Fact, Legend, Urban Myth?
An attempt to start unravelling the truth.

- Little Egypt
- but why?


This question pops up with predictable regularity, and has never been satisfactorily, or at least conclusively, answered.

The favourite of the moment is that of the 1885 Melford Riot, the reason the name was adopted by the Morris Men of Little Egypt. That story has been rehearsed many times:

It says that, at the time of the first "Working Man's" election, of 1885, the new voters of the village were prevented, by their "betters", from casting their vote in the village, through the simple measure of not providing a polling station. Instead, they were expected to walk to the neighbouring village of Long Melford. This, of course, would have meant the loss of wages.

Nevertheless, the men insisted, and marched together to cast their vote. On arrival in Long Melford, the angry men of Glemsford proceeded, in time-honoured fashion, not only to vote, but also to slake their Glemsfordian thirsts at the various hostelries of their host village.

As the day progressed, so did the level of inappropriate activity, including the looting of the odd pub or two and the concomitant terrorising of the fair burghers of Melford.

In the end the authorities felt obliged to summon law and order assistance, in the form of troops from the garrison in Bury St Edmunds, who duly arrived, by train, in the late afternoon, to be met by the still-drinking and ever-so-slightly disorderly Men of Glemsford. The Riot Act was read, and arrests followed.

The legend goes that the troops had lately returned from the Sudan where they had been fighting against the forces of the Mahdi. So fiercely did the Men of Glemsford fight that the troops are reputed to have declared that they fought like "them Egyptians". Since then, Glemsford has been known as "Little Egypt" - at least, that is one of the legends.

I have never been fully convinced by this possible early version of what we would today call an “Urban Myth”. There are too many inconsistencies:

  • why should troops returning from the Sudan compare the Glemsford men with “Egyptians”? why not “Sudanese”?
  • by the time the troops arrived from Bury late in the day, most of the Glemsford rioters were, apparently, so far and so deep into their looted liquor as to be unable to fight off a cold, let alone the British army;
and so on.

So, perhaps, we have to look elsewhere.

Glemsford has never had a whole History Book devoted to itself. A previous rector of the village, the Rev. Kenneth Glass did publish a “Short History of Glemsford” in 1962, and it is reproduced in full in Andrew Clarke’s magnificent Foxearth website:
Inevitably, some of the research has been left far behind, but Glass does refer to two other possible explanations, although, interestingly, does not refer to the Melford Riot.

The first is contained in a somewhat fanciful examination of the possible origins of settlement in the village:

It is possible that the hilltop was fortified from early times, as it is known that these three races were continually involved in tribal war. The Iberians, as civilised as their neighbours, were wholly under the influence of Druidism and the locality abounds in references to the Druids and their Groves, It is a popular saying that the nickname of Glemsford, still used incidentally, of 'Little Egypt' dates from these times, 'Egypt' presumably referring to an Egyptian priest system. It is possible that the Romans may have given this name to Glemsford because of the priestly character of the settlement.

However, I suspect Glass may get nearer to the point with another observation:

Glemsford in medieval times was isolated from the life which passed by along the pack routes from Melford to Clare or Bury. Some have suggested that the nickname "Little Egypt" is a survival of the independent and unfriendly inhabitants of this period who kept very much to themselves as a self-sufficient unit upon their hilltop, viewing all strangers with grave suspicion. A characteristic which may well linger on and certainly was common in those days.

An alternative to this story builds the River Stour into this version, comparing it to the Red Sea, and thus giving the noble folk of Essex in general, and Foxearth and Pentlow in particular, the chance to look across at the poor benighted folk of Little Egypt.

Such Romanticism: and I think this latter embellishment takes us further away from the truth.

I have felt for a long time that there is a connection between the use of the word “Egyptian” and its ancient connection with “gypsy”, and I have been spurred into action here by a fascinating email I received from Rory Coxhill, who has given me permission to use his ideas and words here.

He wrote:

I would like to offer a theory to the history behind the term Little Egypt. As a Traveller and Gypsy the term Little Egypt is one which is very well known.

It tends to be used for an area which was a favourite winter stopping place, … staying until April and moving on with horse and waggon, returning in the October/November.

A wintering place needed to have work available for both men and women and a place that could repair the waggons following a hard year on rough roads. Women would dukker [tell fortunes?] and hawk to the population of Glemsford [… while the …] men do seasonal factory work or jobbing.

Basket Sellers

We don’t have to look far, even on this website, to find supporting evidence for Rory’s theory. Ted Hartley, in his 1978 reminiscence about life in the village in the 1920s said:

Across the River Stour on a rough patch of ground was a gypsy encampment - a gypsy was murdered here - shot at point blank range by a well-known gyppo Bill Munday, he got off through self defence. Gypsies were called gyppos or diddycoys. An old well-liked character who lived rough summer and winter in the hedgerows and thickets was Jerry, the scissor grinder, nobody knew his real name, he roamed the villages sharpening knives and scissors on his contraption. I wonder if boys of today would do this!


and Andrew Clarke’s Foxearth work contains a number of other references to gypsies, several of them in the older affectionate tone that prevailed before the modern pejorative “travellers, tinkers, pikies” etc became the currency of contempt.

There were always many foot travellers of course and many gypsies in their brightly coloured vans, often quite a convoy of them, bringing up the rear with a donkey or pony.


Rory’s theory takes on further weight:

My and many families before the 1st World War stopped in Glemsford. They travelled as far as Bungay returning for the large horse fairs held at Long Melford and Lavenham. The painter Sir Alfred Munnings often painted the Gypsies at the Melford Horse fair.

Gypsy Life by Munnings

and he concluded his first email to me:

You will find that areas of East Anglia, Kent and Sussex often have the name of Little Egypt for the same reason.

Gypsy as a shortened version of Egypt: the belief is that this is where we came from.

This is the point I made earlier. A very simple bit of Googling throws up all sorts of fascinating ideas to support this. For the moment I will just quote one example:

An exotic dark-skinned people travelled with the Ottoman (Turkish) army during its invasion of Europe in the 14th century. Their leaders called themselves 'Lords of Little Egypt', and eventually the name of these colourful Egyptians was shortened to 'Gypsies'. However, the Gypsies didn't really hale from Egypt. Probably, their initial migration was from North West India 1,000 or more years ago. This was worked out because their language of Romani is akin to that spoken in North West India today; bloodgroup and DNA analyses support this belief.


Further, we know that, in 1530, the government of Henry VIII – the dear, well-loved, jolly, bluff, fat, sordid, paranoid, pox-ridden, wastrel, Henry – passed into law the Egyptians Act:

In 1530 the Egyptians Act was passed in England, this aimed to rid the country of all Gypsies by banning immigration and requiring Gypsies who were already in England to leave the country within sixteen days. In 1554 this Act was amended and imposed the death penalty for Gypsies already in England if they did not leave within a month.


So “gypsies” were “Egyptians” in common parlance, and Little Egypt was their place of origin. Yes, I know, it just adds another theory to the old ones, but it is definitely my favourite. Whether it hangs simply with Glass’s idea of the “people on top of the hill” seeming different and slightly aloof from the comings and goings in the valley, or whether Rory’s substantial claim to a gypsy encampment in the area takes hold, I can’t be 100% sure, but then no historian ever can be.

I’m not trying to close this item. I present the ideas here to open up discussion.
So what do you think?
Does anyone have more information, memories, ideas that could help develop one or other of the explanations for Glemsford’s nickname?
Let me know, either by email or by adding a comment to the Family History page.

Alasdair North has done just that, and has pointed me at an item on the Foxearth website which seems to suggest that Glemsfordians being known as "Egyptians" was current BEFORE the Melford riot. It was clearly intended as an insult.

Page maintained by Stephen Clarke, admin@glemsford.org.uk. Copyright(c) December 2007 Created: 31/12/2007