White Will And Family – Peg-Makers
I first met with William Smith (or White Will or Mouse-as his fellow Gypsies do call him) one November morning in Surrey. The Leatherhead river fields were then winding-sheeted with vapour and the River Mole sinister with flood-water, the land and the water peopled with mournful crying seagulls feeding upon the wrack. The scene was as grey as my mood, for as I walked the fields I was contrasting the dreariness with the flaming autumn colours which I had known in Mexico. I was further asking myself – as I so often asked in the northern winters – if I would ever again see the sun and feel its warmth. Oh, great lover the sun! As the sea draws the moon, so the sun pulls the Gypsy people.
As I was mourning the death of the sun, it was with deep emotion that I beheld glowing through the mists the crimson shape of a wayside fire. Like a theatre sun, painted there upon the grey backcloth. After the sun the Gypsies worship fire, and it was running feet that took me towards where burnt the fire. At first the naked black bodies of tree in a copse obscured my view, but soon I beheld clearly not only the flaming pyre of branches, but a row of vans grouped near there. The people of the fires -the Gypsies- were back again. Despite the prominent display of the Surrey Council notices, forbidding the staying of caravans anywhere along the river, there were gathered a half-dozen wagons, and they within hand-reach of one of the ugly offending boards. A host of horses and some thirty Gypsies made up the company. It was the largest Romany gathering that I had met in Surrey, other than on Derby day, since the tribal meeting of the Cooper, King, and Lee families by the same river more than three years ago.
Once more I found all the usual activity and excitement of a Romany arrival. A tumult of Gypsy sounds thronged my ears, and was produced by the people themselves as they split wood for the fire and carried clattering and splashing pails of water up the bankside from the river. Also their horses, grouped around the camp, added their individual sound, and the bantams and fighting cocks flocking everywhere.
The scene for me had now been changed from grey to gold; and all the countryside seemed to share in the excitement. The bushes rustled their yellow foliage and the blackened autumn grasses sang the song of the grass -chantering, as the Gypsies say. The robins, companions of the Gypsy camp, seekers of crumbs and pickers of the fat in the frying-pan, piped shrilly in the bushes, and brought hedge sparrows thronging and a pair of wrens. The river water, wind-rippled in the buckets, and splashed mirthfully and whistled in the deep cooking pots hung over the ranting fire. How truthfully wrote the great Spanish genius Cervantes, when he told that the countryside welcomes the arrival of the wandering Gypsy hordes: that the very mountains rumble their gladness in their deep caverns, the trees clap their broad arms, and the little field flowers breathe more sweetly, because the people of Nature are amongst them again.
As I watched the Gypsies settling into camp I wondered much at their having encamped themselves in a place forbidden to them by the Surrey Council. I decided that they most likely had obtained official permit, and then I firmly put the matter from my mind.
I approached the Gypsies and told them what a joyous thing it was for me to meet with Romany wagons again in Young Street after their people had been so long away from the place.
“Can you hear everything saying welcome, welcome?” I asked. “The trees and the bushes and grasses, the wild birds, and even, the River Mole, all singing welcome.”
“We can hear,” the Gypsies agreed. “An’ we be gladsome to be back in the old places.”
“You’ve brought summer back for me with your fire,” I added. “I bless you and your bauro yog (great fire).”
I could speak that way with the Gypsies, but to no people else, except perhaps the Arabs – who have much of the Gypsy spirit among them: masters of horses, sons of the sun and the wind. One thin little man of middle age, wearing a cloth cap and an indigo dicklo (neck scarf), said that he heard the glad-someness of the earth most times when he pitched camp. The speaker was White Will; romantic-minded, whimsical, William Smith, who in the days ahead was to become a close friend of mine.
Immediately then White Will called his family forth to meet me. Across the sodden gleaming winter grass they came, having the appearance of a bantam flock, they so many an sprightly and their clothes so motley. The family numbered twelve when the wife of the eldest son, Bill, was included -Mayday, and their babe- Lil’ Bill.
The rest of the party consisted of two families of Kentish Gypsies. All of the Gypsies were returning from work in the hop fields and the fruit orchards. On learning of the work on which they had been employed, I decided that the essential land work had probably excepted them temporarily from the Surrey Council camping ban. I did not like to mention the subject to them and I kept my eyes away from sight of the offending notice-boards.
Talking with the Gypsies, I found that they were related to the Coopers and Kings who had been such good friends to me. We were soon deep in conversation, for we had much to tell each other. Laughter travelled over the fields and exhilarated voices: all the former drear atmosphere was banished. But the morning lengthened with unkind swiftness – how the hours of happiness do slip away like petals from poppy flowers – and I had to return to my work. I promised to return in the afternoon and tell the Gypsies much about the foreign Romanichals whom I had known on my travels.
I went direct from the Gypsies to the grocer’s in the village, and there drew out a large accumulation of tea and sugar rations. The assistant laughed at me and asked: “Are the Gypsies back then?” He knew that I had no use myself for the tea or white sugar, not liking them.
“Yes,” I answered. I spoke but the one word, yet I could have recited a long poem on the subject of the wonder of the Gypsies being back in the river fields again. I knew that I would not do much writing work that day. I was too hungry for Gypsy company again and for the power of their fire to drive the Surrey dampness from my limbs.
All the remainder of the morning and up to the mid-noon, when I was to depart for the camping place, my mind was fretted with the thought that the police might have come upon the Gypsies and hounded them on again: and they so wearied from their night of travel from Kent. That I would arrive at Young Street to find only a charred fire circle on the earth, where their camp had been, and little mounds of horse dung, and the ruts of caravan wheels: nothing more. For it had often been that way in my friendships with the Romanies. And often enough shreds of red cloth torn to pieces in anger and flung upon the bushes, to give information that they had been moved by the police. Or a peg left lying upon the earth, a friendship sign from them to me when they had been expecting a visit from me at the time when the police had come upon them. And with the peg, a patrin (road sign) of peg shavings showing which direction their wagons had travelled.
It was therefore happiness for me when I reached the bend in the Dorking Road to see a Gypsy sign which assured me that they were still by the riverside. For there in the distance curled grey-silver fern-fronds of smoke, lifting to the dun winter sky misted with rain. I would not have to carry back home the heavy gift basket that I had packed in such gladness: the very thought caused the basket to feel light-weight upon my arm.
My visit proved timely, for I was surprised by many vardos (caravans) progressing towards me down the road, the tall shapes of them and the strong horses pulling the shafts, all reflected upon the wet shining road being drenched by the falling rain. Only the two wagons which belonged to the White Will family remained on the riverside site, all others were jallin’ the drom (taking the road).
I soon met with the first vardo of the slow-moving, weary seeming company. An olive-green dilapidated vehicle drawn by a massive white mare. Striding by the mare’s side was a burly, unshaven Romany man, wearing a matching green billycock hat and carrying a big driving whip made from polished holly-wood and a great thong of plaited cord. In the rear came a shaggy grizzled-hued lurcher, very long of limb and lean. A young woman stood at the vardo door. She wore only a ragged dress of sun-faded blue cotton, unsuitable for the cold autumn day filled with the north wind laced with hail. Her face was pallid and thin, set in a black nest of tangled hair, but beautiful. Above her, on a hook, swung a wicker cage wherein was a jackdaw.
“Where are you jallin’?” I asked of the Gypsy man, troubled at the sight of his lowering face baneful as the weather, and the angry tread of his clay-caked boots upon the road. He halted his horse. “ ‘Tis they muskerows (police) at we agen,” he told. “They’ve bin to we this arternoon. We all be scrammin’ (running away, Surrey and Kent dialect). Only Will Smith and ‘is childer be stayin’, fer that kawlo gry (black horse) of ‘is be long (lame), an’ ‘e’ll avter ‘atch atime fer it to be righted.”
“I’m very sorry for you, pral (brother),” I said. “Mebbe one day the Romanies will rule this world, and then they’ll have the gavvers (police) moving for a change.” In truth, I could never see the Gypsies wishing to hound anyone, they being too carefree and big-hearted. Ready enough with their curses when their hawked wares are refused, but laughing inside their hearts most often. But I spoke thus to comfort the man in his bitterness.
The Gypsy laughed wildly, thumping at his thighs with his fists muffled in old socks against the raw cold, and with his whip. And the young woman clapped her hands, whereat the jackdaw screamed raucously.
“Mebbe one day,” said the Gypsy. Then his face darkened again. “But look tooti (you), just see ‘ere, they’se given us papers.” And out of a pocket of his ragged jacket he brought a piece of white paper, a document which I knew over well. A police summons bringing the Gypsy to court to humble him and filch his scant earnings, his crime being that he had pitched his caravan on a piece of waste-land to rest his family and his animals. Pathetic earnings of the English Gypsy, garnered from the selling of small hand-made articles, and from arduous piece-work on the land. Piece-work when it is potato gathering or pea, hop and fruit picking can be severe work, especially in the damp English climate.
“We is scrammin”, the Gypsy then repeated. “We’ll put some forty meeaws (miles) behin’ us before we atch agen, an’ we’ll not be wiv in touch of those pesky gavvers for many a year arter.”
“I’m very sorry,” I told again, “please take some pobbles (apples).” And I had him fill his pockets from my basket, while I lifted some up to the woman. I gave them also packets of tea and sugar.
The Gypsy took leave of me then, and whipped his tired horse into movement, and the green caravan travelled onwards into the mists, leaving behind chords of its music, the drone of wheels, clatter of pans, buckets and chains, swinging loose from its body, and the rattle of ill-fitting window-frames and door.
The other vardos came by. Each owner carried a summons. I gave apples and groceries to all of the Gypsies and then stood waving my scarf in farewell as they moved away down the drom (road). Tired and bitter, the men walked at the side of their horses: all dragged their feet, men and horses. And the women in the vans chantered curses upon the gravvers who persecuted them. I learnt later that they had not been able to read the Council notices under which they had camped.
The mists and sheeting rain closed over the last of the vardos, a big crimson-painted vehicle with a little cream donkey running in its rear.
“Good-bye, good-bye, my friends, kushto bact (good luck).” It was always, always, swift and poignant good-byes with the Gypsies, always.
White Will had built a royal fire, the great flame plumes of gold and crimson shimmered and waved and leapt skywards, and strewed scarlet feathers in a wide circle. Around the fire sat the Gypsy parents and their eight children, also daughter-in-law and grandchild. The Romany faces were incarnadined in the fire-glow. Three dogs also warmed themselves there ,a brace of lurchers and one terrier. The horses were close by, four of them, all stump-chained (or-billogo-deep, in Surrey Romany dialect). They were cropping the grass, which despite the chill weather was yet lush and deep close by the hedgerows, no horses having fed there in many years, whereas in former days when the Romanies had camped unmolested, the river and roadside grass stretches of the ancient camping sites had been kept as bitten down as sheep-grazed turf, and the willows, too, all shorn.
I placed my basket at the side of Will’s wife, Eliza, and she soon distributed the apples amongst her children. Quickly she made a place for me at the fireside where the most warmth was to be had. Then we commenced to rocker (talk), unceasingly, to and fro, our conversation spinning like the shuttle of a weaver. Our talking continued until the sky was all lit with a golden hunter’s moon of great size and brightness, and the path of the moon showed across the grey, as yellow as stretches of wild daffodils which the Gypsies cull and hawk in springtime.
The rain cleared with the rising of the moon, and the frost came, chilling our feet and legs despite the heat of the fire. So we covered our feet with straw to keep away the front, and placed sheets of paper or sacks over our backs, all in typical Romany custom. And then we talked on for a while further. The dogs crept close to the fire and then piled their bodies upon each other for warmth, whereas the bantams had long time ago hopped back into their boxes nailed beneath the vans.
William Smith was a man of some fifty years. Despite his life out of doors his face was pale as candle tallow. It was his paleness as contrasted with the general ruddiness of the Romany race that had inspired the Surrey Gypsies to name him White Will. He was also called Mouse, by some, and it was explained to me by the Vincents, for instance, that Will had earned the name of Mouse because he was so little and nimble, and was always around his caravan, a-hopping in and out for countless reasons, and also he bred children rapidly. THe name was given to him in kindliness.
I never beheld Will without his mouse-grey tweed cap and waistcoat and his dark-blue dicklo. He was always somewhat “drest-up” and over-neat for a Romany. The tufts of hair which showed beneath his cap were fuzzy and dark, whereas all of his children without exception were flaxen-haired of very straight growth. The hair of the children came from their mother, Eliza, who was not puro Romano but was part mumper (non-Gypsy traveller) stock.
Eliza, like Will, was of short, meagre stature. Her face was fine and keen and showed much character, especially the thin-lipped, firm, somewhat fierce mouth. The eyes were small and sunken, of a pale-blue hue, and generally watery. She herself had not the flaxen hair of her children, her own locks being honey-coloured, also sparse and wispy, and much dishevelled, with usually leaves and twigs sticking there. As with most Gypsy mothers, she was fiercely maternal, adoring her children with every glance from her pale eyes or word from her thin-lipped mouth. She was sharp-tongued, but I never heard her shrewish or unjust. Her great hate on earth was “they bengs (devils) o’ gravvers”, who wearied her heart with their complessing of the caravans into unceasing movement. Eliza did not dress in Gypsy style, but as a working woman, in print dress and shawl. She always wore well-darned stockings and neat boots kept in good repair.
The family present in Young Street were three sons and five daughters. The eldest child lived away from the family, she being wife to one of the Black Coopers. The second and third daughters, Charlotte and Mary, were fair young women, but the best-looking of them all was Mayday, wife of the eldest son, Bill. She was a true Romany beauty, with her mass of shining hair, russet and bright as a fox’s tail in love-time, and her slanting eyes of grey-green, set above her firm coralline cheeks glowing with the rich red blood that fed her flesh.
Joe, in his early teens, was the keeper of his family’s horses; horses being his great love. He possessed a goodly knowledge of farrier’s medicine, concerning which we had many interesting talks together. The lad carried around with him a sack of various herbs: green broom-tops as a worm cure, to be given fasting; mallow leaves and comfrey to draw and heal festering sores and cure wounds; coltsfoot for coughs, and bran for poulticing, in addition to its use as a tonic and laxative. Wounds he plugged with handfuls of cobwebs taken from the hedgerows, and sprinkled their raw surfaces with black pepper to act as a disinfectant. The lad was sweet-natured, though aged in the face and over-grave for his young years. He wore a soldier’s discarded jacket for his habitual clothing, and kept his yellow hair cut in long side-chops and plastered with grease over his forehead. When I asked him what he wanted from life, he replied very surely: to be left in peace to travel the country with his horses, nothing more. “I’se glad to be a Gypsy, out in the fields, ridin’ and keepin’ the griaws (horses), that’s good enough fer me, nothin’ coud be better, nothing I’se heard tell of.”
“That’s true, Joe. Out of the fields with the animals is the good life and always has been.”
The youngest son, George, was the clown of the family; they said that he might go into a circus one day. A thin, bloodless, rickety limbed, midget lad, notable for his grimacing – but very likeable – pathetic face, and a wonderously supple body, which enabled him to contort himself into many fantastic shapes. He could pull very funny, high laughter-provoking, clown faces and sing comic jingles. He was further a skilled step-dancer, in Gypsy style, and gave exciting performances to the accompaniment of his brother Bill’s accordion.
The remainder of the family were girls, all flaxen-haired and very prim. In their neatness, and because of the old expression on their young faces, they much reminded me of the Smith family of the New Forest, with whom I had worked one summer through in the strawberry fields. The youngest child, Minny, was the strongest-willed infant whom I have ever met. All of the girls, from the eldest to the youngest, with the exception of Mayday, had soaped their hair into Gypsy flat curls for the benefit of my second visit and to gain my admiration; and the golden curls looked like many rows of sovereigns resting on the pale brows.
Other Gypsies said of the White Will family: “They are so white.” And white indeed they were.
Much has been written concerning the general ill health of the modern Gypsy in England, and there is truth in such reports; especially concerning the rapid incidence of tuberculosis amongst them; although in other lands the Gypsies have retained well their traditional splendid health and general ruggedness. Less than fifty years ago W. H. Hudson, the naturalist writer, was praising greatly the health of the English Gypsies, commenting on their imperviousness to wet and cold, and declaring that he had never seen a Gypsy with a cold, aching bones or indigestion. It is the modern degenerate diet which is bringing disease to the English Romanies, also their increasing poverty under present-day regimented life. Once the Gypsies had lived upon wheaten bread or porridge made often enough from flour from field gleanings, beaten out and then crushed between stones; field vegetables and herbs, and flesh of the wilding animals, such as rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, and badgers and the larger birds and river fish. Now all has become controlled and protected, the poor no longer are able to glean the fields – the farmer’s poultry is put there to clean up all the fallen grain – and the wild animals are strictly preserved or ar largely vanished due to the increasing interference of man in the wild places of the countryside. The present-day diet of the Gypsies is as degenerate as that of the gawje, with the basic element of white-flour bread, gas-treated and mineral-depleted; blue pasteurized, lifeless milk; frozen butcher’s meat; and vegetables made internally foul with chemical manuring of the earth, and fruits poison-sprayed.
However, many Romany families known to me endeavour to seek out the natural foods, as I too seek them; brook water, wild herbs and berries, fruits from old orchards where modern farming methods of insect control, with poison and gas have not yet found entry, and stone-ground brown flour, and farm milk raw and natural. Such Gypsies have retained the powerful health of their race, and are ruddy of face and strong and swift of limb, and totally resistant to the wet and cold of the English climate.
I think with the White Will family that it was their staple diet of white bread and potatoes that gave to their faces such whiteness despite the burn of the sun and the blow of the wind: for they were a weathered family, and would sit out around their fire even when snow was falling.