On 24 May 1819 a girl was born, on 20 Jun 1837 she became Queen Victoria. This ushered in an age of industrial and political world supremacy, an age of English Imperial Expansion and of English supreme self esteem and self confidence.
In 1824 and 1833, “Vagrancy Acts” were passed effectively making the traditional gypsy way of life illegal. English mothers would warn their offspring that Gypsies stole children (there is no evidence that this actually happened). In 1833 the “Children and Young Persons Act” made the reverse possible. It became legal for the State to take Gypsy children from their parents against the wishes of both.
In Norfolk, somewhere between these two conflicting communities, a child was born.
James Mace was born on 8th April 1831, the 5th child of William Mace and his wife Ann (née Rudd) in a small rented house in Street Lane, Beeston, Norfolk. The village was part of the huge estate of the Windham family of Felbrigge Hall. Although baptised “James”, he was always called by his nickname “Jem” probably to distinguish him from a previous child called James who died a few weeks after birth. He was christened at the parish church of St Mary the Virgin. William and Ann went on to have three more children, another of whom died in infancy. These were not easy times for the weakly.
Jem’s father William had three brothers (James, Thomas and Barnabus), one sister (Elizabeth) and another brother (also Thomas) who died in infancy). All four surviving brothers were itinerant blacksmiths. To supplement his income, William was also a cattle dealer and played the violin at the local pub.
Blacksmithing is a very physically demanding job. Iron can only be worked when it is very hot. In the 1830’s this involved a hot charcoal fire, made hotter by using large hand or foot operated bellows. When the iron was hot enough it was held with tongs and hammered into shape on an anvil. The iron loses heat quickly, so it is necessary to work equally quickly. In the 1830’s children were expected to help their parents. In order to teach apprentices (and the children of blacksmiths), the smith would hold the red hot work piece on the anvil with tongs and strike it in a steady rhythm. The apprentice would stand opposite with a small hammer and attempt to strike the work piece between the smith’s blows and in exactly the same spot that the smith last struck. As the apprentice became stronger and more skilled, the weight of the hammer he used would be increased until he could use a seven pound sledge hammer and the smith could use a small hammer to show him where to hit. It is difficult to imagine a better training for a boxer who needs to hit hard and repeatedly in exactly the right place and not to tire.
Jem worked with his father in the forge from his early childhood until the age of 13.
The picture shows a young boy about to be shown the skills of blacksmithing. The picture was taken in 1930’s USA. William and his brothers were “itinerant blacksmiths” they would have worked outside or under a canvas awning, using equipment they could transport with a horse and cart, otherwise the scene would have been very similar.
On his tenth birthday Jem was given a violin by an old sailor who was lodging with the family. Jem taught himself to play and, by the age of 12, he was a very accomplished musician. Jem, in common with most rural children at this time, received no schooling. He did not learn to read and write until his thirties, and he was never proficient.
When he was seven, his 23 year old Uncle Barney married Lurina Baker (aka Heron), a 15 year old high status gypsy girl. (Gypsies used multiple names at this time as a matter of course as a way of minimising harassment by officialdom. They normally used their “Roma” name to their friends and their “English” name to officials. Some used many names if they wished to be elusive). Eight months later Lurina gave birth to Leopoldius Mace in Beeston. It seems very likely that Barney brought Lurina to his brother’s house so that she could give birth to her first child in a bed rather than on the floor in a “bender” tent (which is probably where her other children were conceived and born). Gypsies were very fond of giving their children fancy names and then immediately shortening them to something more manageable, in this case to “Pooley”. In time Jem and Pooley became firm friends.
In 1839, when James was 8, groups of people attempted to suggest reforms that would lead to a more democratic government. They were called “Chartists”. The aristocratic government strongly resisted, which provoked countrywide unrest leading to the Chartist riots.
When Jem was 10, his 18 year old brother William was arrested as a suspected pickpocket. He was locked up in Walsingham Jail awaiting trial. He was in jail at the time of the 1841 census (HO107/772/14/-/1), so by the time he came to court on the 9 Jul 1841 charged with “larceny from the person” he had spent at least 3 months incarcerated. When he was tried, he was found not guilty and released, presumably because his accuser failed to appear. These incidents almost certainly increased Jem’s alienation from the aristocratic and hierarchical English society. The adjacent court records are not easy to read because the ink is very faded. William’s entry is the 8th from the top.
Jem became bored with the repetitive nature of blacksmithing, so in 1844, at the age of 13, his father sent him off to Henry Fox, a cabinet maker in Wells next the Sea to learn that trade. Jem stuck this for 15 months and then decided he didn’t like this either so he collected his belongings and walked the twenty miles back home to Beeston.
In the evening Jem earned money by playing his violin, in pubs and sometimes busking. During the day he joined the Gypsy youth culture which frequented the ever present fairs. Today, fairs and circuses form a tiny part of the entertainment industry. At this period they were the entertainment industry. Gypsy youths would help in the business of parting the local populace from its money. Someone who could handle horses, entertain the paying customers and was able to use his fists if local racists paid a visit was always going to be offered jobs. It also seems likely, judging by court records, that he was also not beyond picking pockets. Because he had built up a large circle of Gypsy friends he could always find a bed and company in a wide area of Norfolk.
Jem was always a lady’s man (or womaniser if you prefer) and it is reasonable to assume that this started during this period when he was footloose and fancy free. All women seemed to find his good looks, easy going personality and athletic body attractive, and he never had too much problem finding a mate.
As a child Jem was much freer to roam than children of today. He regularly visited the local Gypsies. He learned to enjoy the “home spun” pleasures of the Gypsy community, singing, dancing, fiddle playing and chatting. He made many Gypsy friends. He came to dislike the strident Christianity prevalent in the English community at that time. In an attempt to encourage good attendance for religious services, preachers described the fun and jollity enjoyed by the Gypsy community as sinful, and were fervent in their condemnation. Jem became very aware of the contradictions involved in preaching goodness and forgiveness and at the same time encouraging the harassment of his Gypsy friends. It came as a supreme irony that when he died, he was given a Christian burial by his own son.
Fighting among young and adolescent boys has always been common. However, at this time in history, between the earlier (compulsory) archery and the later evolving of team sports such as football and cricket, this fighting became the standard young male activity. This applied to all strata of society, except that higher ranks tended to combine fist fighting with sword fighting or fencing. Fights were organised between individuals and between neighbouring villages, much as football matches might be organised today. Jem was naturally involved.
Click button to learn about Henry Fox
One can imagine that his parents were not best pleased that their unruly teenage son had again resisted their efforts to turn him into a quiet, hard working adult. After several months, Jem finally decided that the restrictive “English” world of family and work was not for him. At the age of 16, he packed a bag and his violin and went off to be a Gypsy.
During this period he also boxed in improvised fights organised in pubs, sometimes gloved, sometimes bare fisted for small purses. His main income, however, was derived from violin playing, as the following 1851 census demonstrates
Jem “in his prime”. A reproduction of an original painting published with the adjacent write up in 1872
About 1851, Jem was busking outside a pub in one of Norfolk’s seaside towns when 3 drunk fishermen decided they didn’t appreciate his music. One of them smashed his violin. Jem angrily attacked the muscular seaman. Jem’s success in flooring him and one of his friends, and the fact that he no longer owned a violin to provide a source of income, persuaded Jem to pursue a career in fighting. To this end he joined a showman called “Bunny” Blythe and toured the Fen Country with him.
Note - This account comes from Jem’s autobiography with no corroborating evidence. I feel that Jem’s story may be elaborated.