The Story of Travellers in the UK
If you’re at all plugged in to British politics or online discourse, you might be aware of the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. It has been very controversial, largely because of the power it would give police to control protests, but also because of how it will affect the lives of GRT (Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers) as well as the homeless in the UK. Part 4, ‘unauthorized encampments’ (page 66 on the pdf) would criminalize trespass, making unauthorized encampments punishable by up to three months in prison and fines of up to £2500 and giving the police the power to seize the vehicles (homes) of the trespassers. In other words, it would criminalize the way of life practiced by some of Europe’s most vulnerable people (click here for a detailed breakdown of what this section of the bill will actually mean and here for a Romani perspective).
Who are Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers?
GRT is the abbreviation used in Britain to refer to its traditionally nomadic people. There are two overarching cultural groups that make up the GRT in Britain. The first is the Roma, who first migrated to Europe from India in the Middle Ages, first coming to Britain in the 16th century. The second are the Irish Travellers, a genetically distinct group of people whose historical origins in Ireland are unknown although probably quite ancient, but first came to England in large numbers in the 19th century. There are also English Travellers, Highland Travellers, the Welsh Kale, and other groups which may have varying degrees of cultural and ethnic ties to other travelling people.
(It should be noted that the word ‘gypsy’ is generally seen as a slur, but ‘Roma’ is not accepted by all groups who are generally classified as Roma and ‘Gypsy’ is preferred by some. I will be using ‘Gypsies and Travellers’ as a general term partly for variety; my intent is not to cause offense.)
Gypsies and Travellers traditionally practice a nomadic lifestyle, although it’s worth pointing out that these are ethnic and not lifestyle categories, so you can be a Traveller and not travel, as is the case for the majority of Irish Travellers in Ireland. Traditionally, these groups would go from town to town selling or repairing objects (hence the historical (now pejorative) term ‘tinker’ meaning ‘tinsmith’), performing, and doing informal seasonal or temporary work. The lowered demand and increased restrictions on these kinds of services (as well as restrictions on potential campsites) has made this traditional lifestyle less viable and many GRT live in poverty (I can’t find very good statistics but this should give an idea).
Culture and Society
Irish Travellers, also known as Mincéirí, typically speak Shelta, also known as the Cant or the Gammon, which combines elements of Irish Gaelic and English and is not typically taught to outsiders (‘settled’ or ‘country people’). The Roma in England often speak Angloromani which includes elements of (you guessed it) English and Romani. Both groups also speak English. (One language-based concern is that the literacy rate is low among these groups).
Irish Travellers are typically practicing Catholics; in recent years, some have converted to the Pentecostal Light and Life movement, founded by and also popular with the Roma in England.
The culture is very family-oriented; respect for one’s elders and care for one’s children are prime concerns; they often marry young and practice endogamy, rarely marrying outside of the community. Traveller families often come together for weddings, funerals, and other occasions. The biggest gathering of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK is the Appleby Horse Fair, held annually in Appleby-on-Westmorland.
One origin story for the Irish Travellers is that they descended from the wandering cast of bards in ancient Ireland, whence the common surname Ward (Mac an Bháird). Whether or not that is true, Travellers have been well-known for their music, and they contributed to the Celtic folk revival of the 60s and 70s, sometimes preserving songs that had been forgotten by the settled population. Two legendary folk musicians, Finbar Furey (of the Fureys, of course) and Andy M. Stewart (of Silly Wizard) were of Traveller heritage (the latter was related to the singer Belle Stewart) and continued Traveller musical traditions.
Two very famous celebrities have Romanichal origins: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Charlie Chaplin.
Some books by Traveller and Romanichal writers are Duncan Williamson’s The Horsieman and other writings, Nan Joyce’s Traveller: an Autobiography, Oein DeBhairduin’s Why the Moon Travels, and the poetry of Charlie Smith, novels of Louise Doughty, and writings of Francis Hinde Groome. The HazBeanzShow podcast is a Traveller-led podcast that often touches on contemporary issues and Smith’s Kushti Podcast is a Romani-led podcast.
Naturally this is not an exhaustive list. Please leave more examples of Roma or Traveller music, art, writing, etc. in the comments!
Challenges and discrimination
Besides the problems of poverty and unemployment mentioned above, GRT suffer in other significant ways. Life expectancy and infancy survival rate is considerably lower than that of the general population and access to health care is challenging for a number of reasons ranging from cultural practices and lack of education on important issues to genetic disorders and discrimination. The suicide rate within the Traveller population in Ireland is 6 times higher than that of the general population and mental health is generally poor. GRT are overrepresented in the UK prison system (often because they are targeted by police). They are often subject to sometimes violent or even deadly hate crimes.
Racism against Roma and Travellers is very common and expressed openly (when researching this article, I found it as easy to find examples of blatant racism — which I refuse to signal-boost — as it was to find sources combatting it! Basically, Gypsies and Travellers are spoken of in ways that would not be tolerated for any other ethnic group.) This goes all the way up to pretty official sources: a Labour MP recently apologized for an official pamphlet promising to ‘deal with traveller incursions’. ‘No Gypsies allowed’ signs, although illegal, are not uncommon and Travellers are often turned away from businesses. The UK media often depicts travelling people in a negative light: the most widespread example is My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding which, like most reality shows, is more concerned with sensationalism than fair representation; another example is the program The Truth about Traveller Crime. Even Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back, which normally is a super-woke social justice machine addressing the missteps big corporations, devoted one episode to showcasing an illegal fly-tipping service owned by an Irish Traveller, carelessly furthering a negative perception of a marginalized community. (And actively misrepresenting them: he took the time to look up the man’s Facebook page to make a joke about him being a fan of stolen caravans, and not enough time to notice that it’s obviously a page for people who have had their caravans stolen).
(To be fair to Joe Lycett, the show didn’t bring up their ethnicity. I still consider it a very questionable creative choice).
Of course, none of this is new. There were anti-Gypsy laws in Britain almost as soon as they arrived: the Egyptians Act of 1530 expelled all Gypsies from Britan and the Egyptians Act of 1554 imposed the death penalty on those still remaining. Roma were sold into slavery, and both Roma and Travellers were sent to Australia in great numbers. Later on in Scotland, Travellers were targeted by ‘Burkers’ who sold the bodies of their victims for use in medical experiments, and up to 1980 the ‘Tinker Experiment’ forced Travellers into small, squalid settlements as an attempt at assimilation. (Threats of taking the children were certainly not baseless: the children of Gypsies and Travellers were also often — and still are — taken into care and re-educated).
Other laws disproportionately affected traditional Traveller ways of life. In 1959, it became illegal to camp beside highways and byways, and in 1960 caravan sites became much more strictly legislated, meaning that landowners who were willing to host Gypsy or Traveller camps would be fined without the proper license. (Perhaps these two laws inspired Ewan MacColl to write the lines ‘There’s a bylaw to say you must be on your way and another to say you can’t wander’, in a song written for his 1964 radio documentary on the life of the nomadic people of the UK.
The 2011 Dale Farm eviction was the most famous and large-scale confrontation between, in this case, a mostly settled Traveller population and Basildon City Council. This was an approved Traveller site that expanded without planning permission and resulted in the forced eviction of 80 families. If nothing else, this illustrates the precarious position of many GRT families in Britain who are faced with constant eviction and struggle to find authorized places to go and stay.
Note on media portrayal
To forestall possible objections, it is true that, as with every other group of people, Roma and Travellers sometimes commit crimes; in other words, if you want to you will be able to find examples that support a negative stereotype of GRT groups. The media often lingers on and sensationalizes these instances, and hatred towards Gypsies and Travellers is often ‘justified’ with such examples, but — obviously, hopefully — the question isn’t whether or not examples of wrongdoing can be found. Crime is inevitable among any group of people and particularly among any seriously disadvantaged portion of the population. But while the media generally treats crimes committed by the general position as isolated incidents, reports on crimes committed by Gypsies and Travellers tends to focus on their culture and ethnicity, implying that GRT live inherently criminal lifestyles. As an example, here’s how a (one, single) American child abuse case was reported on in the Irish Independent in 2002:
This illustrates a trend: a single case of an incident that could have (and does) happen in many communities was used as an opportunity to paint Irish Travelers as a criminal cult.
The bottom line is this: instances of crime or other problems within the community do not makes Gypsies, Roma, or Travellers any less worthy of protection or fair treatment. They do not have to be — and emphatically should not be — held to a higher standard than the rest of society to live safe and secure lives and be treated justly. As ever, examples of wrongdoing do not justify discrimination.
Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers are ethnic minority groups that suffer from racism and discriminatory laws that criminalize their way of life. Problems affecting these groups are often taken less seriously than problems facing other ethnic groups or the general population. The 2021 Policing Bill in particular will further limit how GRT can live legally, pushing them away from their communities and traditional ways of life and threatening them with poverty and imprisonment; it is a further injustice against an already-marginalized community.
If you are looking for further resources, The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families, and Travellers and Pavee Point are all charities working to improve the lives of Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers in the UK and Ireland, and their websites have many good resources available. The Travellers’ Times is another good resource. (Again, please add more in the comments!)