Gypsy Rodney Smith and his memorial stone in Epping Forest (Thing #6)

I’ve always known about my gypsy ancestry; my nanna’s father was a full Romany and I’m proud to be one eighth Romany myself, even when it led to the odd cry of “gyppo” at school. Nanna used to mention “Uncle Rodney” quite regularly and I also knew this distant relative was a gypsy evangelist who travelled the world spreading the word of the Lord, but until recently I didn’t know a great deal more about him. Apparently my dad remembers sitting on his knee when he was a very small child – as Rodney died in 1947 my Dad can’t have been more than five.

I suddenly got curious about my background and decided to do some research, signing up to Ancestry.com for a month to find out whatever I could. Turns out Rodney – AKA Gypsy Rodney Smith – was quite famous in his time, and many people have put together parts of his family tree, so I was quickly able to work out that he was my nanna’s great uncle – Rodney’s brother Ezekiel had a son, Cornelius – also known as Lou – who married Jane Sparrow (my great nanny, who lived to 101) and was my nanna’s father. That makes Rodney my great great great uncle.

Rodney’s family were tent-dwelling Romany gypsies and he was born in a tent in Epping Forest. His father Cornelius discovered religion during one of a  number of prison vacations and young Rodney was fascinated and showed a talent for delivering sermons and singing hymns. He was spotted by William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who invited Rodney to join as an evangelist, which was the beginning of Rodney’s long and celebrated career in the church. Over the next seventy years he travelled to five continents, speaking to hundreds of thousands of people and converting many to Christianity. He even went out to visit troops in France during the First World War, for which he was awarded an MBE.

Rodney was married twice, firstly to Annie Pennock, one of his converts. They had three children, all of whom followed him into religious careers. Annie died in 1937, aged 79, and the following year Rodney married 27 year old Mary Alice Shaw. She worked with him and then nursed him until his death at age 87, on board the Queen Mary en route to America. He was buried in New York but a memorial stone was unveiled a few years later in Epping Forest, near to his birthplace.

Me with Gypsy Smith's memorial stone in Epping ForestIt was this stone that I wanted to visit, so on Saturday, on our way to a weekend in Southend, we travelled down the A11, along the A406 and parked up near a small, isolated part of Epping Forest near Woodford Green. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to locate the stone but fortunately there is a geocache close by, so I was able to use the coordinates to track it down – but actually it’s only just off the open common area area of the forest and easy to spot. The stone is about four feet cubed, of roughly hewn granite, with a carving of a traditional gypsy wagon. Below the carving is a plaque giving some information about Rodney’s life and achievements. It’s a very graceful stone for one so large, and a  lovely memorial to someone who I believe was a great yet humble man. I’m very pleased to have visited it – crossing Thing #6 off my list of 101 things in 101 days.

The mystery, though, is who actually commissioned the stone in the first place. I have no idea – but if anyone reading this knows, please do let me know! I am also mystified as to why this little bit of Epping Forest survives, cut off from the rest of the vast forest through development and building. Perhaps Gypsy Smith’s true lasting memory is that his stone is actually protected and it is the stone itself that is preventing the destruction of this little bit of forest.

The inscription on Gypsy Rodney Smith's memorial stone

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51 thoughts on “Gypsy Rodney Smith and his memorial stone in Epping Forest (Thing #6)”

  1. Hi there distant cousin Alison! William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army … not sure who this imposter George was 😉 Well done for going to visit the Rodney stone. I must do it myself sometime.

  2. Did you find Douglas and Evelyn’s birth indexes in the end? I think I have them. And was there a younger sister, Winifred, who died while a child?

  3. Wow … I’ve never heard of a Winifred. As far as I know Douglas was born in the UK, Evelyn in Canada. Will ask my dad if there was a Winifred!

  4. Oops, not sure who George is then! Will get that changed now. The stone is dead easy to find and pretty impressive really. Wonder what other non-Smith people think of it?

  5. Hi, I used to visit the stone often as a child. The open area was called Mill Plain. My mum used to take me. She was a committed Christian and I believe he preached in the local evangelical church, Grove Road. That was at least 55 years ago so I’m pleased it is still so well kept. Mum thought he was a great man .Kind regards, Gill.

  6. Thanks for the comment … That is fascinating to hear! The stone looks quite incongruous, just stuck there not so far from the road … It’s good to hear that people do/did visit it.

  7. Rodney Smith, was my grandmother’s uncle, her name was Lender Smith,she married Tom Lee

  8. Hi there. Lovely to read this. I am the parish priest where Gypsy Smith was born and raised, and is memorialised.

  9. Oh how lovely … and thank you for taking the time to comment! Is there anything in the parish church to commemorate his life?

  10. My mothers brother was named after him, he is 83 and lives in Essex,

    I recall visiting a church in Letchworth, there is a book written about the church and gypsy Smith’s connection. it is called ” To the glory of god”. By Keith Sell. I also visited the grave of Gypsy Rodney Smith’s parents.

  11. Just found out on the 19th February that Rodney Smith was the younger brother to my 2 x great grand Uncle Edward Oakley’s wife Lavinia (Lovinia) Smith. Very nice to read about the things he achieved in his life.

  12. Hello

    So ineresting to read. I know that my Grandfather was also related and was born in a Caravan. I am 1/4 gypsy. Such a likeness of Gypsy Smith and my Grandfather.

    Im sure he was his uncle.

  13. My grandad was Nathan Smith, I recall he had brothers Elijah and Otis, I recall him speaking often of Rodney, the book “From the Forest I Came” has a picture of Gypsy Rodney on the front who was a double of my grandfather. Great to hear of some distant connections.

  14. Lovely to hear from you! Guess we must be related somewhere down the line … I am trying to put together the family tree but haven’t come across a Nathan yet – but will keep looking!

  15. Alison, I have a copy of the Gipsy Smith Memorial Unveiling Ceremony of the Granite Stone dated July 2, 1949. On the left inside cover it reads this:

    Dear Friend, There can be few people of the last half-century better known in the Christian world than Gipsy Smith. So many know something of the romance of that life which began under a hornbeam tree in Epping Forest, on the outskirts of London, and ended on the “Queen Mary” on the way to America in August 1947. How many came under the spell of his dynamic personality in the intervening years! None can question that under God he was used to do a mighty work in many countries, becoming one of the greatest Christian Evangelists and winning many thousands for Christ.
    It is proposed to raise a memorial fund that the life and witness of such a servant of God should not pass unmarked. The amount of that fund will finally determine the extent of the memorial, but quite certainly it will be first used to erect a stone marking the birthplace of Gipsy Smith, the remainder being devoted to the advancement of that evangelism so dear to the Gipsy’s heart.
    The very special permission of the Lord Mayor of London and the Forest Conservators has been given for the erection of a memorial stone, a rugged boulder of granite, in Epping Forest. The unveiling ceremony will take place Saturday afternoon, July 2nd, at 3.30 on Mill Plain, just to the west of the Woodford New Road, and to the South of the bus terminus. The stone will be unveiled by Mrs. Gipsy Smith, whilst the President of the Methodist Conference and the Associate Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance from Missouri (representing American religious life), will be the speakers.
    We should be most grateful for any help given toward the Memorial Fund to so great a servant of God, that he, being dead, may yet speak forth the gospel of redemptive power in Christ.

    Please send your donations to the Treasurer of the Fund:
    Colonel S.S. Mallinson, C.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., D.L., J.P.,
    The White House,
    Woodford Green, Essex,
    whose father was Gipsy Smith’s Sunday School teacher,
    Yours Sincerely,
    (Revs.) W.H. Mildon, G. Lansley, Secretaries.

    Hope this helps…

  16. Thanks, that’s really interesting! So pleased that my great great great uncle was so loved and respected :)

  17. Hello,

    My name is Holly Matthews, my Great x 4 Grandad was Bartholemew Smith who was Gipsy Rodney Smith’s Uncle. I am doing a project on Gypsies in college for art and design and I am finding it so interesting finding out all of this exciting information… I would like to visit the stone. What would you say is the easiest way to get to it..
    Many Thanks,
    Holly

  18. Hi Holly, thanks for visiting and we are probably related!! Great that you want to visit the stone. It’s in a small part of Epping Forest near the North Circular, and it’s accessible from Woodford New Road. We went by car and parked in Oakhill Gardens, but you could probably get to it from either Woodford or South Woodford underground stations too. The bit of Google maps you want is – if you look at the satellite view you’ll see a rough path across the grassy area, and the stone is not far into the woodland at the end of the path – you can’t really miss it!

  19. Thank you, and yeah we probably are related somehow. It’s amazing to think if i had not had chosen to do a project about Gypsies the I would not have found out this amazing information. I knew i had Gypsy blood somewhere down the line but I did not realise that it stopped at my great grandad!! it’s amazing. I am overwhelmed by it all.!!!

  20. It is fascinating, isn’t it! My nanna was half gypsy which makes me one eighth Romany. Very proud of my roots!

  21. I’m hoping to talk to the gypsies that are at Newham (I think they are the LEE family which i have family connection too as well) but I am unsure how to go about it. Do not want to just walk in there but that might be the only way. Now having the family information helps as well.

  22. I “discovered” this memorial by accident, circa 1966/7 when I was at Walthamstow Art School. We often used to go wandering around the forest in that area. However I seem to recall that, in the sixties, it was much more untended overgrown and surrounded with close growing bushes.

    I’ve often wondered about it and to whom the memorial was actually dedicated. Now I know.

    I also seem to recall that the stone was referred to as the “King Of The Gypsies” grave (but that may have been the effect of the drugs at the time!!.)

  23. Thanks for sharing your memories of my great great uncle’s memorial stone. I feel rather honoured that a relative of mine may have been known as the King of the Gypsies!

  24. Hi my name is Rodney Martin
    My granny was Claire smith she married
    Brian Martin who was a out sider
    Not a jipsey so my dad was called after
    Her father how was Rodney smith
    Who was married to goalie coats
    My granny had 5 sisters 2 brother
    Billy/ Swayley / brender / Lucy /prudie/
    Mulgie/ golie
    As I am a Romany jipsey this is as fur
    Back as I have got on my dad’s side
    Of the family if this help I believe he
    Was my +2 great grandad

  25. Hi, I came across this while looking up where to find Gypsy Smith’s stone. My husband proposed to me right near there 4 years ago now! He had put tealights and a lantern and some roses on it and told me the story of Gypsy Smith and then we followed a trail through the forest to where he then proposed!

  26. Hello,
    My Grandmother’s maiden name was Smith and she had stories about her Romany ancesters but I’m afraid I didn’t take much notice of them at the time (sadly usually the case!)
    She always said we were related to Gypsy Smith but we’ve never been able to prove the link. We can’t seem to get any further back than Harry Smith (1862) and Christiana Smith (nee Wiggett) (1864) – my grandmother’s grandparents. Have you come across these names in your research? Any info would be much appreciated!
    Thanks!

  27. Hello Alison, I came across your site by accident and was drawn by a photo of Gipsy Smith. I recognised it because I have one of his books, Best Sermons.
    I am a Christian so find his work very dear.I am also one quarter romany my great grand parents being Bendigo and Morjiana Lee. I thank the Lord for this dear man who was truly blessed and pray that you also will be.

    Kindest regards
    Linda

  28. I am delighted to see that there is still interest in my great grandfather, and it was good to see a picture of his memorial stone again. It is some time since I visited it. My aunt, his grand daughter, renewed the plaque on the stone several years ago.

    Wendy de Horsey

  29. Dear Alison

    Yes, I guess we are. Very exciting to find a new relative. I have a family tree and have found several connections with others who have written to you. Amazing.
    Wendy

  30. I have been reading and studying Rodney smith for a while now which started with a book from the forest I came this is a great thread for a great and well loved man does anyone know if there are any of his sermons recordings I’ve come across a few hymns which are great but would love to hear Rodney’s speaking voice . It’s great that his relatives are finding each other i am orginally of gypsey origin a Brennan from Ireland but unable to trace much of my family but love the fact that Rodney’s family and tree is coming together and so will never be lost is there a family tree that brings it altogether or one that can be found anywhere. Thanks for sharing your links with such a great man who

  31. Sorry it posted before I had finished just to say it’s a wonderful to see all coming together.

  32. As a child aged about 10 in 1952 living in Devon, my Sunday School teacher talked often about Gypsy Ezekial Smith. he was an evangelist who had been in the area on a mission. Is he related?

  33. Ooh … my great great grandfather was an Ezekiel Smith – he was Rodney Smith’s brother, so I’d imagine he was an evangelist too. Wonder if it was the same person?

  34. It could well be the same person, he visited a place called Hele Lane Methodist Church and his visit resulted in the Hele Lane Revival. There was a little Church built there but it looks as if has been demolished. The members moved to an old school in the village nearby.

  35. I have not read every comment – and came here via a mention in a Twitter exchange with a Waltham Forest Council archivist – I plan to enquire further, but am sorry that the links to the photos are not now available.

    https://twitter.com/_jparker_/status/714364472358539264

    I am getting an error message when I click

    http://www.alisonneale.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/IMG_7629.jpg

    “This site can’t be reached
    http://www.alisonneale.co.uk’s server DNS address could not be found.”

    I think the name Gyspy Smith was mentioned during my childhood and I may have been taken or found that memorial, even though I do not know its location, which I suspect maybe at or near either High Beach, or possibly Chingford Plain, perhaps near the Royal Forest Hotel and the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge – I aim to discover the answer EVENTUALLY!

    Meanwhile thanks for the blog, it has drawn lots of interest.

  36. Thanks for the comment and sorry the image isn’t showing …. I changed the primary URL for the website and think that’s broken a lot of links! Currently trying to fix them … will let you know when it’s done.

  37. Another distant cousin here! My Great Grandmother sat on his knee at Wembley. Lovely man by all accounts. She was one of many kids and my dad has 28 cousins in all – I should imagine there are a LOT of us! It’s such a pity that the word ‘gypsy’ is now synonymous with over-the-top weddings and boxing. It’s a rich history and we should be very proud of having this gentle love-preaching, charitable man in our family.

  38. Arthur mentioned the Hele Lane Revival led by Gypsy Ezekial Smith. I’m glad to say the church is still flourishing but as Arthur said, moved just up the road to the old school in Black Dog when the original building became unsafe. We’ve just reproduced an account by someone who witnessed the revival on our website, you can find it at http://helelane.org.uk/hele-lane-revival-1931/

  39. Hi
    I came across this page seeking more info on Gyspy Smith as we had a visiting pastor at our church who shared about him. I noticed that in this thread is mention of an Evelyn born in Canada. Does anyone have more information on her as I have been trying trace for some time a relative of that name and birthplace. I know its a long shot but asking you all anyway. Look forward to hearing from you.

  40. Hi Alison

    It is evident from his testimony that Gypsy Smith had a real experience with the Lord, something he greatly desired others to enjoy too. His testimony has been a great blessing to me.

    I have keenly searched for the music to one of his favourite songs ‘Not Dreaming’. Would you perhaps have this or know of someone who has it please. Unbelieveable as it is I cannot seem to find it anywhere on the net.

    Would be greatly appreciated.

    Kind Regards
    Tommy

  41. I do not want to disparage anyone’s religion – but wonder if truly he did have any connection with a spirit let alone the one that others describe?

  42. Hi Allison, I lived not far from that stone in the 50’s and 60’s, and it was known by us kids and locals as “The Gypsy King” stone. I often wondered about the history of it. We used to play in the trees and bushes around it. It was mystical to use young un’s. I remember, that in those days, if you didn’t know where it was, it was difficult to find. This was due to the overgrowth, and you would have to fight through bushes and brambles to get to it. Now, after accidentally finding your blog, I know the history. In those years it was really hidden. Nice to see that they have cleared the area. Funny how things work, I have lived in Canada for the last 47 years, and thanks to you, I have learned something new from my childhood.

  43. Hi Alison. Came across this entry while searching the Smith clan of Epping Forest. My grandfather Ernest, who was Romany, was born there and later immigrated (with his family) to Ontario, Canada. He has a brother named Rodney. I heard stories about Gypsy Smith growing up, and I know my great-grandfather was reportedly a Methodist preacher. I would assume that being Romany and living in the same place meant my grandfather knew of Rodney Smith and perhaps my Great Uncle was named for him (although Rodney Smith is a pretty common Romany name.) Interesting!

  44. I was unable to find his stone, despite seeing it often as a boy. I recently returned to find it again but failed. Can you help with directions. I assumed that it was buried in the undergrowth since I am in my 80’s and would love to see once again.

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