A Brief History
Travellers in Britain
The following comes from the publication “A Better Road” by the Derbyshire Gypsy Liasion Group. We are grateful for their input. A Better Road is due to be updated this autumn to take into account recent changes in legislation.
It is extremely difficult to place exact numbers of how many Traditional Travellers there are in Great Britain. Between 250,000 and 300,000 have been estimated. The first authenticated records of their presence in Britain are in 1505 in Scotland.
The first authenticated record in England is in 1514. Life was hard for the Gypsy people in Europe before 1500. Laws were passed to expel Gypsies from Spain and Switzerland, and by 1650 most Gypsy people were slaves.
In England under Queen Elizabeth 1 Gypsies were expelled along with all freed black slaves. Laws were passed condemning all Gypsies to death. When people were out of work, prices high and peasants were thrown off the land, it was the usual story of looking for someone to blame. Strangers make good scapegoats.
In York in 1596 magistrates made children watch while their parents were hanged just because they were Gypsies.
After 1780, anti Gypsy legislation was gradually repealed. Gypsy people became a useful source of cheap labour in the fields, blacksmiths and as entertainers. Gypsies have always survived on the margins of society.
After the mechanisation of farming, the lifestyle of Gypsies changed drastically. Not wanted for hop or strawberry picking and other traditional trades, the people found that they had to adapt, again work was difficult to find for some families and the motorisation of families also changed the travel patterns.
The mechanisation of the traditional rural work started in the 1950s. The previous sources of livelihood did not provide sufficiently in the rural areas anymore. With industrialisation started the migration from rural areas. The changes in society were also reflected in the Romany Gypsy population. Many Gypsies moved from the rural areas to the cities and towns.
Over the past decades the material well-being of some Travellers has improved but there are various issues that have been identified and need addressing, for example the unusually high mortality rate and the fact that the life expectancy of Traveller men is 10 years less than the national average and 12 years less for Traveller women.
Legislation in Ireland brought about a bigger increase of Irish Travellers in England in the 1960s.
- Over the years there has been a wide range of legislative measures, which have attempted to stop Romani people and Irish Travellers from leading a nomadic way of life and therefore from actually existing. Measures date back as far as 1530 with the introduction of the “Egyptians Act”, which was a ban on the immigration of Gypsies and also expelled those already in England. More recent examples of legislation include:
- Highway and Byways Act 1959, which effectively criminalized the Travelling life overnight as families were not allowed to stop on the side of the road.
- The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act of 1960. Many families who had got to know farmers over the years were displaced by this act, since farmers could no longer allow them to stay on their land, as they became eligible for fines if they technically ran a site without a valid site licence.
- The 1968 Caravan Site Act led to the creation of sites by the local authorities, but unfortunately many authorities flouted the law and did not build the sites that were needed.
- The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 swept the 1968 Caravan Sites Act away, again criminalizing this way of life. This Act also gave the Police increased powers including the right to impound vehicles if there were more than six. Guidelines issued to local authorities emphasised that before an eviction was carried out, health, educational and social needs must be taken into account.