Friday, 24 September 2010

A Gipsy Funeral in Mitcham

In my attempt to delve deeper into some of the material in The Folklore of London I have recently tried to do a little more research into a colourful funeral that took place in Mitcham. This is what I originally wrote for the book in the unedited version (pp.42-43 after editing) – with some fresh authorial comments in brackets:

‘Gipsy funerals can be spectacular affairs. One of the most impressive took place in 1911 in the old churchyard of the Mitcham Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul [pictured above], for the burial of Sophie Kirpatsh, a Galatian gipsy princess who had lived on nearby Hilly Fields. [Galicia generally refers to the eastern half of the former Austrian province of Galacia – Galizien –the terms ‘Galicia’ and ‘Galacia’ are often interchanged; it is currently divided between Poland and the Ukraine] The Galatians, dressed in Cossack-style boots, bore her coffin to the church, with mourners walking both in front of and behind the coffin. Before being lowered into the ground the coffin was opened, displaying the corpse dressed in her finest clothes, with a necklace made of coins and a massive silver belt. The coffin also contained a piece of soap, a towel, a mallet and a flask of water – mourners dropped money into it as they danced around the grave, their faces plastered with mud, as was traditional.

Many of the mourners were coppersmiths from Eastern Europe – after the coffin had been lowered into the ground they poured rum onto it and drank some themselves, returning three days later to pour beer on the grave. Nine days after the funeral a feast was held and it was expected that a similar ceremony would be observed at the end of three, six and twelve months. It was also reported that on the day after the funeral an irate local licensee asked the verger if he could borrow a pick and shovel in order to open the coffin and remove some of the valuable contents, as compensation for alcohol consumed by the mourners and not paid for. Permission was not granted. The original iron headstone in the shape of a cross within a circle was inscribed ‘SOPHY’. According to a report written in 1978, the grave could still be seen beside the church, surrounded by railings and covered with a thick concrete slab, which had apparently helped thwart two attempts to rob the grave of its treasures. [Sources used were T. W. Thompson ‘The Ceremonial Customs of the British Gipsies’ Folklore, Vol. 24 No. 3. (1913), pp. 314-356, p.351 and London Folklore Group ‘Two Gypsy Funerals: Mitcham, 1912’ London Lore Vol. 1 Part 1 March 1978 p.7]

I could not find the time when writing the book to visit the churchyard and an email I sent to the church regarding the grave slab was never answered. A few weeks ago I finally managed to take a walk around Mitcham on a lovely sunny morning, during which I visited the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul. The church itself was locked, but I had a good look at the tombstones in the near vicinity of the building, searching in particular for any surrounded by railings; unfortunately I couldn’t find anything that fitted the description given above.

However, a search of Ancestry has revealed the registration of the death of a Sophie Karpatch at Epsom, Surrey in the period October-December 1911. Her age was given as 27 with a date of birth c.1884. As there are now more newspapers available to search online than there were even three years ago I have found two interesting articles from the Daily Mirror and Daily Express from October 1911 which provide us with more information and show that it was an important news story at the time:

Daily Mirror 14th October 1911 p.4

Strange Ceremonies Precede Burial Of Chief's Daughter

Clad in a scarlet dress, with new boots on her feet and her hair decorated with jewels and ribbons, Sophy Tchriron, daughter of the chief of the Hungarian gipsies encamped at Mitcham, lies dead in Carshalton Cottage Hospital. For some months past over 200 Hungarian and Bulgarian gipsies have lived at Beddington Corner, earning a peaceable living as coppersmiths and metalworkers. Tragedy has come upon them, for the chief's daughter - to them a princess of the blood - was taken suddenly ill early this week and has since died at the Carshalton Cottage Hospital. Picturesque and pathetic incidents have followed the passing away of Sophy, who was a good-looking young woman of twenty-seven.

When she felt sick the Hungarian Embassy was notified and a doctor was sent to her. But all he could do was to have her taken immediately to the hospital. Suffering from pneumonia, together with bloodpoisoning, she was conveyed to the infirmary, followed by men and women of the tribe. She objected to be put in a bed. "I have never slept in a bed," she said. When in bed Sophy begged for her pipe, as all the tribe—men, women and children—are smokers. She was allowed to smoke, and this eased her for some time. But, despite every attention that could he given her, she died early on the following morning. A messenger was sent to the camp bearing the sad news. Rushing from the camp came the dead woman's husband, her father and relations down to the hospital. Tchriron, the husband, on reaching the door of the hospital, grovelled on the ground and ate a handful of mud. He had to be restrained by his friends from eating more mud - a sign of intense grief and misery. The dead woman's father, bent on his knees, moaned pitifully.

For some hours this went on until the gipsies had to be firmly but gently turned away. Later in the day came twelve women of the camp dressed in scarlet with red muslin over their hair and decked out with ornaments. They carried with them three dresses, jewellery and ribbons to prepare the body of Sophy for burial. This ceremony took some time, the dead woman's hair being specially plaited and entwined with jewels. They were making their dead princess as gay and rich-looking as possible, according to their beliefs. Throughout this solemn ceremony all the women, curiously enough, smoked pipes and cigarettes, and even when they were moaning rarely forgot to smoke.

Then one of the men of the tribe arrived, carrying a new pair of boots he had just bought. These boots were placed on the deceased's feet to make her last journey more easy and comfortable. When The Daily Mirror yesterday visited the camp of the Hungarians the chief was very, solemnly hammering a copper bowl, while in the tents the women, wearing scarlet headdresses, were sitting on the ground mourning for their dead princess. Little children were sitting in groups, and almost all of them were smoking. A little girl of seven was solemnly puffing a cigarette, while a boy of the same age was smoking a pipe. All the tribe will attend the funeral.

Daily Express
Monday 16th October 1911 p.5

The funeral of Sophie Karpath, daughter of the chief of the Galician gipsies who are encamped near Mitcham, took place, at Mitcham Cemetery on Saturday amid quaint and picturesque rites. For twenty-four hours before the funeral the girl's body lay in state, clad in three new dresses, the outer one of scarlet. A silver girdle was round her waist, and strings of red coral and rows of gold coins were displayed about her corsage. There were rings on her fingers, gold earrings in her ears, and a necklace of twelve 100-franc pieces around her neck. Many jewels wore woven into her hair.

Soap and a comb were put into the coffin in order that she might have the wherewithal to make her toilette before entering into the Celestial Kingdom, and over all was thrown a cover of fine lace. The service was that of the Roman Catholic Church, and on the return of the mourners ashes, to represent the body, were placed in a hollow in the ground. Over these the tribe gathered, and there was much wailing and many mystic prayers.

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