They are a relatively small minority in British society. But the social tension, political discussion and media attention surrounding Gypsies and Travellers has long outweighed their size as a group. The new government is discussing plans to change the law on trespass to deal with what is claimed to be a growing problem of illegal settlement and antisocial behaviour. At the same time, cuts in spending on sites for those living nomadically and on programmes for their education and healthcare have revived debate about how this minority can improve its life.
Central to their history has been how the majority, in ‘settled’ society, has perceived the legitimacy of nomadic life. Dr Becky Taylor is a specialist in Gypsy and Traveller history and author of A Minority and the State. She notes that in Victorian times there was much approval of a romanticised idea of traditional ‘gypsies’.
But while a few supposedly traditional nomads could enjoy romantic approval, many others moving around were viewed with hostility. Their lifestyles, suggests Dr Taylor, “were seen as the result of failure and social inadequacy, not as a positive and desirable choice”.
More recent developments have reinforced perceptions of a group that had “failed to modernise”. Political participation, judicial procedure, welfare and education were increasingly “based on a presumption of permanent residence”. There was always something of a stigma attached to those of ‘no fixed abode’. And the funding of the welfare state on the basis of taxation and insurance linked to permanent employment left Gypsies and Travellers vulnerable to the charge of failing to pay their way.
Changes in the way Gypsies and Travellers made their living also affected perceptions, as they turned from, say, seasonal agricultural work to activities such as scrap metal dealing that kept them in one place for longer and required perhaps storage of materials. That made friction with local residents more likely. And tighter planning controls and extensive building on urban fringes made acceptable stopping places harder to find.
For some in government, the solution was to persuade people to give up nomadic life. Provision of permanent housing and school places was however limited. And many resisted such a transition. The Irish government’s attempt to enforce such a policy in the 1960s led to an influx of Irish Travellers to Britain.
Influenced by the civil rights movement, British Gypsies and Travellers attempted to assert themselves more. They were successful in gaining governmental support for the provision of permanent sites for caravans to stop. This was always controversial, however. There was never agreement on the geographical distribution of sites. The Caravan Sites Act of 1968 also gave local authorities new powers to evict from informal settlements.
Hostility towards Gypsies and Travellers grew from the 1980s. Spreading home ownership prompted continual angst about how Traveller sites would depress property prices. And the arrival of other forms of nomadic life, such as so-called ‘New Age’ travelling, further complicated the picture. Local authorities’ obligation to provide sites was abolished in 1994.
As a result, provision of sites never matched demand. Illegal sites continued to be used.
And Gypsy or Traveller attempts to purchase land and apply – often retrospectively – for planning permission, brought local confrontations and media attention. In terms of social progress, meanwhile, Gypsies and Travellers have fallen behind in life expectancy, general health, and educational attainment.
Underlying all this history, suggests Becky Taylor, is reluctance to accept a nomadic lifestyle within a modernising society. Gypsies and Travellers have barely featured in debate about a multicultural Britain. There was – and is – often little regular contact between them and other members of society, and therefore much mutual suspicion and incomprehension.
Awareness that Travellers could have a distinct ethnic identity “failed to permeate popular consciousness”. So this group, concludes Dr Taylor, “were, and continue to be, Britain’s twilight citizens”.
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.
This feature was first published in the April 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.
This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.