Romani of the Female Factory & St. John’s

By Michaela Ann Cameron

St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta never ceases to surprise the avid researcher…

As Judith Dunn asserts, the headstones and burial records associated with St. John’s reveal that Old Parramatta was a much more ethnically diverse place than commonly thought. Today, St. John’s is “Anglican,” but this was not always the case; originally this was a non-denominational cemetery. So while we, of course, find plenty of British Anglican people among the cemetery’s permanent citizens, we also find Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Jewish, African American, German, Dutch, and French people here as well, to name a few. To this multicultural list, it seems we can now add the Romani (Roma): a nomadic people thought to have originated in Northern India and migrated to Europe where they are now predominantly located.

Over the past couple of months, our volunteer research assistant Suzannah Gaulke has been busy transcribing and compiling lists of Female Factory women and children who died in the Factory and were buried in the parish of St. John’s.

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The small building to the left of the big blue doors was the “dead house” at the Parramatta Female Factory. Photo: Michaela Ann Cameron (2014)

Sometimes, the old-fashioned and scrawly or faded handwriting in the burial records is just a bit too hard to read, or the spelling just a tad too “creative” to work out the name and more than one pair of eyes is needed. The name “Sovole” was one of those ones we both thought seemed a bit questionable, so I took a look at the original record for the thirteen-month-old baby boy who died at the Factory in May 1832 and realised the name was actually “Lovell.”

Having solved the mystery of the surname, I added his full name “Nathaniel Lovell” to the list, feeling that the little fellow finally had a digital memorial now, if not one of stone, and assumed that would be the end of it. Indeed, Nathaniel Lovell’s name had been one of hundreds I looked at and edited that night. I subsequently worked on completely unrelated historical research for my PhD thesis over the next couple of days, pushing the little boy’s name further and further from my mind.

Just three days later, though, I happened to be on a city-bound train scrolling through my Twitter feed (which, ordinarily, I have no time to do) and near the very top of my feed was the following tweet:

I was immediately drawn in by the prospect of reading a biography about the statistically less common case of a Romani “beggar woman” who became a convict and was incarcerated at the Parramatta Female Factory in North Parramatta’s Fleet Street Heritage Precinct. So I clicked and started reading it on my iPhone. As I read this beautiful piece of thorough research about Sapy Lovell by blogger Cherryseed who, it turns out, was writing about her own convict ancestor, the name “Lovell” began to faintly tinkle “Lovell…Lovell” in my mind before crescendoing into a rambunctiously ringing bell: I am reading about that little boy’s mother!

The timing of it was pretty unbelievable…It almost felt like the Lovells were having a little family reunion in my head.

By the time I reached the end of the piece, I learnt that poor Sapy was a “repeat offender” and, thus, a regular inmate at the Parramatta Female Factory. I also learnt that Sapy’s baby Nathaniel was likely the son of Lewis Boswell, also a Romani convict based at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks who had been transported per Surrey (1823), and that Nathaniel had been born in the Female Factory as well as died there. But that was not all: Sapy’s elder son, Louis Lovell, who was born in a workhouse gaol in England, had also died at the Factory soon after he and Sapy had arrived in the colony on board the convict transport ship Louisa (1827).

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Government Notice,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Friday 7 December 1827, p.1

In my excitement, I reached out to Cherryseed and asked her permission to provide a link to her lovely piece about Sapy on the little boys’ “profile pages” as well as Lewis Boswell’s biography on Nathaniel’s profile on The St. John’s Cemetery Project database, and she graciously obliged, happy in the knowledge that these babies who didn’t stand a chance in the colony were being recognised on our website.

We do not know where Sapy was laid to rest, but at least now we know that her two little boys, Louis and Nathaniel, who belonged to a nomadic people and yet were doomed to spend their whole existence incarcerated, lie somewhere in this cemetery in unmarked graves. And though they were merely 15 months and 13 months old when they passed away, as far as our current research indicates at least, they are the sole representatives of the Romani people at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta and a pathway into the bigger life story of a beggar woman transported for the theft of a spoon.

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Be sure to read the whole story “Beggar Woman: Sapy Lovell,” and all about Nathaniel’s father, “Thief – Lewis Boswell.

While you’re there, check out the rest of Cherryseed‘s visually and textually stunning blog Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Sailor.

In memory of Louis Lovell (1826-1828) and Nathaniel Lovell (1831-1832).


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