THE NORWOOD GYPSIES
|Until relatively recently, the northern part of the borough was covered by the Great North Wood, which gave its name to Norwood and Woodside. There the gypsies made their home over three hundred years ago, but police broke up the encampment following the Enclosures Act, which removed land from common use.|
The Norwood gypsies lived in the area now known as Gypsy Hill. So famous were they that a pantomime called 'The Norwood Gypsies' was staged in Covent Garden in 1777. The main families appear to have been the Lees and the Coopers and, as they were reputed to be rich, they were not held in disrepute like poorer gypsies in some other areas.
It was a Cooper who wrote the 'Norwood Gypsy Fortune-Teller', a book of charms telling young girls how to find out who they were going to marry. This book was in great demand in all strata of society. The fame of the gypsies was so widespread that the Prince and Princess of Wales and several companions took a carriage trip in 1750 to see the camp. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys reports his wife's visit to the gypsy camp in August 1668 to have her fortune told. Unfortunately, the predictions are not recorded.
The most famous of the gypsies was Margaret Finch, styled the Queen of Norwood Gypsies, who died in 1740 and was buried in Beckenham parish church. A report published a few years after her death states that the 'oddness of her figure and ye fame of her fortune-telling drew a vast concourse of spectators from ye highest rank of quality, even to those of ye lower class of life'. She lived in a conical hut built of branches, at the base of an ancient tree, and it was there that great numbers of people visited her. A subsequent owner of the house in whose garden the tree stood renamed it 'Queenwood'.
The Gypsy Queen was described as withered, wild and grotesque. She had bony, claw-like hands, smoked a clay pipe and kept an emaciated terrier. When she died at the age of 109, she had been sitting 'on ye ground with her chin resting on her knees' for so long that 'her sinews [were] so contracted' that she had to be buried in a deep, square box.
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