No one knows for sure just how long Romany people have been in Britain but it was in the 15th century that reports began to appear about bands of dark foreigners arriving here from mainland Europe. They travelled on horseback and in light carts, were dark in complexion, richly dressed in bright colours and the women had gold coins woven into their black hair. Soon they gained a reputation as fortune tellers and magicians and frequently described themselves as dukes or princes of Egypt, in fact the word 'Gypsy' is a contraction of Egyptian. Where they had originally come from remained a mystery until the 18th century when an academic in Hungary realised that the language spoken by his local 'Gypsies' was similar to one that was spoken in India. Further analysis revealed that Romany was in fact a dialect of sanskrit that was spoken in the Indus Valley in Northern India in the ninth century. It is thought that a tribe of people left there and travelled through Persia to reach Eastern Europe about 1000 years ago eventually arriving on our shore a few hundred years later.
Today's Travellers still speak their own version of Romany or Romanes. Mixed in with the sanskrit words are others which derive from Greek, Romanian and Slavic as well as cant, the language of the sturdy beggars of Elizabethan England together with other local words and bits of rhyming slang. Versions of the language are spoken by different groups of Roma across Europe from the Kalderash of Hungary to the Gitanes and Sinti of France and the Mustalainen of Finland.
Making a Living
Kent, The Garden of England, with its concentration of fruit and vegetable farms relied on Travellers to provide temporary seasonal labour; They were an essential part of the local agricultural workforce. The annual round of farm work began in late spring with hop training and throughout the summer and autumn Gypsy Travellers moved from farm to farm as each crop needed harvesting. Cherries, strawberries, blackcurrants during high summer as well as peas, beans and other vegetables which needed to be quickly gathered in as they ripened. The hops were ready in September followed by apples and pears in the autumn and potato picking up in early winter. They might stay on for a while after picking finished on one farm before moving on to the next, perhaps breaking their journey with overnight stops on commons.
During the winter months most local Travellers would find a place to stop on the edge of the larger towns or the urban fringes of south east London where there were large traditional stopping places that had been used by Travellers for generations. Ash Tree Lane in Chatham was one such place, as were the marshes along the Thames at Erith, the disused chalk pit at Ruxley near Sidcup and Corke's Meadow in St Mary Cray. Here they could earn winter money by making and selling wooden clothes pegs, primrose baskets or decorative wooden flowers from door to door. Men could find casual labouring work or offer services such as knife grinding, woven cane chair repairing or tree pruning.
Other Travellers made a living as hawkers or general dealers. In past centuries most country towns and villages were too small to support permanent traders, apart from perhaps a black smith and a few other specialist craftsmen. They mainly relied instead on travelling pedlars and hawkers to come to them to supply their needs for the few material possessions that they needed. These itinerant salesman would trade as they travelled, dealing in all manner of essential domestic goods and other less important but nevertheless desirable items like ornaments, trinkets and finery. As well as hawking their wares as they passed through towns and villages, there were the annual fair days when large numbers of travelling salesman would arrive and set up shop.
Most villages and towns had at least one or two fair days a year, but they were very different occasions to the fun fairs of today. Originally they were simply the days when farmers would bring their produce to town or when livestock was traded, such as the annual Goose Fair at Challock near Ashford. Over the centuries the fairs evolved, eventually becoming as much a social event as an opportunity for business. By Victorian times in addition to the traders were all manner of travelling showmen were on the circuit, actors playing on temporary stages, fighters sparring in boxing booths, dancing bears, acrobats, freak shows, musicians, quack doctors with dubious remedies all jostled for position to relieve the crowds of their money.
Horse Drawn Days
Most Travellers stayed together in large family groups: Parents, grandparents, children, uncles and cousins would all work and travel together. The older ones would look after the babies and toddlers while the rest of adults and older children were out working. Life was lived outside and in the evenings the whole family would gather together around the fire to discuss the days events and to entertain each other with songs, music and storytelling. The painted wooden caravan or 'varda' that has come to symbolise the Gypsy life only came into use in the middle of the nineteenth century, until then Gypsy Travellers were tent dwelling people who travelled with light horse drawn carts and traps. The traditional Gypsy 'bender tent' was made from hazel rods pushed into the ground and covered over with tarpaulin or sailcloth. Some of these tents were quite sophisticated structure with a central area in which a fire could be lit above which was a hole to allow smoke to escape.
The wagon provided a cosy living space. Across the back was generally a raised double bed with cupboard beneath which could double up as another bed. A small stove was usually installed on the right hand side as you went in, complete with mantlepiece with a mirrored door to the airing cupboard above. On the right there was perhaps a table and cupboards. The interior and exterior decorations were always very personal and the caravan was a status symbol. The wealthier the owner the more ostentatious it was. Ornate carving, complex painted designs and an abundance of gold leaf would signify a very well to do Gypsy.
Much of the traditional farm work gradually disappeared after the end of the Second World War due to increasing mechanisation and agrochemical farming methods. By the mid 1960s all hops were picked by machines and herbicides had dispensed with the need for hand weeding. Gradually the fruit farms that still needed extra labour at harvest time were beginning to employ students from abroad rather than the Travellers and other local people. During this period Travellers continued to resort to their traditional over wintering sites on the edges of major urban settlements where some casual employment could be gained. As the farm work gradually dissapeared, so did the impetus to keep travelling and the winter stop overs gradually became large permanent settlements.
The nomadic life was further hampered by successive legislation aimed at preventing roadside stopping and caravan dwelling. With decreasing work and the increasing harassment, many families gradually stopped pulling down into rural Kent to follow the work and remained permanently on the winter stopping places near towns. Many eventually made the move from caravans and trailers on these sites into nearby houses.