Black Patch land, now a park, was a forty area site of disused farm land contaminated by industrial waste. It was opposite an iron smelting foundry on the borders of Birmingham, Warwickshire and Smethwick and Handsworth (Staffordshire), with the Hockley Brook passing through and forming the county boundary.
‘By 1900 this land had become known as the Black Patch. Then in 1911 it became Black Patch Park. It was here sometime around the mid-1800s that the Birmingham Romany Gypsies led by Esau Smith and his wife Sentinia (Henty), both born in Weedon, Northamptonshire, set up camp. They were seeking refuge from nineteenth-century legislation directed attacking the way of life of travelling people and which aimed to restrict their movements.
‘A large community eventually evolved on the ‘Black Patch’, consisting of many Romany Gypsy families and other travelling and homeless families living side by side. At its busiest period an estimated three hundred families used the site. Day-to-day existence on the Black Patch must have been a struggle with the only source of water being the Hockley Brook, cooking on open fires and only having very basic sanitary arrangements (a shovel).
‘Esau Smith was the king of the camp. He administered Romany justice and brought order to the camp, helped by his wife Sentinia (Henty), the queen. Esau obtained horses from the Birmingham horse fair, brought them back to the Black Patch and trained them before selling them to business men in Handsworth.
‘Gypsy women from the camp, the young and the elderly, gradually stopped travelling, whilst the fit and able sought traditional work wherever they could, often in neighbouring counties. Gypsy women with their children hawked hand-made goods door to door and told fortunes in the local areas.
‘Contrary to popular belief Gypsies families did not live in brightly coloured caravans. The caravan was a symbol of wealth and status within any travelling community. Most Gypsies in the 1850s still lived the traditional nomadic way, in transportable dome-shaped bender tents. They were constructed over arcs of hazel rods pushed into the ground and a sheet draped over the top.
‘Eventually the Birmingham Romany Gypsy community and others on the Black Patch were prevented from continuing their new and inherited way of life by the authorities who evicted them from the land on 26 July 1905. The eviction was deemed necessary so the owners could sell the land for more house building or could it have been to simply move the Gypsy on, something that happened countless times in the past.
‘This act carried out by a large number of police from the Birmingham and Smethwick forces destroyed the camp and the Gypsy community, making the majority homeless. It was at this point that their traditional way of living began to change for ever. From then on families that once occupied the Black Patch were no longer able to live as a close Gypsy community. Gradually they all settled in brick built housing living among the populations of many towns and cities. Some remained in their home town, others settled far and wide across England and overseas.
‘The eviction had the immediate effect of forcing integration with the settled society, although the outcome could also be seen as solving the local gypsy problem. It still raises the question of racial equality. Something the travelling fraternity has had to cope with since their wandering began
On the 6th June 2004 the Birmingham Romany Memorial Review group was formed by Romany Gypsies and members of the public. The founder members were descendants of the Romany Gypsies that occupied the land from approximately 1850 until their eviction in 1905 and 1909 when the land became Black Patch Park. The number one aim at the formation was to “Provide and maintain a memorial in Black Patch Park Sandwell” dedicated to the historical contribution the original Gypsy families made to this land and the greater West Midlands area. With the cooperation of Sandwell MBC this aim became a reality the following year.
In 2007 the metal memorial plaque fixed to the sunken stone and measuring 12 inches by 8 inches was stolen and unfortunately it was never recovered leaving just the stone it was once attached to. This was more or less immediately replaced at a cost of just over £300. During the following five years the metal plaque remained on the stone enabling members of the public, park users, school groups to read about the existence of the Romany and other Gypsy families that made their home on the Black Patch. The memorial, the only one in the UK, dedicated to Romany Gypsies in a public park has drawn together a large number of family members that would never have known existed but for our annual gatherings in the nearby Soho Foundry Tavern. Bunches of flowers are often placed at the base of the memorial remind us what the memorial means to different families. Two Romany Gypsy family gathered at the memorial and had their mothers remains scattered around it referring to the land as our ancestral home.
Regrettably in January 2012 the replacement metal plaque was the target of another attack ripping it from the stone and like the 2007 incident, for two months we thought it was also lost. However a park user spotted the plaque near the Hockley Brook and recovered it. By April after a long journey it found its way back to us. Unfortunately with many words unreadable and the general condition of the plaque the members decided not to re-fix it to the stone but keep it as part of the proposed archive, a replacement would have cost over £400. A laminated copy of the original plaque was attached to the stone for the annual meeting in July of 2012 however this went missing two days later.
We decided to remove the memorial stone on the 28/06/2013 from Black Patch Park and re-site it with a new plaque attached into the grounds of the Soho Foundry public house (the grounds were once part of Black Patch land)
Then on the 26/07/2015 on the same site in Black Patch Park where the old monument was removed from we installed a new IndianGranite Stone Monument.
Following this in September 2016 the unveiling of a new monument at St Mary’s Church, Hampstead Road, Handsworth, B20 2RB dedicated to the 35 known Romany Gypsies from the Black Patch Enclave took place on SUNDAY 4th SEPTEMBER 2016. Before the unveiling there was a service in St Mary’s church, that lasted just over an hour and a quarter. The service was conducted by The Revd Dr Bob Stephen and Bishop Anne, the Bishop of Aston, conducted the dedication.