Nomad and two children


A woman travels through a landscape with two children: an infant held to her back in a shawl, and a young child who stands beside her and holds the hem of her cloak. The woman has long hair and a scarf tied around her forehead; she clutches the shawl in which the infant rides with her left hand, and extends her right to reveal a coin. Both mother and child are barefoot, and the child’s tunic only partially covers his body.

Primary Works: 

Dissertation on the Gipseys (London, 1807)

Accession Number: 

Thordarson T 1836

Height (in centimeters): 


Width (in centimeters): 

This image is the first plate in Dissertation on the Gipseys: representing their manner of life, family economy, occupations & trades, marriages & education, sickness, death & burial, religion, language, science & arts. &c &c: with an historical enquiry concerning their origin & first appearances in Europe, by Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (London, 1807).
1744 Vagrancy Act

The 1744 Vagrancy Act mandated that gypsies, beggars, strolling actors, peddlers and gamblers refusing to work for usual or common wages could be whipped or imprisoned by local magistrates (Mayall 258). In this way, any person refusing to participate in a wage-based system of labor was deemed criminal.

1810 Licensing Act

The 1810 Licensing Act required the licensing of vagabonds, gypsies, hawkers and peddlers (Hawkes 13). This system of identification contributed to the surveillance of wandering persons and helped to enforce local ordinances specifying the maximum stay of non-residents in a town or its outskirts.

Poor Laws

Throughout this period legal settlement remained a prerequisite for poor relief, meaning that the illegally settled, unsettled or wandering poor were routinely excluded from community or church-based assistance (Lloyd 117). Through the so-called “Speenhamland system,” parishes subsidized wages according to the parishioner’s need, determined by the cost of bread and number of dependents (Lloyd 115). In this way, most discussions of poverty revolved around the adequacy or inadequacy of earnings, and thus excluded those who did not participate in a wage-based economy.
The prints which populate Dissertation on the Gipseys seem to have been gleaned from a variety of sources, and Grellmann never explicitly connects text to image. Thus, it is up to the reader to make such connections. Though at some distance from the text's opening plate, the following passage describes a scenario which seems to resonate with the image at hand:
They have iron constitutions, because they have been brought up hardily. The pitiless mother takes her three-month-old child upon her back, and wanders about in fair or foul weather, in heat or cold, without troubling her head what may happen to it. When a boy attains the age of three years, his lot becomes still harder. While an infant, and his age reckoned by weeks and months, he was a least wrapped up closely in rags; but now, deprived even of these, he is, equally with his parents, exposed to the rigour of the elements, for want of covering: he is now put to trial how far his legs will carry him, and must be content to travel about, with at most, no other defence for his feet than thin socks. (Grellmann 13)
There seems to have been a belief during this period that gypsy women were particularly tall and masculine. Whether Amazonian height was a characteristic inherent to the gypsies as a "race" or whether it was a product of their harsh nomadic lifestyle seems to have been an unresolved question, and reflects changing conceptions of race (as biologically vs. environmentally contingent) at the time.

Wordsworth's poem "Beggars," given below, draws on these stereotypes, remaining vague on the subject of origin and race:

"Beggars" (1807-10)
She had a tall man's height or more;

Her face from summer's noontide heat

No bonnet shaded, but she wore

A mantle, to her very feet

Descending with a graceful flow,

And on her head a cap as white as new-fallen snow.

Her skin was of Egyptian brown:

Haughty, as if her eye had seen

Its own light to a distance thrown,

She towered, fit person for a Queen

To lead those ancient Amazonian files;

Or ruling Bandit's wife among the Grecian isles.

Advancing, forth she stretched her hand

And begged an alms with doleful plea

That ceased not; on our English land

Such woes, I knew, could never be;

And yet a boon I gave her, for the creature

Was beautiful to see--a weed of glorious feature.

(Wordsworth 1-18)
The gypsy featured in this image, though the assumed mother of the two children, is depicted as particularly masculine in her physique.
Gypsies. Child-rearing. Poverty. Nomads. Alms-giving. Charity.
The woman’s elongated stature illustrates the belief that gypsy women were made more rugged and masculine by the hardships of a nomadic existence, an idea echoed in Wordsworth's "Beggars" (quoted above). This construction of the gypsy was one of many ways in which their peculiarity as a distinct race was conceptualized as a result of environment and lifestyle rather than an intrinsic or biological difference (Nord 14). The prominent placement of the young child exposed to the elements and Grellmann’s description of the mother’s parental neglect suggests the specific interest in children’s welfare taken up by many philanthropic and charitable organizations at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a focus that would become more pronounced as the century progressed (Olsen 29).
Ethnographic images such as these strove to classify gypsies as an identifiable racial group and to differentiate between particular types of gypsies (such as the rugged, Amazonian gypsy woman and the decrepit and elderly gypsy hag). Such images were included in both encyclopedic volumes of novel persons, which attempted to archive eccentric types, and more focused, scholarly treatises on the supposed cultural and biological differences of England’s domestic other.
Grellmann, Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb. Dissertation on the Gipseys. London: William Ballintine, 1807. Print.

Hawkes, Derek and Barbara Perez. The Gypsy and the State: The Ethnic Cleansing of British Society. Oxford: Alden P, 1995. Print.

Lloyd, Sarah. “Poverty.” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. Ed. Iain McCalman, et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 114-125. Print.

Mayall, David. Gypsy Identities 1500-2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-men to the Ethnic Romany. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Nord, Deborah Epstein. Gypsies & the British Imagination, 1807-1930. New York: Columbia UP, 2006. Print.

Olsen, Kirstin. Daily Life in 18th-century England. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999. Print.

Wordsworth, William. "Beggars." Selected Poetry. Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997. 119. Print.
"Nomad and Two Children" 1807

Artist Unknown


First plate in Dissertaion on the Gipseys: representing their manner of life, family economy, occupations & trades, marriages & education, sickness, death & burial, religion, language, science & arts &c. &c &c: with an historical enquiry concerning their origin & first appearances in Europe. Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellmann (London, 1807).