Article MT309
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Josiah 'Tite' Smith of Coleford, Gloucestershire
and Billy Harris of Charsfield, Suffolk


This article is a loose concatenation of two which Phil Heath-Coleman wrote for the magazine Romany Routes a few years ago.  Apart from their obvious interest to most MT readers, they are published here as an introduction to a forthcoming new CD publication by MT Records: MTCD373 Boshamengro - English Gypsy Musicians.  The title is Anglo-Romani for 'fiddle player' and, by extension, 'Musician'.  The CD will feature music from Harry Lee (fiddle) from whom only three tunes will have ever been heard by about 99.9% of our readers!  But I guess that almost all will have heard those three tunes on the LP Boscastle Breakdown.  The CD includes his complete recorded repertoire of 18 tunes, here for the first time.

Another musician who you are unlikely to have heard is Vanslow Smith (fiddle, melodeon).  Vanslow was an amazing musician, who used ALL the available accidentals on his pokerwork melodeon, and played some very jazzy skeleton-fiddle through an amplifier ... at the age of 82!  There are 11 tracks of his playing here.

We also have 9 tracks from Lemmie Brazil (melodeon), many of which did not appear on our Brazil Family 3-CD set back in 2007.  Plus one track each from: Jasper and Levi Smith (mouthorgan & tambourine); Jasper and Darby Smith (mouthorgan & guitar); Joe 'Dozer' Smith (diddling); Mary Biddle (diddling); Walter Aldridge (mouthorgan); and John Locke (fiddle) playing his Hornpipe, from the cylinder recording!  As a bonus, we've also included Stephen Baldwin with Tite Smith's Hornpipe and Pip Whiting with Billy Harris's Hornpipe and Will the Waggoner; tunes they learnt from Gypsy musicians - hence the connection with this Article.  As with our Stephen Baldwin and Pip Whiting CDs, this has been compiled, and the booklet written, by Phil Heath-Coleman.


Josiah 'Tite' Smith

Anyone who has searched the official records for Romany forbears will have been struck by how often the word 'fiddler' or 'musician' appears as an occupation.  Usually we can only guess at the role which music played in the lives of the people concerned, and the role which they in turn played in their own community and in the community at large.  But sometimes, by chance, posterity has preserved a clearer and inevitably more interesting picture.

In the case of Josiah Smith, for example, a boshamengro whose stamping ground was the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire (on the Welsh side of the Severn), we are almost spoilt for colour.  Although when I first encountered his name, or rather his nickname, it was simply being used to identify the source of an old fiddle tune - and even then it was misquoted, understandably enough, as Ted Smith - a vivid tale has since unfolded which culminates in the tragedy recorded in an old newspaper report which the editor was recently kind enough to put my way.  The item in question had been (re)published in February 1998 in a local magazine called the 'Forester' under the heading '100 years ago':

As the report states, the inquest - or 'inquisition' as it styled itself - was held at the Swan Inn, Brierley, on 9th December, and 'Tite' Smith was buried the next day at the Parish Chapel, Drybrook (which has since become the parish church of the Holy Trinity).  The record of the inquest - which 'Tite' evidently attended in person, though posthumously - gives his age as 56, and reveals that the tragedy unfolded at Nelson Green in Brierley, on 6th December 1897.  The cause of death is given as: Asphyxia, death being accelerated by exposure and cold and drunkenness.

Here, perhaps, we have a clue about Tite's and his brother's inability to extricate themselves from a few inches of water.  One of the witnesses at the inquest was 'John Baldwin, of The Bilson Inn, Cinderford: innkeeper', which suggests that Tite Smith and his brother may have been refreshing themselves to the point of incapacity there that fateful evening.  The Swan Inn at Brierley, where Tite Smith now lay in state, was perhaps another of the 'public houses in the neighbourhood' where he was 'accustomed to play the fiddle on Saturday evenings'.

Tite Smith's Family

The Census for 1861 reveals that Josiah Smith, then 19, was the son of Neptune, or Nipton Smith, 67, a 'travling gipsy', and his wife Sarah, 50.  With his parents, two sisters, Simpaton [?], 16, and Mary, 13, and a younger brother Elijah.  7, he was living in 'Tent no. 2' at Mos(e)ley Green, West Dean, near Coleford.  Tite's birthplace is given as West Dean, as is that of his sisters and his brother Elijah.  The brother, Mark, whom Tite was with when he met with his untimely demise, had been baptised on 15 September 1830 at Great Barrington in the Cotwolds, on the other side of Gloucestershire.  By 1851, when his age is given as 28, Mark had apparently moved to Pontypridd in Glamorgan, where he can be found in successive censuses until at least 1911.  The inquest report describes him as a 'peddler', of Nelson Green, but the census evidence suggests he may only have been visiting.

Tite's father, Neptune - whose name seems to have become attached to his son's nickname, at least in the newspaper report of Tite's death - was born at Stratton in Wiltshire and lived into his nineties, being recorded in the 1881 Census at East Dean at the age of 92.  Tite's mother Sarah is said to have been born at Bilston in Warwickshire, though later censuses suggest she was born in Herefordshire.

Tite may also have had another, otherwise unrecorded, brother who shared his father's name, as the 1881 Census records a 'Nipton Smith, 35, hawker, born Coalford (sic) Gloucestershire', and his wife, Matilda, in their travellers' van at Layton-with-Warbreck in Lancashire.

As the newspaper item reveals Tite left a widow, a blind daughter, and two sons.  On 29 January 1873 he had married Patience Loveridge, the daughter of William Loveridge, a deceased brazier, by which time they already had two sons, Phyance (possibly for Defiance), who was baptised at Canton, near Llandaff in Glamorgan, on 30 January 1868), and Isaiah (born 30 August 1869).  These were presumably the sons in America whom the clipping refers to.  The reference to Llandaff may suggest a visit to see his brother Mark in Wales.  Their daughter, Beatrice Annie, was born in 1876.  The newspaper report of her father's death reveals that she was blind, and in 1901 she was still living with her mother, at Brierley, where the census for that year describes them both as 'domestics'.  Patience died at the age of 70 in 1916 at Cinderford, and was buried on 28 August that year at the 'Parish Chapel - Drybrook', where her husband had been buried on 10 December 1897.

The 1891 Census also has Tite, his wife Patience and son Isaiah living at Nelson Green, East Dean, presumably in the cottage referred to in the newspaper report.

'Tite' Smith, fiddler

The records variously describe Josiah Smith as a hawker, chairmender or basket-maker, but it is as a fiddler that he was remembered locally.  The Forest of Dean was one of the last hotbeds of traditional morris dancing in the country, and it was as a musician playing for the dancers from Ruardean that his name was given to Russell Wortley, a botanist at Cambridge University, who played an important part in reviving national interest in morris dancing after the 2nd World War.  In 1946 he met some old dancers at Ruardean, and was told about their last performance at Whitsun 1884.  They visited Ruardean and Mitcheldean, and ended up at Ross-on-Wye.  On that occasion 'the music was supplied by Tite Smith, a gypsy'.  There were four dances, which were performed to the following tunes: Speed the Plough, Soldier's Joy, Haste to the Wedding, and Greensleeves.  These tunes are all still familiar to many people, though the last one is not the tune of that name often associated with Henry VIII, but one which otherwise accompanies a ditty beginning 'Shepherd O Shepherd will you come home'.  Morris dancers in the Forest of Dean would blacken their faces with burnt cork to dance on Boxing Day, rather than at Whitsun, and their dancing featured stick-clashing rather than the now more-familiar waving of handkerchiefs, which primarily originated in the Cotswolds and further to the east.

Although - unsurprisingly - we have no recordings of Tite Smith 's own playing, we are fortunate that in later years one of his contempories, the fiddler Stephen Baldwin of Upton Bishop in Herefordshire, but formerly of Newent in the Forest of Dean, was recorded playing at least one of Tite's tunes as an old man.  Born in 1873, it is possible, likely even, given their mutual interests, that Stephen Baldwin had known Tite Smith or heard him play.  It was Russell Wortley, again, who in 1954 recorded 'Stevie' Baldwin playing a tune which the fiddler called 'Tite Smith's Hornpipe'.  Other versions of this tune are found in old fiddler's tune books and were recorded from traditional musicians elsewhere, but 'Tite' Smith's highly personal take on the tune, as played by Stephen Baldwin, can be heard here.

Other tunes recorded by Stephen Baldwin which 'Tite' Smith may have known include another hornpipe which was evidently known as the Coleford Jig after the town of Coleford, where - as the Bristol Mercury reported on 12 September 1863 - Tite Smith (there identified as 'Joseph Smith, a gipsy') had appeared at the petty sessions on 8th September 'for assaulting Sergeant Davis, at Moseley Green, in the township of West Dean, on the 25th August last, was fined 10s. and costs, or twenty-one days' imprisonment.'  Unfortunately there is no record which punishment he opted for.  Stephen Baldwin's rendition of the Coleford Jig can be heard on line at  Another tune of Stephen Baldwin's which might be mentioned in this connection was called the Gypsy Hornpipe.

It is no coincidence that all three tunes are hornpipes: travellers were then as now celebrated for their step-dancing, and it is highly likely that Tite Smith played them or similar tunes for that purpose 'on Saturday evenings at … public houses in the neighbourhood'.  This predilection on the part of local travellers for hornpipes is confirmed by Stephen Baldwin's description of an occasion in about 1910 when he was invited by travellers to provide the music at a wedding.  Arriving at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, he stayed until 2 o'clock in the morning, perched on a tree stump and playing, in his own words, "nothing but hornpipesThe sweat simply rolled off themThey never seemed to get tired ...  For the evening they gave me five shillings".  This is an interesting reversal of the popular notion of Gypsy fiddlers playing at gaujo festivities.

Stephen Baldwin, who had himself played for morris dancers at Bromsberrow Heath on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire Border in his youth (as his father Charlie had for dancers at nearby Clifford Mesne before him), was also recorded playing versions of Haste to the Wedding, Soldier's Joy and Greensleeves, tunes which as we have seen Tite Smith had also played for the morris dancers from Ruardean.

Strangely enough, the nature of Tite Smith's tragic demise seems to have been an occupational hazard for the boshamengro: similar fates awaited James Locke (also known as Isaiah or Pollin Locke), who was found dead in the snow in Shropshire on Boxing Day 1927, and Henry Cave, who died in similar circumstances in Somerset on 27 December 1907.  Both men, like Tite Smith, unwittingly bequeathed their tunes to posterity, though in their case in print only, at the hands of Cecil Sharp, the great collector of and enthusiast for traditional music in England.  If Tite Smith had lived just a few years longer it is highly likely that Sharp would have found his way to him, possibly directed by Stephen Baldwin's father, and we as a consequence would have a much better idea of the other tunes he played.  As it is we are even more blessed, I think, that one at least of his tunes, named in his honour, survived in the repertoire of one of his contemporaries, and can still be heard as music rather than viewed as dots on a page.


Billy Harris

The name of Harris will, of course be familiar to anyone who knows anything of travelling families in the eastern counties - and particularly travelling showmen.  Billy Harris, however, (1841 -1931), who was born at Orsett in Essex in 1841, and ended up at Charsfield near Wickham Market, in Suffolk, where he seems to have ploughed his own furrow until his death there in 1931.  Were it not for the interest shown by post-War enthusiasts for the traditional music of East Anglia, his name would scarcely even be a memory now.  As it is, he and his fiddle-playing were remembered for long enough by local people and other musicians over a wider area for their memories to be recorded in detail in the latter half of the 20th century - this being a part of the country where the old music survived until well after the 2nd World War.

A local woman, Winnie Whiting (née Branton, b.1913), for example, recalled that as a girl in the village of Charsfield, she would see him, "… wearing an old red neckerchief with several days growth of whiskers on his chin, sitting with his legs crossed on the steps of his brass-covered caravan.  He would 'rattle out' tunes on his fiddle, only pausing to stir with one hand the cauldron of hedgehogs boiling at his feet".  She recalled that the children in Charsfield would "catch hedgehogs for "Gypsy Harris", who told them it was the richest meat you could get and paid 6d for an ordinary-sized one and 9d for a big one'.  She also remembered 'Fiddler Bill' playing in the Charsfield Horseshoes … where Jimmy Knights stepped.'

Jimmy Knights himself, who was born at Debach in 1880, remembered Billy Harris well: "You talk about step-dancing - I used to do that in Charsfield.  There was an old man there, a real Gypsy boy - Fiddler Harris we called him.  He'd come in the pub there with his fiddle under his jacket and I'd go crazy.  It took a good 'un to beat me y' know 'cos I could dance single stepping and double time as well and that used to lick a lot of them - two steps to one note.  I danced many a time on a dinner plate turned upside down and never broke it - you've got to be very light..."

And Sam Gyford, the nephew of another local fiddler, Walter Gyford, recalled: "… Charsfield Horseshoes - just fiddle and accordeon [more accurately melodeon].  The Harrises were the leading lights there - good step-dancers".

The period in question is the first quarter of the 20th century and the Harrises in question included not only Billy and but also his grandson, Alger(the g pronounced hard, as in Elgar).  Yet another local fiddler originally from Charsfield, Fred "Pip" Whiting (1905-1988) - the husband of Winnie whom we have already met - had associated with both of them: "Old Billy Harris ... his grandson could step-dance - Alger Harris.  I played for him in Charsfield Horseshoes just before I left for Down Under [in the mid-1920s] and, by crikey, he could hop".

The Harrises, of course, are a well-known family of showmen in the eastern counties, but who exactly were these particular Harrises?

Family history

Billy 'Fiddler' - William - Harris was born at Orsett in Essex in 1841.  As newspaper reports show, gypsies were a prominent feature of the local landscape - if not always a welcome one - for long afterwards.

The 1861 Census finds Billy's father, also William (then 44 and described as a 'Sieve Maker'), and mother, Sophia (then 43), both apparently born in Cambridgeshire, encamped 'By Road-Side' with their family at Doddinghurst in Essex (just to the north of Brentwood) in a heavily wooded tract of the county).  They were accompanied by a younger couple, John Taylor (19) and his wife Harriet (18).  Billy Harris (his age given as 20 - for once his dates all seem to be consistent) may have been the eldest surviving child, the census naming his siblings as 'Hagler' (15), Maria (12), Phoebe (7) and Delia (5).  Phoebe and Delia had been born in Essex, but the birthplace of both Sarah and Billy's brother is given as Cambridgeshire, which suggests the family had left and then returned to Essex.  The name attributed to Billy's brother is unusual, but as we have seen Billy had a grand-son by the name of Alger (the name is also found in other branches of the family, of course), which may explain the reference to 'Hagler' in the 1861 Census.

At some time during the 1860s Billy Harris married and relocated to Suffolk, where the births were registered of his children Alfred (Cosford, 1862), 'Canza' (Hartismere, 1866), Adolphus (Stow, 1869), and Lawrence (Hartismere, 1870).

The 1871 Census finds Billy Harris (aged 30) encamped in Mendlesham Lane at Stowupland (Suffolk), a 'Sieve Mender', with a wife, Prudence (26, a 'Hawker', born at Chippenham - the less familiar one in Cambridgeshire).  The same children are aged 7, 5 ('Kanzer'), 3 and 1 respectively, their birthplaces entered as Hitcham, Wethersett [Wetheringsett?], Walsham le Willows and Wickham Skeith, respectively, all in Suffolk.  At the same place we also find an older John Taylor (73, a 'tinker') whose birthplace is given as Long Stratton, Cambridgeshire, along with his wife Charlotte and four children, William (23) and Ladden (18) having been born in Kent, Matilder (14) in Norfolk, and Elijah (12) at Ballingdon in Essex (though it had actually been transferred to Sudbury in Suffolk for most administrative purposes some time previously).

The death of Billy's wife Prudence at the age of 25 is recorded in Bury St Edmunds late in 1871, and in 1875 he was back in Essex, where his marriage to Louise Nickels in that year was registered in Romford.

The 1881 Census found Billy (now described as a 'travelling tinker') and Louisa, at Gunton in Suffolk, 'in a van laying (sic) on Gunton Common' with members of the Gray family.  The Census identifies Louisa's birthplace as Orsett ('Horsett') in Essex, like Billy's, where her surname - in the more conventional form of Nicholls- is frequently found.  Her age is given as 40 (as is Billy's), but the ages of 55 and 64 which are given successively in the 1891 and 1901 Censuses suggest - if they are indeed more accurate - that she may actually have been born in about 1846.  Living with them were Billy's sons Alfred (aged 18), 'Dolphin' (aged 12) and Clarence (aged 10 - and actually christened Lawrence), all three born in Norfolk.  'Dolphin' is probably an enumerator's rationalisation of 'Dolphie', which is how 'Adolphus' was known to those who knew him.  Two of the Taylor family - Robin (16) and James (21) - are also described as lodging with them.

The 1891 and 1901 censuses, however, as well as giving Louisa Harris's age as 55 and 64 respectively, both also identify her place of birth as Charsfield in Suffolk.  Those censuses record Billy Harris - now a 'basket maker' - and Louisa at Pettaugh (Suffolk) - on 'Workhouse Meadow' - and Needham (Norfolk) - in Tumbril Lane - respectively.  In 1891 they had only a grand-daughter, Beatrice (8, born Totham, Essex) for company.  In 1901 they had three grand-daughters - Ocean (11, born Chigwell Row, Essex, on 15 August 1890), Rawnie (8, born Framlingham, Suffolk) and Alice (4, born Eye), and a grand-son, Algar (10, born Ipswich), - 'travelling in a van' with them.  The children's father, 'Dolphis' (i.e. Billy's son Adolphus, 37) and his wife Priscilla (40, born Blakenham, Suffolk) are also recorded there, but were apparently 'travelling' in a different 'van'.

Louisa's death was registered in Hartismere (Suffolk) in late 1906, and the 1911 Census records Billy Harris, now 69 and once again being described as a sieve maker, living with his son Dolphus (whom the Census seems to record as 'Dolgan' - 47), described as a 'skeepmaker' [probably a reference to skeps - woven covers for bee hives], daughter-in-law Priscilla (whom the Census seems to record as Prelinna - 48) and their children Alger (19, already being described as a 'labourer on farm'), 'Ranys' (16), Alice (14) and Mary (9) at Charsfield.  The census also refers to two further children who hadn't survived.  Alger subsequently married a member of the Taylor family - Alice Almeta (born 1895) in 1915.

As we have seen, it is Charsfield which Billy is subsequently associated with.  At some point his son Alger and daughter-in-law Alice moved into a council house there.  Billy Harris died there at the age of 89 in 1931, and his sons Adolphus and Alger in 1946 and 1965 respectively.

'Fiddler' Harris duped!

We ultimately owe our knowledge of the tune which is associated with Billy Harris to a local fiddler called Harcourt Nesling (known as 'Harkie' - neither part of his name is unusual in that part of Suffolk), who was born in Bedfield in 1890: With hindsight this would seem to have been a mean trick, but people were made of sterner stuff then, and their sensibilities were not ours.

Harkie Nesling's description of Billy Harris, his red neckerchief and whiskers, and the way he would "rattle out" a tune, is surprisingly similar to Winnie Whiting's description of him, suggesting that the Gypsy fiddler had acquired an almost mythical status at a local level.

Billy Harris's Hornpipe

As in the case of our previous boshamengro we can only identify a solitary tune from the repertoire of Billy Harris - the one which Harkie Nesling remembered from before the 1st World War.  And once again posterity - and a bit of luck - have preserved a glimpse (or rather the aural equivalent) of his music.  When Fred Whiting returned from Australia he became a close friend of Harkie Nesling and they would often play the fiddle together.  Fred learnt Billy Harris's tune from Harkie, and a recording of him playing it can be heard here.

Although Fred Whiting said: "I've never seen a gypsy fiddler who doesn't know this hornpipe, and I've never seem one yet who knows the name of it", when this was recorded, it does not seem to have never found anywhere else, at least in that form (which more resembles what is known as a schottische, though the terms were somewhat fluid among old fiddlers).

Harkie's reminiscences of his meeting with Billy Harris in Framlingham Queen, including him singing a few bars of the tune Billy was playing, can be heard here.


I am grateful to three people in particular for the human detail I have been able to add to this account: the late Keith Summers for his recordings of Harkie Nesling and Fred Whiting and his memories of Jimmy Knights and Sam Gyford; Carole Pegg for her memories of Fred and Winnie Whiting; and Peggy Cole for her own memories of Alger Harris (her next-door neighbour) and Charsfield.  I am also grateful to Keith Summers for the photograph of Walter Clow, and to Peggy Cole for the photograph of Alger Harris.

Phil Heath-Coleman - 24.4.17

Originally published in Romany Routes, Vol 10, No.8. September 2012.  Reproduced with permission.

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