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Gypsy Folk Tales, by Francis Hindes Groome, [1899], at

Campbell of Islay

In the Saturday Review for 22nd August 1856 was an article by, I fancy, Grenville Murray, the 'Roving Englishman,' on Alexandri's Ballades et Chants Populaires de la Roumanie, where allusion is made to 'the long-haired Gypsies who wander about in their snowy tunics and bright sashes, the ῥαψῷδοι of Moldo-Wallachia, as in Russia their brethren are the popular musicians.' But our earliest account of actual Gypsy folk-tales occurs in vol. iv. p. 431 of Popular Tales of the West Highlands, by J. F. Campbell of Islay (4 vols. Edinburgh, 1860-62). That eminent collector 'picked up two gipsy tinkers in London--William and Soloman Johns. 1 They came to the office after hours, and were treated to beer and tobacco. Present, the author of Norse Tales [Sir George Dasent]. They were rather hard to start, but, when once set agoing, they were fluent. One brother was very proud of the other, who plays the fiddle by ear, and is commonly sent for to wakes, where he entertains the company with stories. He gave us: (1) A ghost, which appeared to himself. Finding that he was on the wrong track, told him a popular tale which I had got from another tinker in London, "The Cutler and Tinker." Got (2) "The Lad and the Dancing Pigs." This is the same as the "Mouse and Bee," and has something of "Hacon Grizzlebeard." A version of it was told to me by Donald MacPhie in South Uist. It is one of the few indecent stories which I have heard in the Highlands. There are adventures with a horse, a lion, and a fox, which the London tinker had not got. It savours of the wit which is to be found in Straparola. (No. 3) A sailor and others by the help of a magic blackthorn stick, go to three underground castles

p. xlvi

of copper, silver, and gold, and win three princesses. Same as "The King of Lochlin's Daughters" [i. 236] and "The Knight of Grianaig" [iii. 1], and several stories in Norse Tales and Grimm. (No. 4) "The Five Hunchbacks." This story was quite new to both of us, but a version of it was subsequently found in a book of Cruikshank's. The tinker's version was much better. (No. 5) A long and very well told story of a Jew, in which there figured a magic strap, hat, etc. Same as "Big and Little Peter," "Eoghan Tuarach" [ii. 235], a story in Straparola, etc. [cf. my No. 68]. (No. 6) "The Art of Doctoring"--dirty wit. (No. 7) Poor student and black man travel, dig up dead woman, make fire in church, steal sheep, clerk and parson take black man for fiend and bolt. Very well told. See "Goosey Grizzle" and several Gaelic versions. (No. 8) Poor student, parson, and man with cat, which was the fiend in disguise. Well told; new to both of us. The men said that they knew a great many more; that they could neither read nor write; that they picked these up at wakes and other meetings, where such tales are commonly told in England now.'

I hoped that the Campbell MSS. in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, might yield some further notes on these eight folk-tales; but a search, instituted in 1888 through the kindness of Mr. Clark, the librarian, proved ineffectual. Of all unlikely places in the world for a professional story-teller, London seems the unlikeliest; the heroine, it may be remembered, of Mr. Hardy's Hand of Ethelberta prides herself on the absolute novelty of the notion. What is almost more surprising is that two folklorists like Campbell and Dasent should have struck so precious a vein, and not followed it up. Whatever the source of these stories, Gypsy, Irish, or English, they were distinctly valuable, and their value was enhanced by the meagreness forty years ago of the folk-tales collected in England. 1 But it is quite possible that one or other of the two brothers may still be living (he need not be seventy). At least any folklorist could probably find this out at the Potteries, Notting Hill, on Mitcham Common, or in some other of the Gypsyries in or round London.

Again in vol. i. p. xlvii., Campbell tells how in February 1860 he

p. xlvii

met two tinkers in St James's Street, with black faces and a pan of burning coals each. They were followed by a wife, and preceded by a mangy terrier with a stiff tail. I joined the party, and one told me a version of "The Man who travelled to learn what Shivering meant," while we walked together through the park to Westminster. It was clearly the popular tale which exists in Norse, and German, and Gaelic, and it bore the stamp of the class, and of the man, who told it in his own peculiar dialect, and who dressed the actors in his own ideas. A cutler and a tinker travel together, and sleep in an empty house for a reward. They are beset by ghosts and spirits of murdered ladies and gentlemen; and the inferior, the tinker, shows most courage, and is the hero. "He went into the cellar to draw beer, and there he found a little chap a-sittin’ on a barrel with a red cap on ’is ’ed; and sez he, sez he, 'Buzz.' 'Wot's buzz?' sez the tinker. 'Never you mind wot's buzz,' sez he. 'That's mine; don't you go for to touch it,'" etc. etc. etc.' [Cf. my No. 57, 'Ashypelt,' and No. 74, The Tale of the Soldier.' 1] In vol. ii. p. 285, Campbell adds that he was never able again to find this London tinker, who 'could not read the card which I gave him, with a promise of payment if he would come and repeat his stock of stories. His female companion, indeed, could both read the card and speak French. The whole lot seemed to suspect some evil design on my part; and I have never seen the one who told the story or the woman since, though I met their comrade afterwards.'

In enumerating the sources of his Gaelic stories (i. p. xxiv.), Campbell gives (a) a West Country fisherman; (b) an old dame of seventy; (c) a pretty lass; or (d) 'it is an old wandering vagabond of a tinker who has no roof but the tattered covering of his tent. . . . There he lies, an old man past eighty, who has been a soldier, and "has never seen a school"; too proud to beg, too old to work; surrounded by boxes and horn spoons; with shaggy hair and naked feet, as perfect a nomad as the wildest Lapp or Arab in the whole world.' etc. Campbell gives four stories of tinker origin, our Nos. 73-76. To them and to their tellers I shall revert in my Introduction.


xlv:1 Query, Solomon Jones? Jones I know for a real Gypsy surname.

xlvi:1 I take some little pride in having myself been a means of preserving two of our best--I had almost said, our only two really good--English folk-tales. These are 'Cap o’ Rushes' and 'Tom Tit Tot,' which were told by an old Suffolk servant to Miss Lois Fison when a child, and which she communicated to Nos. 23 and 43 of a series of 'Suffolk Notes and Queries,' edited by me for the Ipswich journal in 1876-77. Thence my friend, Mr. Clodd, unearthed them a dozen years afterwards; and on the latter he has just issued a masterly monograph.

xlvii:1 The London tinker's story, however, seems more closely to resemble 'The Claricaune' in Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (ed. by Thos. Wright, N.D. pp. 98-112).

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