The Norwood Society

Margaret Finch

One of the delights of being slightly disorganized and eccentric in habit is that you never know what surprises you are going to find when discovering a pile of old papers hidden away at the back of a cupboard. These were revealed to me recently when searching for a casserole dish now needed for winter service.

Among the out of date 10p off coupons and letters from Readers Digest advising that Mr. John Brown of 316 Green Lane had been specially chosen from the residents of SW16 to enter their bumper prize draw, was a photocopy of an extract from an old book.

Headed “Account of the Remarkable MARGARET FINCH, Queen of the Gipsies at NORWOOD in Surrey” this extract was obviously copied by me some years ago from a large volume as the page is numbered 2190. However, the title of the book from which it came remains a mystery, although from the style of the layout of the page and the typeface used it would appear to have been published in the second quarter of the 19th century.

I must have spent many hours looking for it at the time the Readers Digest leaflets captured it and dragged it off to the back of the cupboard, but at least I had the pleasure of rescuing it from its obscurity and savouring its text over a cup of coffee.

As well as recounting the story of Margaret Finch, a tale frequently to be found in old history books on the area, it paints a fascinating picture of Norwood when it was described as a “vast tract of apparently useless land”.

There follows a transcript of the article which I thought members of the Norwood Society may find of interest.  Meanwhile the search for my casserole dish continues!

Account of the Remarkable MARGARET FINCH
Queen of the GIPSIES at NORWOOD, in SURREY

This extraordinary person was born at Sutton in Kent, and lived to the great age of 108 years. After travelling the kingdom for many years as queen of the gipsy tribe, she fixed her place of residence at Norwood about eleven years before her decease.

By the constant custom of sitting upon the ground with her chin resting on her knees, generally with a pipe in her mouth, attended by her faithful dog (as represented in a sketch) her sinews became so contracted that, towards the end of her life, she could not extend herself or change her position, so that when she died her corpse was forced to be crammed into a box sizable to her usual posture, and therein conveyed in a hearse accompanied by two coaches to Beckenham Church-yard in Kent, where she was decently interred, and a funeral sermon preached on the occasion, in the year 1740.

The expense of her funeral was defrayed by the neighbouring publicans, to whom she had been of great assistance, not by what she drank herself, but by the concourse of persons that her wonderful appearance and great dexterity in telling fortunes, drew to the spot, especially on Sundays. She was at that time an object of notoriety all over England.

The Gipsy-house, now kept by Mr. Morris. has for its sign a portrait (similar to the sketch) of this remarkable person, but it is now almost obliterated by time. The spot still continues to be visited in the summer months, by vast numbers of persons from London.

But Norwood, once the harbour for the gipsy tribe, begins now to assume another appearance, great part of it being already grubbed and cultivated, and in all probability this vast tract of apparently useless waste land will, in a very few years, be covered with verdant fields and groves, interspersed with the seats of our opulent merchants and traders of London. Indeed it is a matter of no small surprise, that such a large extent of ground situate so near, as about seven or eight miles from the metropolis, many parts of which command the most charming prospects, should have so long remained in a wild state.

John W Brown

Note: the sketch referred to appears in the Review.

The Norwood Review Edition #140.