Were Gypsies in Your Family Tree?

My Ancestors were Gypsies. By Sharon Sillers Floate. Softbound (2010), 118 pp., indexed, £8.99. Published by Society of Genealogists Enterprises Ltd, 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA England.

Review by James Pylant


“There is a long-standing belief in family history circles that if you ever discover you have Gypsy ancestry,” writes Sharon Sillers Floate, “you might as well abandon your research immediately.” The British journalist, who learned of her own Gypsy ancestry in the 1980s, disproves that notion in the pages of her book, My Ancestors were Gypsies.Gypsy, commonly used to describe the Romani people, is sometimes viewed as a slur, though many Romani groups use it as part of their official organizational name. It’s also still a legal term under English law. They are believed to have originated a thousand years ago in Rjasthan in North West India.

My Ancestors were Gypsies is an excellent research guide for records in Britain, where they Romani first arrived by the dawn of the sixteenth century. The earliest known reference in England is found in an inquest in 1514, when a witness told of an “Egyptian” woman renown for her ability as a palm reader.

Among the telltale clues of possible Romani ancestry in Britain, says author Floate, are traditional Gypsy surnames, such as Boswell, Cooper, Smith, and Lee, though she points out that these names are also quite common among the non-Gypsy British. Floate includes a list of more than one hundred Romani surnames throughout England as well as regional concentrations. Other signs of a possible Romani forbearer are unusual first names, typical occupations, and evidence of a nomadic life (hence their being called “Travellers”). An important role in research is the understanding of culture and customs, which the author does well in a chapter on marriage, extended family groups, naming customs, occupations, and settlements. “Gypsies are one of the few racial groups or societies in history to have practised ‘matriliny’ and ‘matrilocality,'” says Floate, describing terms where a man joined his wife’s family upon marriage.

A chapter guides researchers through Romani research using conventional genealogical sources, while another is devoted to special sources for the Gypsy family historian. She has also provided an important timeline in British history affecting the Romani, as well as a bibliography, and a list of publications about specific Gypsy surnames, useful addresses, online sources, and a glossary.

My Ancestors were Gypsies (My Ancestor Series) is also available from Amazon.com (affiliate link).

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