A Short History of Gypsies & Travellers in Great Britain

Reproduced from the original with the author's permission.

To look at this subject we must first establish the various kinds of Travellers and Gypsies and then look at their origins.

Here follows a list of nomadic peoples in The British Isles:

Let us now look at the history and culture of these Travelling groups.

Romany Gypsies are, by far, the largest group of Travelling people in the UK. They were thought to have originated from Egypt, hence the name Gypsy. However the studies of English Romany in the 19th century lead to the conclusion that their origins were from Northern India. Scholars such as John Samson realised that English Romany language was mainly Sanskrit with foreign words added. These words would have been picked up along the way and incorporated into their native tongue.

It is possible to track their progress through Europe by the words they now speak. There are still Roma tribes living in India who share the same linguistic and cultural roots. We know now that they left India about 1000 A.D. They arrived in Western Europe about 1300 and crossed over into Britain about 1514 when we have the first record of them. By then many of them had accepted the Catholic faith mainly because they could mask themselves as pilgrims and could travel anywhere in Europe without hindrance. When they arrived in Britain, it was at the time of the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII thought of them as dangerous spies for the Roman Church. In 1530 Henry forbade Gypsies to come into the country. In 1554 Mary 1 passed a law in England making it a crime, punishable by death, to enter the country as a Gypsy. Elizabeth I passed a law, that if Gypsies did not give up their way of life they would be put to death and their belongings taken away. The Romany Gypsies survived all of these persecutions and became a useful part of country life. The farming community used Gypsies and Travellers for many years to harvest the crops. They were useful in that they were itinerant and after their work was done were happy to move on elsewhere. The word Romany comes from the word Rom which means in Romany, man or human being. Romany people have a strong family based culture where the family is very much their support system. Romany people are from birth to death, governed by strict hygiene laws known as Mochadi which can be translated as unclean. Romanies believe cleanliness to be of great importance and strict principles have been laid down. Washing one's hands is very important:

To a Gypsy, bodily fluids are thought to be 'Dirty', therefore latrines are to be well away from the living area. This is why Gypsies find modern housing very difficult as it breaks Mochadi. To the Romany a house is a dark and depressing place because they are very much out of doors people.

Roma are Romany Gypsies who have arrived here in the last century mainly as refugees from Eastern Europe. Under Stalin the Roma, as they call themselves, were forced to settle; they literally took the wheels off their caravans and in some parts of Eastern Europe they are still living in those vans. However Stalin set up Roma schools all over the Soviet Union and wrote down Romany in Russian script. He wanted to create a Roma communist elite and in some circumstances he succeeded. Many of the children in these schools became high up officials in government and the Red Army. At the collapse of the Soviet State the Roma became the target for racial abuse and this continues to this day.

Welsh Romanies or Kale as they call themselves, are mostly the descendants of Abram Wood, who was a talented violinist. They entered Wales about 1700 and until recently they spoke their own type of Romany which is very much more like continental Romany and was of great interest to the linguist John Samson. He thought of it as being a purer language and thought it was far closer to the original language of those who left India a thousand years ago.

The Irish Travellers, or Pavee, are one of the oldest Travelling people of the British Isles and some scholars believe them to be the descendants of the original hunter gatherer people of these islands. They speak two languages, Gammon, which is spoken in the south of Eire and Cant which is spoken in the north and the west of Ireland. They were at one time tin smiths, tinkers and peddlers and also brought information from place to place. This was valued because before 1700 Dublin was the only Irish town to have its own newspaper. In culture they have the same hygiene laws as the Romany Travellers, which is very much a mystery to anthropologists as they have little to do with each other and intermarriage is rare even to this day.

Groups of Scottish Travellers developed between 1500 and 1800 from Scottish craft workers, who married into immigrant Romany groups from France and Spain. In 1969 one third of them were still living in tents. Much of Scotland's traditional music has been collected from Traveller families. They have their own language which is known as Cant. To this day the Scottish Parliament refuses to count them as an ethnic minority.

New Travellers or, as some quite wrongly call them, New Age Travellers started to form in the 1970s. Most of them come from the settled community and there are many reasons for this. Some chose the way of life because they thought it was better for the environment, being that they used less of the world's depleting energy stocks. Others however are just poor people who have been forced through economic circumstances to live on the road. In the dark old days of unemployment and the poll tax, many young people from the North and Midlands, where poverty and unemployment were at their highest, and groups of homeless young people simply did what the then minister told them to do; they bought old vehicles such as buses and lorries and took to the road to live like Gypsies. Today many of those people would like to come off the road but because they are being constantly moved on they have no chance of getting into council housing.

Bargees are a distinct group of Travellers who live and work on barges. There are now very few Bargees in Britain as canals are no longer usually used to carry freight. However some New Travellers wishing to get away from constantly being moved on by local authorities have bought up old narrow boats and travel on the canals. Recently this has come under fire from the water authority, who again want to move them on.

The Showmen and Circus People probably travel the most out of all these groups. The word fair comes from the Latin word Feria meaning holiday. There were probably fairs in Britain before the Roman invasion. In the middle ages, traders from Europe brought goods to trade from all over the world. Travelling entertainers such as jugglers, musicians and tumblers performed wherever people gathered to buy their goods. Rides first appeared in the 1800s. In 1889 the fair ground people formed the Showmen's Guild. Some of the guild members are from Gypsy descent, others are not but this made them distinct from all other Travellers.

The first Circuses were travelling shows with musicians, jugglers and acrobats performing in open spaces and collecting money for acts. Later circuses were held in enclosed spaces and people paid to watch. The first modern circus was held in London in 1768, but tents were probably not used until the 1820s.

The plight of Gypsies & Travellers today is not easy. In 1968 a law was passed saying that each local council had an obligation to provide a site for every Traveller. This promise was never honoured and the sites that were provided were often old rubbish tips or even under flyovers, places no one else would want to live.

In 1994 the Conservative government abolished the Caravan Sites Act and took away the obligation for local councils to provide sites. At least 5000 families were left without any legal home. The Gypsies and Travellers were told that they should look for their own sites and that councils would give them planning permission. Again this never happened and families were forced to either go into housing or apply for planning permission retrospectively, because no Gypsy could ever get planning permission granted because of local prejudice.

In recent years many of the old traditional stopping places such as commons, old roads etc. have been sealed up and this has made it more difficult to live on the road. Those who have chosen the housing route have often found hostility from the settled population and many of these folk forced to live in houses have landed up clinically depressed. Young people living on these estates have lost their cultural roots and have ended up with a dysfunctional family life.

It is difficult to count how many Gypsy Travellers there are in the UK because they move so often. It is thought that at the least there are 120,000 of them. It would not be greatly difficult to solve this problem, if only the settled population were less prejudiced. It costs the tax payer over 20,000,000 a year to just evict these people from one place to another and make their lives a misery. That money could build many sites and solve the problem. However, there is a lack of political will to do this, because the settled community are so hostile to the Travelling community. This hostility comes from fear and ignorance and until this is addressed, as the Gypsies would say - We are on a puckering cosh to nowhere - (a signpost to nowhere).

Revd Roger Redding, Chaplain to Gypsies & Travellers, Chairman, SWANomads.