Thomas Hearne and four generations of his family at Notting Dale
NOTTING DALE GYPSIES By Mary Horner (nee HEARN)
Having read George Borrow’s “Romano-Lav Lil” in search of clues to my HEARN Gypsy ancestors, I was aware that during the 1840s-1860s, Gypsies (some of them Hearns’) began to frequent a district in North Kensington, London, called Notting Dale and known as “The Potteries”. By 1862, some 40-50 families were thought to pitch tents and vans nearby, for which they paid a few shillings a week rent.
Some of my HEARNs’ wintered at Notting Dale and eventually lived there, and an extremely fruitful visit to Kensington & Chelsea library where many Gypsy records are held, proved for me a revelation.
Originally recorded in 1780 as a brickfield of yellow clay covering some seventeen acres, it was first inhabited by brick workers and poor families, many of whom presumably worked at the Pottery. Infamous at the time for squalid conditions in which the unfortunate people lived, the area is well documented. Pig-farmers who also shared the locality, added to the foul surroundings. Over the years, although some of what was written was probably true, eminent writers and newspaper reporters published quite scathing accounts of the occupants and their lives?
Maybe because of the area’s bad reputation, little record of the objects produced by the pottery itself appears to have survived, but the Gypsies who stopped or settled there, were often singled out and caused much interest for various reasons. Quite beautiful sketches and illustrations depicting Gypsy camps of tents and vans are accompanied by articles which make no attempt to disguise the writers’ contempt and intolerance of the Gypsies. Extracts from one article alone in the Illustrated London News of 1870 describes Gypsies so:-
• “Parasites of civilisation” – and – “Roadside Arabs”
• “In many instances they live like pigs and die like dogs”
• “Upon the shoulders of the women rests the responsibility of providing for the herds of ditch-dwelling heathens”
• “Every other abomination that low cunning craft, backed by ignorance and idleness can devise, they practice”
• “Education Acts not being sufficiently strong to lay hold of the dirty, idle travelling tribes to educate them”
Charles Dickens writing in 1850 depicted The Potteries as "A plague-ridden spot, scarcely equalled in it’s insalubrity as any other in London". But I found that not all accounts of Gypsy contact were derogatory. George Borrow for instance, when referring to visits he made to the area in 1863, gives graphic descriptions of living conditions and of the “True Romanies” he met there.
In 1864, Borrow named Thomas Hearne “The Gypsy Father of London”, While Florence Gladstone described him as “The Patriarch of the tribe, known as the King of the Gypsies". She also tells us, that he was “A picturesque old man with the regular Gypsy name of Hearne, who had fought through the Napoleonic Wars".
I learnt that HEARN survivors of the Hadlow disaster settled in The Potteries in 1854, as did other Gypsy families for many years despite the prospect of a miserable existence which, more often than not, resulted in ill-health or early death.
Nearby, affluent property owners constantly pressed for the eradication of the site, but it was not until 1870, following an outbreak of Scarlet Fever, that it was finally closed by the Local Authority. The Gypsies were turned off the ground, some moved on, but others were compulsorily settled in houses close by. Change, however, could not have come rapidly, for in 1903 Charles Booth states that some inhabitants of the district were “Criminal and irreclaimable”, although not all the people were considered bad. Often because of misfortune and circumstance, many decent families were forced to live in the area, which quite clearly was decrepit, neglected and disease-ridden, poor sanitation being considered the cause of much ill-health. Reverend George Hall was a regular visitor, and in 1915 he wrote that “All around Latimer Road Station, which stands upon The Potteries, Gypsies are to be found living in narrow courts and dingy lanes”.
After the First World War, Gypsies assembled at nearby Wormwood Scrubbs whenever there happened to be a fair. Mark Hearn “Who travels around Harrow” (? My 3 x g.grandfather), is one of the many Hearns’ recorded as attending a Whit Fair at The Scrubbs.
But old habits die hard, and despite the horrific picture painted over the years by newspapers, academics and researchers, it appears that for decades after the demise of The Potteries, travelling folk still regarded the area as a traditional stopping place. My own family eventually settled close-by at Chiswick and I have photographs to prove that they were clean, hard-working people, nothing like the stories reported in newspapers at the time - so nothing much has changed!! Here are just two of my female ancestors who lived at Notting Dale - judge for yourself!!
Comfort HEARN Mary-Ann HEARN (nee Smith)