Gypsy Roma and Traveller History Month: The Black Patch

BCLM Researcher Nadia Awal explores the history of the Black Patch, a historic site in Smethwick which was once home to the GRT Community.

Every June since 2008, people from across the UK have celebrated Gypsy Roma and Traveller History Month. The month aims to celebrate, educate and raise awareness, thus tackling prejudice and boosting the voices of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT) in society.  

We have decided to mark this month by exploring the history of the Black Patch. This piece of land in Smethwick was once home to the GRT community. This blog post explores this history and the community’s experiences during and after living on the Black Patch.  

Please note: this blog post refers to examples of prejudicial attitudes towards the GRT Community. Reader discretion is advised. 

Today, what you see is 20 acres of grassy, leafy parkland. Historically, it was occupied by farms and cottages before being transformed into a park. Following industrialisation, the land was surrounded by companies such as Tangyes Brothers, Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, and the Soho Foundry. This naturally led to urbanisation of the surrounding area, and homes for workers were built.  

The Gypsies of the Black Patch

Gypsies lived on this land from the mid-nineteenth century, some living in vardos (caravans) and others in bender tents (dome-shaped tents). Records suggest that since 1860 the Gypsies had been moved from Spring Hill to Bearwood, to Winson Green and then to the Black Patch.They started a more permanent occupation of the Black Patch, possibly spotting an opportunity to sell their goods to a growing local population, but also due to decreasing options as more and more land was developed. The first families to settle on the Black Patch included the Smiths, Claytons and Loveridges, and they fostered a responsibility for looking after the land.  

A large group of people gathered in a field. There are several horses in the image as well as some wooden caravans.
Travellers on the Black Patch, Handsworth, Birmingham. Reproduced with permission of the Library of Birmingham, Archives and Collections – WK/H5/546A

Gypsy communities would have a King and Queen – leaders of the group who would make decisions for the collective need. The King was Esau Smith, who will have been instrumental in making the decision to settle on the Black Patch. He is likely to have arrived with the original Smith family including his wife Sentinia (known as Henty, and a member of the Loveridge family). They originated from Northampton, and had five sons, seven daughters, 50 grandchildren and 150 great-grandchildren. King Esau’s business was the horse trade. He would go to Birmingham Horse Fair, bring horses back to the Black Patch and then sell them on.  

A historic photograph of Queen Henty, the Queen at the Black Patch traveller encampment. The Black and white image shows a woman wearing a headscarf tied at the neck, a blouse with a short jacket on top and a white skirt.
Portrait of the ‘Queen of the Gipsies’ at the Black Patch, Handsworth. Reproduced with permission of the Library of Birmingham, Archives and Collections – WK/H5/195

Newspaper articles from the time exhibit derogatory descriptions of the Black Patch Gypsies. One article from the Birmingham Daily Mail in May 1907 stated: 

The Black Patch, so long the haunt and home of gipsies, more or less unwashed…the irresponsible and undesirable nomads…[The Black Patch] Abandoned as it has been for many years past to the gipsies, notorious despoilers of nature, this…has merely been magnified by the addition of unsightly wigwams, fires which never seem to be extinguished, and caravans around which…the Romany children gambol in the dirt. 

Similarly, F. W. Hackwood, a contemporary of the Black Patch Gypsies and well-known historian of the Black Country, described the community in his book Handsworth Old and New (1908):  

Their presence in the parish was certainly in keeping with the traditions of the locality; for till the era of Boulton and Watt had transformed the appearance of the place old Handsworth Heath had been dotted with a number of miserable huts the homes of an idle beggarly people who lived a precarious life by doing as little work as possible, eking out their existence by thieving and poaching all over the countryside. 

Written records from the period are commonly from people outside of the Gypsy community. Most of the community of the Black Patch were illiterate, so stories and memories were passed down orally. One such testimony describes a sense of community: every night they would have two campfires, over which they would cook dinner. They would gather around, talk and sing songs whilst playing violins and accordions.  

A historic image of the Black Patch traveller encampment, Handsworth, Staffordshire.
The Black Patch travellers’ encampment, Handsworth, Staffordshire. Reproduced with permission of the Library of Birmingham, Archives & Collections – WK/H5/197

This sense of community is embodied in the reactions to the passings of King Esau and Queen Henty, who died in 1901 and 1907 respectively. Their deaths were widely reported. Gypsies from across the country descended on the Black Patch for King Esau’s funeral. His coffin was solid oak, and the family dressed in black. Wreaths were laid with reverence, and Queen Henty reportedly “wailed in a manner that was…’painful to witness’”. Queen Henty’s funeral was reported in the Staffordshire Sentinel:  

Since Monday the caravan in which this Romany ruler and her husband had held their court for half a century or more was the Mecca of the Midland nomads…The relatives gathered around, and for a while all was still. Then a single voice – that of a woman – could be heard reading a passage from the Scriptures and later came the singing of the hymn ‘God be with you till we meet again.’ The simple ceremony ended, the coffin in which its floral covering was lifted into the hearse and the mourners then proceeded to the cemetery in their caravans. The roads were packed with a dense mass of people, and it was difficult for the mourners to obtain admission to the church. 

The eviction of the community

Initially the Gypsies integrated with gaujos (non-Gypsies) in the area. However, tensions started to develop as local people did not always approve of the Gypsies’ presence. As the population density grew, the Gypsy community were treated as a problem. Various attempts to evict the community ensued. The Gypsies position was that, as well as having the deeds, they had paid rent and as such they understood that they had gained legal rights to the land. Many of the Gypsies were removed in 1905, following police involvement. But Queen Henty was allowed to stay on the land for another two years until her death. It was said that the deeds to the land were destroyed when the King and Queen’s caravan were ritually burned after her death. 

Eventually an eviction was negotiated by the Birmingham Corporation Parks Department and the remaining members of the community officially left the Black Patch on 15 February 1909. The Gypsies and Parks Department worked together to prepare the land and the Black Patch Recreation Ground opened in 1911. The Gypsies moved on, finding new places to reside in the surrounding area, some residing in vardos and others in houses.  

Remembering the Gypsies of the Black Patch

In 2016, the Black Patch community were commemorated. At the time of their occupation of the Black Patch, those who passed away were buried at St Mary’s Church, Handsworth in unmarked graves. They were not granted headstones for fear of upsetting other members of the local population. The Bishop of Aston unveiled a memorial for the Gypsies, the stone being paid for by the Romany Gypsy Memorial Review. A plaque was also erected in Black Patch Park in 2014:  

This memorial commemorates the historical contribution made to Black Patch Park and the greater West Midlands area, by a community consisting of Smith, Loveridge, Badger, Clayton, Scarret, Owen, Davies and other Gypsy families. Under the leadership of headman (King) Esau and his wife, (Queen) Sentinia (Henty) Smith many hundreds of Romany Gypsies and other nomadic people camped on this land from the mid-19th century until the evictions of July 26th 1905 and February 15th 1909. Inadvertently their presence contributed to the preservation of this land as open space enabling the Black Patch Recreation ground to be created and officially opened on June 21st 1911. 

Under the leadership of King Esau and Queen Henty, many hundreds of Gypsies and nomadic people camped on the Black Patch. Their presence contributed to the preservation of the land, which still exists to this day for the use and enjoyment of many.  

We would like to know more about the experiences of members of the Gypsy Roma Traveller community in the Black Country, to inform our research, interpretation and events. If you would like to share your memories, please get in touch:  

  • Tel: 0121 557 9643 
  • Email: [email protected] 
  • Address: Collections Team, Black Country Living Museum, Tipton Road, Dudley, West Midlands, DY1 4SQ