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Robert Dawson Romani Collections

Added: Sep 14, 2014 | Research collections

Essentially, there are six Robert Dawson collections with all either already deposited or in process and this summary and its subsequent part is intended to help identify items in each, since all are accessible (usually by appointment) to researchers at the following:

  • Liverpool and Leeds Universities
  • Reading University
  • The National Holocaust Centre, Laxton, Newark
  • Roma Support Group Centre, London
  • Edinburgh University
  • National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups Centre, Derbyshire

1. Liverpool and Leeds Universities

In 1956, age 11, Robert began a lifelong interest in Gypsies and Travellers and the following year became the youngest member of the then Gypsy Lore Society.

In 1963, he became a newspaper journalist and by the mid 1960s had achieved some promotions to be a specialist police and crime specialist. One of the benefits of this was having free access to every newspaper (national, regional and local) and some regional magazines which could be purchased in the West Riding of Yorkshire and a good many from the North and East Ridings as well as out of County. Inevitably, older publications also came his way. Therefore, every mention of Gypsies or Tavellers was cut out. Initially, they were pasted  in a very large wallpaper sample book but when that filled, into a series of fulscap or A4 booklets of a thematic nature, each cutting pasted onto one page of its own. Those in the wallpaper book are mainly 1950s and early 1960s with some ‘strays’ from Victorian times on. There are also 20-30 of his own photos.

In 1973, for personal reasons, he decided to get rid of the material he had collected by then. Many books went by private sale but the University of Liverpool and The Dorothy Una Ratcliffe  (Mrs McGrigor Phillips) Collection at the Brotherton Library (Leeds) had some items. To Liverpool went many specialist GLS and private technical papers and offprints as Dora Yates used to send him one for every birthday and Christmas and there were not copies in their archives.

More significantly was what went to Leeds. The cuttings  provided a complete record of everything in the national and West Yorkshire Press from soon before the introduction of the Caravan Sites Act into the 1970s. These cuttings also provided the material for his article, Offences Committed by Gypsies in the West Riding of Yorkshire ( Liverpool, Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, Vol 49, pp120-126, 1970). At this distance, he cannot remember exactly how many booklets of cuttings there were but estimates between 20 to 30 batches. With his interest in Romani and other Traveller families, he also created a family tree card index based mainly on the cuttings (but also from JGLS) of Northern families. This and a  few books also went to Leeds but the books are probably of little significance.

2. Reading University

Collecting then began apace but in the late 1990s, by then a head teacher, he was diagnosed with various medical problems of which the most serious was advanced cardio-vascular disease. An operation in 2000 was largely unsuccessful and the specialist believed they had given him ‘about 3 years,’ a very pessimistic estimate as things turned out.  Consequently, in 2003, he donated his then collection to the Romany and Traveller FHS who placed it on permanent loan at the Rural Studies Centre, Reading University.

This is a vast collection, very heavy in UK related items with over 2600 books alone including most of the classic Romani books and a virtually full run of JGLS from Old Series onwards. A handful of books and booklets are particularly obscure, as are many of the dozens of Traveller produced newsletters from lots of parts of the UK and overseas.

The 84 audio cassettes include several recorded by Robert in the East Midlands of Romani language, reminiscences and music; others are examples of Romani and other Traveller music from all over the UK, radio programmes, discussions etc.  There are also a variety of CDs and some 20 vinyl records plus  70 videos (no DVDs) including non commercial.

There are more than 2400 postcards, two thirds of British GTs. The British date from pre 1900 and include many rarities whilst the non-UK feature Romanies from most European countries, the Middle East and the Americas, though heavily Western Europe.  The collection of 45 individual or sets of cigarette cards and over 80 individual or sets of advertising cards depicting Romanies is especially significant both because of the rarity and the stereotypes but also because there are some quite authentic, too. In addition, there are Romani related cigarette packets, matchbox labels, cigar bands, patches, badges, general labels and stamps and 17 Victorian scrap book examples. There is also a range of greetings cards.

Within the ephemera  items are dozens of letters from Dora Yates, Henry Francis and many GTs. Of the 68 examples of sheet music, most are gorjified but with authentic exceptions. The almost 2000 original photographs are mostly British GTs and the vast majority are in albums. There are hundreds of press cuttings and newspaper/magazines/specialist articles.

Only eight paintings are at Reading but they include the very significant ‘Gipsy Encampment on the old Road to Aledr Bettws. Afternoon. Aug. 1851.’ The artist, George Boyce, was a Pre-Raphaelite and the watercolour’s importance is in the fact that it is one of very few showing a warning sign erected by Romanies to tell others to keep away as there was a gorjer intruder nearby.  There are over 30 prints, dating from the 18thC and including an unusual one of Romanies in the Ettrick Forest.

Objects include a range of cooking pots and a kettle iron, hawking and other baskets, diklos, pottery, ornaments, various playing cards, fortune telling items, brassware, badges, flags, numerous hawking items including many charms, lace and lace items (some handmade), various designs of pegs, wooden and paper flowers, blackthorn pins, peg and flower knives etc. There are puppets, dolls, many model wagons, theatre props, jigsaws, games.
Overall, the collection consists of probably 10,000 individual items. Despite what has been said by some, it is clearly not ‘just books’.

3. National Holocaust Centre, Laxton, Newark

The third collection, at Newark,  is Porrajmos related. It includes over 500 photos, the vast majority originals, of Romanies in apparently every German occupied European territory during WW2. Whilst a high proportion of these are simply encounters between Romanies and soldiers and are benign, these ones include many interesting shots. As well as the expected musicians and crafts people, feeding and washing babies, the variety of Romany homes is a study in itself, with villages, houses, shacks, huts, caves, lean-tos, various wagons and a range of tents. Some of the hawkers are most unusual and there are a huge range of costumes on show. Children frequently feature, as do railways.

Of course, the photos taken by SS, Police and Einsatzkommandos are especially significant and there are many of these.  They depict Romanies working for Germans, being rounded up, marched off, directed to execution sites, assembled ready for shooting in woods and a quarry, being lined up. One (from Zagreb of young women and girls) is captioned ‘Gypsies being resettled in the woods’. There are photos of Romanies being loaded onto lorries and trains, of them involved in several activities in internment and concentration camps, peering through barbed wire, one being forcibly shaved, dead Romanies, massacres (one at the side of the road). There are women pleading, malnourished children, some giving the Nazi salute, so-called ‘loyal’ Gypsies and partisans. There are also several ‘general’ concentration camp photos of guards, boundaries, towers and ‘Canada’ and a set of 15 prints of concentration camp art, though there is no reason to believe any of these victims are Romanies.

The 37 Porrajmos books include several obscure ones.

4. Roma Support Group Centre, London

The Roma Support Group has been undertaking astonishing work with the Roma community under very difficult circumstances. Thus Robert felt it was an ideal location for his current collection of postcards and photos depicting  non-UK Romanies, a majority being from Eastern Europe but with significant ones, too from the Middle East and India.

This collection has some 300 photos or postcards of non-UK Romanies, 15 prints, almost 50 specialist Journals or books and several sundry items. Most European countries are represented especially Eastern European with strength in Hungary, Rumania and Russia but there are significant ones from the Middle East and India, too.  Almost 50 photos were taken during WW1 and some clearly show German Gypsy soldiers.

One of the treasures is a rare original colour print, “Saltimbanque et Bohemienne”. Copies of this can be found on sale but this is an original. It is of a Victorian painting, in turn from a Franco Belgian tapestry dating from pre 1521, of an acrobat and a Romani woman in sumptuous costume.

5. School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University

This collection constitutes 172 photos and postcards depicting Scottish Travellers (Nawken) from the late 19thC to relatively recent times. Amongst the photos is one taken in the 1960s by Robert, believed to be the only known photographed example of a Nawken trail sign. Some 50 original photos were taken by Sandy Paton in Sutherland in 1958 of members of the Stewart family.  There are ten specialist booklets by Robert, some with Jess Smith, of aspects of Nawken life including the hardly known and appalling policy of removing children from families, and the legal discussions which led to the crime, which resulted in children being placed elsewhere and often never re-finding their own families. There is also a range of copies of Scottish Traveller drawings by the Romani artist Amaletta.

There are several items of unusual ephemera and six prints, two depicting Travellers living in caves.

6. National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups

The Federation evolved from the Derbyshire Gypsy Liaison Group, one section of which was formed by Robert. The Federation is entirely run by Romani and Traditional Traveller people and is now an umbrella organization for GT groups in many parts of the UK.  This part of the collection comprises a great variety (well over 400) of photos, prints and postcards depicting a huge range of activities from all over the UK. Several dozen of the families shown have been identified. There are dozens of pictures of wagons and a range of tent types. There is also a vast range of the research papers published by Robert and including several of the very important topics relating to language (all the British Traveller Dialects are represented) , early history, persecution, medicine, food, music, wayside burials, the seizing of children from families, crime, selling British Gypsies into slavery,  famous cases, herbs, folk lore, customs, lurchers and a range of history generally.

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