A close up from an image of Gypsy children on the Belvedere marshes in 1919. Courtesy of Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre.
Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre is one of the few places whose records give a sustained picture of Gypsy history in a London area.
Local studies manager Simon McKeon tells us the story of the Gypsies who lived on Belvedere Marshes for a century, and how they were finally removed.
Gypsy Family With Varda Wagon & Bender Tents at Barnhurst, 1902.From the Boswell Collection.
In years gone by Gypsy caravans could be seen on farms and on open ground all over Kent. One such Gypsy community lived on Belvedere Marshes, Erith.
Their presence, however, was often a cause of concern for the local authorities. Needed by local farmers to help with harvesting during the summer months, they were cast aside and considered a problem in the winter, when there was little or no work on the farms. One Kent farmer remarked in Kent County Council’s 1952 survey of the Gypsy community, “The best of them are certainly helpful, but are always a nuisance wherever they pitch camp, and the worst of them should not be tolerated in any circumstances.”
A Gyspy family in East Wickham c. 1910
The Gypsy encampment on Belvedere Marshes is recorded in an 1896 Erith Urban District Council minute book. The Inspector of Nuisances reported “nine plots of land had been purchased by a Gypsy named Love, who let them out to others for encampment.” On this occasion the Inspector did not recommend any action to be taken against them.
By 1947 the site on Belvedere Marshes was the largest of its kind in Great Britain. During the summer the camp numbered about 600 people: however in winter the number rose to around 1700.
Gypsy children on the Belvedere Marshes c. 1919
For over twenty years Erith Borough Council continually tried to remove the gypsies from the Marshes. The Council’s eviction policy even made the National Press. In 1948 the Daily Mirror ‘Ruggles’ cartoon strip featured the plight of the Belvedere Gypsy community.
Finally, in 1956 Erith Borough Council got its way. The Council minutes for that year record that “over 700 persons and 280 ramshackle structures have been removed…The clearance could now be said to be complete” thus ending over 100 years of Gypsy history living on Belvedere Marshes.
The Daily Mirror's 'Ruggles' cartoon 1948
By 1965, following a campaign led by Norman Dodds, MP for Erith and Crayford, the Government commissioned a national census survey of the Gypsy community living in Great Britain. Sadly, Norman Dodds died in 1965, but James Wellbeloved who became the MP for the same seat took up Dodds’ campaign and finally, in 1968 Parliament passed the Caravans Sites Act. This Act placed a duty on all local authorities in England and Wales to provide sites on which Gypsies could place their caravans and stay, either temporarily or permanently. However this duty was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1995.
Erith UDC minutes, 1924
Relevant Collections Held By Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre
Records of Erith Urban District Council
James Wellbeloved MP Papers
Boswell Photographic Collection