Book review – ‘The Many Lives of Zillah Smith’

2 June 2017
Book review – ‘The Many Lives of Zillah Smith’

It is always a pleasure to be asked to review another author’s book, more so when it's a biography, as it's a privileged insight into somebody else's unique world. When the book arrived, Zillah's characterful face and discerning gaze met me from the front cover. Zillah Smith, the matriarch of the family shares with us, her memories of travelling life and experiences.

For just shy of a century (91 years) she takes us down the roads and lanes of Staffordshire and beyond, through six generations of travelling life. Zillah's great grandad was a cord-winder or shoe-maker and passed on the skill to her grandfather Albert. Albert and her grandmother ran away together, to return later to 'jump the broomstick.'  Zillah didn't think they had gone as far as a 'blood wedding.' She tells us "In me granny's day they used to cut their hands and jump the broomstick around a stick fire - but not very often, it'd only be the odd ones that'd let the blood drip like. They used to have the old vardas around outside against a big fire, and have a real nice do over it."

A far cry from today's 'Big Fat Gypsy Weddings' I'm sure you will agree.

Zillah herself was born in 1925. Her father 'married out' to a lady from Burslem, who rapidly adapted to travelling life. She was an asset to her new family, being able to read and write, and went on to bare six children, of which Zillah was the second.

Growing up between two world wars, her second daughter married at 16, to her much loved husband Ivor. With her golden wavy hair, neatly pinned, and blue eyes, she made a beautiful bride.

The young couples first home was a tent.

We travel with Zillah through 'waggon time' into 'trailer time' and beyond. Earning a living, hawking from door to door, the daily details of domestic life. We enjoy the black and white photographs that illustrate the narrative. We share the trials of her own family growing up and the heartbreak of the loss of her daughter and later her husband.

There is much of Zillah's life that we can identify with, from waggons and lanes, to site life and the rigours and problems of gaining planning permission, on privately owned land, of more recent decades.

Throughout the narrative Zillah's formidable strength and positive humour stand out.

The reader is accompanied throughout the book by Zillah's friend of many years Netta Cartwtright, who has shaped Zillah's memories into a very readable form.

Zillah's life is sensitively documented, along with that of her very considerable extended family....which have now spread amongst many counties.

The unity and loyalty of Zillah's family shines through, a great source of strength and consolation.

It is a blessing to have these memories captured in print, for as we knew them, those times will never return. To tell you more would spoil the treat you have in store....

All profits from this book go to charities that research cancer.

(C) Ryalla Duffy 2017.

You can order your copy of ‘The Many Lives of Zillah Smith’ by Netta Cartwright by following this link: or through Amazon at: