Gordon and the ghost

13th February 2004 at 00:00
Meet Gordon Boswell, the King of the Gypsies. Who tells the tale of a haunted caravan to Sarah Farley

There's a story to tell for each of Gordon Boswell's colourful, intricately carved wagons in his Romany museum in Spalding, Lincolnshire. There's the one his father built when he was 70. Another that dates back to 1910 and was used as a Wendy house for years - it originally cost pound;310, the price of three terraced houses then. But the wagon that sends a shiver down the spine of young visitors is the smaller, dark caravan, once owned by an old lady.

"I told her I would very much like to buy the wagon," says Gordon. "She said she would think about it. A few weeks later she agreed, but asked if I would I take the little girl too.

"I thought she must mean a doll, but she told me that the wagon is haunted by a small girl who comes out to play on the steps at dusk. I said I would be pleased to have her as well, so I got the wagon plus a ghost. I've seen her myself. I hope others will too."

Gordon opened his museum on 25 February 25, 1995, 100 years to the day after his late father was born. He aimed to bring together the history and way of life of the Romany people.

He comes from an august line of Romanies and is sometimes termed King of the Gypsies, although he prefers the title of elder statesman. His father, Sylvester Gordon Boswell, was born in a rod tent (one made from ash saplings) on the shore at Blackpool, while his grandfather, Wester, became known as Dictionary Boswell after his work translating Romany into English.

There are framed cuttings and letters referring to events in the family's history, which also unwittingly document the Romanies' struggle with authority. One shows an unsuccessful attempt to gain Queen Alexandra's support in their fight against eviction from Blackpool beach. Another records the death of Tyso No name Boswell after a barn was struck by lightning. He is so called because a priest refused to baptise him with the "blasphemous" name of Jehovah. In his anger, Tyso's father refused to name him so he was registered thus.

Gordon's interweaving of anecdote with history brings to life the interiors of the wagons. "I was born in a tent beside the wagon in which I travelled until I was eight, when we progressed to a motorised wagon," he recalls. "I was one of a family of seven boys and two girls. We would all sleep in the wagon, with the older boys in the tent."

Peering into the cosy living spaces, children are intrigued by how the Romanies managed their domestic life in such cramped spaces. In the manner of well-equipped modern caravans, beds slide out from under each other, while every storage opportunity is utilised with a drawer or cupboard.

There is a stove, but mainly for heating as cooking is alfresco, using traditional heavy pans and kettles. Decoration is everywhere, with colourful flowers and patterns covering wooden surfaces and fabrics. In the more opulent wagons, gold leaf is used extensively.

Gordon has two motorised 1960s trailers in his collection, shimmering with cut glass and mirrors. What these creations have lost in the detailed exterior craftwork of the traditional vardos, they have made up for in the lavish extravagance inside. "You wouldn't have lived in here: this would be like your best parlour," explains Gordon. "This cost pound;1,000 per foot when it was made, the equivalent to buying a luxury yacht today" Every year, Gordon and his wife, Margaret, still travel by horse-drawn wagon from Lincolnshire to the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria. The distinctive Gypsy horses figure prominently in the museum. Demonstrations of harnessing horses to a wagon - even a short ride - can be part of a visit.

Gordon is philosophical about the hostility and suspicion that Romany people can encounter. Sometimes visitors challenge him and he does what he can to dispel the ill-feeling. Others visit because, on discovering their mother or father was Gypsy but kept the fact hidden from them, they now want to find out more about the way of life.

Working with a local primary school, Cowbit St Mary's in Spalding, Gordon tries to break down barriers between Romany and Gorgio (non-Romany) children. With the backing of Lincolnshire Traveller Education Service, they have produced a book, Rauni and the Rye.

Gordon Boswell's Romany Museum, Clay Lake, Spalding Linconshire PE12 6BL.

Tel: 01775 710599; www.boswell-romany-museum.com

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