This week is #ProudToBe week celebrating the rich and diverse Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Communities #GRTHM2021
Our Group Worker Kirsty, shares why she is #ProudToBe Romany.
“I was so delighted when I saw Safenet’s promotion of Gypsy Roma Traveller (GRT) History Month. Despite progress made in recognition of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller culture over the past thirty years, many of us have experienced suspicion and even animosity during our lives. I can’t speak for anyone else from these communities, however I hope my reflections may provide some insight.
My Grandmother came from a Cumbrian Romany family. Her family had a route that covered an area from the Scottish Borders across to North Yorkshire. Like many families in the early part of the 20th Century they travelled this circuit between friendly farms and fairs, taking on casual farm work, “tatting” (scrap collection and processing), knife sharpening, mending pots and pans, selling hand hewn pegs, corn dollies and crafts like palm crosses and crochet doilies.
My Great Grandfather Walter was one of the first in the area to adopt the use of a motorised wagon to replace the old horse drawn Vardo and benders. He was a respected fellow as he had a way with horses and was known for his animal healing skills and knowledge. Horses are an intrinsic part of Romany life – the beautiful Gypsy cobs have been bred over centuries for their strength and temperaments, and all of us -boys and girls are usually riding as soon as we can walk.
In the early 1930’s travelling families came under pressure to settle, the economy was failing and competition for jobs was fierce, so communities were less willing to share resources or employ people from “outside “. Old historic animosity and suspicion was re-kindled despite many Romany men joining up to fight during the war.
Like many English Romanies my family faced the difficult choice – settle and abandon the fundamental freedoms central to their culture, or face continuous pressure and harassment as stopping places dwindled, and sources of traditional income declined.
By the 1970s – when I was growing up – most of my family had settled and were making a very good living in scrap metal and stables, however, when we held large events like weddings or funerals and met in large groups – we still faced the distrust of the wider community. Hotels and even churches would refuse bookings for events, with families having to pay huge deposits and restrictions. Century old stereotypes linger – that we are all thieves, aggressive, untrustworthy etc. I was certainly raised to be proud of my heritage, but also to hide it – the paradox of many families at this time.
My mother wouldn’t talk about the past and the pain she felt “not belonging” but my Great Uncle George – who lived in a showman’s trailer until the day he died- taught me how to ride, the language of Patrins (simple marks left on a route to communicate with other travelling folk), animal care, foraging and living outdoors, in addition the songs and tales passed down for centuries about changeling children and enchanted animals.
What my mother did teach me was to never give in to bullies and to have integrity, she encouraged me to become educated, but also that material things are less important than hospitality and helping those less fortunate.
Negative news stories often focus on the “mess” left behind by travellers -but this is the opposite of my experience. I was taught how to “make do and mend” and not to be wasteful – living in a trailer encourages you to be organised and to minimise useless possessions. Cleanliness is extremely important to travelling people – there are strict rules about keeping food preparation and toilet facilities separate. I was taught to respect my environment and to manage resources, for instance the use of vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice instead of strong chemical cleaning products.
Despite being “settled” for most of my life – apart from fruit picking in our caravan in the summers of my childhood, there is something in my blood which stirs each June when I drive up to Appleby Horse Fair and see the hills covered with wagons and cobs.
I doubt there is an event of its size which is as friendly and peaceful, and which provides such an important opportunity for our families to meet up for a weekend, gallop down the flash, listen to the old songs and stories and have pride in a way of life, which despite all the pressures of modern life, continues to this day.”
For more information on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history month visit www.gypsy-traveller.org