|Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla leading his horse Windsor Lad after winning the Epsom Derby 1934|
I wrote in my book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ about an uncanny forecast made by Gipsy Lee 66 years earlier:
“Way back in 1868, a young lady by the name of Mrs. Boswell, popularly known as Gipsy Lee, made a forecast that no horse with a ‘W’ in its name would win the Derby until a year after her death. The story goes that a peer, as he walking past Gipsy Lee just as the Derby of 1868 was about to start, asked her to predict which horse would win. She was wearing a blue dress and replied, “Look at my frock.” The brusque lord told her to write it down, and she scribbled, “Blew Gown”. As it happened, Blue Gown won that Derby.
Just as he was passing by again, the aristocrat threw a sterling at Gipsy Lee and scoffed, “Go learn some spelling.” Miffed at this condescending behaviour, the furious soothsayer shot back, “You will not live to see another Derby and no horse with a ‘W’ in its name will win the Derby till the year after I die.”
Gipsy Lee lived to a ripe old age and during her lifetime no horse with a ‘W’ in its name was able to wrest the Derby, even though Orwell and William IV were heavily fancied. She died in 1933.
This is no apocryphal tale, for 1934 being the year after her death and Windsor Lad being one of the fancied horses, though not the favourite, there was incredible excitement all around. Everyone from the racegoers to the mammoth media contingent was abuzz with the prophesy of Gipsy Lee. Would her prediction come true, was the question? And so it came to pass that Windsor Lad did indeed triumph. The non-believers were nonplussed, the believers were jubilant.
Whether this was a quirk of fate, or whether Gipsy Lee was actually psychic, it is hard to say. The fact is that her prophesy did come true.”
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Who exactly was Gipsy Lee? The website romanygenes.com/ states: “Rainie (Urania) Boswell, nee Lee, was the famous 'Gipsy Lee' - often mistakenly called Gypsy 'Rose' Lee - the fortune-teller whose national fame for that skill was at its height in the first quarter of the 20th century.
Urania Lee was born in June 1851. Her father was Abraham Lee (born 28 May 1830), a travelling brazier tinker of Charlton. Her mother was Mary Smith (alias Sarah 'Pol' Lee) of Devil's Dyke.
Urania and her husband Levi, sometimes referred to as the 'King of the Gypsies',
settled in Farnborough, Kent. In the early years in North Kent, Levi owned several donkeys which he used to hire out for rides. The 1891 Census records him with such an occupation:
Caravan & Tent Crofton Road Orpington Kent
Levi Boswell, head, 47 years, lets out donkeys and ponies for hire, born Wanstead, Essex
Rainie Boswell, wife, 44 years, born - not known
Georgina Boswell, daughter, 14 years, born Kensal New Town, Middlesex
Nora Boswell, daughter, 12 years, born Dulwich
Levi Boswell, son, 9 years, born Chislehurst
Indeed for over 70 years Levi's family had a stand for donkeys on Blackheath, just opposite the main gates of Greenwich Park. Every morning the donkeys were driven there, and in the evening back to wherever they were staying - in later years in Farnborough, Kent. Charles Dickens lived in North Kent, and in his 'Sketches by Boz' wrote of such a donkey ride by two Victorian misses. Levi Boswell was known at every horse fair and fete in the county (and others) and was reputed to be without equal as a horse dealer.
Urania Lee Boswell or Gipsy Lee had a nationwide reputation as a palmist and fortune teller. Among her patrons were people from all classes of society, from the poorest to the greatest in the land. Lords and dukes were not ashamed to listen to her advice, and throughout the district she was a familiar figure … She owned property in many places, and spent six months of the year at Ramsgate, where she had a home, Margate, and other resorts. The other six months were spent as a rule in her cottage at Willow Walk, Farnborough.
|Gipsy Lee, Mrs. Urania Lee Boswell|
Like all her family, Mrs. Boswell was an expert horsewoman, and she used to drive and break horses for her husband. She met with many accidents from time to time, and some 40 years ago when the wheel of a trap in which she was driving broke she fell and was dragged for a long distance by the runaway horse. Seven years later when driving a mule she was again thrown, and her face was badly cut, but she walked nearly half a mile to Farnborough hospital, bleeding profusely. Scarcely had she recovered from this accident when a branch of a tree under which she was sheltering fell on her.
The website romanygenes.com goes on to say: “A nephew of theirs, Len Dighton, was interviewed for an article, which appeared in the Orpington local press on 2nd September 1976. An extract states:
"Levi Boswell owned acres of land at Tugmutton Common, Farnborough, and his 300 thoroughbred horses ranged over what is now Farnborough Hospital. Lords and ladies from all over the world used to visit his stables, stocked from the best horses from Ireland and Wales. After buying their horses they would visit Gipsy Rose Lee who would tell the ladies what sort of man they would marry and the men what horse was going to win the Derby.
"Rose Lee and Levi did not really get on that well - she lived in a bungalow and he lived in a thatched cottage just down the road," Len recalled. "But they were both the best in their field - if Rose Lee told your fortune you knew that was how it was going to be. She always wanted to tell mine but I was too scared of what she might see and always refused."
At the age of 12, Len witnessed an event which has stayed in his memory ever since - the death of his uncle, the 'King of the Gipsies'. In 1924, at the age of 77, the old man died - and all the gypsies in Britain went into mourning. The splendid black funeral carriage pulled by a team of six black horses, drove from Locks Bottom to St Giles the Abbot Church at Farnborough, followed by hundreds of gypsies and members of the gentry. Len said, "He was a hard man, but respected by everyone and his funeral was a sight I shall never forget.
I remember walking back to his cottage and seeing rows of his horses, with their heads bowed, facing towards his cottage, as if they knew."
The Times of 8th May 1924 wrote:
"The death has occurred at Farnborough, Kent, of Levi Boswell, the head of the Boswell tribe of Romanies, who have relatives in all parts of the world. His widow, Urania Boswell, known as the Gypsy Queen, is a descendent of the original Gypsy Lee. For 300 years the two great Romany tribes, the Boswells and Lees, have intermarried. Levi Boswell was formerly a widely known horse dealer, but for some years he had been living in retirement in a Farnborough cottage. The funeral at Farnborough this afternoon will be attended by Gypsies from all over the country."
The funeral was also reported in The District Times, on 9 May 1924:
"The passing of a Gipsy king - Death of Levi Boswell - Yesterday's funeral pageant
The passing of a great Gypsy King, Levi Boswell (whose spouse is allied to the famous Lee family, and is popularly known as 'the Gypsy Queen') occurred on Thursday of last week, at the age of 77 years. The great Boswell was known to every horse fair and fete in the country. As a horse dealer he was without an equal, and his aid was sought by many in search of a horse if not a kingdom - and they could always rely upon Boswell for a square deal. Then, what of his herds of donkeys - and such donkeys they were. Levi Boswell had acquired the property which he occupied at Willow Walk, Tugmutton Green, Farnborough, and here the family (and donkeys) thrived. Now, alas, there is a widowed Gypsy Queen, and all that remained of the famous Boswell was committed to mother earth at Farnborough churchyard yesterday (Thursday) afternoon. There was an attendance of nearly a thousand people, many of whom came from various parts of the country, and there was a large percentage of the Gypsy tribe amongst them…"
In early April 1933, Urania Boswell had a fall just outside her door, and when a milkman arrived to deliver there he found her lying unconscious. He roused the family, and she was got into bed, and she never got up again. For the last fortnight of her life her brother (Job ‘Joby’ Lee) was with her, and during the last few days he sat by her side night and day, never sleeping and hardly moving away to change his clothes.
She died on 24 April 1933 aged 82 years at 7 Willow Walk, Farnborough. On the death certificate she was the "widow of Levi Boswell, horse dealer". A full report appeared in The Kentish Times, on 28 April 1933:
"…..It was a queen, lying in state, for Mrs. Urania Boswell, widow of the late Mr. Levi Boswell, had been, since her husband's death, the accepted leader of the great clan of Lees and Boswells, almost the last great families of the Romany tribe.
The funeral takes place at Farnborough Churchyard this afternoon (Friday) and all this week members of the family and friends have been hastening from all parts of the country to be present. It is not every day that a queen dies, and Gypsy Lee will be given a royal funeral."
The traditional cortege with black horses and outriders, and the following of hundreds of her husband’s 'subjects' will be repeated today (Friday) at Mrs. Boswell's funeral. She leaves three sons, Herbert, Kenza, and Levi Boswell, and a daughter, who are also well known.
Now let her brother Job Lee tell his story of how she foretold her own passing. "On the morning before she died," he said, "a rain thrush came and sat on the tree behind the house. She said to me 'My time is getting near now. It is the first time that thrush has been here for three years. My time is getting near and we shall have rain now for a couple of days.' Then her death bird came over at night time. It is a bird we never see, and we don't know what it is. But it has a sweet noise. It sang 'sweet, sweet' and it came over three times that night. 'Now it is over' she said, 'tomorrow morning about six or seven o'clock I shall say adieu to you all.' The next morning about a quarter or half past seven, a minute before she died she said, 'Good bye to you all. I have finished,' and she died. She never lost her faculties from the time of her illness till her death, nor did she lose her courage, although she knew she was dying. There must be something stoical about the make-up of this family, for her brother told our representative that his sister had 'dated him' and he would die 'three years next March'. 'She told me so, and so it will be,' he said, 'and you will remember then what I told you.' And there was not a tremor in his voice, no more emotion than when he told us of his own life, of his triumphs in the boxing ring when he travelled the country with a boxing booth and 'beat all the champions at 9st 6lbs' or of his circus experiences, his falls and broken bones, or of the time when he was injured by a roundabout and lay with broken bones underneath it for an hour.”
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Those are stories about Urania Lee Boswell, or Gipsy Lee. As she had foretold a horse with a ‘W’ in its name - Windsor Lad - won The Derby in 1934, the year after she died. Windsor Lad, owned by my grandfather Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla, beat the hitherto undefeated favourite Colombo who was considered almost a certainty to win the blue riband that year. Even so, Epsom was agog with Gipsy Lee’s prediction before the race, especially as Windsor Lad was one of the fancied horses. Windsor Lad won, making Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla the only Indian owner ever to win The Derby before a multitude that was estimated to be somewhere between a quarter and a half million, and the entire British royal family led by King George V and Queen Mary. Certainly, Epsom Derby 1934 is one of the most fascinating sagas in the history of racing.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh - grandson of Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla - can be contacted on email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. His other blog is singhiv.wordpress.com).
A Maharaja’s Turf
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