FLOWER-MAKING by Amy Smith
My cousin Rose and I used to visit Granny Light when she lived in a big yard with the rest of her family in Walthamstow, and that was where our grandfather had rows of caravans for all his family to live in. They were all into logs, chickens, rabbits and pigs and they had a big vegetable patch at the back of the yard.
Many things are written about Gypsies, but one myth you can disregard is that they were all thieves, because they were not. They had a strong affinity to God and his land. I remember we were all taught to be good, clean and honest and to use the gifts God gave us, and believe me every one of us had a special talent. One of them was making flowers from wood, weeds, wax and cloth. My Granny taught me all there was to know about making lovely velvet and satin roses and poppies that were the fashion over 200 years ago. We made the petals by stretching the material over a mushroom shaped darning pad, like a pestle and mortar that’s used for crushing herbs.
Our biggest income was from making fire logs and fire wood, but we also made a good living from plants and imitation flowers. My cousin Rachel married a George Gumble and we became good friends. She taught me all about wooden chrysanthemums’, how to make and dye them and how to make wax blossom sprays on cherry branches. They were breath-takingly lovely.
When we’d made up a big batch, I’d go to a rather well-to-do area with Rachel, who was well liked by lots of her customers, and we’d sell them door-to-door. I remember we made so much money in one day, it would have taken a week to earn another way. Once, I was asked into a house with Rachael and a butler looked after us. We had tea and hot scones from a trolley, all silver tea-pots and lovely china cups.
In 1939, Granny Elizabeth Light lived in Oatland Rise, almost opposite our house, and my cousin Rose and I used to visit Gran on Sundays. Rose’s dad, Uncle Jim, would be there and he would play the piano and try to teach Rose and me lots of lovely old step-dance tunes. We’d have a dance as well, but I wasn’t too good with the dancing. Rose was a smasher, she could out-dance all my other cousins. Rose stayed at Gran’s and I would sit with them listening to all the lovely stories she
told us of the days when they all met at Barnet Fair with horses, pegs and flowers to sell.
Uncle Jim made wooden chrysanthemums’ and his brothers, Charlie and Sam, would dye them different colours and use some sprayed privet or laurel leaves them with and they looked real. Gran had a stall with my Aunt Rachel and they sold them from there as well as from lots of pubs. My mum made roses and carnations from crepe paper and wired them onto privet. She had a Pedlar’s Licence to sell them from a pub doorstep in Edmonton and outside Manzies Eel, Pie and Mash shop in Walthamstow High Street.
As we grew up, we all learned how to make flowers from crepe paper, wax and lawn, all cut out to shape by hand, mostly roses, carnations and poppies. One time Granny Light came home with a new idea, I think Aunt Emily discovered them; they were crepe paper orchids with glue and glitter veined through the petals. I was then about seven years old and I had to help Emily do them, then we put seven in a triangle, they looked so lovely. They sold out so quick that we had to help Gran make so many every week, she only took them to sell on a Saturday. Because her flowers sold so well, Emily, her youngest, never had to go out to work when she left school and was dressed in satin and furs, if you had clothes like that then - it was like, wow! She seemed to me just like a film star. Anyway no one in the family could copy those orchids and believe me they
were famous for a long time.
My Mum and Gran used to go to Covent Garden every week for the green foliage and lavender to bunch up and sell with their flowers. Mum never went out selling with Gran, she never used a market stall, only a chair in the pub doorway. One Saturday I let her take my baby Christine in a sling and she came home with a nice few coins for her.
I was about nineteen years old I think, when someone taught my mum how to mix silver & gold with the green from Covent Garden, they had a wonderful time that Christmas because it sold so well. Then everyone used it on its own to decorate.
What about the wax paper flowers? Yes – well we Gypsies have brains, my husband Arthur cracked it one day in our kitchen in Buxton Road, and he got the wax just right. We supplied two big exporters to Italy with grosses and grosses of waxed carnations. We would work all night after our girls were in bed, we had to just to keep up with the orders he got from the market. Then Aunt Rachel loaned me her stall and from there I sold all kinds of flowers. I learned how to make gladioli, lilies and peonies, all waxed or linen. I supplied nearly every furniture shop in Walthamstow and Tottenham, then
after four years we got our own licence for a stall pitch - and after that we never looked back!
SOPHIE LEGG - Romany Singer
Sophie Legg was a Romany singer who travelled England and Wales collecting and preserving traditional music. A native of Cornwall, she built up a good-sized collection of songs, some dating back to the 14th century, possibly even earlier, many being passed down by generations of her family.
Born in a tent in 1918 to Edwin and Susie Orchard, who were first cousins, the couple at first settled on some land near Saltash, but soon after went on the road in search of work. At first Edwin worked on a coconut shy, until he was approached to stand in for one of the prize fighters on a boxing booth. The boxing game paid so well, that after a while they could afford a brush wagon, so with a good vanner horse, they soon built up a regular round in North Cornwall, hawking brushes, wicker baskets, pots, pans, haberdashery and trinkets. By providing such a valuable service to outlying and remote villages, they were shielded from much of the usual prejudice that surrounded Gypsies. Many people also appreciated spontaneous performances they gave in pubs on their route, singing and step-dancing to the sounds of banjo and accordion.
During the winter they stopped in Launceston, where the children went to school and acquired a basic education. This was the family’s life until in the mid 1930’s, Edwin built a bungalow on some land he had bought in Launceston. Aged sixteen, this was the first time Sophie had slept in a house. Edwin, by this time 65 years of age, taught himself to drive, bought a car and a caravan which he towed, and found that trading rounds that used to take weeks, could be covered in a matter of days in a car.
One night Sophie saw a young electrician from Gloucester singing in a pub and fell in love with both George Legg, and his singing, and they married in Launceston in 1939. Following the 2nd World War, George and Sophie moved into one of seven terraced houses in Bodmin, the remaining six eventually being taken by extended members of the family, until the street became known locally as Orchard Terrace. From then on regular Romany singsongs by the extended family were held in the houses.
In 1978 Sophie, by then aged 60, and her sisters Charlotte and Betsy, aged 77 and 78, were persuaded into a recording studio, each laying down single tracks. For some reason, much to the regret of Gypsy scholars, the album entitled “Catch Me If You Can: Songs from Cornish Travellers”, did not include any sung in Romany. Sophie had two children, one of whom is Victor Legg, (A member of Romany Road), who continues his mother’s musical tradition in Bodmin. Three months before her death in June 2007, Sophie asked her son to take down the words of every verse from her version of The Wild Colonial Boy and The Golden Vanity.