Promoting passion in book collecting

John Hoyland, Quaker Activist


Ardent abolitionists, the Quakers played an important role in ending slavery in both the Old World and the New. But they also did much to end discrimination against other minorities. John Hoyland (1750-1831), a highly respected Yorkshire Quaker, is credited with being the first British author to make a full attempt to report the history and lifestyles of England’s Gypsies.

Gypsies Face Aggressive Persecution

By the fifteenth century, Gypsies were already being brought to England. For the next two hundred years, they would mostly work as entertainers: jugglers, acrobats, and psychics, exotic characters whom people assumed were Egyptian. In 1530, the first law banning the import of Gypsies was passed. The act carried a hefty fine, so it must have been a relatively common practice. Then in 1554, the law was tightened. Being an immigrant Gypsy in England became a capital punishment. It wasn’t until the 1650’s that the last known executions occurred, though Gypsies were still regularly transported to America both before and after.

The Dutch followed England’s model and began aggressively persecuting Gypsies in the eighteenth century. In the 1750’s, a group of Gypsies got so desperate to escape England that they sold themselves as slave laborers. They made it to Pennsylvania, where they escaped and formed a community of “Chi-kiners,” or “Black Dutch.” Their descendents still live in Pennsylvania to this day.

From 1768 to 1782, Maria Theresa and Joseph II tried to force Gypsies to settle with a series of government decrees, but they were largely unsuccessful. In 1782, a census of Gypsies in Hungary indicated that there were 43,787 Gypsies in the country, 1,582 of whom were musicians.

The Gypsies now faced persecution and discrimination all over Europe. In 1815, at the annual meeting of the Church, the Quakers decided to address the issue. They undertook to improve the religious and social conditions for the Gypsies in Great Britain, first by learning more about them. They chose John Hoyland, a highly respected Yorkshire Quaker who had actually been banned from the Church at one point–due to his relationship with a Gypsy woman. But it was not for this relationship that Hoyland was selected. By this time, Hoyland was already a somewhat well known author with a variety of titles to his name. Who better, then, to write a book about the Gypsies than a respected author?

A Quaker Anthropologist?

Hoyland took a novel approach to gathering information about the Gypsy community. He started by sending questionnaires to all the district magistrates in England. Interested parties were invited to respond. He also relied on the “learned Grellman,” that is, Heinrich Moritz Gottlieb Grellman, whom he had read thanks to Matthew Raper’s 1787 translation. Then Hoyland went one step further: he spent considerable time visiting Gypsy families and encampments himself, an approach that was more ethnographic than religious. What resulted was a mostly sympathetic account of Gypsy life that contradicted the stereotypes about the group’s culture, values, and history.


“Gypsy Encampment” is the frontispiece to Grellman’s book on Gypsies.

Hoyland concluded that the precise number of Gypsies was unknown, but that it was probably between 18,000 and 20,000. All said that their ancestors were originally from Egypt, though none were sure why they had left Egypt or come to England initially. The Gypsies had little concept of genealogy and did not record much pertinent family history. They also had very little internal organization, but different Gypsy groups had very specific trek routes and “territory.” These routes were important because they enabled the Gypsies to get work and shelter as they traveled.

Hoyland also noted that the Gypsies had no real religious observances and often knew little of organized religion other than the Lord’s Prayer. They did not allow outsiders to study their language, though Hoyland was able to pick up a few words during his research. Most of the year, the Gypsies slept in the open air or in the barns of sympathetic farmers. They only sought rooms in cheap hotels during the coldest months of the year. Generally the farmers who responded to Hoylands’s questionnaire had no complaints about the Gypsy groups who stayed on or passed through their land, save that they occasionally took wood from their fences for their fires. Many farmers actually appreciated having Gypsy visitors because they kept an eye on the farmer’s land and livestock for him.

Inspiring a Movement


An early 20th-c English gypsy encampment

Though A Historical Survey of the Customs, Habits, and Present State of the Gypsies(1816) did much to educate people about Gypsy culture, it did little to stymie discrimination at the hands of the British government. The Vagrancy Act was passed in 1824 and amended in 1838. The amendment was particularly crippling to the Gypsies and led to frequent brushes with the law; police officers often applied the regulations as strictly as possible. The amendment was designed to keep people for applying for welfare benefits in multiple communities, so people with no permanent address were essentially ineligible for poor relief.

However, Hoyland’s work did inspire a number of evangelical charitable organizations to take up the Gypsies’ cause. Hoyland had believed that what Gypsies needed above all else was Christian brotherly love, and that children should be the focus of any efforts because they were still tractable. He proposed that charity schools be established in the tradition of the British and Foreign School Society. These organizations, he believed, would best be funded by the state so that they would not place an undue burden on local municipalities.

A similar model would take root in the nineteenth century, though not exclusively for the benefit of Gypsies; the Sunday-School Movement would emerge in the nineteenth century with champions like the Bluestocking Hannah More and a number of prominent religious leaders. The movement resulted in myriad cheap tracts designed to educate the poor not only in matters of religion, but also in spelling, writing, arithmetic, and other skills. Thus Hoyland’s legacy stretches beyond the Gypsies, encompassing a number of efforts to improve overall social conditions for the poor and disenfranchised of England.

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This entry was posted on April 23, 2014 by in History and tagged , , .
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