There are some women in history that I really wish I could meet and Granny Boswell, Gypsy Queen, would be one of them.
Granny Boswell was of course not always a granny, Ann Boswell was born in 1813. She and her husband, Ephraim, locally known as the King of the Gypsies, are said to have come from Tipperary, Ireland.
In 1861 however she gave birth to the first of her six children in a tent on Kirland Road, Bodmin. I know this because Ann and Ephraim had their new daughter, Love Unity Boswell, baptised and the circumstances of the family were recorded in the register. This is quite strange by the way, Ann appears to be in her later 40s when her children are born, not impossible but very unusual.
Ann and Ephraim were gypsies and made their living on the move, Ephraim was at times a labourer or a cane worker and at others a cabinet maker. When family settled in Helston Ann soon became a bit of a celebrity. She was considered the local Wise-Woman and people went to her for advice, curses and charms. (A curative bag of black spiders on your bedpost was just the thing apparently.)
Ann was a diminutive 5’1″ tall, had a wicked tongue and a taste for drink, a story confirmed by the Bodmin Prison Register which has Ann imprisoned on at least 3 occasions for being drunk. (I might add that this took place while she was in her 80s/90s and just for 7 days at a time.)
But there is however one story about her which I just love.
In around 1906 Ann was leaving a pub in Helston one day when a motor-car, perhaps the first she had seen, was coming down the high-street. Ann was fascinated and stepped out into its path to get a closer look. The driver, agitated by the old woman blocking his route, rudely sounded his horn. Ann was furious and brought forth a torrent of abuse, cursing the man and his vehicle, saying they would never make it out of Helston. By all accounts the car only made it to the end of the road before breaking down, eventually it had to be towed away by horses.
In recent years the Boswell family of gypsies have featured in the popular BBC series Peaky Blinders. In the story Madame Bethany Boswell is a wise old gypsy woman living in Wales and Birdie Boswell was said to be Polly Shelby’s mother. After the death of his wife Tommy Shelby consults Madame Boswell about a cursed gem stone.
There is no suggestion of any direct connection with Granny Boswell and Cornwall but the show illustrates that the Boswell’s were at one time one of the largest travelling families in Britain. Though in many ways disconnected from regular society – the Gorgias as the gypsy folk call us – their legacy lives on in popular culture today.