Few readers of this column have ever seen old-fashioned bands of Gypsies – or Roma, as they are now frequently called – setting up temporary campsites near towns and villages.
Though never common in this part of the country, groups of Gypsies passed through this area from time to time in the early decades of the 20th century.
Gypsies had their origins in India, and, over time, moved to the west, arriving in Europe by 1600. Eventually they ranged over much of that continent. They began to emigrate to North America in the 1880s, and the first bands appeared in Canada in the years immediately before and after 1900.
People in those days regarded Gypsies with a mixture of wonder and fear. They were assumed to be congenital thieves and petty criminals. Some municipalities refused to let them stay overnight.
Though many had small shops in the larger cities, and a few owned farms, Gypsies tended to prefer their old itinerant lifestyle, sticking to their own cultural traditions and language, and eschewing integration with the larger North American society. In the summers, they took to the road, sleeping in tents, and more or less living off the land.
Those Gypsy bands tried to support themselves by telling fortunes, buying and selling small items, and sometimes by playing music. Sometimes their activities strayed into illegality, involving petty thefts of farm produce, chickens, and clothing.
Occasionally a Gypsy would find himself embroiled in something more serious than petty theft. One such case occurred in the summer of 1906. On Aug. 18, a group of Gypsies were camped out in Erin Township, near the farm of Richard Worden, on Concession 8, south of the hamlet of Brisbane. They befriended Worden, and one of the band, a man named William Baverstock, did some work for Worden. He would soon regret the contact. When they left, Baverstock took a horse belonging to Worden, and substituted an old, broken-down nag.
Worden was not happy with the trade, and at once informed High Constable Merewether, the county constable stationed at Guelph. Using the telegraph and telephone, Merewether attempted to discover the movements of the band. After a couple of weeks he met with success. His colleague, High Constable Joseph Rogers, of Simcoe County, discovered the band encamped between Orillia and Barrie, almost a month after the theft.
Rogers and another constable from Barrie arrested Baverstock and a woman named Coon, who identified herself as Baverstock’s wife, and took them to jail at Barrie. Constable Rogers managed to find the horse. Baverstock had traded it to his father, who ran a small store in Barrie. Subsequently, the quadruped was sold twice.
After some investigation Constable Rogers discovered that Baverstock had a previous conviction for stealing horses. Rogers held the prisoner and his wife until the arrival of Constable Merewether from Guelph. Back in Guelph, Baverstock appeared for an initial hearing before Magistrate P.M. Saunders, who held him for trial the following day. He remanded the charges against Miss Coon, Baverstock’s alleged wife. She was ultimately released when Crown Attorney Henry Peterson withdrew the charges against her.
At the trial, before Judge Chadwick, Baverstock pled guilty to the charge against him when he realized that Peterson and Merewether had put together a solid case against him. In his address to the court in his defence, Baverstock stated that he was predisposed to consumption, and asked for a lenient sentence.
Judge Chadwick deferred the case for a day to consider the request. His sentence was three years in the Kingston Penitentiary.
Lest anyone think the sentence too severe, Chadwick pointed out that Baverstock had two previous convictions for stealing horses (Crown Attorney Peterson had discovered a second one while preparing his case), and that “he appeared to be a member of a gang of horse thieves who were a menace to the country.”
The authorities strongly suspected that Baverstock’s father knew the horse was stolen, but lacked sufficient evidence to prove it.
Judge Chadwick had strong praise for Constable Merewether and his perseverance in tracking down the accused and assembling the evidence.
The use by Merewether of telegraph and telephone contact with other police officers was still something of a novelty in 1906. Local officers sometimes regarded communication from other police forces as interference in their own bailiwicks. The high constables employed by most counties partially overcame that difficulty, but jurisdictional disputes still characterized much policing in the early 20th century. Apart from the high constables employed by the counties, there was little in the way of policing in rural areas. To investigate the most serious crimes, the Ontario government had hired the famous John W. Murray in 1875, and added two detectives to his office in the 1890s. Criminals had a good chance of evading capture under those circumstances, but, as William Baverstock discovered in 1906, circumstances were changing. The same year he was released, 1909, the provincial government established the Ontario Provincial Police.
Baverstock’s activities did nothing to erase the prejudice and ill-will against Gypsies in this part of Ontario, and the reputation they carried as thieves and criminals. Few Gypsies show up in court records of those years, but that does not necessarily mean that they did not steal on their visits to Wellington. The activities of Gypsies in Wellington were not well documented, so we will never know the whole picture, good or bad.
This week’s column marks the start of the 21st year of Valuing Our History.
Back in the summer of 1990, I was approached several times by David Meyer, who at that time was a reporter for the Elmira Independent, with the proposal for a history column for the Elora Sentinel, which the Independent was about to commence publishing.
At the time, I was reluctant to undertake the assignment. A few months before I had undergone major surgery for cancer, and with my prospects uncertain, I had no interest in adding to my chores.
Eventually I agreed to write a weekly piece on Elora’s history, planning to keep up the column for six months or so.
With encouragement and suggestions from readers, I did not stop after six months. Valuing Our History survived the demise of the Sentinel, appearing in the Fergus News Express from 1995 to 1998.
Then David Adsett dropped in one day, offering to publish the column in the Wellington Advertiser, provided I would write on items from across the county. We came to an agreement with a handshake over a cup of coffee, and since January 1999 I have been living on page 10 or 12 of the Advertiser.
Over the past 20 years, I have written more than a million and quarter words for Valuing Our History. I am sure that is some kind of record. To my surprise, some readers have read most of them, and many columns have resulted from questions or suggestions from readers.
I willingly tell everyone that there is usually at least one error in each column, and I am gratified when a reader points it out to me. All too often, writing about history is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with 90% of the pieces missing.
Historical evidence is incomplete and, all too often, ambiguous. It is always gratifying to hear from readers.
I would like to thank all my regular readers for their kind comments and suggestions over the years.
I intend to carry on as long as I am able, and as long as Mr. Adsett is willing to publish the column.