king of the gypsies

Weird People      

King of the Gypsies - Bamfylde  Moore Carew

 

King of the gypsies. Bamfylde Moore CarewBampfylde Moore Carew was born in July 1693, in Bickleigh, near Tiverton in Devon , less than twenty miles from Witheridge, the birthplace of Mary Willcocks, alias Princess Caraboo. He was the son of the reverend Theodore Carew, the Carews being an ancient local family, and his godfathers at his baptism were Hugh Bampfylde and a Major Moore, hence his name. At the age of twelve Carew was sent to at Tiverton and progressed well in his first four years there, excelling in Latin and Greek., and also less scholarly pursuits, especially hunting with his school friends.

Soon his attention was taken up entirely by hunting, and on one occasion while chasing a deer through fields of ripening corn his hunting party caused a great deal of damage to the crops. Complaints were made to the headmaster by the affected farmers and Carew and his school mates were so severely threatened about what might become of them that they ran away from school. They eventually found themselves at an alehouse just outside Tiverton where they fell in with a group of gypsies and spent the night drinking with them. Impressed by the freedom of the gypsy life-style Carew and his companions decided to join their numbers there and then. This agreement meant following the gypsies particular laws and form of government, and paying allegiance to an elected gypsy king.  

Through his actions and buoyant personality it wasn’t long before Carew became notorious and respected among the gypsies, mainly for his skill in disguise and trickery. Outside the gypsy fraternity, amongst the more gullible, he had a local reputation as an astrologer and fortune teller. On one occasion he was consulted by a certain Madam Musgrove who suspected that there was a large amount of money buried somewhere around her house, and promised a large reward if he located it. Carew pretended to study his ‘secret art’ and told the lady that the treasure lay under a laurel tree in her garden, but she should delay the search until her planet of good fortune was in the right position. The lady was delighted and rewarded Carew with twenty guineas. Of course when the poor woman finally decided to dig beneath the laurel tree she found nothing there.

After a year and a half of gypsy living Carew returned home to his parents but grew bored with home life and left once more to join the gypsies. Over the next few years using various ingenious disguises, such as a lunatic called ‘Mad Tom’, a seaman, a zealous clergyman, a rat catcher, and even an old woman, he extracted money from various gentlemen throughout the West Country, some of whom knew him well but were apparently unable to see through his disguises. 

Carew later eloped with the daughter of a respectable apothecary and was subsequently married at Bath, then travelling with his wife to Bristol and through Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire. In Gosport they paid a visit to Carew’s uncle who offered him money to quit the gypsy life and return to his family – Carew refused – he was having too much fun.  

Clause Patch, the king of the gypsies, lay dying and a vast number of gypsies descended on London to choose a new king. Carew was duly elected ‘King of the Mendicants (beggars)’.

There followed more disguises – often that of a shipwrecked sailor looking for alms – and scams until he was captured at Barnstaple in Devon.  where he was imprisoned for two months and then brought up for trial loaded with chains at the quarter sessions at Exeter castle. Being asked by the judge which countries he had travelled in Carew answered – Denmark, Sweden, Russia, France, Spain, Portugal, Canada and Ireland, proving that he had imagination at least. The judge answered that he must prepare himself for a hotter climate as he was to be transported as a convict to Maryland.After an eleven week voyage the prison ship arrived at its destination and all one hundred prisoners were ordered to tidy themselves up for sale the next day. The planters arrived next morning to view the slaves and while a group of them were arguing over his purchase Carew managed to escape into the woods.

He was recaptured, whipped for his trouble and like Henry More Smith fitted with a heavy iron collar. He escaped again, and concealing himself in the day and travelling only by night eventually met with a tribe of friendly Indians who released him from the neck-iron. Carew left them and travelled through Pennsylvania in the guise of a Quaker and subsequently as a sailor conning money out of wealthy merchants using various tall stories. He made his way to New York, at that time a city of around seven thousand inhabitants, and got passage on a boat sailing to Bristol. But wary of rearrest in England he pricked his hands and face with the point of a dagger, rubbed them in salt and gunpowder and groaned in agony to convince those who tried to arrest him that he was suffering from smallpox. 

Again he travelled around the West Country extracting money by begging, usually disguised as a shipwrecked seaman, and at Maiden Bradley in Wiltshire met an even more desperate looking beggar than himself. They joined company and begged together through the town and at the house of Lord Weymouth, a local noble well known for his severe treatment of impostors. It took some time for Carew to find out that his ragged companion was actually Lord Weymouth himself – disguised as he often was to gauge the response and attitudes of local residents to such beggars.  

Some time after this, with Carew in disguise as a decrepit old man selling matches and collecting old rags, he met another ragman and they arrived together at a place called Gutter-Hall in Porlock, north Devon. Here they found no lodgings but were told of a house they could stay in for free with food thrown in, they soon found out why - the house was haunted. The local farmer asked the two beggars to lay the ghost of an old woman who haunted the place, if they were successful the reward would be twenty shillings. They stayed the night there accompanied by the farmer’s solidly-built son, whom they scared out of his wits by throwing handfuls of stones down the stairs. Next morning they reassured the farmer that they had laid the ghost and received their reward. Apparently, the house was quiet after this.

On one occasion, whilst out walking in Exeter, Carew was recognized, captured and forced without trial into a ship sailing once again to Maryland. During the sixteen week journey the captain died and Carew himself was infected with fever. On arrival in Maryland Carew again escaped, this time in a canoe, and made for the woods. He travelled by night to avoid his pursuers and hid in trees by day, stealing food from houses and farms when he could. According to his own account he crossed the River Delaware on horseback before arriving at Rhode Island and thence to Boston, estimating the population then at twenty-four thousand and comparing a beacon hill there, where pulleys drew up a lighted barrel of tar to warn the country in case of invasion, to Glastonbury Tor.

Back home, he was again reunited with his wife and daughter. Visiting a relation of his, Sir Thomas Carew, the gypsy king was again offered a comfortable living if he would forsake his vagabond way of life. Again he refused.

In 1745, curious about news of the Jacobite rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie (or the Young Pretender as he was known) he travelled north to Edinburgh, there meeting up with the rebels. Because of his apparent enthusiasm for their cause he was asked to join their number, but feigned illness and lameness and was excused. Nevertheless, he apparently travelled among the rebels south to Carlisle and on to Manchester and then Derby, where he heard a report that the Duke of Cumberland was coming to fight them. Lack of support from English Jacobites and French allies persuaded the rebels to withdraw to Carlisle, though Bonnie Prince Charlie himself was against this. After the withdrawal Carew headed homewards being careful to change his note to ‘God bless King George, and the brave Duke William!’

Once more reunited with his wife he began to feel too old for his former exertions and devoted himself to revising the laws of the gypsy community, but a serious illness forced him to resign his kingship and spend his last years in his hometown of Brickleigh. One story goes that he came into some money on the death of a relative, another through winning a lottery, and bought a house in the country. He lived to see his daughter’s marriage and grandchildren, and died around 1758. He is buried in the local churchyard at Brickleigh.

Carew seems to have been the consummate 18th century rogue and vagabond, though his stories also suggest real ingenuity in matters of disguise and trickery – making him a sort of Frank Abagnale of the 1700s. The first account of his life – The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew – was published in 1745, whilst he was still living. Unfortunately its not known how much of the book is fact, as alternative reliable sources for his escapades are extremely limited. However, It is clear he was a nationally renowned figure - he was mentioned in contemporary magazines, and is even referred to in the popular literature of the day, such as Thackeray's Vanity Fair. In the West Country he was a local hero and known throughout the region as ‘King Carew’. 

Sources and Further Reading

Carew, Bampfylde Moore. The Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, King of the Mendicants. London, William Tegg, no date [1880?].

Wells, John. Princess Caraboo – Her True Story. London , Pan Books, 1994, pp264-5.


© Copyright 2003 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.

 

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