Saturday, 25 June 2011

Memoirs of a female vagrant

Mary Saxby (1738-1801): 
The girl who ran away with the gypsies

Mary Saxby's autobiography, Memoirs of a Female Vagrant, was published after her death in 1806, and it is fascinating story of a rebellious 18th century woman.

Mary was born in London, in 1738. Her mother, Susanna died early, and her silk-weaver father John Howell joined the army, leaving Mary to be passed from 'one relation to another', never staying long, 'in consequence of my perverse temper'. Her father eventually returned with a 'serious' stepmother, much to Mary's displeasure, and before reaching her teens she ran away from home.

She lived on 'rotten apples, or cabbage stalks' and 'what the hedges afforded', while fending off 'wicked men' and tramping the countryside around Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire. Soon, Mary was 'nearly perished with cold and hunger' and 'in a dismal plight', and would have died, if she had not found a protector, 'a poor travelling woman' with three daughters of her own.

Mary and the woman's youngest daughter went off alone, to sing ballads at ale-houses, feasts and fairs 'for a few pence and a little drink'. When the two girls met a gang of gipsy musicians, they joined their exotic-seeming camp. At first the gypsies 'behaved well' to the girls and Mary enjoyed her new carefree life. 'I soon fell into gross sin, in which state I continued more than a year,' she commented evasively.

Thomas Rowlandson, Arrest of a Woman at Night c.1800
But Mary became disillusioned with her wild life, and 'escaped' for 'honester employment in weeding corn' and picking hops in Kent. Compared with the thrills of gipsy life, hop-picking was dull stuff, and Mary was soon causing trouble. Shut in the local bridewell at Epping, after her release Mary fell back in with her gipsy boyfriend, who stole her clothes and kept her in a 'state of slavery'. This time Mary was rescued by a suitor from her hop-picking days, John Saxby, who fought the gipsy for her and carried her off “in triumph.”

John promised to marry her, but never quite managed to have the banns read. Mary panicked when she became pregnant, just after John had left for the army. Abandoned, Mary resurrected her old profession of ballad singing, but after her baby was born in Bedfordshire, she went off to find John. He told her, they would marry 'as soon as we had a convenient opportunity'. Mary bore two more children while she waited to become Mrs Saxby. 'I began to see the evil of living in this state,' she wrote, 'and insisted on separating if we were not married. He did not promise to be the best of husbands but he was not willing to part with me.' The couple were finally married in 1771, when Mary was 33.

Marriage didn't change the Saxbys' chaotic lifestyle. They had ten children altogether, six of whom died young. Travelling with other 'wicked companions', John started drinking and was sometimes violent; Mary gave as good as she got, describing herself as 'grossly addicted' to 'obscene jests, filthy ribaldry and profane swearing'. Things changed when Mary gave birth to twins at Bradwin, where a local woman lent her religious books.

With John ill from excessive drinking, they settled in a field. One night Mary left her youngest baby sleeping in their hut, and when John returned it was ablaze. He pulled the child out, but it died a few days later. Distraught with grief, Mary 'resolved to have a home for my children' and they rented a house in Stoney Stratford, where Mary turned to religion and started attending the local meeting house.

After years of boozing, John's health gave out. Before he died Mary tried to bring him to God 'yet he still persisted in swearing with death almost in his countenance'. Finally, she wore him down, so that 'he was almost continually engaged in prayer'. When he died in 1782 Mary was left a widow with five children to provide for, and she set up a small shop at Olney, in Buckinghamshire.

In her old age, Mary tramped around, tracts in hand, bent on converting convert sinners: 'Many refreshing seasons I have enjoyed with my Bible in my hand, as I walked from town to town', she enthused. Mary died on the 20th December 1801, aged 63, and is buried at Olney.

Find out more
  • Mary Saxby, Memoirs of a female vagrant, written by herself (London, Dunstable 1806) is available at the British Library.
  • Mary has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Guide to the history of vagrancy in London (1600-1800) from London Lives.