vagrancy in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England, Sara Byrnes, http://www.cornellcollege.edu/english/blaugdone/essays/vagrancy.htm
[15] South London Gypsy History, http://transpont.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=margaret+finch
[16] Margaret Finch, www.beckenham.history.co.uk/margaretfinch

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