Gypsies, Cheshire and the Great War

by Jack Bowers

The Gypsy community in Cheshire currently has little academic writing about their involvement during the ‘Great War’, despite their presence in Cheadle being considerable. The current lack of research from academics into Romani communities is detrimental as they contributed to the Great War to the same extent as other ethnic minorities. This blog will examine the difficulties of researching the involvement of Gypsies in the Great War in Cheshire as well as giving a summary of what historians do know at the moment. It is through the analysis of individuals that the best picture be pieced together. Thus, the Boswell family’s participation in the conflict will be interrogated, highlighting the lives of Benjamin, Mcintyre and Ernst, Hedley and Edward Boswell who all fought during the Great War, demonstrating the contribution of Cheshire Gypsies. A discussions of the life of Sylvester Thomas Taylor will show how he went from being arrested in Chester to being eligible for multiple war medals.

The literature on Gypsies and Romani is sparse and are not mentioned in Chester In the Great War by Susan Chambers nor are they recognised as being a different ethnicity in Ronald Barr’s The Cheshire Regiment.[1] The current amount of information about Gypsies in history is particularly low which is a viewed shared by other historians. Jodie Matthews states although the Gypsy community has been present in Britain for hundreds of years ‘these documented histories are largely absent from mainstream narratives of Britain’s past’.[2] Mathews goes on to say they are ‘often ignored in mainstream factual, analytical works that have a broad focus on national identity, ethnicity, minorities, diversity’ which instead has led to a situation in which ‘Romani figures are textually over‐represented to the point of fetishization in imaginative, fictional or creative texts’.[3] Similarly, Helen Carter claims that it is only when the Gypsy community are involved in conflict that are they documented, otherwise ‘the occasions when the Gypsies were not perceived to be a problem do not […] tend to be written about in history’.[4] Historians Thomas Acton and Gary Mundy have tried to ‘end the marginalisation of Romani Studies in the world of knowledge’ by releasing a editorial collection Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity but this still comprises a strikingly small body of work.[5] The problems of studying the history of Romanies is addressed by Michael Stewart and Márton Rövid who claim that academics have a difficulty in ‘dealing with a people who are not a people in the sense that nation states constitute and make a people’.[6] For this investigation, looking at individual’s military records, official records and newspapers was the only way to understand what part Gypsies played during the war. Examining individuals is only way to understand how the role Gypsies played in bringing Britain’s victory but also revealing how they contributed whilst being discriminated against.

The problem in research Gypsies living in Cheshire is the local newspapers at the time did not consider them a separate ethnic group and instead classed them simply as being of ‘no fixed abode’. This becomes confusing as it makes them very difficult to distinguish from the homeless. To resolve this problem, historians have to look at common Romani names as well as considering the typical occupations of members of the Gypsy community to locate them in the past. In nineteenth-century Cheshire, Gypsies appear to have been attracted to the northwest of England because of the employment opportunities.[7] Evans suggests that Gypsies came from ‘Greece, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey’, beginning their travels in England at the Liverpool docks.[8]  Some of these found temporary residence in Cheshire, for example in Stockport Road, Cheadle, Cheshire, somewhere which remains a popular place for travelling Gypsies to camp.[9] The Stockport community have been well-documented by individuals posting family data on websites, allowing the identification of common surnames in the local area and thus the analysis of the Gypsy contribution to the Great War. One of the Gypsy families that continued to come up when conducting this research was the Boswell family, many of whose male members enlisted during World War One.

The Boswell’s were a well-known Gypsy family that was settled in Cheshire but also in parts of Wales. The Boswell family saw many of their men join Britain in the Great War. Benjamin Boswell was a Cheshire-born in 1881 and at the beginning of the war lived at 35 Residence, 110 Stockport Road, Cheadle Cheshire.[10] Benjamin was engaged in the common Romani occupation of horse dealer/farmer which may have been why he was assigned to the Army Veterinary Corps.[11] The Army Veterinary Corps was a regiment that specialised in training pigeons, dogs but mostly horses and with his existing skills Benjamin would have been an excellent addition to the regiment.[12] Another Boswell’s that joined the fight was Mcintyre Boswell who stated that he lived at 36 Marshland Street, Stockport which is two roads away from Benjamin.[13] Mcintyre enlisted on the 15th November 1916 at Fort Brockhurst Gosport joining the Royal Regiment of Artillery where he served till the end of the war.[14] Although not from Cheshire, Nathaniel Abraham Boswell born 1895 in Swansea enlisted on the 20th October 1916 at the age of 21 where he joined the Cheshire regiment for a short period of time.[15] The Boswell family also proved to effective military soldiers as Ernest Boswell joined the army when he was 17 in 1918.[16] His skills as a leader advance him to the rank of Lance Corporal of the King’s Liverpool regiment when unfortunately he died in 1920 at the age of 19.[17]

It wasn’t only Ernst wasn’t the only Boswell to give his life in fighting for Britain. Hedley Boswell was son to William and Lucy Boswell and lived at 2 Newton Court, Swann St Portswood in Stockport where he helped him father in being a farm hand.[18] Hedley Boswell enlisted into the army in May 1915 at the age of 16 where he assigned to the King’s Liverpool regiment 18th Lancashire Hussars.[19] He died at Somme on the 22nd March 1918 at the age of 19.[20] He body was buried at the Brunwick Methodist Church Burial Ground and his name is in scripted at the memorial at Pozieres.[21] Hedley Boswell GraveAnother Boswell that gave their life to the Great War was Edward Boswell. He lived in 8 Green Lawn, Rock Ferry, Cheshire and his parents were Arthur and Andrewine Boswell who lived at Park St, West Gorton, Manchester.[22] He enlisted to the Cheshire Regiment where he served as a Private.[23] He died at the age of 20 on the 27th of September whilst deployed in France. His name is in scripted onto the Vis-En-Artois memorial.[24] The Boswell family are an example of how the Gypsy community contributed to the British fight against the Central Powers. Edward Boswell Grave

The story of Sylvester Thomas Taylor gives interesting insights into perceptions of Gypsies in the early years of the twentieth century. Sylvester Taylor was a hawker and dealer that travelled around the country trading yet stayed in Chester for some time.[25] Taylor is first mentioned in the Chester Chronicle as he was fined by the local police for being ‘drunk in charge of a pony and cart’ on 29th January 1916.[26] This type of action was commonly associated with the Gypsy community within Chester by the press.  After the restriction of alcohol sales in 1916, the Chester Chronicle reported that although there had been a decrease in drunken disturbances, of the 181 offences dealt with by police, 90 were attributed to Romani.[27] After his arrest in January 1916, Taylor joined the Border Regiment 7th battalion where he served as a Private.[28] The Border Regiment 7th battalion was based in France during 1916 and is where Sylvester Taylor was killed on 27th June 1916 aged 31.[29] His grave can be found at the Thiepval Memorial in France which honours the missing soldiers who died at Somme between 1915 and 1918.[30] It reported that Sylvester Thomas Taylor was eligible for both the Victory medal and also the British War medal.[31] What makes this story fascinating when taking into consideration that in January, Taylor was considered a public nuisance by the authorities who appear to been prejudiced against him, and by late June he had given his life in the war. This individual case shows how the community was perceived as a problem but also helped Britain to victory.   Sylvester Taylor death

In conclusion, the Gypsy community within Cheshire during the Great War should be furthered by other academics. The family of the Boswell’s give a small insight into the involvement of the Romani in Cheshire during WW1. The lives of Benjamin and Mcintrye Boswell show the commitment and benefits the Gypsy community in Cheshire had towards the wars. The numerous young lives of men from the Boswell family show how like many other families the Boswell’s faced loss to a same extent as many other across the country. The story of Sylvester Taylor is one which illustrates how the war changed men from being a nuisance to the country to ones that gave their lives for the cause. Overall with further investigation more stories will be revealed, allowing a greater understanding of the contribution the Gypsy community during the World War One.

Bibliography:

Action, T., and Mundy, G., Romani culture and Gypsy identity, (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1997)

Carter, H., Responses to Gypsies in Britain, 1900–1939, (Unpublished PhD thesis), (Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2002)

Clabby, J., The History of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, 1919–1961, (London: J.A. Allen & Co. 1963)

Common wealth War Dead, Sylvester Thomas Taylor, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/815223/TAYLOR,%20SYLVESTER%20THOMAS&gt; [accessed 28 May 2017] (p.1)

Common Wealth War Grave, Ernst Boswell, < http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2747987/BOSWELL,%20ERNEST%20EDWARD&gt; [accessed 29 May 2017] (p.1)

Common wealth War Graves, Edward Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1740307/BOSWELL,%20EDWARD&gt;, [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

Common wealth War Graves, Hedley Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/853169/BOSWELL,%20HEDLEY&gt; [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

Evans, S., Stopping places: a Gypsy history of South London and Kent, (Hatfield : University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004), p. 4.

Forces war Records, Sylvester Thomas Taylor, <https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/records/1758546/private-sylvester-thomas-taylor-british-army-border-regiment/?registered=true&ident=2301295&gt; [accessed 28 May 2017] (p.1)

Janey-Smith, Benjamin Boswell, < http://www.Gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920&gt; [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

Janey-Smith, Mcintyre Boswell, < http://www.Gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920&gt; [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

Janey-Smith, Nathaniel Abraham Boswell, < http://www.Gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920&gt; [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

Mathews, J., ‘Where are the Romanies? An Absent Presence in Narratives of Britishness’, Identity Papers: A Journal of British and Irish Studies, (2015), p. 80.

Stewart, M. and Rövid, M., Multi‐Disciplinary approaches to Romany Studies, ((Budapest: Central European University, 2010)

The Cheshire Archives and Local Studies Service, Micro Film 220-49.

Williams, J., Gypsies camp out on EIGHT sites around Stockport, Manchester Evening News, < http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/Gypsies-camp-out-on-eight-sites-1002881&gt; [accessed 26 May 2017] (p.1)

Word Count: 1807.

[1] Susan Chambers, Chester in the Great War, (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military, 2015) and Ronald Barr, the Cheshire Regiment, (Stroud, Tempus Publishing, 2000).

[2] Jodie Matthews, ‘Where are the Romanies? An Absent Presence in Narratives of Britishness’, Identity Papers: A Journal of British and Irish Studies, (2015), p. 80.

[3] Jodie Matthews, ‘Where are the Romanies? An Absent Presence in Narratives of Britishness’, Identity Papers: A Journal of British and Irish Studies, (2015), p. 82.

[4] Helen Carter, Responses to Gypsies in Britain, 1900–1939, (Unpublished PhD thesis), (Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2003). p. 13.

[5] Acton, T. and Mundy, G., Romani culture and Gypsy identity, (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1997), p. 5.

[6] Stewart, M. and Rövid, M., Multi‐Disciplinary approaches to Romany Studies, (Budapest: Central European University, 2010), p. 4.

[7] Simon Evans, Stopping places: a gypsy history of South London and Kent, (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2004), p. 4.

[8] Ibid. p. 4.

[9] Jennifer Williams, Gypsies camp out on EIGHT sites around Stockport, Manchester Evening News, < http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/local-news/gypsies-camp-out-on-eight-sites-1002881> [accessed 26 May 2017] (p.1)

[10] Janey-Smith, Benjamin Boswell, < http://www.gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920> [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

[11] Ibid. p.1.

[12] John, Clabby, The History of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps, 1919–1961, (London: J.A. Allen & Co. 1963), p. 244.

[13] Janey-Smith, Mcintyre Boswell, < http://www.gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920&gt; [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

[14] Ibid. p. 1.

[15] Janey-Smith, Nathaniel Abraham Boswell, < http://www.gypsyjib.com/page/British+Army+Records+1914-1920&gt; [accessed 24 May 2017] (p.1.)

[16] Common Wealth War Grave, Ernst Boswell, < http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2747987/BOSWELL,%20ERNEST%20EDWARD> [accessed 29 May 2017] (p.1)

[17] Ibid. p.1.

[18] Common wealth War Graves, Hedley Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/853169/BOSWELL,%20HEDLEY> [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

[19] Common wealth War Graves, Hedley Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/853169/BOSWELL,%20HEDLEY&gt; [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

[20] Common wealth War Graves, Hedley Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/853169/BOSWELL,%20HEDLEY&gt; [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

[21] Common wealth War Graves, Hedley Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/853169/BOSWELL,%20HEDLEY&gt; [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

[22] Common wealth War Graves, Edward Boswell, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1740307/BOSWELL,%20EDWARD>, [accessed 1 June 2017] (p.1)

[23] Ibid. p. 1.

[24] Ibid. p. 1.

[25] Chester Chronicle, January 29 1916, The Cheshire Archives and Local Studies Service, Micro Film 220-49.

[26] Ibid. January 29 1916.

[27] Ibid. Feb 08 1916.

[28] Forces War Records, Sylvester Thomas Taylor, <https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/records/1758546/private-sylvester-thomas-taylor-british-army-border-regiment/?registered=true&ident=2301295> [accessed 28May 2017] (p.1)

[29] Common wealth War Dead, Sylvester Thomas Taylor, <http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/815223/TAYLOR,%20SYLVESTER%20THOMAS> [accessed 28 May 2017] (p.1)

[30] Ibid. p. 1.

[31] Forces war Records, Sylvester Thomas Taylor, <https://www.forces-war-records.co.uk/records/1758546/private-sylvester-thomas-taylor-british-army-border-regiment/?registered=true&ident=2301295> [ accessed 28 May 2017] (p.1)

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