John Clare and the Gypsies

John Clare and the Gypsies

John Clare, always a champion of the underprivileged, introduces us to the gypsy culture of his day and gives us a chance to hear a sample of traditional gypsy music.

John Clare’s Gypsies

Top photo —‘The Gypsy Encampment‘ by George Morland (1762-1804 English artist) — photo wikipedia

The Romantic artists’ paintings of gypsies portrayed picturesque scenes of camp fires in the woods surrounded by horses and gypsy families, but Clare takes us nearer to the real thing. He knew them well and visited them often sharing many common interests, learning from them and enjoying their music:

‘Thus they live, a picture to the place. A quiet, pilfering, unprotected race.’

(by ‘pilfering’ Clare means living off the landscape, foraging hedgerow and woods)

Itinerant Romany, don’t like being called gypsies. In the UK they call themselves Travellers. Originally from the Indian sub continent they are now spread all over the world.
Clare admired and envied the gypsies’ freedom to roam and their folk culture. They taught him how to play the fiddle and he filled two notebooks with a collection of songs/dances for the violin.

Black and white photo of old gypsy camp
Gypses in Wales 1953 – photo wikimedia

The Underprivileged

Claire, an outsider himself, was always concerned for the lonely figures in the landscape, gypsies, drovers, shepherds, farm workers, the poor and children. He focuses on fragile wildflowers, the secretive birds and animals harassed by the fear of humans. He felt at one with people like himself, with the misfits and those on the fringe of society.

The Enclosures, privatising the wild places that he loved so much, devastated Clare. Then came the harsh Vagrancy act of 1824. It made it a crime for anyone to be ‘in the open air or under a tent or in a cart or wagon not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself’. No more heaths or common land to forage and camp on. Always shut out and told to move on and go elsewhere – a familiar story for these persecuted people.

Photo wikimedia

Appleby Fair

Today mention the mecca of Appleby Fair and the modern Traveller’s eyes light up:


Today’s Travellers’ encampment has swapped the vardo for the mobile home. Horses for horsepower and horse-dealing for scrap metal. This is anathema in our tidy countryside. We like the gypsies best at the horse fairs, when they return to being the colourful souls, with painted wagons, fortune tellers, dark eyed beauties, and lively yearling ponies. Appleby Fair is where they should be. No scrap dealing there!

Ronald Blythe in The John Clare Society Journal writing about the continuing unjustified prejudice against Romany people.

‘Clare also sought out the Gypsies for stories, songs and tunes. And one character keeps cropping up in the notebooks, a Gypsy called Wisdom Smith. Clare wrote: ‘….went a botanising after ferns and orchises and caught a cold in the wet grass which has made me as bad as ever—got the tune of “highland Mary” from Wisdom Smith a gipsey and pricked another sweet tune without name as he fiddled it’.

The Gypsy and the Poet by David Morley. He is part Romany himself and a Professor at Warwick University.


the Smiths gang of gipseys came and encam[p]d near the town and as I began to be a desent scraper [i.e. good fiddler] we had a desent round of merriment.

From Clare’s notebooks.
Gypsy caravan in wood photo

The joys of the camp are not cares of the Crown,
There’ll be fiddling and dancing a mile out of town.
Will you come to the camp ere the moon goes down
A mile from the town?
The camp of the gipsies is sweet by moonlight
In the furze and the hawthorn and all out of sight
There’ll be fiddling and dancing and singing tonight
In the pale moon ligh
t.

So here’s success to gipsies all,
     And every gipsy’s friend.
     And while the ass that bears our camp
     Can find a common free,
     Around old England’s heaths we’ll tramp
     In gipsy liberty.

From ‘The Gypsy’s Song’ John Clare

Surely it’s time for us all to be much more welcoming to these colourful people who have much to teach us about tradition, culture and simple living.

This BBC Documentary A Very British History – The Romany Gypsies covered the problems that Romany people have been facing in recent decades.

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