London's Romany Gypsies

By Simon Evans | 20 July 2006
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photo shows family group holding hops

Hop picking in Kent (Berkeley family). Courtesy of Simon Evans.

Simon Evans is author of Stopping Places a book describing the history of Gypsies in South London and Kent from the reign of Elizabeth to the end of the 20th century. He describes some of the places in London that have Gypsy connections.

The Romany Gypsies of the past left very little in the way of tangible evidence for today’s historians to study. Until the advent of the traditional wooden caravan in the mid nineteenth century they lived in dome shaped ’bender’ tents carrying all their possessions in light, horse drawn carts. They left no buildings, no towns or villages for archaeologists to excavate or map. There’s was an oral culture, their songs, stories, music and language was passed down through the generations by word of mouth, they left no written records, no works of literature for scholars to read. And yet their fleeting presence, often unobserved and unremarked, has left its imprint upon the culture and lives of the static, house dwelling people.

image shows fortune teller at burnham beeches

An image of a fortune teller at Burnham Beeches. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.

That there were Romany Gypsy communities in London is without doubt, their presence recorded to this day in place names. During Victoria’s reign in Norwood in South London there was a sizeable population on what is still called Gipsy Hill and Gipsy Lane, in those days there were still areas of undeveloped open land close to the centre of the city upon which the Gypsies camped. There is another Gipsy lane on Barnett Common and a Gypsy Corner in Acton, these are the house dwellers names for the places that the Gypsies traditionally camped.

photo shows family in bender tent

Gypsy family in tent Mitcham Common 1881(Mitcham ref lib)

For most of the year Gypsies travelled rural roads. Much of the agriculture of the south eastern counties that surround London is concerned with market gardening, with fruit and vegetables, of which a large proportion was sent to feed the capital via it’s famous market at Covent Garden. Throughout the Summer months the Gypsies went from farm to farm picking fruit, strawberries and cherries in high summer, then peas, beans and other vegetables, hops in September followed by apples and pears, then finally potato picking up in early Autumn.

Every September East Enders abandoned London in their droves to live in simple huts on Kentish farms in ‘The Garden of England’ for the annual ‘hopping’ and it was here that they spent six weeks of every year living alongside the Travellers and Gypsies. Although the Romany people have traditionally kept to themselves, friendships were formed in the Kentish hop gardens and once the season’s work was done on the farms many Travellers made their way to the city.

photo shows man with grinding barrow

Grinding Barrow Spurge Collection Greenwich library

Many of them owned or shared yards in the East End and there has long been a cultural affinity between the Romany and the Cockney - the free wheeling barrow boy and market trader, the rag and bone man, the scrap metal merchant with his horse and cart. Romany words such as cushti, wonga and chavvy have made their way into the language of the Londoner, just as elements of rhyming slang are heard amongst Travellers.

During the winter months the Travellers have always traditionally headed for the urban edges of the towns and cities, coming in from Kent and Essex they stayed on patches of waste land and the Hackney Marshes north of the Thames and along it’s southern banks at Erith and Abbey Wood. The commons of South London also provided places for the Gypsies to stop, From Plumstead and Woolwich in the East through to Wandsworth, Mitcham and Wimbledon Commons towards the west.

etching shows man holding sheaves and boy on donkey

Pyne's Microcosm is a book showing all walks of life in 1803. He has two pages devoted to Gypsy lives, which include this image. Courtesy of the Guildhall Library.

Any patch of waste ground or open common would become home to Travelling people during the winter months, George Borrow in his ‘Romano Lavo Lil’ has extensive descriptions of the Romany communities on unclaimed land in Battersea and Wandsworth in 1865. He observes that the place is uninhabited during the summer months but as winter approached it began to fill until a week or two before Christmas when it was ‘almost crammed with the tents and caravans of the wanderers’. During the same period Gypsies also flocked in large numbers to Notting Hill where a permanent shanty town of shacks, sheds and outhouses began to develop which gave a real cause for concern to the authorities, such was the density of the population coupled with a total lack of sanitation. It seems that as early as the 19th century the annual migration was in decline as the effects of enclosure were taking an effect on the ability to travel and stop in the countryside.

photo shows Victorian fair

Mitcham Fair 1910(Mitcham ref lib)

Mitcham

The 1881 census records 230 Travellers living in vans and tents on Mitcham Common and to this day the area still has a high Romany population. This is also in part due to Mitcham Fair which was traditionally an important gathering for Travellers, just as the horse fairs in other parts of the country still are today at Appleby in Cumbria and Stow in the Wold in Gloucestershire. These fairs were fixed points in place and time at which Travelling people from all traditions would meet up, a coming together of fairground people, horse dealers, travelling salespeople, hawkers and dealers, Romany Gypsies and showman. Mitcham was also a centre of herb production, particularly lavender which required a large temporary workforce to cut the flowers when they bloomed ready for distilling into lavender oil. As well as working on the harvest, the Gypsy Travellers would also buy bunches of lavender to sell on the streets of London advertising their wares with the traditional cry:

Will you buy my sweet lavender
Sweet blooming lavender
Oh buy my pretty lavender
Sixteen bunches a penny.

Many street hawkers and traders were Romany, particularly women going from to door to door with arm baskets laden with clothes pegs and wooden flowers made by the men folk. The sale of these craft items would help to sustain the family income during the winter months until it was time pull back out into the countryside for the annual round of farm work. Also common on the streets were Gypsy men with grinding barrows, offering to sharpen scissors, saws and knives, some also mended chairs, sitting on the pavement kerbs weaving new cane seats.

photo shows woman selling lavender

Mrs Sparrowhawk selling Lavender (Mitcham Ref Lib)

For many Romany Gypsies the annual migration from city to country continued until the latter part of the twentieth century. During the 1930’s England’s agriculture was in a poor state and we brought in cheap food from the commonwealth. At the outbreak of war this trade ceased and another mobilisation was instigated on the home front, we had the Dig for Victory Campaign, the Land Army and a massive mechanisation of agriculture. This process continued after the war, picking machines replaced the human hand and agrochemicals dealt with weeds. Traditional craft items like clothes pegs were falling out of favour, plastic and mass produced sprung versions appeared, wooden flowers and twig baskets seemed old fashioned in the brave new world of modern design. As the traditional work dried up, new legislation was enacted preventing Travellers from occupying their traditional stopping places and slowly but inevitably the old ways were coming to an end. The large winter camps on commons and on the urban fringes of the capital became permanent as the ability to travel diminished and the drift into houses and onto permanent council sites increased.

Today there are still large Romany populations in these areas and although the Travelling life is all but over, the Romany culture persists in its new but largely static environment.

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