The British Gypsy and Traveller Communities
Eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain was much more dependent on seasonal and tramping labour than it has since become. The primary winter home for Gypsies, travellers and seasonal labourers was London. In a working class mirror to the elite’s "London Season", October and November saw hundreds and thousands of men, women and children returning to the capital from hop-picking and market gardening, from touring the fairs and tramping in search of work. Some were self-identified Gypsies, others were travelling Irish, and still others were the settled London poor either on the "tramp" or out seeking harvest wages in the hop fields of Kent or market gardens of South East England. Forming what many contemporaries considered a dangerous and crime-prone "residuum", these people were over-represented in the Proceedings.
Contents of this Article
- Stereotypes and Reactions
- Travellers and Tramps
- Legal Contexts
- Search Strategies
- Introductory Reading
Gypsies are believed to have originated in India, and to have gradually migrated to the Near East and Western Europe, reaching Scotland in the early sixteenth century. They generally travelled in family groups, and were associated with professions such as hawking and pedling, acting as tinkers and street performers, and most common of all, as fortune-tellers. By the eighteenth century London and its environs hosted a reasonably large Gypsy population during the winter months. The area around Seven Dials in St Giles in the Fields is believed to have played host to a regular winter community, but the largest identified group was associated with Norwood in Surrey.
During the nineteenth century Gypsy communities became more established and identifiable. Regular encampments could be found in Lock’s Fields in Walworth, and in Battersea, Notting Dale and Wandsworth. This period also saw the development of the classic technology of Gypsy travel in the form of a distinctive caravan, which replaced benders and tents in the first few decades of the century.
In eighteenth-century English accounts Gypsies were generally lumped together with Irish travellers and vagrants. But by the nineteenth century a series of powerful romantic notions about Gypsy life began to predominate. A new interest in Gypsy "lore" and in the Romani language can be identified, at the same time that new efforts were being made to "convert" Gypsies to a sedentary lifestyle. In the Proceedings Gypsies are usually stereotypically accused of dishonesty or craftiness and are often found directing victims to the locations of stolen goods. From the late eighteenth century onwards, they are also particularly associated with the crime of "animal theft", reflecting the particular involvement of Gypsies in horse dealing. Racial stereotypes are occasionally employed, with physical descriptions including swarthy skin and the wearing of ostentatious, colourful clothes.
Although Gypsies formed the most distinct group of seasonal travellers, they formed only one fragment of a wider world of casual labour and tramping, the denizens of which ebbed and flowed in and out of London with the seasons. The market gardens which surrounded and fed the capital required strong backs in the spring and autumn, while in the nineteenth century the hop-fields of Kent drew huge numbers of Londoners for the harvest in September, forming a traditional End End "holiday" for many, and a welcome period of high wages for all. Throughout the period covered by the Proceedings pedlars and entertainers set off in April and May to carry their goods to an otherwise isolated rural audience. Building work, and work on the canals and railways, was also necessarily seasonal, creating spikes in demand for the labour of the "navigators", and leaving them to drift back to London for the cold, wet months of December, January and February, when little could be accomplished out of doors.
The parts of London they returned to for the winter months were a constantly shifting series of shabby border areas, filled with cheap lodging houses and cheaper rooms. In the eighteenth century, St Giles, Whitechapel, and The Borough boxed the compass with cheap accommodation. And in the nineteenth century, each new railway terminus brought into being its own set of inexpensive lodging houses. For many the cheapest lodging was still too dear, and London’s brick yards and glass houses, and from the late eighteenth century, its gas works and pumping stations, provided the coal driven warmth that allowed many rough sleepers to survive a harsh northern winter.
Throughout the late medieval and early modern period Gypsies were subject to profound legal oppression across Europe. In England and Wales they were treated under the brutal sixteenth-century vagrancy laws, and were specifically included in the 1597 Vagrants Act. By the eighteenth century the normal punishment for vagrancy included whipping, a week's imprisonment and removal to one's place of "settlement". Most Gypsies could not claim a legal "settlement", so their treatment under the act was more problematic and varied. Gypsies were also affected by government attempts to regulate pedlars and hawkers by the issuing of licenses. With the evolution of the Poor Law following 1834, the issue of "settlement" became less important, but vagrancy laws continued to have their impact. Because most types of vagrancy were not felonies, however, few trials of Gypsies for this offence can be found in the Proceedings (but see those of Peter Lawman and Francis Buckley. Instead, Gypsies appear most frequently as defendants, witnesses and victims in trials for more serious offences.
Other travelling and seasonal workers were similarly caught in a web of legislation and regulation. By the letter of the law, and in the absence of a well filled purse, a pass of some kind, whether a pedlar’s license or a vagrants’ or soldiers’ pass, was needed to secure your way across a frequently unwelcoming English countryside. The Vagrancy Acts of 1744 and 1821 formed the legal framework within which many a wandering labourer was forced to operate, and those who fell foul of the laws were frequently summarily punished by whipping or a stint in the house of correction. Travelling actors and players were also similarly singled out within legislation and subject to strict legal control. And while the less well-policed spaces of the capital provided a winter refuge from the attentions of the authorities, both parish and ward constables in the eighteenth century, and the new police forces of the nineteenth, looked on unsettled labourers with a jaundiced eye.
Throughout the Proceedings and the Ordinary's Accounts the term Gypsy is occasionally used and can be found using keyword searching. Alternative spellings can also be found and will require the use of wild cards such as *. A query that would cover the spelling variations listed below would be written as gips* gyps*. Alternative eighteenth-century spellings include:
Other useful search terms include:
- Egyptian or Egiptian
- counterfeit Egyptian
- gipsy tribe
If you are searching for a phrase, remember to enclose the words in "double quotation" marks.
For both Gypsies and other seasonal labourers and travellers, searching occupation labels on the Personal Details search page is an effective strategy. Useful terms include:
- tramp or tramping
- tinplate worker
- brazier or brasier
- fiddler or fidler
- Acton, Thomas and Mundy, Gary, eds, Romani Culture and Gypsy Identity (Hatfield, 1997)
- Hitchcock, Tim, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London, 2004).
- Mayall, David, Gypsy-Travellers in Nineteenth-Century Society (Cambridge, 1988)
- Mayall, David, English Gypsies and State Policies (Hatfield, 1996)
- Samuel, Raphael, "Comers and Goers" in H.J. Dyos and Michael Wolf, eds, The Victorian City, Images and Realities, vol. 1 (1973), pp.123-160.
For more secondary literature on this subject see the Bibliography.