A Devonshire rapscallion, Bampfylde-Moore Carew

A Devonshire rapscallion, Bampfylde-Moore Carew

The man with the unlikeliest of first names was born in Bickleigh, Devon in 1693 and died in Tiverton in 1759. That much is for certain: more or less.

As for the rest you may read his life story ‘in his own words’ in The Surprising Adventures of Bamfylde-Moore Carew, King of the Gypsies – and Dog Stealer in which he confesses to  pursuing a career as an out-and-out rogue, a premier league confidence trickster, an unscrupulous charlatan, mountebank, a blind (and sometimes lame) beggar, a practised dog stealer, an accomplished pickpocket, a master of disguises and, lest we forget, King of the Gypsies.

A noble line

He was born one July morn at Bickleigh, near Tiverton, where many bearing the ancient and honourable name of Carew lie buried and his father, Theodore Carew was the vicar. He was named in honour of his two godfathers, the Honourable Colonel Hugh Bampfylde and one, Major Moore.

Aged 12 he was sent to Tiverton School and fell in with a gang of classmates who kept a formidable pack of deerhounds. Came the day they skipped lessons and flattened a farmer’s cornfield in pursuit of a deer and Carew decided to make a run for it rather than return to school to face the beating or his home to face a sermon.

He vanished for a year and a half until Carew judged it safe to return to Bickleigh, having finished his ‘education’ in the interim amongst a band of Gypsies. His book boasts that he had been a quick study and he had majored in most of the tricks of the trade by his return. The bad penny had turned up once more, this time having gone from bad to worse. He did not stay long.

He immediately set about taking up a number of disguises and defrauding friends and neighbours out of money and was again forced to take to the road – this time to avoid arrest.

The two kinds of Gypsy

In Georgian England there were genuine Gypsies and then there were also gangs of professional vagabond-thieves who pretended to be what they called Egyptian Gypsies.

Hark, hark! The dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town - Henry Stacy Marks

Hark, hark! The dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town – Henry Stacy Marks

In this guise the gangs hawked goods, practised phoney fortune-telling (conning gullible serving girls into letting them into rich houses where they could make off with the silver) mingled with crowds at fairs (to pick pockets) as well as the usual thefts from farmyards, chicken runs, market stalls and homesteads, as they ploughed their wicked ways across the land.

Was he a rogue – or did he make most of it up simply to sell books? Two hundred and fifty years later the jury is still out, trying to separate fact from fancy but read Henry Fielding’s Adventures of Tom Jones (a classic work of fiction, 1749) and you will find a chapter devoted to hero Tom’s encounter with Carew and company in a wood, where he is most decidedly ensconced as the King of the Gypsies.

That chapter adds nothing to the Tom Jones plot. Strange, unless perhaps Fielding, a West Country man and a lawyer and magistrate as well as an author, is simply taking the opportunity to add to the authenticity of his own yarn by recording an actual encounter he himself had with the villainous Carew?

Henry Fielding immortalised Carew in his book 'Adventures of Tom Jones'

Henry Fielding immortalised Carew in his book ‘Adventures of Tom Jones’

Meanwhile, back at our own tale, we need tell that our hero was also a good actor and could feign madness at the drop of a hat. For in Georgian England, when and where it was customary to transport a man (or woman or child) for stealing so much as a loaf of bread, exceptions were made and leniency shown to those who were clearly insane. These itinerants were simply turned out onto the highway again and pointed firmly in the direction  of the next parish.

Still one jump ahead of the law, his chosen road led him to sign on to a ship bound for Newfoundland: on his return he landed at Newcastle where he posed as the ship’s mate, charmed an apothecary’s daughter into eloping with him and headed back to the South West.

The ‘King’ is crowned

Together they led the nomadic life and he re-joined the band of rogues that had taken him in earlier and they gravitated – along with most of the rest of England’s Gypsy fraternities – to the rich pickings to be had at London’s Bartholomew’s Fair.
Here, as fate would have it, the old Gypsy King, one Clause Patch died and Carew – who by now not only held their first class honours degree in flim-flammery – but was also versed in Latin and Greek – was voted King of the Gypsies.

But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, for within a few months he was back in Devon, caught, imprisoned and convicted an idle vagrant, and sentenced, at Rougemont Castle, Exeter, to be taken to Bideford to be transported to Maryland.  (Most Devon ports did a good trade in those days importing tobacco and exporting convicts).

As he tells it he managed to escape immediately on his arrival at the quayside in America as the planters were casting an eye over the latest arrivals. He made it into the woods but was quickly recaptured, whipped and had an iron ring fastened round his neck.

A second escape brought him to a village of friendly Native Americans who – rather than turn him in to claim their reward they must have fallen under his charms because, he tells us, they set him free. He then made for Pennsylvania, swam the Delaware river and eventually reached Boston harbour via Philadelphia and New York – in an assortment of disguises, including that of a Quaker.

Are you still with us?

Here he signed up on a British man-of-war, homeward-bound. On his arrival at Bristol he escaped the clutches of re-enlistment (or indeed imprisonment) by having first pricked his hands and face with the point of a dagger and rubbing in a mixture of salt and gunpowder – one of the many tricks in his repertoire – to feign smallpox.

He then set about tracing his wife (and daughter) he said, but leaving them in Bath found himself in Scotland (1745) where he joined forces with – wait for it – Bonnie Prince Charlie himself – accompanying him to Carlisle and Derby. Well, well.

But when things got tough for the Young Pretender -as well as our young pretender – Carew suddenly became both lame and insane and limped back to the South West where he pursued a long and profitable career. He disguised himself variously as a Presbyterian preacher, a ship-wrecked sailor, a ruined farmer, a penniless widow (he often told fortunes disguised as an old woman), a rat catcher, a woman whose daughter had been killed in a fire, ‘Mad Tom’ and countless other characters all designed to bring on tears the easier to extract money from the good people of Devon.

It’s an ill wind

All went well until, on a visit with his wife and daughter to Exeter one day – where they were “visiting friends” – he found himself, alone, taking the air along the front at Topsham, doubtless thinking what he might steal or whom he might dupe when suddenly his gypsy luck ran out.

Quicker than one might cry, “Grab that villain!” he was recognised by a merchant called Davey who had been defrauded by him. As ill-luck would have it, an ancient mariner by name Captain Simmonds was at that very moment about to shove off for a sea voyage and being an opportunist he had Carew bound and bundled into the bottom of his boat and rowed out to the good ship Phillory, then at anchor off Powderham Castle, waiting for a fair wind.

Here the hapless Carew, now known throughout the West Country as “King Gypsy” was added to its cargo of prisoners bound for transportation to the Colonies. Eleven weeks later he found himself once more, back in Maryland.

This time he escaped in a canoe, slipping off unnoticed during the convict sales. He travelled by night, stealing food from empty homes in the day. He crossed the Delaware again, this time on the back of a stolen horse, making a bridle with his handkerchief. (All escaping convicts at the end of eleven week long sea voyages carried very, very long handkerchiefs with them for just such a purpose).

Safe and sound

Back in Boston he was able to secure his passage back to England. Fast forward through the mists of time and Carew’s yarn spinning – to the good Sir Thomas Carew of Haccombe, Devon, a distant relative, who offered to provide for him if he would only give up his wicked wandering ways.

Apparently he refused the offer, but then had a change of heart “after winning a fortune in a lottery”. Amazing. It certainly sounds as though the old gypsy luck had returned – and what a wonderful way to finish the last chapter..

He bought a house in Bickleigh and settled down. His daughter made a good marriage and he had grandchildren, His final years were spent “idly” in retirement, writing his books. The first of them, was first published in 1745 the contents were “noted by himself during his passage to America”.

Although Carew ‘the author’ almost certainly poured out a stream of  ‘facts’, the author was more likely to have been one Robert Goadby, a printer in Sherborne, Dorset, who published the book. But if that is the case it is much more likely that Carew first dictated it to what we would nowadays call a “ghost writer’ – in this instance to the literate and enterprising Mrs. Goadby, one who not only knew which side her bread was buttered but was also well qualified to know what made a best seller when she wrote one.

Bampfylde-Moore Carew outlived his wife and died on 27 August 1759 and is buried in Bickleigh churchyard, where may he rest in peace. Last word on the subject of our story is best left, perhaps, to an equally worldly-wise author, Henry Fielding, the man who met the ‘King of the Gypsies’. and also wrote so vividly of fate and fortune and morals in Georgian England.

St Mary's Church, Bickleigh, Mid Devon

St Mary’s Church, Bickleigh, Mid Devon, the site of Carew’s grave

“A rich man without charity is a rogue: and perhaps it would be no difficult matter to prove that he is also a fool.”


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Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.

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