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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Awkward Ancestor no.1 - Gypsy Rose Leigh

Now I'd got all those questions buzzing in my head and was starting to piece together our family history, I had some family rumours that needed investigating.

According to my maternal Grandad we were related to Gypsy Rose Leigh, which was why the Leigh name had been passed down through the family, and it was definitely true because it was spelt Leigh instead of Lee, which was the proper Gypsy way of spelling it. I think we had a romanticised idea of what it meant to be part Gypsy. From the way we were told, Gypsy Rose Leigh was a famous fortune teller and was very well respected in Gypsy circles.
When we were old enough to think things through, we'd kind of come to the conclusion that all wasn't quite as the rumour had it. I'd been told Gypsy Rose Leigh was a prostitute, so in a way it was a bit funny to me that my Grandparents were so proud of the connection, but I figured maybe they didn't know that bit.

Anyway, off I went in search of Gypsy Rose Leigh...

Having traced back along my Grandads line, I came across a marriage to a Leigh... BINGO!

There didn't seem to be any Gypsy link though, much as I tried to find one. A chance remark to a friend led me to discover that actually Gypsy Rose Leigh was the stage name of a Burlesque dancer. The friend knew lots about stage shows and happened to know that the stage show "Gypsy" was the story of Gypsy Rose Lee. It turned out that Gypsy Rose Lee's real name was Ellen June Hovick, which was changed to Rose Louise when her sister was born and given her name (?!). She became known as Louise. She was actually a very good Burlesque dancer apparently and therefore very famous, which was why there's a stage show about her!
You can read more about her here:

There was no way she could be our ancestor though despite the spelling difference possibilities (there are always spelling differences in records, caused by transcription errors or people just not knowing how to spell names!) because she was born in America. It just didn't fit. At all. So where did that leave our rumour?

The ancestor I had found was called Louisa Leigh. I wondered if maybe the rumour had started because her name was similar to Louise Lee (aka GRL) and, as rumours do, had got a bit twisted and changed through the years until she became intertwined with our family. The fact that our Louisa Leigh and Gypsy Rose Lee were born over 100 years apart meant the rumour was quite possibly more recent - GRL was born in 1911, around when my Grandad was born. Maybe he grew up hearing there was a link.

Also I discovered that although "Lee" was a well known Gypsy surname, "Leigh" wasn't even a known Gypsy surname.

There had to be some other reason why the Leigh name had been passed down through the family. The family haven't been linked to wealth - mostly they are working class people. Maybe the Leigh name is linked to a wealthy family that they wanted to remember... some Landed Gentry perhaps?!

The story stops there really. There are 2 possible links I've been investigating for a long time now and haven't really got anywhere.
One is a witness on the marriage record - her surname is a known Gypsy surname although it's not a family name for us. Her occupation was "Hawker" which is another name for a Peddlar, who were often of traveller origin. She seems to be just a friend though.
The second is a possible record for Louisa's father, where his occupation is listed as "Lawyer". In which case there would have been some sort of wealth there. So far the trail has tapered off there... no proof of link to be found.

We did go and visit St Alfege Church in Greenwich though, where the Leighs in our family were baptised, married, and buried. It is a very grand Church which we've driven past many times and never knew the connection. You can see some pictures of it on my website:, along with a picture of the row of houses the Leighs lived in.

My Grandad would have loved to know that his family were part of the same church where General Wolfe is buried, along with a number of other famous people. It might have made up for the fact that he doesn't seem to be part Gypsy...


  1. It's such a shame you didn't get a chance to tell Grandad all this!

  2. Update... Was inspired to go back and have another look at the family tree, and discovered there are loads of new records linked to our Gypsy Rose... Including some mentioning Knights who had something to do with King Henry 8th who owned lots of land and property! Will definitely be looking into those especially as it tues in with another family rumour about 8 brothers who lost a lot of land... To be continued!