The Story of a Tent and its Gypsy Maker

4 minute read

This beautiful and detailed model of a tent, about 70 cm in height, constructed of wooden poles with a canvas top, and complete with three different fabric pillows and tiny, embroidered, lace-edged blankets, dates to 1931. It was made by a Mrs Green of Little Sandhurst, Berkshire, at the request of Ivor H. N. Evans, who later gave it to MAA. 

Model of a tent made of sticks inserted into board. The tent has a high peak with cloth rolled up to form an entrance, is carpeted with lace-trimmed red cloth. The tent also has three pillows and four rectangles of cloth, one of which has a floral pattern and purple edging.

Figure 1. Model of a tent. Collected by Ivor H. N. Evans at Little Sandhurst, Kent in 1931. MAA 1931.895.1-8.

But who was Mrs Green, and why did Evans, a British anthropologist and museum curator best known for his work in Southeast Asia, commission this item from her?

A woman wearing a blouse and skirt stands with one of her hands on her hips. She has also tied a scarf around her neck, and is possibly wearing a necklace. Her hair is braided and tied up. Behind her are some buildings.

Figure 2. Mrs Green (née Lee) of Little Sandhurst. Little Sandhurst, Kent, England. Photograph by Ivor H. N. Evans c. 1928. SMGC Evans PF.23. Image credit: The University of Liverpool Library.

In his unpublished memoir, The Years Behind Me (1948), Evans describes how he purchased the model from Mrs Green. He says she was very pleased with her work, telling him, And now all it wants is a dear little kettle‘. He photographed it in the front garden of a house, possibly Mrs Green’s cottage. 

Interior of a model tent. The structure is made of sticks inserted into board and the cloth is rolled up to form an entrance. The tent is carpeted with lace-trimmed red cloth and there is a metal brazier in the centre.

Figure 3. Model Gypsy tent with chimney made by Mrs Green (née Lee). Little Sandhurst, Kent, England. Photograph by Ivor H. N. Evans 1931. SMGC Evans PF.46. Image credit: The University of Liverpool Library.

Evans recorded that Mrs Green based her model on the actual tent where her elderly relative, a Mr Lee, lived in the garden behind the cottage. Both of them were English Gypsies and very familiar with life on the road, although Mrs Green had married a gorgio (a non-Gypsy man) and settled in a conventional house. 

A tent supported on a few large wooden sticks. A large cloth has been wrapped around the sticks. The top has been left open, and functions as a chimney. Behind the tent are some bushes and a building.

Figure 4. Tent with chimney at Mrs Green’s cottage. Little Sandhurst, Kent, England. Photograph by Ivor H. N. Evans c. 1928. SMGC Evans PF.42. Image credit: The University of Liverpool Library.

These photographs are among the very large collection of images of British Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people which Evans made in the 1920s and 30s. In 1938 he gave them all to the Gypsy Lore Society, whose archives are now in the care of the University of Liverpool Library. 

Born and educated in Cambridge, Evans was a regular collector of objects for MAA (to which he also gave several hundred lantern slides, prints, and photographic negatives during his lifetime). In 1925 he had donated to MAA a knife with an antler blade, made by a Gypsy man in Overcote, Cambridgeshire, and in 1928, a set of wooden clothes pegs made by an un-named Gypsy woman from Hampshire. 

Eleven single, roughly cylindrical pieces of wood which have been split up the middle. A metal collar circles the top of the slit. There is also a splinter of wood used in bundling them together.

Figure 5. Eleven wooden clothes pegs. Collected by Ivor H. N. Evans at Blackwater, Hampshire in 1928. MAA 1928.750.1012. 

In collecting these seemingly mundane and ordinary objects for the museum, Evans preserved  an aspect of rural Britain in the 1930s, when many Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people camped near the farms where they worked as itinerant labourers, and made items such as these willow clothes pegs to sell door-to-door during lean winter months when paid work was scarce.  

Evans himself is best known as a scholar of the people and cultures of Southeast Asia, and the vast majority of the objects, books, and photographs that he collected for MAA are from that region. However, he also had a longstanding interest in the culture and heritage of British Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers. Growing up in Cambridgeshire in the early 1900s, he was surrounded by these communities – the East of England still has one of the largest Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller populations in the UK.  At the time of Evans’ upbringing, there was an increased interest in these communities following the success of George Borrow’s novels Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857), both of which narrate the tale of a young Englishman dropping out of London society to become a traveller. In his memoir, Evans recounts that reading these novels ‘blew my long-smouldering ambition to know something more of the Gypsies to a blaze’ (The Years Behind Me, p. 138).

An old man in a shirt and a pair of glasses is holding a toddler up in his hands. The man is smiling and looking towards the child, and the child is looking towards the camera, though not directly at it. Behind them is a wicker chair, and a stand with a hanging plant pot.

Figure 6. Ivor Evans with a baby. No place recorded, 1940s-50s? SMGC1/2 PX Gypsiologist/Evans. Image credit: The University of Liverpool Library.

He became a member of the Gypsy Lore Society, a scholarly body founded in England in 1888. From the late 1920s until 1957, the year of his death, he published regular notes and reports in the Society’s Journal, on topics as diverse as Romani philology and Gypsy family histories.  

This writing was very much grounded in personal encounters. Every time Evans returned to England on leave from British North Borneo, where he was stationed, he took road trips around the countryside, with his Malay servant and lifelong companion Din Bin Brahim, searching for Gypsy/Traveller encampments. He engaged in conversations with people from these communities, collecting words and stories in the Romani language, recording snippets of their histories, and making a large collection of photographs of individual people and groups. Sometimes he encountered Gypsy people who shared his own enthusiasm for fishing in lakes and rivers, and Evans developed a strong friendship with several individuals.  

In Malaysia, he was particularly drawn to ethnic minorities and wrote extensively about the Orang Asli people – nomads and semi-nomads living mainly in forest areas and often ignored by the mainstream population. Perhaps in Evans’s mind there were similarities between the Orang Asli and the British Gypsies/Travellers who have similarly faced marginalisation and discrimination.  

In 1938, on the Gypsy Lore Society’s 50th anniversary, Evans gifted to them his entire collection of lantern slides and negatives relating to Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities simultaneously presenting his photographs of East and Southeast Asia to MAA. The former, including Evans’s photos and some correspondences are now in the care of the University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives, with a small collection of objects, including the tent and clothes pegs being looked after in Cambridge by MAA.  

Comments

  1. Katrina says:

    So wonderful to see the historic photo of the model tent where it was made, and also a photo of the maker Mrs Green! Thank you.

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