Dale Farm: Who are the UK's travellers?

Children of Dale Farm travellers site hold pictures of themselves at the gate to the illegal travellers site in Cray's Hill, Essex Children of Dale Farm travellers site held pictures of themselves at the gate to the illegal travellers site

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The eviction of some 400 people from the UK's largest illegal travellers' site, Dale Farm in Essex, has once again brought to the forefront Britain's traveller community.

Not to be confused with Romany Gypsies, who are the largest traveller group in the world with some 12 million members according to the Gypsy Council, the families who live at the site are Irish Travellers.

"A lot of Romany Gypsies are very angry at Irish Travellers in terms of the way our two identities are confused," says Jake Bowers, a Romany Gypsy journalist who writes for the Travellers' Times.

"We're two separate ethnic groups. Whilst there is some conflict because people inhabit the same social and physical space, there is some kind of harmony; some inter-marry and live alongside each other."

Both Irish Travellers and Romany Gypsies are recognised as distinct ethnic minority groups in English law because they are communities which share a history stretching back hundreds of years.

In a guide to Gypsies and travellers, Mr Bowers writes that from the 16th Century to the present day, "no ethnic groups in Britain have aroused as much curiosity, romance, hatred and fear as Gypsies and travellers".

The law and gypsies

  • Romany Gypsies have been in Britain since at least 1515 after migrating from continental Europe
  • The 1554 "Egyptians Act" banned gypsies from entering England and imposed the death penalty on those that remained in the country for more than a month
  • From 1597, the Vagrancy Act reduced the death penalty to expelling anyone who led that "roguish kind of life"
  • Britain's attitude towards Gypsies relaxed over the years; in 1968 the Caravan Sites Act ordered local authorities to provide sites for all Gypsies living or moving to their areas
  • This was the first time that the state had recognised responsibility to provide secure, legal stopping places for Gypsies
  • This changed in the 1990s when the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act removed the legal obligation to provide these sites and gave police eviction powers
  • Currently it is up to Gypsies to find their own sites; however, councils have to provide options for them

Irish Travellers mainly came to England after the potato famine in the 1850s and then after World War II, when men came over to build motorways and work as labourers.

Many travellers, including those from Dale Farm, describe Rathkeale in County Limerick as their spiritual home, says BBC Look East correspondent Sally Chidzoy, who visited the Irish town earlier this month.

She said many Irish Travellers moved between the town and other traveller sites in eastern England.

Many Irish Travellers in the UK have been born in Britain and some now speak with British regional accents, says Grace O'Malley from the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain charity.

Nomadic way

The term traveller refers to anyone who has a nomadic way of life. It can not only refer to Irish Travellers or Romany Gypsies, but also those who live on the road for economic reasons such as New Travellers or Showmen.

Having said that, about half of all Gypsies and travellers nowadays live in houses, the other half live in caravans on private caravan sites, public caravan sites and on unauthorised encampments, says Mr Bowers.

Many Gypsy sites have been built near rubbish dumps, sewer works or industrial sites.

"There isn't one Gypsy and traveller culture, just as there isn't one single Gypsy and traveller community," says Mr Bowers.

However, the way of life of living on the road means that there are "certain cultural things in common", he added.

Irish Travellers share some of the same cultural values as Romany Gypsies, such as a preference for self-employment, but there are also big differences - for example most Irish Travellers are Catholic whereas Romany Gypsies are Church of England, says Joseph G Jones from the Gypsy Council.

Irish Travellers speak a language called Gammon or Cant, a language which mixes Gaelic words with English.

"Broadly speaking it's basically the same community," says Ms O'Malley.

"There are different groups, but there are no huge defining differences other than accent and religion. They live together on council sites."

Big costs

Gypsy culture is built on strict codes of cleanliness, says Mr Bowers. Concepts such as mokadi and mahrime place strict guidelines on what objects can be washed in what bowls.

A Gypsy caravan at an encampment near Latimer Road, Notting Hill, London, circa 1877 A Gypsy caravan at an encampment near Notting Hill, London, circa 1877

Gypsies view gorgias (non-Gypsies) as unclean because of the way they live. For example, Gypsies and travellers rarely let animals inside their homes because they believe them to be carriers of disease, according to Mr Bowers.

They often value visible signs of wealth.

"Travellers having big cars can be summarised by the fact that they don't have mortgages, so they don't have the same cash outlay month by month (as the settled community)," says O'Malley.

"They don't have the same costs, and big costs (such as cars) are normally hire purchases."

Ms O'Malley added that communities also lent money amongst themselves, so people who appeared poor could spend a lot of money on a wedding because the community had given it to them.

'Settled base'

The term traveller can also be misleading.

"It's the biggest misconception - you don't have to be a traveller to be a traveller," says Ms O'Malley.

"People are settling - the mother will settle in one place, while the father will travel around Europe working."

And Mr Jones agrees, saying: "They don't travel aimlessly; they go from place to place for a reason."

"Gypsies want a settled base from which to travel and where they can get access to education and healthcare for their families," adds Mr Bowers.

Legal and illegal sites

  • There are 18,383 traveller caravans in the UK on both legal and illegal sites
  • About 83% of travellers and Gypsy caravans are on legal sites
  • Local authorities in London and in the North East of England have the fewest caravans in their areas
  • Across England a total of 3,109 Gypsy and traveller caravans were on unauthorised sites, a reduction of 510 from 2010
  • Illegal sites can be common land or beside the road

Historically, Gypsies and travellers do not attend schools as they see them as places where children will be bullied for their way of life.

"Gypsy and traveller pupils have the worst school attendance record of any minority ethnic group," says Ms O'Malley.

Girls are often expected to help at home caring for their younger siblings, whereas boys are often expected to be working with their fathers receiving, in effect, an apprenticeship in how to earn a living, says Mr Bowers.

Travellers or Gypsies can have difficulty in Britain doing the jobs they used to do because they have either been replaced by a cheaper alternative, such as eastern Europeans undertaking agricultural work, or machines which have replaced what they used to do, according to Ms O'Malley.

"Much of their lifestyle has been made illegal as it now no longer possible to knock on front doors and ask people if they need any construction work, resurfacing or trees cut down," she adds.

As many do not have any education (although in recent years this is changing and more travellers and Gypsies are going to school according to the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain) they cannot apply for licences to be able to do these jobs as they only have basic reading skills, so instead they go to France, Germany or the Netherlands to earn a living.

Although different in many aspects, the fortunes of both groups are inheritantly intertwined in the public's mind.

As Mr Bowers, says: "The Romany Gypsy community will be reaping the whirlwind of whatever happens at Dale Farm."

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