Gypsy Convoy

This very strange tale has much to do with the gipsy community, although virtually all of it emanates from a Mrs Mary Ann Lee/Brooks, who may or may not have been in her right mind when making her claims, but you must judge for yourselves. Here is an example.

From The Essex Newsman 19 October 1901


I am Topsy, who was sold to the slaves so ably described by Mrs Harriet Becherstowe (Beecher Stowe) in her book 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', also the kidnapped queen, the stowaway girl, the rescued child, and the lost child from Commercial Road (one word obliterated by damp) from the two Miss Harts, the maiden sister of my grandfather, who are holding possession of the Royal Clothing Exchange, Houndsditch, which belongs to the Queen of the Gipsies.

I am the daughter of Gentry Cooper and John Clarence Wagg, who is better known as Oliver Belmont, his mother's name.

My mother died in giving birth to twins (my brother and myself) where I was born in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. My brother's name was Nathaniel Wagg, and myself known as Topsy, or the lost child. I am the great grand-daughter of Sophia Chillcotte and Elijah Smith, who is the only king of the Bohemian race.

The golden crown which has been placed on Molly Friar's head belonged to my great-grandfather, and was over 500 years old before it came to him. I was taken from the cradle and changed for another when Molly's mother heard I was heiress to the crown. My great-aunt Chillcotte was married to Clark Boswell, a gipsy, the other great-aunt to old Tom Lovett, also a gipsy. I am not supposed to be in existence, as I am the rescued child whom the bullion of Silver is now in the Bank of England waiting my claim when I can prove my identity, which I can do when I see my second cousin, who is doing life sentence, who attempted my life.

Three West India man's daughters are my three great aunts, named Johnson, calling themselves Queens of the Gipsy Lees. When the last of the race died there was a full confession which appeared at the time, giving the full particulars of the romance of the lost child, and they are first cousins to the man doing time for what happened 15 or 16 years ago on Ealing Common.

Note: There were, and still are, gipsy families called Chilcott, Boswell and Lee, and there was a Boswell who married a Chilcott. There was also a Molly Friar, who became Queen of the Gipsies in 1898.

You must be wondering what this has to do with Epsom and the answer is that, according to the writer, Mary Ann Brooks, one of her husbands lived with gipsies and murdered a woman on the Downs; he later discovered that the victim was his mother and that Mary Ann was his sister.

Several newspapers in late July 1897 carried the story of Henry George Pickett (or Peckett) York Lee, a tailor, who had died by consuming spirits of lemon (oxalic acid) at his home in Camberwell. Mrs Lee said he had been told that she was his sister and he was also wracked with guilt from stabbing his mother to death at a gipsy encampment on Epsom Common 45 years earlier. About 20 years earlier he had witnessed another murder at a card party in Norwood. He had contemplated giving himself up to Scotland Yard for the Epsom murder, but then apparently committed suicide. I say 'apparently' because there was no suicide note and the only evidence we have is the story told to the coroner by his widow. On 12 December 1896 Henry (in the name of Harry Peckett York Lee) had married the widowed Mary Anne (sic) Webster. On the marriage certificate Henry's father's name was given as Phillimore Lee, a horse dealer.

We do have a reference to a Phillimore Lee in this article from The Otago Witness of 29 June 1899 and other newspapers. The woman up before the beak is the same Mary Ann, now purportedly having married a Mr Brooks.

(From: Our Own Correspondent)
LONDON, April 21

An extraordinary story was told at the Clerkenwell Police Court on Wednesday by a middle-aged woman, of gipsy appearance, who claimed that she was "the queen of the gipsies of all the earth." Her statement, which was written, and which was handed to Mr Horace Smith, the presiding magistrate, showed that she has New Zealand connections. This is her romantic tale:-

I am a ward in Chancery. How can I get a solicitor to take up my case? I have no money; still l am an heiress. A suit is now proceeding in the High Court in respect of property belonging to me. I was stolen from the cradle when six weeks old, and I did not know until two years ago to whom I belonged. If I had a solicitor. I should be able to prove my title as Queen of the Gipsies of all the Earth against Molly Friar, who at present holds the throne. I have changed with another, by name Esther Chamberlain. My clothes were taken off me in 1846. I was tied in a cloth and thrown overboard from a collier's vessel in Wapping Basin. I was rescued. A person who witnessed it is alive, and can come forward to prove the statement. The person at whose place I lay for three days insensible is also alive. I am the lost child, known as the Queen of the Gipsies, of all the Earth.

Mr Horace Smith: I don't know that I can assist you.

The applicant: I have no money and I am lost without it.

Mr Horace Smith: You can make any application you like to any of the authorities.

The applicant: A party is wanted for a murder.

Mr Horace Smith: The police will listen to any application you make.

The applicant said her name was Mrs Brooks and that she resided at Millman Street, W.C. Her mother, Genty Hart, was a gipsy lady, and her father, John Clarence Wegg, a gentleman. Her heirloom chain, worth many thousand pounds sterling, contained three large emeralds, and this valuable ornament and a case containing seven rings were at present being held by Phillimore Lee, a gipsy horse-dealer, who lived in South Canterbury, New Zealand. The estate the applicant claimed was known as Palmer's estate and was situated near Ascot. She was, she declared, the stowaway girl, the rescued child, and the lost child known as the right and legal Queen of the Gipsies of all the Earth. What she really required was the name of the paper or papers containing the full account of the death and funeral of the Queen of the Gipsies, named Lee, the last of her race. The accounts, she believed, appeared about eight years ago. If those could be obtained she could produce other proofs that Molly Friar had no right to the title of Queen of the Gipsies. She added that she (the applicant) was a ward in Chancery through the disputed marriage of her great-grandmother (Sweeney).

The Mataura Ensign added that she was of dishevelled appearance and had to be forcibly removed from court because she would not stop talking. Other papers spoke of her raven black hair and olive complexion.

Make of all that what you will. We shall now return to the inquest, where the tale of Mary Ann's past tallied in some respects with later accounts.

She said that she was the daughter of Squire Wagg of Chingford, Essex, and so was Henry Lee (by a woman named Charlotte Powell). Shortly after her birth she was sold to a tribe of gipsies, who were well known as the Golden Lees. Henry was also brought up with a tribe of gipsies.

The Lees placed Mary Ann in the custody of Rebecca Durham of Collingwood Street, Shoreditch, who did exist. In the 1861 census we have labourer's wife Mrs Rebecca Durham (born c.1811 Bishopsgate) living in Collingwood Street. According to Mary Ann, Rebecca was known as 'Black Becky' and had a sister known as 'Black Mary'. It seems that Black Becky held the documents proving Mary Ann's birthright and that two or three years later Black Mary stole both documents and child, kept them for a while and then placed the child in Bethnal Green Workhouse as Mary Ann Kent. After a spell in Shoreditch Workhouse she returned to live with Black Mary in The Mint (I believe this was a slum in Southwark).

You will boggle at the next instalment, if you haven't boggled already, but I am merely quoting from newspaper reports of the inquest, one of which said that the tale would do credit to the imagination of a writer of a shilling shocker.

In 1846 Mary Ann was stolen (again) from a pub called The Grapes in Borough (Southwark) by Inky Johnson, brother to Black Becky and Black Mary, and taken to a hired vessel lying off Wapping; she was then thrown overboard and rescued by the cabin boy who took her to live with a person known as Black Betty Benn. Apparently all of these people were of gipsy origin. A few months later a black man came to take her away, accompanied by a Mary Ann Ellis, who said she was the child's aunt, and Ms Ellis took her away. The child was possibly about three or four years old by then.

At the inquest Mary Ann claimed that Ms Ellis was actually her mother and that she was the woman murdered on Epsom Downs - by Mary Ann's father, who was supposed to be Squire Wagg (but she never actually named the murderer, so may have meant someone else entirely).

According to Mary Ann, she met Henry towards the end of November 1896 and they were married within weeks. Then, someone said she was his sister and this seems to have precipitated his mental crisis about the murder. He had been with a tribe of gipsies on Epsom Downs, his father had placed a dagger in his (Henry's) hand and had forced it into the back of his mother. No one was arrested and Henry subsequently joined the Army. As you see, this tale is very confused, for she is saying in one part that her mother was the victim and then that it was Henry's mother.

Gypsies On The Downs
Postcard - "Gypsies On The Downs"

Some of Mary Ann's tale about her past might be true. She was born in Shoreditch in 1843 (baptised as Marianne), the daughter of shoemaker Edward Eling Kent and a Mary Ann Ellis (married 1841). In the 1851 census Mary Ann Junior was living with her father in Bethnal Green; he claimed that he was married, but his wife was not at home. Edward then remarried in 1857, describing himself as a widower, and Mary Ann Junior was with him and his new wife in the 1861 census. So, there was a Mary Ann Ellis/Kent who was missing from home in the 1851 census and seemingly died by 1857. What happened to her and her daughter in between 1843 and 1851 is anyone's guess.

It was also said that Mary Ann had once been married to a Mr Bond and that after Henry's death she wed a Mr Brooks (no evidence of either marriage), both of whom had supposedly died suddenly and had been the subject of inquests. What can be proved is that in 1867 in Holborn district she married plumber William George Webster (probably died 1892) and had two children by him, William Elin and Edward. She was Mrs Webster in the three censuses from 1871-1891 and in the first two her husband was with her. On each occasion she gave her birthplace as Shoreditch.

Whatever the truth of her childhood and love life, Mary Ann met a very sad end. One day in October 1901 she went to Laindon, near Basildon, Essex, to express support for a gipsy community which was threatened with relocation. The station master said that she had arrived at Laindon soon after 7 pm on the Saturday night and when he saw her she seemed rather excited and smelt of drink. She saw the gipsies, had a couple of whiskies at the Railway Hotel and returned to the station, but she had missed the last train back to London and it was closed. Her mutilated body was found near the signal box next morning and it was thought that, in trying to find a way into the station, she had wandered on to the line and been hit by a fast train. The written narrative starting 'I am Topsy...' which is quoted at the beginning of this piece, was found with her body and is likely to be the 'credentials' that she showed to the gipsies at Laindon.

I can tell you more about the identity of Henry Lee, although it doesn't seem to have been picked up by the newspapers which reported Mary Ann's death in 1901. Reynolds's Newspaper of 15 August 1897 had published a letter sent to the Camberwell coroner after Henry's inquest: it read as follows.

8 Croft Street, Sudbury, Suffolk

Having seen the account in the papers of the Camberwell romance, I take the liberty of writing to you to state that George Peckett York is my brother. His name is not Lee; he has not married his own sister, as that woman (the wife) is trying to make out. He has only two sisters - myself and Mrs Hollingsworth, living at Great Corner*, about two miles from me. He didn't murder his mother, I can produce the paper of her death, and also a letter from a gentleman living at Forest Hill who would prove to anyone that deceased was my brother. I never thought he would have taken poison.

Yours faithfully,



The newspaper added that 'Though the letter contains no mention of the mysterious "Squire Wagg", who figured largely in the story, it may be feared that he too belongs only to the realms of fiction.'

Can we verify the details in Mrs Makerig's letter? Yes, we can. Firstly, there is a mis-transcription - the writer's surname is Making, not Makerig. Henry Lee was George Peckett/Peckitt York, born in Long Melford, Sudbury, Suffolk in 1843. The parents of George and Mrs Eliza Making were Thomas York, a tailor, and Maria (nee Perry); one of their other children, Laura, did indeed marry a Mr Hollingsworth. I understand that various members of the family were in trouble at times and that George himself had served a prison sentence for larceny. And obviously, as Mrs Making said, he did not murder his mother in about 1852, as she did not die until 1887.

Was a gipsy woman stabbed to death on Epsom Downs somewhere around 1852 (at which point Henry York was around seven years old and ostensibly living in Long Melford)? Was anyone murdered at a card party in Norwood in about 1877? At the moment, I don't know, but lengthy newspaper trawling has not yet produced any evidence of such deaths.

Lloyd's Newspaper of 1 August 1897 had a glimmer of light to shed on the affair (fairly low wattage but it is helpful). In October 1896 Mary Ann had gone to their offices with her amazing tale of being kidnapped by gipsies and her belief that she was an heiress (in particular the heiress of a man called Anthony White, who was the owner or charterer of the boat at Wapping from which she had been thrown overboard). The paper had tried to help but got nowhere. She also said that she had found a relative of the dead gipsy queen, called George Peckett Lee, in Lambeth Workhouse. She took him to the newspaper offices and he said that he remembered his parents and that his father had gone to Australia (this is presumably meant to be the Phillimore Lee named on his marriage certificate and the man who was a horse dealer in New Zealand).

I will let Lloyd's Newspaper continue from here.

...for some time nothing was seen of the pair until one day they turned up and announced they were married. They were told that their quest for Anthony White's millions, if they existed, was quite useless unless they had some proof that the wild stories told were not altogether inventions. There was no corroboration of any one of the tales. Sometimes a man, according to Mrs Lee, had met her in the street and told her that she was 'being kept out of her rights'; at another time it would be a person in a public-house, who would assure her she was the 'stolen child and missing heiress', but none of these informants appear to have had any names or addresses. Not a single scrap of paper could Mrs Lee produce to prove her bona fides. For a time the pair dropped out of sight, but on Wednesday, July 21, they turned up again at Lloyd's, and Mrs Lee announced that she had discovered that she was the daughter of Squire Wagg, of Chingford, Essex, and that her former story as told to Lloyd's was not true. She was told nothing could be done in the matter and the next news was that George Peckett Lee had committed suicide on Tuesday, July 27. Then came the story told at the inquest, with the addition that the pair had discovered they were brother and sister, and the various murders thrown in. It may be as well to state the only Anthony White known to fame was a pirate and smuggler of Jamaican birth, and he died or was killed in 1740, so that if Mrs Lee was thrown off his vessel as a child she would now be about one hundred and fifty years old. There is not and never was a wealthy family named Wagg who were squires of Chingford, in Essex; and last, but not least, the only trace of 'Black Mary' appears to be in a romance published some thirty years ago, where she figured as being the guardian of a stolen child. As for the discovery that the Lees were brother and sister as well as man and wife, another mysterious public-house person seems to have been the author of it. No person who saw the two together could for a moment believe it. Mrs Lee is a stout, swarthy woman, undoubtedly possessing negro blood in her veins; George Peckett Lee was tall, thin and of a blond type. At least three different stories of her heiress-ship have been told by Mrs Lee; and none, except the most credulous of persons, is likely to be for a moment deceived by any one of them.

Ultimately, I think that if there had been a murder on Epsom Downs in about 1852 (or, more to the point, had a body been found) there might have been an investigation after the inquest on Henry, but I cannot find anything further on the subject. It seems to me that 'the authorities' just thought that the Lees were barmy. Is it possible, though, that there was a murder and the body was disposed of somewhere other than Epsom - or perhaps the victim did not die?

Unfortunately, I do not have the answers to many of the questions but hope there is someone out there who can help with the mystery!

Linda Jackson June 2013
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