Policy Papers

Stereotypes and the state: Britain’s travellers past and present

Becky Taylor |

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Executive Summary

  • The history of Britain's Gypsy Traveller population has been neglected in mainstream histories of Britain.
  • There was however a huge outpouring of literature on Travellers from the mid-nineteenth century by amateur scholars and popular writers. These writings tended to promote starkly opposing stereotypes of Gypsies as either romantic, pure-blooded rural nomads, or as racially-degenerate, urban social failures.
  • Over the course of the twentieth century there was a decline in face-to-face meetings between Travellers and majority society, which led to a growth in importance of the stereotypes in mediating mainstream opinions about Britain's Traveller populations.
  • We need to grasp both the specificity of the national state and the distinct operation of its different levels in order to understand the British government's treatment of Travellers.
  • Central government was characterised for much of the twentieth century by an insistence on the impartial treatment of Travellers, in part stemming from an ethos of professionalism but largely from a lack of interest in the lives of Travellers.
  • A lack of bureaucratically-generated information on Travellers led to central government relying on the information, and stereotypes, generated by amateur scholars. This led to a belief that 'true' Gypsies were disappearing.
  • While central government may have generated legislation, it was local government which enacted it. The high degree of prejudice felt against Travellers in localities meant that beneficial national legislation has had a limited impact on Travellers' lives.
  • Central government needs to take a strong lead in order to ensure that present developments in legislation benefit Travellers in the manner in which they are intended.


One summer in the mid-1990s I was living close to a council estate on the outskirts of Weymouth, when a group of Travellers arrived and parked up on some nearby waste ground. The frenzy of vilification - ranging from shouting abuse and throwing stones at the trailers by local residents to stories of theft, vandalism and anti-social behaviour run in the local press - while shocking was in no way exceptional. It was a story which could be repeated throughout the country, and as the 2005 'Stamp on the Camps' campaign run by The Sun in conjunction with the Conservative election campaign suggests, the situation has not changed.

Our job as historians is to put this phenomenon in context and to ask two interrelated questions. How have we reached a stage of such antagonism, and has it always been like this? In effect, what is the balance between continuity and change? Using traditional archival sources - central and local government archives and newspapers for example - presents something of a problem when seeking to uncover the history of Britain's Traveller populations. Traveller cultures are traditionally and still today largely oral in emphasis, and while there has been an increasing range of oral history and written accounts from Travellers themselves, the fact remains that anyone writing about them largely does so through sources generated by (often hostile) outsiders. It is easy to be caught up in the 'noise' generated by particular episodes of hostility, usually linked to the arrival of Travellers in a particular locality, and forget to pay due attention to the 'silences' which may indicate the absence of Travellers from a locality, or the absence of any friction: good relations rarely generate much archival material.

A further problem with using archival material relates to terminology. Recently there has rightly been a shift towards describing people from different Traveller heritages as they would wish to be described - so, for example, making a distinction between people who see themselves as Romany/Gypsy, Irish or Scots Traveller or Roma. However, surviving historical sources pay scant regard to such matters, instead either using the blanket term 'Gypsy', or deploying a range of labels to denote the 'pure-blooded', or otherwise, nature of the individuals under discussion. Given the fact that it is rarely possible to tell whether someone was a 'Gypsy' or a 'Traveller' from the evidence, in combination with the fact that 'Gypsy' has historically been tied closely to racialised and often pejorative definitions, I use the term 'Traveller' in this paper.

Below I show the importance of understanding the role of stereotypes - both 'positive' and 'negative' - in shaping Travellers' relationship with majority society, and how these stereotypes interacted with broader state processes to affect their treatment by government. I suggest that central government needs to take a strong lead in policy implementation as well as legislation in order to counteract the engrained hostility expressed in the localities towards Travellers.


The absence of Travellers from mainstream histories of Britain in the twentieth century does not mean that nothing was written about them. On the contrary, from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present there was an outpouring of writing about Travellers from amateur scholars who styled themselves as 'gypsiologists' and from popular writers from George Borrow to Isabel Fonseca. These writers, individually and collectively through publications such as the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, propagated the idea of Gypsies as a dark mysterious people, close to nature, untouched by modernity, perpetually nomadic and living on the fringes of civilisation. Building on these writings countless articles in rural interest magazines, such as Country Life, The Border Magazine and Yorkshire Life Illustrated persistently propagated a rural and picturesque view of Traveller lifestyles. Where Travellers were featured in photographs they were in quaint rural settings, typically engaged in peg-making or basketry, with a bow-topped caravan in the background.

In part writers were motivated by the assumptions that Britain was becoming increasingly crowded, urbanised and modernised, and that Gypsies and their way of life were therefore in terminal decline. Thus the 1889 edition of the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society contained an article on the Irish Travellers relating some of their customs 'because they must gradually disappear under the pressure of modern law' (emphasis added). In this context, it was felt that 'pure' Gypsies - often arbitrarily defined by their looks, lifestyle, and use of the Romany language - were being over-run by half-breeds (variously called 'tinkers', 'didikais' or 'pikies'). In line with racialised thinking 'blood-purity' was equated with innate qualities, which in the case of 'Gypsies' was an over-riding desire and ability to be nomadic. Cases where Travellers failed to conform to romanticised stereotypes, through living on long-term, urban sites or dealing in scrap metal or modern furniture, for example, were explained as the result of miscegenation. In turn this implied that while 'Gypsies' were somehow racially suited to nomadism, for those of mixed blood or vagrant dropouts this capacity was diminished or absent.

Why is this important? In part it is due to the fact that up until the passing of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act there was no enshrined right to travel (or rather, no legal right to stop) and hence Travellers' ability to maintain their lifestyles depended as much on the personal attitudes of law enforcers and the public as it did on the absolute legality of any given situation. And the significance of writers propagating the simultaneous romanticised and debased stereotypes of Travellers became more pronounced over the course of the century as face-to-face encounters between Travellers and the majority population declined.

To an extent this was the result of the changing nature of the economy as there was a broad shift among Travellers from regular, small transactions with settled society - most typically through hawking or agricultural piece work - towards fewer transactions of higher value, with the expansion of activities such as 'lopping and topping', tarmacking and motor dealing. This economic shift was compounded by the continued clearance of inner-city slum areas, where traditionally many Travellers had found accommodation during winters or for longer periods, and the major changes in planning control and zoning of development following the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. While Travellers continued to find sites in urban areas, these were increasingly on the peri-urban wasteland, by motorways, industrial areas or out-of-town housing estates where there was little opportunity for 'everyday' and 'neighbourly' encounters with majority society.

Travellers' lives from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century changed just like the rest of British society, being affected for example by technological developments, motorisation and consumerism. Yet, the stereotypes governing how 'true' Gypsies were meant to behave remained fossilised in tightly-bound and largely artificially-constructed norms stemming from the late-nineteenth century. Given the growing lack of personal contact between majority society and Travellers, and the fact that they no longer conformed to 'romanticised' stereotypes of Gypsies (who might have a right to travel), Travellers were seen as having no right to a nomadic lifestyle. Rather, they were (and are) depicted as social failures, who had a duty to settle down and become integrated.

The state and stereotypes

How then, in the context of these stereotypes can we understand the state's relationship with Travellers? In trying to untangle this it is important to understand the specificity of the nature of the British state: while negative stereotypes of Gypsy populations have been current throughout Europe for centuries, the experiences of Britain's Traveller populations in the twentieth century were manifestly different to those of their counterparts in Germany or in any of the former socialist states. So, in contrast to Germany in the first four decades of the twentieth century, the British state specifically did not collect information on Travellers as a group - during the wars, for example, they were issued with the same type of ration cards as travelling salesmen, and no records were kept of their enlistment into the armed forces. The lack of specific information held by the government on Travellers led to a Welsh Office official in 1956 noting that it was 'puzzling' that the Registrar General had no information on Travellers, which forced him to write to the Gypsy Lore Society in his attempt to gather details on Travellers in Wales.

In part, this stance of central government was due to the assumed impartiality of the state and the professional self-image of civil servants. We can see this most strongly in the Home Office in the first half of the century which repeatedly refused to confirm bylaws put forward by local authorities specifically targeting Travellers as a group. For similar reasons it, along with the Ministry of Health, blocked various incarnations of the Moveable Dwellings Bills in the 1920s and 1930s. Civil servants may have been happy legislating against certain behaviours - lighting fires near highways, camping in particular places for longer than specific periods - but they shied away from legislating against certain named groups.

It is also crucial to disentangle the rhetoric and practice of different levels of the state. Crudely we can argue that the further from 'the ground' the level of the state (European Union, central government), the less negative the attitude towards Travellers and the less likely the body is to promote negative policies. Conversely, the closer to the ground - most typically parish and district councils - the more prejudiced and anti-Traveller the body is likely to be. This suggests that, structurally at least, central government was (and remains) well-placed to resist repressive measures towards Travellers. Yet, this position has been consistently undermined by two factors.

Firstly, Whitehall's position was not based on understanding and valuing Travellers' lives but rather on a complete absence of knowledge and interest. Layered on to this was the near universal personal prejudice of the civil servants themselves, for as one confessed: 'I have the normal Englishman's dislike of the Gypsy'. The stereotypes generated by popular writers and gypsiologists were consequently able to fill the vacuum created by the absence of active bureaucratic engagement and policy. Consequently, being left to decide on the fate of a family of Travellers who had been camped for some years in a chalk pit in Kent, one civil servant found it vital to enquire on how they made their money and lived - did they sell pegs, or engage in scrap-metal collection, and did they live in 'traditional Gypsy horse-drawn caravans'? - in order to decide whether or not they should be evicted.

An insistence of civil servants on the nomadic nature of Travellers led them to assert that 'true Gypsies' were not affected by the many changes in the law relating to control of behaviour and environmental standards. And yet the marginal position of Travellers, and the fact that many aspects of their traditional lifestyles conflicted with new regulations, meant they were more vulnerable to the negative aspects of these changes than most of settled society. Through control of physical space, behaviours and standards of living, government, backed by regulatory bodies and the police, regularised lifestyles and narrowed the definition of what was normal and acceptable. As a result, Travellers' lives have been nearly regulated out of existence while government has been able to claim it has not targeted them as a group.

Significantly, the lack of central-government understanding of the reality of Travellers' lives in modern Britain was enshrined in the 1968 Caravan Sites Act. This defined 'Gypsies' as people of 'nomadic habit of life', despite widespread and historical evidence of the sedentary or semi-settled nature of many Travellers, particularly in the face of the increasing difficulties of living on the road. The Act attempted to resolve the crisis over the chronic post-war shortage of stopping places through requiring local authorities to provide official sites for Travellers. Yet, in a number of cases it led to Travellers being denied their ethnic status when they were deemed in court to have been settled too long to qualify legally as 'Gypsies'.

The second, and crucial, undermining factor has been that, while central government may pass legislation, it is reliant upon local government to put it into practice. Research shows that local harassment and eviction has always been a factor in the lives of Travellers, but before the Second World War this tended to be localised, often inconsistent and frequently unsustained. However, through the creation of the planning system, the need for local licensing of caravan sites and the development of officially-provided caravan sites post-1968, local prejudice was given free reign. Local authorities systematically undercounted the number of Travellers in their area in order to reduce the number of sites they needed to provide; took advantage of the fact that no time limit was given by which they needed to provide sites; and often only provided them with the proviso that the rest of their area was 'designated', that is meaning that no Travellers were able to stop outside of the official sites. Where official sites were given permission, then almost without exception they were located in the most marginalised and stigmatised spaces available - next to motorways, sewage works, land fill sites - far from residential areas. All of these factors were signals of the unwillingness of councils to expend resources on people who they perceived (and often continue to perceive) to be 'non-citizens'. It was largely only through the provision of a 100 per cent grant from central government that any progress was made in official site provision over the 1980s.

Even before the removal of the obligation of local authorities to provide official sites as part of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, there was an absolute shortage of stopping places for Travellers. The aim of the 1994 Act was to require Travellers to provide their own sites through buying land and applying for planning permission. If we take a broad historical view it is no surprise that the government's stated assumption that the local planning system would solve the problem of the shortage of sites was doomed to failure. In fact it has resulted in a crisis perhaps comparable to that of the 1960s: now instead of high-profile evictions from stopping places by the side of the road and wasteland as occurred in the 1960s, increasing numbers of Travellers are being evicted from land they have bought, but on which they have been refused planning permission.

Causes for hope?

Despite the over-riding failure of government policy on the provision of sites post-1994 there have been a number of developments which suggest that state-Traveller relations may be at a turning point. The legal acknowledgment of the ethnic status of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers (although not Scottish Travellers) in combination with the 2000 Race Relations Amendment Act, has strengthened the ability of Travellers to challenge discriminatory behaviour. Similarly, the 1998 Human Rights Act which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights has been used successfully by some Gypsies and Travellers facing eviction from unauthorised sites. Within many local authorities, while planning and environmental health departments often continue to treat Travellers with suspicion, designated Traveller education and health teams have made significant advances in providing sensitive and appropriate services.

Gradual changes have also been made to the provision of accommodation for Travellers and Gypsies. An acknowledgement of the importance of central funding in ensuring the proper care of official sites was made in 2000 when a refurbishment grant was introduced to help local authorities refurbish and build Gypsy and Traveller sites. The 2004 Housing Act & Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act crucially introduced a new legal framework for the provision of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation which placed a duty on local authorities to assess and provide for their housing needs. The developments however, should not be used as a signal for governmental complacency but rather as a first step. The 2004 Act failed to reintroduce the obligation to provide caravan pitches, and there is extensive anecdotal evidence of poor spending of the refurbishment grant.

Historically, local authorities have largely only enacted policies for Travellers under the direction of, and with funding from, central government. Without a strong and concerted lead from the centre recent changes in the law run the risk of being sidelined by local government, which often persists in denying Travellers' right to a share of common resources. Until there is a sea-change in attitudes at the local level - so often still dominated by outdated stereotypes - Travellers will continue to be treated as twilight citizens on the margins of society.

Further Reading

Acton, T., Gypsy politics and social change. The development of ethnic ideology and pressure politics among British Gypsies from Victorian reformism to Romanic nationalism (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974).

Bhopal, K. and M. Myers, Insiders, outsiders, others: Gypsies and identity (Hatfield, University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008).

Clark, C. and M. Greenfields, Here to Stay. The Gypsies and Travellers of Britain (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2006).

Morris, R. and L. Clements (eds) Gaining ground: Law reform for Gypsies and Travellers (Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1999).

Okely, J., The Traveller-Gypsies (Cambridge: CUP, 1983).

Taylor, B., A minority and the state: Travellers in Britain in the twentieth century (Manchester: MUP, 2008).

Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month, June 2008


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