It is believed that Gypsies originated from nomadic tribes in North West India. Most textbooks dealing with Gypsy history state that the Romany people left India and travelled westwards in small family groups reaching Europe in the thirteenth century and Britain in the sixteenth century. This knowledge comes from the language – Romani – that is closely akin to the dialects still spoken in that area. There is a direct link between Romani and Sanskrit. There was not one complete migration from India but probably movement of large family or tribal groups moving to look for work or fleeing clashes between invading Arab and Mongolian warriors. They trekked across Eastern and Western Europe and settled in every region from Persia to the Balkan states.
There was originally an incorrect belief that these groups of people had come from Egypt. The term Gypsy originated from this falsehood and the first record of ‘Egyptians’ in Britain was in Scotland in 1505 and England in 1514.
Gypsies were identified in York in the sixteenth century. They were described as being unlike any other group of people, physically different and dressed in strange clothes. They lived on the fringes of society and did not conform to the ways and employment of the settled community nor did they stay in one place long enough to build relationships with the local people. Draconian legislation was introduced very soon after their arrival. In 1530 the English Parliament passed a law which declared that being a Gypsy, or associating with a Gypsy, was punishable by death and many were hanged, while others were deported.
This legislation was in place for 253 years. It was repealed in 1783, possibly because the settled population saw Gypsy skills as useful to them. Gypsies provided many different types of service to the settled population including seasonal work on farms, horsemanship skills, and a variety of fixing and mending work, which could be carried out as they passed from town to town.
It is often forgotten and only really acknowledged in recent history books that the Sinti and Roma population faced full persecution under the Nazi regime (see Gypsies and the Holocaust slide presentation). In some parts of Europe almost the entire Roma population was wiped out in concentration camps during the Second World War.
English Gypsies and Irish Travellers were recognised as ethnic minority groups after court cases under the Race Relations Act. In English law ethnic minority status is defined by the Mandla criteria – an ethnic group must have a common, shared history, language, customs and practices that go back centuries. Gypsies still have this and have not been subsumed into the ‘English’ as were Vikings, Angles, Picts and other groups over the centuries – they have remained a distinct group.