Travellers - A brief history
Approximately 250,000 – 300,000 traditional Travellers are thought to be living in the UK today. This does not take into account the number of Roma entering the country from Europe, since countries such as Czechoslovakia, Romania and Poland have joined the EU.
Gypsies first migrated into Britain in the early 1500s, having left India about 500 years earlier. They were first recorded in Scotland in 1505 and in England in 1514.
They were thought to be Egyptians on a pilgrimage, due to their dark skin and unfamiliar language- this led to them being called Gypsies. Irish Travellers are recorded as travelling in the UK in the sixteenth century.
Gypsy people have been persecuted through the ages for their different values, work interests and traditions, and for their nomadic lifestyle.
In England during the reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I laws were passed condemning Gypsies to death if they did not give up their lifestyle. Persecution of Gypsies in the mid 16th century came at the time of the Europe wide witch-hunts. Organised hunts led to imprisonment, torture, deportation and even death. Large numbers of Gypsies were burned at the stake during the witch-hunts of the next two centuries.
After 1780 anti Gypsy legislation was gradually repealed. Gypsies became a useful source of cheap labour: working in the fields, as blacksmiths and as entertainers. They travelled around the country, many returning to the same spot every year, setting up camp on farmers’ fields where they worked. Others would travel round the country fairs and shows throughout the year. This tradition carries on today: many families will go travelling through the summer months, although it is harder to find places to pull onto now.
During the Holocaust, British Gypsies serving in the armed forces were involved in the liberation of the death camps. It is difficult to ascertain how many European Gypsies were killed but in Auschwitz alone around 250,000 are thought to have been murdered at the hands of the Nazis. No Gypsies were asked to give evidence at the Nuremburg Trials after the end of the Second World War.
Gypsies and Travellers have always survived on the margins of society. After the mechanisation of farming, the Gypsy and Traveller way of life changed for good. No longer needed for hop or fruit picking, or other traditional trades, the Gypsies had to find other ways to make money and many Travellers moved into the towns.
Timeline for British Gypsies
- 1505 Scotland - Gypsy pilgrims arrive, probably from Spain
- 1514 England - First mention of a Gypsy in the country
- 1530 England and Wales - Expulsion of Gypsies ordered
- 1540 Scotland - Gypsies allowed to live under their own laws
- 1544 England - Gypsies deported to Norway
- 1554 England - The death penalty is imposed for any Gypsy not leaving the country within a month
- 1562 England - Provision of previous Acts widened to include people who live and travel like Gypsies
- 1573 Scotland - Gypsies either to settle down or leave country
- 1579 Wales - First record of Gypsies
- 1611 Scotland - Three Gypsies hanged (under 1554 law)
- 1714 Scotland - Two female Gypsies executed
- 1715 Scotland - Ten Gypsies deported to Virginia
- 1822 United Kingdom - Turnpike Act introduced: Gypsies camping on the roadside to be fined
- 1835 United Kingdom - Highways Act strengthens the provisions of the 1822 Turnpike Act
- 1960 England and Wales - Caravan Sites Act reduces provision of caravan sites
- 1966 Britain - Gypsy Council set up
- 1968 England and Wales - Caravan Sites Act. Councils to build sites
- 1970 United Kingdom - National Gypsy Education Council established
- 1971 England - First World Romani Congress held near London
- Scotland - Advisory Committee on the Travelling People starts work
- 1972 England - Romani Guild founded
- 1977 England and Wales - Cripps report on Gypsies published
- 1985 England - Bradford ’s attempts to make it illegal for nomadic Gypsies to come within city limits overthrown by the Courts
- 1993 Scotland - Scottish Gypsy Traveller Association set up
- 1994 Britain - Criminal Justice Act. Nomadism criminalised
- 1997 November/December England - Romani Refugees from the Slovack Republic arrive in Dover seeking asylum and receive mainly negative reactions and scepticism from local residents and the national news media.
- 1998 Human Rights Act
- 2000 England - Irish travellers recognised as an Ethnic Minority under Race Relations Act
More can be found at www.gypsy-traveller.org