In part two of her extended essay on the prejudices and stigma still faced by contemporary Travellers, Candace Thomas challenges the callousness both casual – and causal – of media and policy makers in a way very recently, proven to rattle those in power: checking the facts and recovering reality.
In light of the recent documentary, Channel 4’s Dispatches: The Truth About Traveller Crime, how can we begin to recover the real truth about Travellers in the UK? I say real, I can speak from my own experience and the ethnographic research I conducted with Traveller families; but in reality, there are several unique yet (arguably) comparable Travelling communities in the UK. Each group has their own distinctive (again, arguable unless you know) culture and each person within that group has their own plethora of individual identities: woman, mother, daughter, tennis player – pescatarian! So, I have to be careful that I do not overgeneralise into types or I will never be able to give you a broader view of what a “Traveller” is, what social issues they experience and the impact that “racism” has on communities.
When I got to Cambridge to start my master’s dissertation I went in gung-ho, ready to start a fight for social justice, to write all about the injustices that Travellers face (very much the overzealous student at the front of the class). What was my motivation? I, myself am a Traveller. I refer to myself as a “Traveller” from a Showman background, my family have travelled around Scotland and operated fairground rides for several generations. However, I have a mixed Traveller heritage and grew up hearing stories about my Roman-y Gypsy great-great grandparents and my French Circus Traveller ancestry. I was brought up to be proud of my heritage and to always be open and honest about my identity; to stick up for my own.
I met up with my supervisor in the first week of the course; waxed lyrical, at 100 miles an hour, about my big research ideas and plans:
“You see there’s Showmen but they’re not Travellers but sometimes they call themselves…but they don’t call (wink wink) themselves Travellers then there’s Romani Gypsies sometimes they call themselves English Travellers but that’s different to Scottish Travellers who are indigenous like Irish Travellers but they’re not the same either…”
The poor professor was exhausted – did not have a clue who I was talking about and convinced me there and then that I needed to change my topic. I needed to find a way to differentiate between each group, a way that would make sense to those not in the know and allow me to highlight the separate injustices, suffered by each group. I needed stop putting the proverbial horse before the eh, wagon. To do so I wanted to be as fair as possible to the people who we are talking about; to base my description on how they see themselves and what they call themselves.
I chose to do my research on the road, travelling from Traveller site, to Fairgrounds, to ancestral stopping grounds; sharing in the culture, language and observing the everyday lifestyle of each group. After conducting my research, I felt confident in saying there are about 8 (maybe 9, if you include New Age Travellers – most other Travellers would not) different Travelling communities in the UK. The oldest groups are collectively referred to as Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT) and are either indigenous to the British Isles or have resided in the UK for over 1000 years.
These groups are the Indigenous Highland and Lowland Scottish Travellers (Lowland Travellers also refer to themselves as Gypsy/Travellers as they see themselves as a mix of both Highland Traveller and Romani Gypsy); the Romani Gypsies who migrated to the UK via the Netherlands in the 1100 (descendent of the Roma; younger generations choose to refer to themselves as “English Travellers”); the Welsh Kale who are a subgroup of the Romani, migrated to Northern Wales via France around the early 1500s; and the Irish Travellers who are also indigenous to the British Isles and began migrating to the UK, in greater numbers around the 1970s.
I found each of these groups to have their own wonderfully rich culture; languages and customs, providing a blueprint that helped me trace their historical trajectories. An example being Scottish Highland Travellers, who have historical tribal structures, each family illustrating their individual identity through symbology:
“We, Scottish Traiveller’s operated in…like ae clan system! We hae wir ane tartan and the older faemilies had their ane faemily animals [heraldic symbols]…like you know, Harry Potter or something (laughter).”
I discovered that Scottish Travellers have a strong geographical aspect to their identity; which visually sets them apart from the stereotypical image of other GRT, the Romani Gypsy (the vardo wagon, vanner horse and Esmerelda, gold coin and hooped earring garb).
The second tier of Travellers are the “Occupational Travellers”, who are younger in age (pre-industrial revolution young – so they are not exactly in their infancy) and they best self-describe as “a community built around a business”. These Traveller groups refer to themselves as: Showman (professional, public descriptor or “Traveller” in private, community focused descriptor) who travel around the UK in family units, owning and operating Fairgrounds; Boat Dwellers (“Bargee Travellers”) who traditionally, transported goods throughout the English Midlands canal system; and Circus Travellers who share a similar history with Showman but see themselves primarily as artistes or performers.
Too often, to the average person, these groups are seen to be one and the same. People see the caravan of caravans – the white transit vans – coming down the road pulling on to village greens and simply think (let’s pretend all people are nice in this analogy) “Oh, look it’s Travellers!” But it could be any one of these individual groups and how they are received by the local community or the types of social issues they experience are vastly different. If for example, it is Showmen who have “pulled on” to the green with their caravans, a few dozen “Showman’s special vehicles” (brightly coloured articulated trucks with fairground rides tightly compact inside) will shortly arrive.
The lessee of the fair will have coordinated their arrival with the local council months in advance; organising a fee for use of the land, will have obtained insurances and public entertainment licenses; organised to pay a bond to repair any damage to the turf and will have paid for a police presence to ensure public safety. They will be joined by their tenants, individual family units who “stand on” pre-arranged plots with their stalls and rides, required to follow the rules and regulations of the Showman’s Guild of Great Britain – all very professional, all about “the fun of the fair”.
Showman consequently have the psychological comfort of knowing they are allowed to be there; but they have so many other worries to contend with: will they earn enough money to covered disproportionate costs (unfair and discriminatory public entertainment license)?; will their winter yards (accommodation; bought and fully licensed) be compulsory purchased, leaving them stranded or relocated to a remote locations?; and a very contemporary worry, will they be able to operate fairs again in light of Covid-19? They are too often blackballed from the table when it comes to discussions on creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises, and most recently the Scottish Section of the Showman’s Guild was excluded from the Scottish governments task force (reopening strategies for business post- Covid-19 lockdown). Despite being a sizable industry in its own right; with a presence at every largescale hospitality event.
There are definite times that I experienced personal discrimination because I was a Show-woman a “Traveller”. I can remember running home from the shop because some town kids decided to pelt me with stones, chanting “Gypsy! Gypsy! Gypsy!” – tears streaming down my face, I was not a Gypsy? I can also remember operating the fair in Saltcoats and despite paying extortionate fees we were not given access to water, my father had to drive for miles to fill water cans so that I could wash before going to school in the morning.
All of this was difficult, but if we go back to the start of the story; the “caravan of caravans” and apply it to a non-occupational Traveller like Scottish Travellers, the story (the social issues and experiences of “racism”) seem far more extreme. There is a definite psychological shift that must occur, a panic, an anxiety at the prospect of “shifting” to a stopping place and knowing that the police could knock at your door at any moment.
So, let’s go back and imagine the aforementioned “nice person”; is not a very nice person and thinks: “It’s the F#%kin Pikey’s again!” or it is a nice person, but the Scottish Traveller’s caravans have pulled onto privately owned land. The person who owns the land envisions a sinister caricature, based on anti-traveller stereotypes (Travellers are deviant, violent criminals and thieves) or has watched the mockumentaries (an hour-long montage vandalism and antisocial behaviour) and becomes frightened – what do they do? The not very nice person spreads word of their arrival throughout the town; which in turn leads to some shop owners, café owners, pub landlords, leisure centre staff etc hanging signs that read: “The management reserves the right to refuse any Gypsies and Travellers”. The nice person meanwhile is left with no other option but to phone the police and hope that there are ethical, conscientious measures in place to ensure the best result for everyone.
In the meantime, a small group of Scottish Travellers who have been looking for somewhere safe to stay, or may have been lucky to find work in the local area (as landscape gardeners, in construction or as tradesmen), settle on a plot of land they think is unused (“not botherin’ no one!”). The Traveller men start by looking for work opportunities; asking door to door if anyone needs their services (a modern variation of “hawking” a working practice handed down from generation to generation – that in itself is seen to be devious by the general public). They will also begin looking for access to essential facilities like water, electricity or sanitation services (no one can help). The Traveller women will no doubt begin preparing the caravans, will go to purchase food (they are turned away), they take their children to the local swimming pool (“not today”), they enquire about help or enrolment at the local school (the staff are unaccommodating, ask too many confusing questions, require proof of address, identification, previous enrolment – it is all too overwhelming, too daunting).
The Scottish Traveller’s arrival in the town has sparked a series of conflicts. A he said she said of events (who knows what came first): stones are thrown at the caravans by local youths; Traveller children are seen breaking trees in the park; a Traveller woman is accused of being verbally abusive to a shop assistant; a gang of local men attack a Traveller man whilst he is walking his dog. It goes from a single spark, to a never-ending Catherine wheel of antagonism that only intensifies deep seated feelings of hostility, serving as a justification for centuries long prejudices against GRT – “They’ve always been trouble it’s just in them!”.
They return in the evening to the security of their homes; the children play outside, as their parents, upset and angry consider what to do next. That is when the police arrive to inform them, they need to move on. They have nowhere else to go, the police have nowhere to send them (the closest authorised sites are all full) and the person that owns the land cannot allow them to stay – they do not have the correct site licenses or facilities and they need to use the land themselves (completely fair). After some initial protest they pack up and leave, some are able to return to their winter sites or houses, but many have nowhere else to go and are forced to relive the same trauma in the next town (this continues during the Covid-19 lockdown).
There can be no winners in a situation like this, not the “nice people”, not the police and certainly not the Scottish Travellers. It is a devastating cycle and the direct result of ineffectual governmental policy, that was intentionally designed to assimilate GRT into mainstream society. There is legislature spanning centuries, outlawing GRT’s traditional modes of travel and employment (fruit-picking and cockle gathering, hawking goods like woven baskets and market trading); stopping them from gathering at their sacred ancestral locations (that inspired beautiful ballads and folklore passed down from generation to generation around the campfire); forcing them to settle on sites or “the cruelty” take away their children; and then there is contemporary bureaucracy, that makes accessing essential services seem impossible – you need a fixed address to register at a GP, to apply for universal credit or housing assistance or even for opening something as simple as a bank account.
So far, I have tried to instil an understanding of GRT experiences based on a piecemeal rendition of individual accounts, that would inspire a more sympathetic, humane and balanced picture; without overgeneralising or universalising a particular family’s singular experience. To create a series of circumstances that allows you to put yourself in the position of each party, but if we put the analogies and hypotheticals to one side, there is ample evidence on GRT experiences to show that this play by play of events is anything but farfetched.
The UK Parliament’s Woman and Equalities committee in 2019 found that GRT people: “…have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment, criminal justice and hate crime…authorities and public services fail to differentiate between different groups who have different needs”. The Traveller Movement has produced a number of reports that corroborate these findings: Gypsies and Travellers have the highest levels of economic inactivity (men 39% and woman 60%); around 70% of Gypsy and Travellers say they experienced discrimination in education; Irish Traveller pupils, are more likely than other ethnic minority pupils, to be eligible for free school meals (3 in 5 key stage pupils in 2016); Gypsies and Travellers have a life expectancy 10% less (10-12 years) than the general population, more likely to develop health conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma and mental health issues; and around 14-20% of Gypsies and Travellers live on illegal sites and are consequently classified as homeless.
GRT advocates, activist researchers have been very vocal in recent times to highlight the prejudice and discrimination suffered by these communities. In 2017, a YouGov poll found that around 66% of people do not even believe that GRT groups are ethnic minorities, despite being recognised and in theory protected as three distinct ethnic groups in UK law. The same poll found that 1/3 of British parents would be unhappy if their children where to play with a Gypsy or Traveller child; that 4/5 British people said they would be unhappy if a family member was to marry a Gypsy or Traveller; and that 1/10 British people believe Gypsies and Travellers should be refused entry into pubs or restaurants solely for being a “Traveller”.
I have read and reread these statistics dozens of times and still feel a deep sense of despair, my stomach in knots, my heart tightening in my chest. This is nothing however, in comparison to how it feels when you read a newspaper, see a Facebook post or hear from another GRT that a real person (not a statistic; someone’s child, parent, grandchild sibling…) has been the target of a racially motivated attack or was driven to take their own life due to substance misuse or depression. What is even more devastating, is when the government, authorities and public try to whitewash the motivation behind these crimes – insisting that GRT’s are not a “race” and therefore cannot be subject to racism. The killing of 15-year-old John Delaney in 2003 sadly illustrates this point, most painfully.
John Delaney was kicked and beaten to death by a group of teenagers, who had shouted “racists” slurs at him and his friends, in a playground in Ellesmere Port England. The boys who repeatedly stomped on John’s head where later recorded saying: “He was only a….Gypsy”. The incident was recorded as a “racially-motivated incident” under the Lawrence inquiry, but the two boys charged were later cleared of committing murder, as the judge did not believe the attack was racially motivated. There are those who would agree. In Cambridge I engaged in countless debates with sociology students, who vehemently argue that GRT are white, that they share the same physical characteristics as white Britons and therefore, an attack on a GRT cannot possibly be labelled “racist”.
As a Sociologist I have to concede to their being correct. There are core distinctions between race and ethnicity; racism and ethnic discrimination. But what about anti-Irish racism; prejudicial views and discrimination against the Irish Catholic community in Scotland (or the Greek Orthodox community in the US)? Are both of these communities not of European decent; are they not “white”? It seems, regardless of phenotype, racists like to pick and choose what it means to “white”. And part of me still believes that any prejudice, discrimination, structural inequality or criminal act against an ethnic minority should be tantamount to racism and given the same credence in legal case law or popular discourse. If a racist, a bigot, an aggressor, an official body is invoking white supremacist structures to terrorise or put down a community we all need to take action against this injustice.
I think we take action by understand and highlighting how GRT groups view their own identity; discovering what they need going forward, to both sustain their culture and thrive in modern society. We will not be able to envision a fairer and more deserving reality for GRT until we do
 My categorization of Travellers in the UK is based on several months of ethnographic research undertaken at the University of Cambridge, see here: “Not them Travellers, us Travellers”: An exploration of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Identities using an ethnographical approach”.