Gypsy life, Gypsy tears

A movement of persecution and survival

In the UK, gypsies so-called are recognised as coming from two separate and distinct ethnic origins, the Irish travellers’ (known as either Pavee or Minceir) and the Romani whose beginnings are traced back from North India around 1000 years ago, migrating predominantly across Eastern Europe.  Each have their own unique histories, ancestry, culture, languages and customs, the common feature being their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Gypsy is the term most commonly used to describe nomadic peoples regardless of their backgrounds.

The origins of the Irish traveller community remains open to debate. Certainly there is evidence that points to the existence of nomadic groups in Ireland as early as the fifth century AD and by the twelfth century the name Tynkler or Tynker is said to have been given to a group of nomads who had maintained a separate identity, social organisation and dialect. Parish records from 1505 show that Irish travellers were already living in Scotland, with many more documents showing their presence in England after 1514. By 1530 gypsies were forbidden to enter the country under Henry VIII, and subject to expulsion, and by 1554 being an immigrant gypsy was punishable by death as was being found in the company of, or associating with, gypsies. This is thought to be the only time that fraternizing with an ethnic community has been punishable by death.

The history of gypsy communities one of constant exclusion and persecution, being useful scapegoats for state-ordered societies. Groups of travellers began arriving in Europe as far back as the 1400s, claiming to be from ‘Little Egypt’ (gypsy being a corruption of Egyptian, hence the name). Similar groups arrived throughout the century in most of the countries of Central and Western Europe. They are recorded in Italy, France, Germany and Hungary, roaming the continent, living the nomadic life, carrying on their trades as horse dealers, musicians and metal workers. In parts of Central Europe they were forced into bondage, and in Romania made to live as chattel slaves – a situation which did not change until they gained their freedom in 1856.

A second wave of Roma spread across Europe after slavery was abolished in the second half of the nineteenth century. And a third followed the collapse of Eastern Europe’s ‘communist’ industry and welfare system. In the 30s, the Nazis had begun shunting gypsies into concentration camps, the prelude to ”the Devouring”, the mass extermination of European Roma and Sinti by Hitler’s regime. How many died is still argued over (anywhere between 200, and 500 thousand) but historic memories of what happened has never made life any easier.

In  the UK, being a traveller remains a precarious and marginalised state of being [¹].  As far back as 1885 attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to introduce several Moveable Dwellings bills in Parliament to regulate gypsy life and restrict their movement. In 1936 saw the first of the scrap metals laws, attacking travellers’ main source of economic independence. In 1959, specifically “gypsy” (ie Roma and Irish travellers) park-ups were made illegal with the introduction of Highway and Byways Act, effectively criminalising the travelling life overnight as families were not allowed to stop on the side of the road. A year later Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act displaced many more travellers since farmers could no longer allow them to stay on their land, being eligible for fines if they ran a site without a valid licence. By 1968 Councils were obliged to provide sites, with the introduction of the Caravan Sites Act, but many authorities flouted the law and did not build the sites that were needed.  But both strategies were aimed at forcing travellers off the road.

In the early 90s, Council obligation was abolished, and travellers were told to buy their own sites.  Many initially welcomed this, but 90% of planning permission applications were turned down – though buying land continues to be their main survival strategy. Refusing to assimilate into mainstream society is often used by authorities to actively and legally discriminate against travellers. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 swept the Caravan Sites Act away, criminalising further the travellers way of life. The legalisation was explicitly aimed at suppressing the activities of ‘alternative’ lifestyles including squatting, political protest, football fan culture, hunt sabbing and the free party and rave scene, and there was much crossover with travellers such as increased police powers for evictions from land and the right to impound vehicles if there were more than six. The anti-Criminal Justice campaign was a mass social movement.

Councils continue to fork out huge sums to carry out evictions, at times seizing the land “to pay for said eviction”. Officially £100m million of public money was spent on anti-traveller action in the past decade. The result of these evictions is that the population at Dale Farm, now the biggest traveller site in Europe,  has been growing with refugees coming from trashed sites at Meadowlands (Chelmsford), Bulkington (Nuneaton) and many smaller park-ups.

Dale Farm  was the most recent example of traveller persecution

Dale Farm Solidarity Traveller Support Network

[¹] Legal contexts
Throughout the late medieval and early modern period Gypsies were subject to profound legal oppression across Europe. In England and Wales they were treated under the brutal sixteenth-century vagrancy laws, and were specifically included in the 1597 Vagrants Act. By the eighteenth century the normal punishment for vagrancy included whipping, a week’s imprisonment and removal to one’s place of “settlement”. Most Gypsies could not claim a legal “settlement”, so their treatment under the act was more problematic and varied. Gypsies were also affected by government attempts to regulate pedlars and hawkers by the issuing of licenses. With the evolution of the Poor Law following 1834, the issue of “settlement” became less important, but vagrancy laws continued to have their impact. Because most types of vagrancy were not felonies, however, few trials of Gypsies for this offence can be found. Instead, Gypsies appear most frequently as defendants, witnesses and victims in trials for more serious offences.

Other travelling and seasonal workers were similarly caught in a web of legislation and regulation. By the letter of the law, and in the absence of a well filled purse, a pass of some kind, whether a pedlar’s license or a vagrants’ or soldiers’ pass, was needed to secure your way across a frequently unwelcoming English countryside. The Vagrancy Acts of 1744 and 1821 formed the legal framework within which many a wandering labourer was forced to operate, and those who fell foul of the laws were frequently summarily punished by whipping or a stint in the house of correction. Travelling actors and players were also similarly singled out within legislation and subject to strict legal control. And while the less well-policed spaces of the capital provided a winter refuge from the attentions of the authorities, both parish and ward constables in the eighteenth century, and the new police forces of the nineteenth century, looked on unsettled labourers with a jaundiced eye.


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