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 Inside Out - South East of England: Monday October 4, 2004


George Harber and Frank Ball
ROMANY RAMBLES | George and Frank are proud Romany Gypsies

There is a group of people living in the south east who have a unique history. Unfortunately this also includes discrimination and persecution. Inside Out's Paul Ross joins a modern-day Romany Gypsy family as they go on the road.

Frank and Prissy Ball are Romany Gypsies.

They have lived on and off the roads most of their lives, ending up in a chalet on a Gypsy site in Gravesend.

When their home burned down, they reluctantly moved into a council house eight years ago, even though they aren't very happy here.

Gypsy wagon  - vardo
Despite having settled in a house, the Gypsy way of life beckons

Frank says "It's got comforts but I'd rather be back to my old life. It seems strange to say it but, sometimes it feels like a prison."

Simon Evans is a Gypsy historian. He says that nowadays the majority of Gypsies are settled, living in houses rather than caravans.

"People who have been sheltered by brick and mortar find it hard to understand how travellers growing up in a small caravan would feel claustrophobic in a bigger house."

Gypsies and travellers

There is an important distinction between travellers and Gypsies.

There are the Romany travellers, the Gypsies, and then there are the Travellers, who are either traditional or new. The New Travellers are those who chose the nomadic lifestyle.

Goat on a truck
Taking to road means taking everything - even the goat!

Romany travellers come with a rich cultural heritage, and with a language of their own, the Romas are an acknowledged ethnic minority.

The traveller identity centres on the nomadic lifestyle, living on traveller sites around the country.

Traditionally, Gypsies worked at seasonal farm work, picking fruit, flowers or hops. They also worked as knife-sharpeners, pot-menders and basket-makers.

They followed a well-established route, returning at regular intervals depending on the kind of service they provided. A peg-maker might return sooner than a knife-sharpener as the knives outlived the pegs.

Frank's cousin George Harber lives with his family in West Kingsdown in East Kent.

Romany heritage

Like Frank, the Harber family are now settled and live in a house, but the Romany heritage is important to George.

"My parents were brought up in a caravan, or wagon, called vardos in Romany."

Frank owns two vardos and has been working on restoring them for the last year or so. It's been hard work.

Horse and Frank Ball
Horse trading is a traditional Gypsy occupation

Like every summer, Frank and George are taking their families, wagons and horses and going on the road.

This time they are all heading for the village of Shipbourne, just north of Tonbridge in Kent. Here they set camp on a large common, perfect for Frank and George's purposes.

Problem is though that the common, although called so, is privately owned, so they are in fact trespassing.

Frank and George are used to getting visits from the police wherever they go.

"It don't normally take long until the police turn up and say you're not welcome. We tend to beg for an extra day or two and then we move somewhere else."

Part of the Kentish heritage

Discrimination and persecution has followed Gypsies since time began. The first written record of Gypsies in this country was in 1505.

Their exotic appearance - with dark skin and colourful clothes - it was believed they came from Egypt.

Is it thought that's where the name Gypsies come from, Egyptians was shortened to 'gyptians which eventually became Gypsies.

Evidence show that Gypsies probably came to the British Isles from Asia and the Middle East via Europe.

Frank Ball in his vardo
Frank has restored this 107-year-old vardo

The Romany language stems from Sanskrit, an Indian language spoken on the Indian subcontinent in the ninth century.

Anglo-Roma Gypsies are now recognised as an ethnic minority under the Race Relation Act.

Simon Evans tells us about the history of the Gypsies in the area.

"The Romany Gypsies represent the largest ethnic minority in Kent and the South East counties.

"The Romany culture is intrinsically part of the Kentish culture, it's one of the things that define the place."

Centuries in the area - still not part of society

Despite being a great asset to the region, travellers and Gypsies are still persecuted and the camp set up on the common in Shipbourne is soon visited by the local police again.

"They come to send us a message that they are watching us."

Travellers have always been on the fringes of society.

Most villagers in Shipbrough aren't that bothered with the travellers' visit to the common, although some tell us privately that they've always hated the Gypsies.

"Do you understand why people object to you", Paul asks.

"The best thing about this life is, you wake up in the morning and you feel free - you've only got one door and you've only got one way to walk and that's outside."
Frank Ball

George can't understand it.

"Thing is, we've been doing this all our lives, and if people aren't used to us now, that's their hardship."

For Frank and George and their families this is more than just a way of life, this is their heritage.

See also ...

Birmingham: My Romany Life
Where I live: Kent
Where I live: Southern Counties

On the rest of the web
Traveller and Gypsy website
Patrin Web Journal - Romani Culture and History

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Nigel Stevenson
Loved the gypsy story (my grandmother was a traveller and my brother has married back into a traveller family), I hope this short story dispells some of the negative stuff. Well done, well put over and very true story of most gypsies I have met (and I've met a few). My wife and I recently went to a gypsy wedding in Chartham, Kent. What a day, feast, drink, party - and not one word out of place. They are good people sadly tarnished by other low life that live off the lad. Good luck with the series.

Liz Day
I really enjoyed this well put together item. I wish that I could do more to reduce the discrimination against travellers and also to get the law changed.

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