Travellers in Houses
Gypsies and Travellers in houses: it is impossible to form an accurate picture of their numbers. In 1972 it was believed that there is a Traveller in a house for every one in a caravan or tent.
The Travellers in the section that follow vary between those who are pleased to be in a house and those who would like to be back on the road.
All Gypsy and Traveller houses I have seen are alike in one thing; they are crammed with the same ornaments, cut-glass, ornamental china, family portraits, lustre, candlewick, frilly vinyl curtains, that Gypsy caravans have.
There are other similarities: children and relatives gust through in large numbers; sometimes there is a fire smouldering outside in the garden; sometimes there is a trailer in the garden in which the Travellers sleep, only using the house by day.
Mr Jimmy Penfold
‘Sometimes I want to drive and drive ...
I’m getting Gorjified ...’
Mr Jimmy Penfold lives with his wife and family in a terrace house in Battersea, London. Like most Gypsy houses it retains many of the exotic features of a caravan. Jim lives mainly through his trade of electrician, but he is also a craftsman and has made many vardas. He was president of the Gypsy Council, and is now its treasurer.
He says he would go on the road again tomorrow if only life for Gypsies could return to the way he remembers it between the wars. He’s bought a patch of land and is fighting for the right to put his caravan on it and once more live there.
Still a popular figure at Gypsy gatherings like Epsom, he has none the less become conscious of the widening gap between him and those Gypsies who are still on the road. As he says, ‘I’m becoming Gorjified.
‘The Gypsy philosophy is to live. Nothing else matters. The simple reason is, we understand that during a period of seventy or eighty years, give or take a few years, you must learn to enjoy every minute of it.
‘Don’t become clots, we say, like the Gorjios, get up at eight, work till five, watch television till ten, go to bed, get up at eight, back to work till five. Their clocks is what they serve, the Gorjios, they’re automatons; well our people, we don’t behave like that. We get up when we feel like it, we eat and drink when we’re hungry and we’re thirsty and we do what we want.
‘We work to live rather than live to work. This is it. I remember as a boy talking to my grandparents, and they said, “Son, don’t worry about getting an education, see, even the ignorant have got to be kept.” I used to ask my Gran, “Well, what d’you mean, Gran?” She said, “You take the mental people, son. There they are in mental homes, we keep them, they don’t keep us.” And this is true.
‘However, my children are having an education.
‘I came to live in a house a few years back and I hate every minute of it, every second I live in a house. Why? Because I’m becoming like the Gorjio.
‘We moved into a house because things were so bad on the road. We had twenty-seven summonses in one week for obstruction, and other offences, and I decided to come into London and get a house, which I did. And I decided to give my children the advantage of an education, even though I never done a day’s schooling.
‘I’ve earned good money when I’ve been on the road; now I’m being Gorjified. I don’t like it, not a bit. Sometimes I dream of getting up in the morning, and just drive and drive until I lose myself.
‘When you’re with your own people it’s a different atmosphere. And there is a feeling among Travellers against those who move into houses. When they get talking to you they say, “Where are you stopping at?” And you say, “I’m in a house.” They say, “Oh, maybe you’re becoming a paki,” which means an outbreed, and I say, “No, I’m still what I am.”
‘They say, “No, you’re becoming like the Gorjios, you live and you sleep like the Gorjios, dossing down in a house.” And it’s partly true.
‘When I’m in bed, I have to be underneath the window, I can’t sleep in a closed room, the windows have got to be open summer and winter. I’ve got to look out at the sky and when I get up and I go to work I can’t be like other people, there’s no interest to me there. It’s like sitting down like a lump of wood.
‘When Travellers go to work it’s the pleasure of the work. They enjoy what they do. The Gorjios don’t.
‘I make vardas, don’t I? Yes, I make caravans. Grandfather told me how to cut a piece of cosh, and it sticks, you never forget it. I teach my boys now. Jim’s very interested, he sits down and chips a piece of cosh out; but it’s dying, the art is dying fast and I don’t know whether my boy will be like me and make vardas too.
‘Although we live in a house we never let the children forget that they’re still Romanies.
‘This part of Battersea has got a large number of Gypsies living here. Some years ago when we was children there was about fourteen Yards round here. We’d shift from one Yard to another. There was Builder’s Yard, Cooper’s Yard, Old Jack Marney’s Yard in Wandsworth, Johnny Hilden’s Yard in Wandsworth – there was quite a few.
‘On Sullivan’s Yard there was perhaps maybe thirty wagons, not all horse-drawn, but the best part of them horse-drawn wagons, benders with sheets chucked over ‘em, and they were the homes of men that couldn’t afford to buy proper caravans, because it was costly enough in those days, and as for now ...
‘The proper old caravans took a long time to build. It took me four or five years to build a caravan. I can build a wagon in two months easy, full time, and build it as good as the best, but in those days, you just had what they call box wagons, that was just plain wood. Grandpa used to make them out of tea chests. We used to have to go and get all the tea chests we could and these he would put them together and then put a frame round them, carve the frame, and that’s a wagon. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was serviceable. If you was going to move a wagon for really long journeys, you would have to build a wagon of ash, it had to be of ash or hardwood. And we’d be weeks preparing to do a journey; you never just got up one day and travelled off. You’d grease the axle, the horse had to be shod, specially shod not just ordinary shod. You’d paint the wagon, get everything ready. Your mother would be perhaps a week beforehand washing and cleaning, everything had to be spick and span, everything had to be tied down. The kettle box had to be prepared to carry all your goods, that’s the box at the back, and the hayrack, which as you know is on the back, would have to be made sure that it was firm.
‘This hayrack, it’s not only used as a hayrack, it’s also used as a table. When we were on the road my mother used to come out, turn one of the seats from the inside of the wagon upside down and place it on the hayrack and that would be a table and that’s where we would stick the old fire kettle at the back and she would cook up over the fire and then she’d call the boys to get a bit of grub.
‘The favourite way of making a living in those days was hop-picking, and fruiting. And there’s a break in between some of the seasons, perhaps a week.
‘Well in that week we wouldn’t just sit about, we’d be busy. We’d cut clothes props out of wood, my father and brother would sit down and cut pegs, well then we’d come back to London by train, go to the market to buy plants, fetch ‘em back down to Kent or wherever we was at and sell them and earn a living that way. Also, we’d go totting, rag-and-boning, iron-calling. In the later days when car men come along and motors come along, it’s become a lot different than it was in those days.
‘Also for a living we used to go duckering. Going door-knocking and also from the tent or from a wagon. We had a tent on Hampstead Heath one year when Granny duckered, but if none of us had a tent it was done in the wagon and you’d have your wagon painted up so they’d know what it’s supposed to be.
‘People used to come up to our wagon and then Granny would tell the boys to shoot off out of it. We knew that when she said it that we had to get out at once.’
I asked Mr Penfold what he would recommend to a Gorjio girl who was thinking of marrying a Gypsy boy.
‘Well,’ said Jimmy, ‘if a Gorjio girl were to marry a Gypsy boy, the first food she’d have to learn to cook is a jogray – that’s a stew. It’s tinned soup, Oxo, bacon, sausages, a bit of meat, plenty of onions, carrots, etc. All together, in a stew.
‘The next thing the Gorjio girl would have to learn is how to cook when you’re on the drom; she’d have to learn to be able to cook a hotchi – a hedgehog. When you get your hedgehog to kill it, first you got to get him open and that ain’t no easy thing so you stroke him until his head comes out and you stash him on the nook – you knock him out on the nose. You just stun him, you ain’t killed him, you stun him. So what you have to do is kill him while he’s alive. Now for the killing you got to cut him off at the top of his head right the way round to his tail, and then you put your fingers over the top of his head slightly in underneath the belly or the gut and keep pushing and the lot comes away. Then, if you like, you nip his feet, although a hell of a lot of Travellers would leave his feet on. I like leaving the feet on meself, you never get the taste of the feet, but I think they give a bit of flavour to it. Then you roll him up into a ball, with good clay, good earth, it don’t make much difference. Dig yourself a fair-size hole, put plenty of dead leaf on it and put yourself a good fire on top.
‘Cooking over an open fire is something that’s not easy as it looks or it sounds. It makes things very tasty. This is in the wood. Burn a bit of cosh, chuck a bit of green cosh on and a bit of smoke will turn up into the food and this is what gives the flavour to the food.
‘Here’s how you do a chuchi. When I do a chuchi, I catch him, gut him, cut his head off, skin him, then I get meself a good bit of steel, run it right through him and roast him over a fire, on a spit. And then while I’m doing that, Rose, my wife, will cook a few potatoes and a few greens, then we’ll sit round a fire, and roll and cut it up just like the Gorjios do.
‘Another thing the Gorjio girl has to do is, realise that what their man says is law. When travelling boys become ten or twelve years old, they’re like small men. Because they have to earn their own living and they can judge most anything. I teach my children how to weigh up anything, they beg and buy or sell anything. They know that when they buy something they get half of it. Anything, no matter what it is.
‘When a Gorjio girl marries a travelling boy it may be strange to her at first. Whatever he says, she must. When I sit in this chair, for instance, my children and my wife run about like they were slaves. They’re not really slaves but they know that this is the custom. I say, “Fetch some food.” See. And it’s put down in front of me and she washes my hands, washes my feet, washes my face, gets my clean underclothes, gets me shirt, and puts me shoes on, and then we go to bed, and we’re just like normal people.
‘This is the basic sort of thing that a Gorjio girl would have to expect.
‘A Gorjio girl who married a Gypsy would have to get used to having a big family too. My grandmother brought up thirty-two children. They wasn’t all hers, there was sixteen of her own, sixteen of her sister’s. My mother brought up seventeen of us, two of her own, fifteen of my aunt’s. And then we’ve had Gorjio boys that mother took as wagon boys. I can remember six Gorjio boys that I taught how to buy a bit of scrap, fed them, clothed them, and they liked the way of life and they became Pikies, they married into our family, they liked our way of life and they stayed with us. That’s what we call Pikies.
‘Then, there’s one other thing a Gorjio girl will have to get used to. When she’s married she’s scrutinised. We’re not like Gorjios; Gorjios just take their women as they are. But our people have always been called whores and Christ knows what. Our women, when they get married, they’re scrutinised, they’re examined to make sure that they’ve stayed a virgin.
‘And if a Gypsy girl doesn’t carry a virgin then she’s discarded from her own family because she’s given away the best thing that a woman can give a man.
‘If a Gorjio boy wants to go out with a Gypsy girl, and he wants a bit of sex before marriage, he can’t. He can’t have it. If the family got to know about it and he did try to back out of the marriage, they’d kill him.
‘This is what the trouble was at Appleby. There was also three or four years ago the same trouble at Epsom.
‘It concerned one of the young girls. Some Gorjio boys got her into a caravan. They didn’t rape her but it came pretty close. This caused friction amongst the fair people; beautiful caravans, old-style caravans turned over, smashed up – it really came to murder just for the one simple reason that a Gorjio boy took Diane.’
‘Now I will tell you my views about the local authority sites. Those that I’ve seen are fairly good. The only thing is, it’s like the Indians in Canada and America, these reservations, the Gypsies on them can’t move. This is why I keep recommending that we should have transit sites as well as permanent sites, because otherwise the Gypsies are going to finish up exactly like the American Indians – a race that’s finished. There’ll be no more Gypsies. We’ll all become Gorjios.
‘For one thing, with the permanent sites, you can’t keep an animal on most of them, you can’t have your dogs about you, and a good Traveller has to have a few good dogs, so that, when he’s got no money he can take his dog out and get him a good rabbit, cook it, and get himself a meal. You can’t do that on a permanent site. You’re just stuck there.
‘Then, you can’t have a good fire outside the trailer, ain’t got nowhere to sit. And, as one Traveller put it, we was borned outside and we want to bide outside.
‘Then, often, you’re not allowed scrap – not a bit of scrap lying about to sort it out. And that’s a big loss to a Traveller.
‘Personally, myself, if I was on a site and I had my relations come to see me, I’d need a site to myself. Because there would be so many of ‘em. A site would be no good for me, but a house is worse. In this house I’m in now, I’ve got everything a man could want: kitchen, a nice home, bathroom, hot water any time I want it, everything that a man could want, if he was a Gorjio. But I’m a Gypsy, and there we are. You just can’t change it, you can’t put a wild bird in a cage and expect it to live. It don’t work.
‘And on these local authority sites, you’ve now become a house on wheels. This is what it boils down to. At the one at Dartford you can leave during the summer to go fruit-picking, but you still got to pay for your site which isn’t cheap, I believe it’s fifty bob a week. Now for that fifty bob a week you pay for your own light, you got one building where you draw your water from, you got a car bunker, that’s all I can call it, just to keep your one or two things in and a place to park your lorry. That’s it. The one at Dartford, well, I wouldn’t live on that, not if they paid me to live on there, because the way to it like is right down the side of a mountain.
‘As a matter of fact, outside the site there’s more Travellers than inside; they can’t get their wagons in during the winter, that’s how muddy it is.
‘It is essential that the Government also builds transit sites. My ideal transit site would be a fairly vast area, on say an area to allow for twenty-five caravans, and it would have permanents, that is Travellers that stay there all the time and places for fifteen Travellers in transit. You’d have to have someone to keep it a bit tidy and the ideal proprietor, then, would be like Hughie Burton. Hughie Burton is known to be the best man amongst the Travellers. He’s as tough as they come. This is the sort of man you’ve got to have, a man that they will respect, a man that won’t back down. He must be a Traveller, not a Gorjio, because Travellers will never accept Gorjios. Not as Wardens.
‘Now from the very start off I was on the committee that went to the Houses of Parliament and listened to the Act that was brought up, and we was guaranteed at that meeting that we would have transit sites and a Warden who would be a Traveller or Tinker or a Romany. This was all right by me, this is what I wanted. But it ain’t turned out that way. Now they’ve started to put Gorjios as Wardens. And not such very good Wardens and before I ever met ‘em the word Gorjio did it, you know, just the word Gorjio. They have ex-coppers – well, that’s a bad start.
‘To a Traveller, anybody carrying a brief-case, a walking-stick, is a menace, let alone a copper, and when we used to see ‘em we’d say “prastie”, and the word “prastie” means “run”. And that’s what we used to say and that’s what we used to do.
‘It still carries on today, if you have somebody coming along with an umbrella or a brief-case, a hell of a load of the Travellers just won’t be here because they just don’t want to know, because of the Gorjios and the laws that Gorjios bring with them.’
‘The important times for Travellers are times like Epsom, the big gathering places. This year was a good Epsom, but a little less good than usual, because a lot of ‘em got to hear that there would be police, security guards, and the rest of it, and a lot of ‘em didn’t turn up that was expected.
‘At this gathering at Epsom I suppose there were some five or six hundred wagons. There was about four hundred on Epsom Downs and the other two hundred was scattered around the area because of the price they had to pay. Eight pound. Eight pound to get on to the Downs at all.
‘But in spite of this there was a good turn-out. There was some of each family, the Boswells, Lees, Marleys, Jessops, Davises, Penfolds, the Gilberts ...
‘There was the usual bit of violence done this Epsom. A couple of boys, a Marley and a Davis, got violent and one dislocated the jaw. There was a bit of skirmishing about it. This is something that normally happens, but the thing is that like all Traveller boys they have a fight and straight afterwards they have a good drink. It’s just a way of getting rid of the excess energy.
‘The authority this time was a bit unpleasant – it was piled on a bit thick; it took a hell of a while for us to cut through it.
‘And there are many Travellers there with very striking horses, dogs. Young Johnnie Hilden, he was there with the best of dogs, lurchers, that I’ve seen. There are only two good sets of lurchers that I know of, he’s got one and Peter Copper of the New Forest has got the other.
‘I had a couple of dogs with me, but they weren’t class of any sort. Just a couple of dogs to keep away the Gorjios.
‘Appleby Fair was also a good turn-out this year. I had a letter from one of our relations and this was a girl called Simmons. She dropped us a line and told me there was a bit of trouble up there, I don’t know the full story and I haven’t been travelling to find out anything about it.
‘Plenty of Travellers there, plenty of trading, which is what we like anyway. Trading a good horse, a good wagon, a good dog, see what I mean, a few rings, fawnies as we call ‘em. And do a good trade and have a good drink, good sing-song, a good time and all.
‘This is what half the fairs are about, having fun. Because we Travellers can live a way the Gorjios can’t.
‘Barnet was another fair I went to this year. There was some good horses turned out there at Barnet. And one or two of the boys had some good lorries. A really flash lot, you know. The boys like to have a good lorry because it’s a good front, you know. When you go to a factory wanting scrap or a job or whatever it is, it’s always good to have a good moulder, a good lorry. The governor comes out and he looks at your lorry and he looks you over and he thinks to himself, Well, at least the boy’s got some money in his pocket because he’s got a good lorry.
‘But if he sees you outside with a rough old moulder, then very likely he just don’t want to know.
‘As well as the English meeting places, I’ve travelled the Continent quite a bit. I been to the worship of St Maries de la Mer. The Continental Traveller clings more together than the English Traveller. The English Roms, for some unknown reason, they broke apart. It’s only been this last five or six years that they’ve started to come back together again because now they’ve come to realise that “united we stand, divided we’re going to fall”.
‘But the Continentals, they really stick together. Of an evening there’s a bit of step-dancing, there’s some good violinists, some accordion playing, the French Travellers play a lot of accordions, it’s as good as a show, it’s like a circus.
‘Perhaps you get half drunk and another family will get half drunk and then it will sort of build up, and that small group will have a party that night. The next night, or the next day, you see another party that’s got a bit merry and they have a party.’
‘There are many Gypsies and Travellers now living in houses that would like to go back to the road. Last night I went to see an uncle, Uncle Arthur. Arthur Penfold. His daughter’s getting married this Christmas and I asked where she’s going to get married at, and what sort of ceremony she’s going to have, is she going to have a Gorjio ceremony or is she going to have a Romany ceremony, and he said, “I’m going back on the tramp, I’ve had enough of the house.”
‘For a man sixty-year-old to come out of a house and go back on to the drom, it is significant. And there are more. I was talking to quite a few and there’s a hell of a lot of them coming out of the houses.
‘It’s because we feel the Gorjio and the Gorjio way of life is brain-washed, is finished. They’re definitely every one of them brain-washed. Gorjios work to a clock, they work all the year round to have a fortnight’s holiday.
‘I long for food that’s been cooked in the open. Living in a house you can’t get what you want and how you want it.
‘I can see more beauty in a blade of grass than Gorjios can in a forest. To them a forest is just a load of trees. A wood is just a wood. But to a Traveller – it can be a garden of Eden.
‘The world could be a garden of Eden. The whole world. If men would only live and let live.
‘There’s more Gorjios becoming Gypsies than ever now. Because the Gypsy way is the right way.’
came over the weak.’
I met Alec and Belle Stewart in a one-storey house in Blairgowrie, in Perthshire. They are typical of the thousands of Travellers who have gone into houses but might return to the road if times get better.
Alec, a handsome and sardonic man, earned his living for much of his life as a bagpiper. Belle, a fine singer, held herself very erect and was beautiful.
When I first arrived Belle announced, ‘Here’s a real Scottish welcome for you.’ Then Alec marched round the room playing one of his own compositions, ‘The Twa Belles’, on the bagpipes. And one of the many relatives who were present came striding in with a tray full of cups of tea and haggis.
They told me that they travel in summertime, but in the winter live in this house in Blairgowrie.
Mrs Belle Stewart: ‘I think it would be very tragic if ever they let the old tradition die. I mean, our customs, our traditions, our way of talking and the way of bringing up our kids. It’s never changed. I’m a Traveller born and I hope as a Traveller I will die. And all my family and my daughters and sons, we’ve all got our own language of talking which we call the Cant language. We’ve got our own customs as regards how we make our food, how we look after our house, how we do the dishes and one thing and another. And we’ve never ever dreamed it will die out.
‘We don’t use the Cant language now very much, but you see it was really a great language in the travelling people. Because when they went around the houses you know, begging, and they’d go to a shop and they didn’t have much money to spend for food and that, and they would maybe see a piece of bacon, you know, or bits of cheese, they would say, “Well, let’s see if we can get it cheap” – they didn’t ever have much money. So they no would let the people of the shop know this. They spoke the Cant really an awful lot then. But now, in the country district here where we live, I think that Alec and I and my family are about the only ones who still do use it quite a lot. In fact, in Perthshire, and even Aberdeenshire, Inverness-shire, Sutherlandshire, there’s hundreds and hundreds of Travellers and yet I have spoken words of Cant they’ve never even heard of. My Granny lived to a ripe old age of eighty-nine. I had an uncle that died when he was eighty-two in Perth, and when I was young and the rest of the kids would be all outside playing, I was very interested in the old cracks, as we talk about, you know. The old sayings. I used to stay inside. And I would sit with my Granny for hours when the rest were outside playing and she’d tell me an awful lot of the old Cant: and it always stuck in my mind you know.
‘We’ve always gone to school. That’s different to many Travellers’ children now. Oh God, it was murder going to school. They wouldn’t sit beside you in the seats. They wouldn’t play with you in the playground, you was always getting knocked about. Many and many a time I went home crying to my mother.
‘But definitely we are more or less respected now. Alec goes around playing his bagpipes, we go away in the summertime, and we make it our business to be where the real old travelling people are, you know, on the road, and we get lovely stories from them, and I wouldn’t change my way of life for nobody, not if they lived in a palace.’
Mr Stewart: ‘The musical tradition of the Travellers is something which used to be very strong. Round about here you hear that much pipes that you get sick listening to them. In the summertime you hear the bands from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, they all go up here you see at the time of the games; it’s a sport, you know, well there’s prizes for the best piper, you see. And that’s why they come up here. There’s a lot of music anyways.
‘The Travellers have played an important part in the development of pipe music in the past.
‘One time there was a Gordon band in Aberdeen and everyone in that band was Travellers. The only one that was a countryman was the band leader.
‘And there’s a lot of them can sing all right, but they’re shy. If you went to a Traveller’s house and asked somebody to sing they wouldn’t do it. And they’re very good singers too, you know. So they’ll get round a fire at night and get one person to sing and they’ll all sing. That’s the only way you can get them to sing.’
Mrs Stewart: ‘The television is a big threat to all this sort of thing. It’s the greatest tragedy that ever happened to Travellers. The younger generation just sort of more or less grew up with it, you know. It’s very hard just to tell them not to listen, not to do that. But it has spoiled many a good keelie – a keelie is a get-together. They get round a fire.
‘As well as the music and the Cant there was the story-tellings, you know. They lived in very remote places and of course you’ve heard of the body-snatchers long ago, which we called the Burkers, you know, Burke and Hare, but the travelling people just called them the Burkers. For many old lone travelling people that lived away in these wee bough tents, well, you know, they were never really seen or heard tell of again. They were taken, oh yes, many of them. Alec could tell you some tales about what happened to his old people.
‘We weren’t always mixed up as we are now. Long ago, in the travelling tradition, if you married outside a Traveller it was a tragedy, the family would put you away, they would banish you from the family never to return if you married out of your own kind of people.
‘Some of the people on the road in Scotland are descended from people who were evicted when they made the grouse moors and the sheep moors. They say, for instance, that the Stewarts and the McGregors (my own maiden name), all their clans were broken up. And they just took to the road. They used to be sitting at night around their fires and they would say, “Well, if I had my rights what I am entitled to I wouldn’t have to be sitting by this wee fire tonight.”
‘Many tell of how in Scotland the strong came over the weak. They were driven out of their homes and their clans were all broken up and they took to the country and they just had to go around from door to door making a living as best they could because they were banished from where they came from.
‘It used to be all tents, they didn’t have caravans, and you had to be a very well-off Traveller before you could afford a horse and cart; most people had just a small barrow, or a pram, you know, or just bundles on their backs, they just wrapped up their bedding in the morning in a bundle and took down their camp which was these small bough tents, and move on to somewhere else; and they just got their living from door to door.
‘The men used to work for money at the time of the harvest, potatoes, the turnips, and the women would go out begging if they had to beg, they had some baskets which the men made that they could sell.
‘My people were good basket-makers. There was an old tradition that the oldest of the Gypsy family, all the money you earned was all given to him; and he’d give you just so much money, even after you were married and had a family. But that never applied to us. We never kept that up as a tradition. We got married and that was it.
‘It was no fault of Alec or me that we finished in a house. I told you earlier on that my father died when I was seven months old, and if there’s any other Traveller about they’ll know I’m telling you the truth that a widow woman, long long ago, would never wander the country unless she had a big family, but there were only two brothers and myself and my mother settled down in a house. If my father had been alive it’s understood that he would have just kept on because he’d never have thought of settling in a house.
‘It was very hard for women on the road. My mother was scared. She was terrified as to what would happen. Because many many children, when the woman would be away in a village hawking or begging, if a policeman was passing that camping ground and see two or three wee kids sitting there on their own waiting for their father and mother to come home, just because there was no father or mother, they would take these kids to a reformatory school without any criminal offence. They’d just make out they were neglected. That happened to many travelling people that we know, oh many many of them; they were taught to read and write in these places and when they became sixteen they were put out on jobs. Some of them did go back to their fathers and mothers, they just couldn’t give up their travelling life, but others again went out into the world and got situations. The girls became nurses and I know two men that became policemen, one was an inspector but he was still a Tinker boy at heart. And they never stopped visiting their parents, even though they settled in houses and married, they always went to see their fathers and mothers.’
Mr Stewart: ‘The stigma was always there. Here is a poem I wrote about an incident at berry-picking:
It happened at the very time
When the Travellers came to Blair.
They pitched their tents on the berry-fields
Without a worry or care.
But they hadn’t been long settled,
When some policemen came from Perth,
And told them they must go at once
And get off the face of the earth.
These folk of course were worried,
Of law they had no sense,
They only came to the berry-fields
To earn a few honest pence.
It was hard to make them stay there,
When the policemen said to go,
So they just packed up and took the road,
To where I do not know.
But it’s a hard life being a Traveller,
For I’ve proved it to be true;
I have tried in every possible way,
To live like Gorjios do.
But we’re always hit below the belt,
No matter what we do,
But when it comes to the Judgment Day,
We’ll be just the same as you.
‘In some places the police will come about twelve or one o’clock in the morning. I was in Dumfriesshire one summer and they just says, “Come on, away you go, you can’t stay there.” I says, “We’ve just sat down for dinner, will you give us half an hour for dinner before we go away?” “No, no, no half-hours,” he says, “get going.”
‘Another time we was staying in a place in a back road, and the police come, the sergeant and one of the constables, and they said, “Oh,” they said, “who told you to stay here?”
‘I wasn’t at home, but it was my brother-in-law. “Oh,” he says, “we have to come here,” he says, “because my brother-in-law’s wife is going to have a child.”
‘”Well,” he says, “you must shift.”
‘”She cannot shift, because she’s in labour, you know.”
‘So they went away.
‘So when I came back my brother-in-law told me what had happened. Well, the baby was born there.
‘The law came back. “Now,” he says, “you have to go,” he says. He says, “How is the wife?”
‘I says, “She’s just got the baby, just now.”
‘He says, “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it.”
‘I says, “Well, go up in the caravan, you’ll see.”
‘I took him up in the caravan and showed him the baby.
‘”Well,” he says, “I’ll give you till the morning. You must get away tomorrow.”
‘And when I come out next morning it was hard keen frost and snow. I had a look at the roadside, and there lay our horse, it was lying with its feet in a ditch, it was dead. So I had to go and pull the wagon with my own hands, about ten mile.’
‘The old days of starvation are over ...’
Frank Barton, when I visited him, had recently moved from a lifetime on the road into a house.
‘A lot of Travellers would move, if they could, if they could get the opportunity to move into houses they’d do so, ‘cos they have a very hard time on the roads. In the past I have. And now I’m in a house and I’m more than pleased, and if any of the travelling people was coming along now and wanted a house, well, I’d help them to get one. As I’ve already done for one of my brothers who I’ve helped to come off the road and go into a house.
‘So now he’s already done it, he’s moved into a house and he’s got two kids going to school and I’m more than pleased with it. And they get the school dinners every day that they never used to get before as Travellers.
‘I think that every Gypsy family would really like to be in a house. Yes they would, ‘cos I mean on the whole the road is really a dog’s life. When you’re in a trailer you haven’t got no home and you don’t know nobody and you’re just living from day to day and it’s not easy to earn money. In summertime you’re cherry-picking and apple-picking, and hopping, but then when apple-picking is over you get out, and you’re on the roads through the winter.
‘I’m more than glad that the old days is past. Years ago when we had the horses we just had them shoed once a month, or each six weeks, and if you never had the shoe money you’d have to let them go without shoes till you earned the money, see what I mean. And apart from that the kids just went on coming into the world, being born and being brought up on the road, they never had proper clothes to wear nor proper shoes and they never had no toys to play with and as I say they never had no education. They didn’t know A from B and they never know’d no songs, they couldn’t sing no songs, ‘cos they didn’t have the scholarship, they just used to learn it from the gramophone; they used to have a gramophone, and if they liked a song they’d go and buy a record of it and play it on the gramophone till they’d learnt it by ear and then they would learn another one and that’s how it would go on till they got to about seventeen or eighteen year old, and then they would meet a boy-friend or girl-friend and it might lead up to a marriage, but they would run off together, and they would have to seek for theirselves, get a job, get the money to buy a varda and then they would go on the road in the winter and then they’d probably buy a horse in the summer, and that’s how they’d carry on.
‘I met my wife in hopping. You see, at other times of the year you were scattered all over the country, Sussex, Surrey, but every hopping season they’d come back to the hopping.
‘And they’d get to know each other, that’s when they’d link up together and become man and wife, and then they’d have all the summer in front of ‘em to earn enough money to buy a varda for the winter and an old pony or horse.
‘I met my wife on one Saturday night; I had a car, and her farm was about two miles past my farm, where I was hopping, so eventually she said, “Could you give me a lift home?”
‘I said, “Yes.”
‘So I dropped her back to her farm.
‘So I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
‘She said, “You will?”
‘I said, “Yes.”
‘She says, “All right, it’s number ten along the other end.”
‘She was a Gorjio girl from Bethnal Green. A lot of Cockneys used to come down in those days. That was the best part of the year, the best time we had was hopping-time, that’s when we used to mate and link up.
‘But we never had plenty of money. We used to have a drink, we used to enjoy ourselves. Somebody used to sing and then somebody else used to sing, and of course it was quite a nice time while it lasted really.
‘I was singing this night, chucking myself about like I used to when I was young and really I suppose she fell for me, and eventually after the hopping was over, we sort of come together. I asked her if she wanted me, and she said yes, so I went and bought a varda then and it started from there.
‘The varda cost fifty-five pounds. It was a lot of work, a Churchy wagon, it were – that’s a sort of wagon that’s made in Reading somewhere, a Reading varda, they call it. The top of the door is round; the other vardas have got a square top to the door, but this is round over the top of the door, like a church door, they call them Churchys. We used to buy ‘em off a man called Jimmy Tidley, he comes from Hounslow in London, I think; he used to make ‘em and we used to buy ‘em off him very cheap.
‘Then we got a very good horse for twenty pounds. He was a little heavy, about fourteen to fifteen hands high. Not a cart-horse, not a race-horse; it’s in between, a cob type, a little heavy “banner” they call it, a cob about fourteen to fifteen hands high.
‘My girl never smoked, she never drank unless I took her to the pub. And of course she was taught to save every penny she could get hold of. She always liked the idea of marrying a Traveller. Really, Travellers, they used to marry one another, but as I say, in the first place they didn’t know nothing else, ‘cos they couldn’t read nor write and they only see’d one another from year to year so when they did meet one another they had to run away you see, ‘cos the father might not like this boy, you know. “Well, I don’t want him over here, he’s got to keep away.”
‘So eventually when the girl got a chance they just runned off together. That’s what I done, yes.
‘There’s quite a lot of London girls, Gorjio girls, marrying the travelling blokes. They then move into houses, you see. I should say, eventually, in this coming ten years, there won’t be many Travellers about. They’ll all be in houses. And I think it’ll be a good thing for ‘em. ‘Cos when you get old like my grandfather, he was seventy or eighty, nearly a hundred I should say, we had to take him along the road till he died, and it was tiring for him, I mean old people don’t want to be pulled about every other day, do they. They want comfort; just to go to bed, get up when they like.
‘When I fetched my wife down to this part of the country we moved from farm to farm, and she liked that. She saw different people and we seemed to get on all right. And when we was moving she seemed to like it. She liked all the change and different types of living. She enjoyed it.
‘And then we got rid of the horse-drawn varda and I bought a motor-trailer, I actually chopped the varda away for it, and I’ve still got it now. I still keep it. Sometimes I sleep in it. Sometimes I take it out still when I go cherry-picking, I take it with me.’
‘I’m glad now that my children are having education. I’m pleased, more than pleased. It’s the main part of a man’s life. I’ve had the offer of jobs during the war, and I had to turn ‘em down just because I couldn’t read or write. If I could have read and write I’d have been a top man, I’d have been a big farmer, but I just couldn’t do that. That’s my downfall.
‘Travellers that have learnt to read have done very well. Some of my sisters, they got Gorjio husbands, and they can read, see what I mean? They can pick up a paper, they see a thing in it going for fifty pounds that’s worth a hundred pounds. I can’t do that you see.
‘And if I have a letter I have to have somebody else to read it. But not now, because the wife’s a scholar. If she hadn’t been a scholar I wouldn’t have married her. I wouldn’t marry a Gypsy girl for this reason; she couldn’t read and she’d have been as silly as what I was. Because there’s times when insurances have to be switched over and you have to fill the forms in for the car and, oh, different things, you know, you have to get other people to do it, they just won’t do it for you.
‘But now, when my car wants taxing she’ll just get the pen and ink out and send it off and there you are.
‘I was at Sittingbourne the other day and the police said, “Is this your lorry?”
‘I said, “Yes.”
‘He said, “What’s the number?”
‘I said, “I couldn’t tell you, not if I got down and looked.”
‘He said, “You can’t?”
‘I said, “No.”
‘He said, “Well, is it your lorry?”
‘I said, “It is, I’ve had it two year.” Honestly, I couldn’t tell him the number. This is the problem, you see.
‘And, say I wanted to find Blyth’s shop in Bergot Street, Canterbury. Now anybody can see the sign “Bergot Street”, it’s right up in big letters; but I have to say to someone there, “Could you tell me where Bergot Street is?”
‘They’ll say, “Just down here on the left.”
‘And then I’ll go right along in front of Blyth’s. I’ll have to stop somebody else and say, “Excuse me, could you tell me where Blyth’s is?”
‘I know it’s Blyth’s then, because I’ve been told, but otherwise I’d never find it.
‘All this was a bit too much really, being on the road, being stopped by the law. When you’ve had it all your life it’s a bit boring, you’ve got no home, you don’t know anybody, only see them once a year or betimes, and eventually when I picked up with this woman I thought to meself, I’ll get meself a place, so I could go out the morning and come home at night. And that’s what I done. I bought a piece of ground and I put the caravan on it and one day the Council come along and said, “Have you got a licence to stay here?”
‘I said, “No, never knew you had to have one.”
‘He said, “Oh yes, you have to have a licence.”
‘I’d bought this land with money I’d saved from fruiting and hopping and log-wood selling, for a hundred pounds.
‘Seven years after I got the land, I come into more money, and I said to the wife, “I’m going to have a little bungalow put up here on this land.” So I went to see a bloke and he said, “Well, you go to Canterbury see the architect,” he said, “and they will draw the plans, what shape you want. Then,” he said, “they will put it before the Board, the Board of the Council.”
‘So that’s what I done, and it come up one Monday and they turned it down. Then about three or four Mondays after it come up again and they turned it down. And then all of a sudden the Council man come here and said, “Well I’m afraid that you won’t get no house on this piece of land ‘cos it’s in the green belt, and you’ll have to clear off.”
‘”Well,” I said, “I’m determined to have a house to live here, I’ve been roaming the country now for fifty years,” I said, “I’m determined to end my days here.”
‘So anyway, another three or four months went by so I see’d this Mr Ball, the architect from Canterbury. He said, “I’m having it up on next Monday again.” So he had it up the next Monday and it was passed.
‘Was I pleased! I went in to see these two builder blokes and arranged for them to come and do it weekends over the rate of six months. And I bought all the sand, ballast, bricks; I got me own lorry to carry the stuff, and gave a bit of help where they wanted, and that’s how the house got built. And I’m very happy there. It has inside toilets, and it has two big rooms, and well, I don’t really get any longing to go back on the road, now. I don’t think so, not now. No, not now, no. Well, you see, my children eventually they will marry to Gorjios. ‘Cos they are going to school every day with other Gorjios, Gorjio girls, and they’re getting to know each other, but I never had that chance. Later on, my girls will marry those Gorjio boys and my boys will marry the Gorjio girls.
‘They’re pleased, they’re more than pleased to be going to school. They’re up every morning, you know, ready, just waiting to go to school.
‘Those old days of starvation are over. See, years ago you couldn’t get no support; well, now, these old people, they can go to the Social Security and they can get support, you see, five or six pounds a week, whereas when we was kids we couldn’t get nothing, really, we never had no shoes to wear, no shoes. And often we went four or five days without anything to eat.
‘If every Traveller could do the same as we’ve done and have a house, they’d be more than happy. But they don’t know this. And if you’ve got one redress it’s far easier to get another.
‘Once one Traveller gets a place he’s got an opportunity; if another place is for sale his friends can go and buy it because he’s got a redress to come back to, he’s got a redress, you see, like I’ve got. Well see, if I was travelling I ain’t got no redress, see what I mean?’
‘Travellers are particular. They are among the most particularest people in the world.’
Driving down a leafy lane near to Canterbury in search of Mr Tommy Lee. He is a Gypsy who moved into a house six months ago.
He’s sitting outside his old-fashioned brick cottage on the ground on a bus seat, a wisp of smoke from an open fire drifting up beside him. A shed behind him and to his right, an apple tree.
Mr Lee apologises for not rising to greet me, saying that he has been poorly and that the doctor has told him to stay in bed. ‘But I knew better than that. I knew I’d do better to come out in the open air, get some air in me.
‘I know better, you see. I know the air is more healthy.’
He prods the fire with his foot and says, ‘I’ve had a couple of heart attacks, you see, the doctor told me I had to get a house. But for me own self if it hadn’t been for what the doctor said I wouldn’t have had it.
‘And really, if the Gorjios would leave us Gypsies alone, if we could bide our ways by the road, the same as Gorjios do in the houses, there wouldn’t be no problems.
‘Yes, I moved into this house for the sake of me health, now I don’t think it’s any better. They kept on at me about it being healthy in a house, and at my age I ought to be in a house, but I don’t think it is. They said I’d have more space to wander about in, more room, but I don’t know what to think. It may be better in the wintertime, but in the trailer you have all the fresh air in the world; it’s a good life, and I don’t think it’s so good in a house, really. It’s the Gorjios that are messing it up all the time, the gavvers and that. But I mustn’t tell a lie now, the gavvers aren’t so bad as they used to be. Well, it wouldn’t do me no good to lie. When I was a boy they would be asking us to move up till one or two o’clock in the morning. When it was dark they’d come along and if you wouldn’t move, you’d get beat up, but this was never made public knowledge. The children was hurt, yes sir, they was, yes sir, they was, they was hurt. Often.
‘They’re not so bad to you today, you see.
‘They say, “How long do you want to stop?”
‘You might say, “A couple or three days or till tomorrow morning.”
‘They come along and say to you, “Well, have a clean up, and make a move.”
‘They do let you hang about now, till the next day. They ain’t too bad. This is in Kent, of course. In other places it’s worse, so they tell me.
‘But there’s a lot of Gypsies today they leave a lot of motors and a lot of old things around, they’re just messing up the roads. Well then the policemen they come along, they ask, “Who stopped there?” But life ain’t too bad for the Gypsy, it’s one of the best lives.’
I asked Mr Lee what the change from horse-drawn varda to trailer had felt like.
‘Well, in a sense, there’s no difference when you’re laying down but there’s a difference when you’re roaming around.
‘With a motor you is here and you is gone. But when you had a horse and varda you sat on the foot-board and you took note of everything you know, as you passed along. And everybody came around to talk to you and you was known everywhere. People stopping round to talk to you. And you’d stop the old horse and stand to have a talk.
‘But with a motor, it’s soon gone. You never see nobody. Never see the country or nothing. But around and around with horse and varda was the cushtiest time in the world.
‘Here’s another thing about the old horse, when you’re with the horse, he was your own. You were out with him there grazing, and when he was grazing, you were out there with him. It occupied your mind. A horse took a lot of worry off your mind then.
‘The favourite horse I ever had was a horse whose name was Bryn. He came from Ashford. And I bought him when he was five years old. When they ran him up and down at the auction I knew that he was the one for me. You know, the typical auction; there is forty or fifty of them there and you have a look to see if they’ve got any faults, like whether the horse has any splits or marin bones or spavins; then you’d wait till the horse you wanted came up.
‘The auctioneer would stand up and he’d say, “What would you give for number so and so,” and you’d bid for it, see. Somebody would say, “I’ll give ten pound for him,” and you’d put your hand up to bid eleven. And then when somebody else would say twelve, and you’d stand and bid till you’d bought it, you know. Bryn was a nice horse, he was a good horse he was.
‘I like horses better than dogs. There’s no point saying I don’t like horses best, ‘cos I do. But I like dogs too, I like the dogs.
‘They’re good to animals the Gypsies are, very good.
‘It was me kids, me children, decided me to have a trailer instead of a horse-drawn varda. They kept on about having a trailer. I had a twenty-two foot trailer and then I had an eighteen.
‘But I didn’t seem to find the room in it, as much room, as in one of them old vardas. Also, you didn’t seem to have the comfort.
‘You won’t believe this, but come the wintertime you are more comfortable with a ten-foot varda in them little lanes than you are in the big trailers.
‘The vardas was very carefully made, well done made. When you went through the door there was a bunk where you put your clothes and there was a lid on it, you took the lid off and put your clothes in it and then you put the lid back on and you could sit there. Go on farther and you come to the bedside. You come along the other side and there’s a nice bath and a bath-tub, whichever you prefer, then you come back farther, there’s the stove and then you come back towards the door there’s wardrobes hanging down. And in some of the vardas you get beds with mirrors both sides of them.
‘Many a time we travelled in the night-time in the old varda. We used to have two lamps that we put candles in. But most of the things we used to have were smashed up when my father died. We smashed them all up. The main reason for this was so you wouldn’t go along and see somebody else every day driving the thing that had been your Dad’s.
‘I lost one of my boys when he was seventeen. He was a lovely boy and I bought him a lovely piebald pony and a van. I burnt that van and I had his pony killed. You see you never forget ‘em. You never forget the dead, I reckon.
‘So that’s why we burn the vans, so at the time you might forget ‘em for a little while. So you don’t see somebody else driving his varda.
‘Travellers are particular. They are among the most particularest people in the world. For example in childbirth. I’ve done it many a time, gone to get the midwife, then you want plenty of hot water ready for her. All the towels and everything. It’s just the same as a Gorjio does. Travellers always use the Gorjio midwife. I’ve heard of a woman giving birth to a child and getting up the very next morning. A proper Romany, he’d call that “nogany”, dirty filth. He wouldn’t have that.
‘My Dad was very particular. See that cup of tea I’ve just drunk now? Before he’d drink out of it again, he’d wash it up again. What’s made it so bad as regards the Gypsies’ reputation is actually the Gorjios. The Gorjios that marry Gypsies. I’ve got a couple of aunts that married Gorjios. So then these Gorjios marry Gypsies and they think they are Gypsies. But they ain’t. They ain’t because it’s born in you to be a Gypsy.
‘One way that you can tell the difference is in the question of courting. This long courting. I don’t think that’s in the proper Gypsy line. They like to marry quick. In the old days the old folk didn’t ask who you went with, they told you who you went with. However, if a girl of mine came up and said she was going with a lovely Gorjio, and that she was in love with him, I’d say, “Go ahead.” If somebody loves somebody then they must get married to them, that’s my opinion. Although I don’t ever want to see my girls get married, I’d like to keep them always with me. You know.
‘Me and my wife, we met at cherry-picking. She was a young girl, and I went to see her a few times at the cherry-picking and then we started to go with each other and court each other. We courted each other for a month or two, we got married, bought ourself a horse and a caravan and we went roaming around, you know, only in a different way. We used to travel all around Sussex up as far as Belvedere where the wife comes from. We roamed around at that time and we’ve been at it ever since.
‘When I was young, Travellers used to know remedies from all the things in the hedgerows. If you had earache or a headache or blue chronic or something wrong with your eyes, my father would know what to get to set you right. And the pity is that they couldn’t read nor write, and when they died, the names died with them. If you had anything wrong with your eyes, my father would go and get some ivy and he’d boil it, and he’d pulp it and he’d bathe the eyes in it. In about a week he’d have them right.
‘And if the chest was bad or your temples or anything, or if you had skinheads, he’d go and pick some marshmallows, boil them, strain them off, then wash your face four days running in the water of the mallows and all the skinheads would come off – you’d never believe it.
‘The same with stinging nettles. He had a remedy with them. If your bladder was out of order he’d get a nice lot of stinging nettles and boil them, give them a nice wash, and then give them to you to eat with a bit of pepper and salt. You’d have these boiled nettles on the corner of your plate when you had your meals, and you’d eat them like you would candy. He also had remedies for things that Gorjios use pills for.
‘You never see a sick Traveller. Take me. I used to weigh fifteen stone. Then I had these two heart attacks. I passed clean out with one of them. And then I became a diabetic. It’s unfortunate, I mean you never see Gypsies with it. Gypsies never used to call the doctor. They didn’t call the doctor ‘cos they didn’t want to have ‘em, if you’d seen what I’ve seen, you wouldn’t think the doctors do any good. We used to take from the hedgerows, and that did us good. But now you get people taking thirty or forty pills a day, and still as bad as when they started. You can’t convince the Gorjio doctors that the open air is better than inside; but it is. Travellers know it.
‘One time of day I used to get up at four o’clock or half past four in the morning. I could run or jump or do anything you mention. But today I’m useless. I can’t do nothing at all. Today I lays in bed till nine or ten o’clock. Unusual for a Gypsy. I should never have moved to a house. So at any rate, I get out here in the open, out of the house and into the open.
‘And I make a fire up and after I’ve been sitting outside by the fire for a while, I feel different, better. I spend a lot of the day out here in the open. I say that, if you stay indoors you might as well drop down dead. In the house, I’ve got a lot of oxygen that the doctor gave me to take when my blood goes bad, but I don’t stay in the house or take the oxygen. When I come to be short of breathing I get out here straight away. And I feel quite different again.
‘The Gypsy ways are the best ways. I always said I’m a Gypsy. That way, people know who you are. I say to my children, “Never disown yourself.” If people say, “What are you?” say “Well, I’m a Gypsy.”
‘My children never had Gorjio education. No. They never. I reckon Gorjio education destroys a lot. I do. That’s my belief. Neither one of my kids can read or write, but I can send them anywhere, trust them anywhere. The boy wouldn’t go to a pub without first coming to ask me. The girls, they won’t go to the pictures without coming to ask me. Their ages? Well, the girls are twenty-four and twenty-two. And it don’t matter what job I send them to do they can do it. They can get their living, see what I mean. It’s my belief that too much education’s about. Too much of it.
‘The young people today, the moment they sit down they’ve got to have a book in their hands. It’s all wrong. I don’t reckon that a lot of any education is any good. If you’ve always got a book in your hand you ain’t got no time to do anything else. I’ve seen a lot of travelling children being educated. I’ve seen a lot of it. But I reckon they should be left alone. I reckon if a Gypsy wants to be a Gypsy, if he’s going to be a Traveller, let him be.
‘Travellers have a different attitude to their womenfolk. A Gorjio man says about his wife, “I’ve got to take notice of her.” And to a Gypsy, it’s all wrong. A Gypsy man loves his wife, he lives with her and he does everything he can to help her. But it ain’t the case for the woman to become the Traveller. She ain’t. It’s the Gypsy man that’s the governor.
‘Gypsies think very bad of divorce. They don’t like it at all. Before we get divorce we get out and hit each other, like, if she done anything wrong I’d clout her for it. Say she started trying to live with another man. And she’d clout me back. See what I mean? Now that’s a proper Gypsy custom it is you see.’
‘The worst time was ten years ago. Things weren’t so good and plentiful. They come along and they push you along, they’d go out and have a few drinks and they’d come along and move you along. Well then you’d begin to beg, you’ve done this business of begging. They’d come along and knock you up, you had to get up and get your things up and if you didn’t want a clout you had to be civil. I’ve clouted one or two policemen in my time but it’s no good. They get you for assault, yes, they do. They do, sir. They have no right to do it, but they make out they have the right to do it. Yes they do, sir.
‘You had to keep going, on and on and on. You was never two days in a place. We might start from here, and we’d go right down to the coast, along to Portsmouth, Southampton, all the way round. We had to like, you know. Today, it’s much better now, you know. Not that I’d ever want to stop too long.
‘To be honest with you, I wouldn’t stop any place more than one week. This is a beautiful house here, and we have everything we want. But if I had my way we’d be out of here tomorrow. My wife, she’d be with me. We ain’t had it all smooth all our life. But, you know what I mean, it’s been a lovely life.
‘You know, you hear people say it’s one of the roughest lives in the world, but it’s not. It’s one of the best. Say you have a load of logwood, you sell it to some Gorjio and you take four or five pounds. You know that there’s a couple or three days’ food there, you can relax. You can poove down in the same grassy bottom.’
I asked Mr Lee if he’d seen local authority sites.
‘Yes, yes sir, see a lot of ‘em. And I don’t go much on ‘em. They ought to make a plot, you see, put a fence around it, and say, “This is your plot of ground,” and the trailers spaced out.
‘Not like they do now when they put ‘em on top of each other with no privacy at all in it. If someone has a bucket of dirty water it’s just there like, on these sites. Well if you was a decent way away you wouldn’t have that smell would you. You see I reckon that’s where they’re wrong. And they should make the place like if they went out to shift logs like, there’d be the space to shift the logs, see what I mean.
‘And then have a man go round every fortnight and expect them to see if their places is kept clean. That’s how the sites ought to be.’
‘When the Gypsies used to go to town in the old days, people used to run out to come and see them. We used to pull up behind the pub and people would come running out – “Tommy Lee”. Everybody knowed us. That was a nice life.
‘It was the gavvers messed us up. It just messed me up like, you know. When the policeman worried me and they brought my sickness on.
‘We used to travel all the roads. Down to New Brandon for the pea-picking and we come back up through Chichester and then we come back up the Ashfield, and we moved every day like, you know.
‘So if you wouldn’t hurt your horse, you do about nine or ten mile a day. Your horse is one thing you had to look after.
‘You’d go about walking pace, you would. You’d never get a horse with a caravan trotting. You just had a walking pace all the time. You walked along beside him holding the reins and let the old horse walk along comfortable, never hurried him. You’d stop to have a bit of dinner, and then done what you wanted to do.
‘Some days you did a bit more, but generally you did on an average ten mile a day.
‘With a horse, you’ve got to look after them. In the evening we used to put them into the field for a bit of pooving. And in the morning we’d get them early, and then harness up and away.
‘We’d give them a bit of hay in the wintertime, you had a place made on the back, what they call a rack on the back of the varda, we call ‘em a rack with hoops. Well, you can get a couple of bags of hay on the back of it. Sometimes we used to have a wagon for hay as well but then you had to have spare horses.
‘When we got them all together we had as many as fourteen horses.
‘Maroon and yellow, that was our colours. That was the colours of our varda.
‘A nice colour for a varda is grain. You get the varda painted plain yellow and then you get an oak stain and you grain over the top of it and then put a bit of red colour in with it, it looks lovely.
‘It was a good life whether you had a tent or a varda or whatever it was, it was a good life. With the old bender tent, you could make it warm and comfortable. You got a couple of big army blankets to put over it and then you got a waterproof covering for it and it’s comfortable as anything in the world, you’d never believe it. You have the fire outside. You can make ‘em with a fire inside, but you’d have to have a big door to it; and then you’d have it like what they call the wing-wong, one of those Indian styles. We used to call ‘em barricades. And they were one of the comfortablest things you ever laid in.
‘The best wood for making a bender tent out of is hazel, young hazel. You can make the tent so high you can walk in it. The door, it’s a bit of sack. You get a bit of cloth, and you make it six foot high.’
As I was leaving, Mr Lee asked his little grand-daughter, ‘What is you? Tell this gentleman what you are. What is you?’
‘A travelling girl,’ said his little grand-daughter.
‘That’s right!’ said he with approval. And, turning to me, he said, ‘I always tell them never to disown theirselves.’
It was only as I was leaving that I realised that Mr Tommy Lee was a sicker man than I had thought.
His wife said, ‘Yes, and the doctor said if he had another stroke it might be dangerous and of course he had this new stroke early this morning.
‘So we’re all sad. We sent for the doctor at once and he said that Tommy must go to bed and stay there, and must on no account go out of doors. And he must keep the oxygen by him.
‘But of course Tommy reckons that he’s better sitting out here, by the old yog.’
I was appalled, and immediately apologised for engaging him in conversation, when he was in no fit state for it.
But Mrs Lee said, ‘Don’t worry, dear. I think it’s done him good. He’s right. Things are better for him outside than inside. And it’s been good for him, talking to you.’
‘I’m at an old man’s home now.’
Mr Joe Cooper, an upright, white-haired, handsome man, had recently moved, after a lifetime on the road, into an ‘old man’s home’.
‘We put in for a house but they wouldn’t give us one. So in the end me health cracked up and I’m at an old man’s home now, and I’m very pleased of it. Yes, very pleased. It’s very warm, very dry, very comfortable. They’re good nurses and good doctors.
‘Sometimes you get restless, wish you were out on the road. Well, if you do you just got to put up with it. The only thing you misses is the company. You miss the sort of travelling people. Well you do, like, miss one another, but still now that’s getting forgot a bit. I’d sooner be in a house now than have a caravan.’
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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