Welsh Gypsies
notes on a talk by Mrs Garnon James JP

Welsh Gypsies was the subject that Mrs Mair Garnon James spoke about with great authority to forty members in March 1998. This delightful lady from St Dogmaels came to the Museum and gave one of the most intriguing talks we have had the pleasure of listening to for some time.

The Romanies (the proper gypsies as opposed to tinkers and the like) were extremely territorial, rather like the garden robin, and in Pembrokeshire, when our speaker was a little girl, the Lovells were the leading family of gypsies in the County. If you think the name familiar - look no further than Lovells sweets. The real gypsies always had a reason for everything they did. In St Dogmaels the Romanies visited twice a year in July and November. The village nestles at the base of a narrow rift valley which in those days supported a substantial growth of the short season 'llysion duon bach', which we call winberries, blueberries or bilberries. The gypsies came to harvest this free crop at the same time of the month every year. In November they would return to poach salmon from a tributary of the Teifi as the fish returned from the sea for the second time to reach their spawning grounds. Of course poaching, like trespassing to get to the river, was illegal, and if caught and convicted a custodial sentence was always the outcome. However, it had to be proved that the perpetrator was over 18 years of age, otherwise he could not be charged with the offence in the first place. All Romany children underwent a total immersion baptism and were later christened in a church, not once, but many times as they moved from place to place. It was quite common for the child's name to change as it grew up and each time it was christened another certificate would be issued. What is interesting; each certificate only displayed the date of the christening not the date of birth of the child. These certificates were kept safely and when a young man was accused of poaching the chances were he could prove, albeit by implication, that he was less than eighteen. So provided his real 18th birthday had not passed by too many
years, which would show up in his physical appearance, he would get away with it. By all accounts the gypsies believed, conveniently of course, that all God's gifts were there for the taking - who do uncultivated wild fruits belong to and who owns the fish in the sea?

Oddly enough the Romanies had a very strict code of conduct under which they lived and a simple yet harsh judicial system to back it up. The worst crime, seemingly, was for one Romany to tell a lie to another (this only applied to themselves of course). The punishment was threefold. The guilty party was tightly surrounded by the elders of the families and lectured on his misdeed for about an hour. Then a second, larger circle of family members spat on the poor soul as a mark of disgust at his behaviour. Finally the very large outer circle, made up entirely of women, who would have cut 'switches' from the nearest hedgerow and their function, as you might suspect, was to give the victim a sound thrashing. Needless to say first time offenders were few and second time offenders simply didn't exist,

Unresolved disagreements were sorted out in boxing/wrestling matches with a proper referee. The two Romanies having differences didn't have to fight themselves but could nominate their particular champion, of which there were many willing to offer their services. In those days boxing and wrestling was a way of making money in the many fairground fighting booths which were popular at the time. The fight would be staged and before either combatant suffered any serious injury the referee would declare the winner - decision final. The two people with their difference would shake hands and the matter would never be spoken of again. If it was however, they would suffer the same fate as the lie teller.

The Romanies were very clean people and every caravan contained three bowls used exclusively for washing clothes, dishes and self. Medicines consisted of a small lead lined box containing salt and another containing mouldy straw which was their only treatment for open wounds. Food and particularly diet was always the problem and some months were worse than others. 'Mis Draenog' (the month of the hedgehog) is what they called October. As I said there is a reason for everything, in this case in late October the hedgehog was ready for hibernation and therefore had fattened himself up for the long sleepy winter ahead. For the Romany a plump hedgehog was a delicacy to look forward to, baked 'en croute' in mud on an open fire. In Welsh February is sometimes called Mis Bach - the little month. The Romanies called it Mis Bach Du - the little black month literally, but it really described a miserable month between winter and spring where nothing grew and food was scarce.

It was obviously a very hard life, lived by an illiterate people who could not read or write yet had their own language, history and culture which was passed down through the generations. They were able to leave messages for each other, as shown bordering this article. They were skilled musicians and dancers and had an amazing affinity with horses. It is said that if a farmer went to a Romany with a horse which was sick, the animal would either be completely cured or the farmer would be told to destroy it - usually it was the former by all accounts. The descendants of these canny, yet unlikely horse experts, are still to be found in some of the horse trading centres of Wales such as Llanybyther where their knowledge of horseflesh is legendary.

Reproduced from THE FRIEND April 1998