Living in Trailer Caravans
In the early seventies at least 20,000 of Britain’s Travellers were living in trailers, their name for the motor-drawn modern caravan. A typical caravan might be twenty-two feet long. There is usually a small stove burning coal or wood. Cut-glass, silver plates, family portraits and decorative china plates hang from the walls. The windows are often fringed with decorative lace curtains. The caravans are kept scrupulously clean.
Those who are lucky have lorries to pull their caravans, lorries that they often also use for scrap dealing.
Little more than 120 of the sites which local authorities were required to build as a result of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 had been so far completed when this book was first published. There was room for only a fraction of the Gypsy population on them.
So far official sites had usually been notable for a remarkable ignorance of the Gypsy way of life. And new ones were being created very slowly. Since the Caravan Sites Act became law in 1970 the provision of sites had not been much larger than the natural increase of the Gypsy population.
The caravans that were not on official sites were parked on private sites or, illegally, on commons or roadside verges.
Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee
‘My birth certificate is on an oak tree somewhere in Spain’
Prince Nathaniel Petulengro Lee lives in a trailer caravan parked in a cul-de-sac in North London.
‘Do you live alone?’ I asked.
We were sitting on a couple of wooden chairs. Opposite us was his caravan, beneath which lurked dogs. The Prince, a stocky man of seventy, wore a scarlet bandolero on his head, and a gold crown engraved with the words ‘The First Gypsy Prince’. On his fingers were sovereign rings that had belonged to his parents, also a wishing ring which, he told me, is in demand among Gorjios to wish on. ‘These are all symbols, you see,’ he explained. ‘And when I die they’ll either be buried with me or passed on to me sons.
‘As you see I also wear bright beads and bright colours because we’re a bright race, we don’t like anything drab.’
In fact his trousers were of pink corduroy, he wore a scarlet silk waistcoat and a sports jacket. His head was surrounded with a blazing halo of white hair.
‘Yes, I live alone,’ he replied to my question.
Beyond the wall at the other side of the cul-de-sac a train hurtled by. We were by the main line to Paddington Station and at intervals during what followed, conversation became impossible as further trains thundered by.
He thrust one stocky arm down behind his chair and leaned in towards me.
There came a taunting voice in the darkness, ‘Gypsy Lee! Gypsy Lee! Gypsy Lee!’
‘Ugh,’ he muttered, and his lips formed a silent curse.
Beside Mr Lee’s caravan there was a smaller caravan, and also the motorised trailer that he uses for fortune-telling away from home. This trailer says on the side in lettering that he did himself:
He is Here
Prince Gypsy Lee,
As seen on T.V.
Gypsy Lee was just back from Nottingham where he had been engaged to put a spell on the Festival, to ensure fine weather for five days. The spell worked. Those five days were scorchers, despite the counter-activities of an African witch-doctor.
‘In one way, I’ve always been on my own,’ said Gypsy Lee.
‘I was about seven years of age when our family was broken up. My Daddy had taken some grais to a horse sale. He didn’t come back that night. Next day a muskra came up to the varda.
‘He was climbing up the steps and a dog went for him, tearing his trousers. My Mammy called the dog off of him and then the muskra said that my Daddy was in starry. He’d been given twelve months because they said one of the horses had been stolen.
‘Them times was hard. My mother had to support us with only her basket of clothes pegs for sale, and her lace to sell to the Gorjios. Times were hard because we were twelve chavvies to feed.
‘As for me, I used to help out too. I used to go with my brother and me father’s pony and trap, and collect watercress, mushrooms, and other things to sell to the Gorjios.
‘My sister, she sold violets, snowdrops, and primroses, and other wild flowers. I used to sell the watercress. And many a time we was chased by the muskras.
‘But things still were hard and one night, as we was sitting round the camp-fire waiting for our bit of grub, up come two gavvers and some other Gorjios and they took us into what they call care; my brothers was sent to a home for boys and my sisters to a home for girls, on the grounds that my Mum couldn’t support us.
‘I was about nine years aged at that time, I’d never lived in anything else but a varda, never been with Gorjios or lived in a house. So I found this children’s home irksome. Because I’d always been like a bird before, free like a bird.
‘It was a Catholic place, very religious. And I found it hard, ‘cos I was nine years of age and never been away from the family before. So me and me brother we planned to run away, but we never did it. But we often planned it.
‘In this place there was about forty of us sleeping in one room, and in the morning we had to get up at six of the day. Then we would have to stand by the beds while someone inspected the beds to make sure we hadn’t wet the beds. And at this time also, there was prayers.
‘And my young brother, he was uneasy there. He longed to be free, so he felt uneasy, so he wet the bed. And he was made to stand in the corner of the room while we others had our breakfast. He was made to stand there with the wet sheet over his head.
‘And all this praying which there had already been was before the main bit of praying which was morning Mass. That was at seven-thirty of the day and it was one hour.
‘There was much marching about and much exercise in the course of the days. And much lessons. We didn’t feel free as birds no more, my son.
‘And then one day as we was playing in the grounds I saw me father and mother. And when there was no one looking they come up to me and they told me they was come to kidnap me, to take me for always.
‘That was a change to be back living the Romany way of life. Daddy had a chavvies’ roundabout of twelve little wooden horses, and he put me in charge of it. But it took me a while to get used to being in the outside world again.
‘And still, times were hard. In those days when I was a chavvy there was no such thing as National Assistance, you see. Always there was the fear that they’d send you to the workhouse. And in the workhouse they’d give you so many loaves of bread, so much tea, a pot of treacle and the boys were dished out with a pair of short corduroy trousers and a jacket, a kind of uniform which was a stigma, and people would say, “Oh, they’re living on the Parish.”
‘See, it was like in the days of Oliver Twist, kind of thing, and it was a stigma.
‘And I’ve seen my Mammy going round scrubbing public house steps in the winter when she couldn’t get a bob or two, and she’d scrub the public house steps and the windows.
‘Every country has its persecutions. Hitler persecuted the Jews and the Gypsies, America persecutes the Negroes. And in England, I’m sorry to say, they still persecute our people. Whereas our people could be an asset to them. We could pay our rates and our taxes if you give us a camping place, give the children a chance to be educated, but no. You just treat us as scum.’
A powerful train went rattling by the other side of the wall, shaking Prince Gypsy Petulengro Lee’s varda.
The Prince went into his varda and busied himself with making a cup of tea. When he returned he said, ‘So now I will tell you how, when I became a father, the same thing happened to me and I lost me chavvies just as me father had done.
‘It began with a dream. We were at Bethminster. And we had been hounded all the way from Severn Bridge. We were dead tired. And I had a dream. I dreamed that I was driving me caravan along a main road, looking for a camping site. I was just entering a little village when there was a terrible accident and suddenly there was blood everywhere. I had this dream at five in the morning. I was so alarmed that I went and woke my wife and told her about it.
‘I said, “I’ve had this dreadful thought of a girl with Technicolour hair and silver spurs and a golden jacket, and she’s in a pile of blood.” And she was terrified that it might fortell a disaster for one of our own chavvies.
‘A few days later, the terrible dream came true. We were just entering a village when a fifteen-year-old Gorjio girl riding a chestnut grai came on to the road in front of me suddenly.
‘She had beautiful black hair hanging down in ringlets, and she wore a black velvet cap and a bright red riding habit with silver buttons, riding boots and jodphurs. The pony reared. I swerved the trailer to the right and slammed on the brakes. The girl tried to quieten the pony but it became wilder. Then it bucked, and threw the girl on to the ground.
‘I was just getting out of my seat to go to her help when the caravan was hit a great bump from behind. The lorry behind had been unable to stop in time and it had pushed me over the body of the girl as she lay there.
‘I went to the back of the lorry and I saw the girl crushed beneath the rear wheel of the lorry in a pool of blood, and the other lorry with its engine driven right into the back of my caravan.
‘It was a drunken man who was driving that lorry. He said he’d been unable to stop because he had a floating load of twenty ton.
‘And he went and rung up for his boss to come down in a big car. He said, “Everything all right?” “Yes, everything under control, governor.” So they brought in a case of accidental death.
‘Well, after that they had it in for me, you see. And some days after, they kidnapped the chavvies. They thought: all right, the girl’s lost her life. We can’t prove who did it but we have our doubts, so we’ll take your kids, and that’s my opinion of it.
‘And after that time, things got increasingly harder for us all the time, do you see. And my wife Elsie. She was in a state of shock from the accident and in fact she gave birth to Daniel just three days afterwards.
‘The police towed us to a gravel pit in the New Forest and told us we must stay there till after the inquest.
‘We didn’t have much for food there, but I told a few fortunes, and the children picked blackberries and wild flowers to sell to the passing Gorjios. And our dog, Prince, caught a few rabbits.
‘There came the inquest; verdict, accidental death. But from then on we were persecuted because people believed I was responsible for the girl’s death.
‘And that was the start of my disasters.
‘I’d had the caravan fixed, and the bumps knocked out and trailer-bar mended from where the lorry had run into it.
‘We pulled it down into Southampton and I found a bit of waste ground there. I took my Nathan to the school but the gavvers come and told us to move along. I said, “But I can’t move now. My boy is in school.”
‘But they made me go and fetch him from school and then they made us move on to the road. So we moved off. And at the garage where we were getting some petrol the man said, “Why don’t you park over there, there’s going to be a fair there soon, why don’t you park there?”
‘So that struck me as a good idea and I pulled on to the ground that he’d said, and I took the wheels off so they couldn’t tow us away. I was hoping to earn a pound or two there for to feed the wife and chavvies, with a bit of duckering, as we now were very short with all the misfortunes we’d seen.
‘But the police still wanted to get rid of us. They took to coming round to the varda and I got so annoyed that I painted on it in foot-high letters: “THE BIRDS OF THE AIR HAVE THEIR NESTS, THE FOXES HAVE THEIR HOLES, BUT THE GYPSY AND HIS WIFE AND CHILDREN HAVE NOWHERE TO LAY THEIR HEADS. WE ARE BRITISH REFUGEES, DISPLACED PERSONS.”
‘Perhaps it was not wise to do that but I felt so chuffed.
‘And next day the gavvers got more angry. They escorted us with two police cars right out of the city and on the road to London. And at that time I can tell you we had a loaf of bread, two bottles of milk, eggs, a box of Quaker Oats, a pot of jam, and a pound of sugar. We travelled all that day, it was twelve at night when we pulled into Staines. We were all very tired and very hungry. I went across to a house where there was a light on and asked for some water. But the lady there said, “I’m not giving you water this time of night. And I’ll see you’re not here long.”
‘That was not a pleasant night. The new-born babe was sick, and we none of us got much sleep. I was up early in the morning trying to get some water for the chavvies, and I was walking up the lane to buy some food and a big black car with two lady gavvers in it passed me. And a sergeant and a policeman.
‘So I didn’t know whether to go back or go on. But I knew the chavvies were hungry so I decided to go on and get some grub although we now were so short of money that I didn’t have much to spend.
‘But I had hardly got to the shop when Madeleine, my eldest, came running up behind me and she was shouting, “Daddy, Daddy, the muskras jav chored de chavvies!” That is, “The police have stolen the children.”
‘It seems the police had got a summons for something I’d done that had been passed on by the Southampton police. And when they got to the varda they realised the kids were near starving, so they took them away, or that’s what I think happened.
‘I’ll tell you the ages the chavvies were when they were taken from me. There was little Danny, he was only six weeks old when they took him out of the missus’s arms out of the caravan at eight o’clock in the morning. Then there was Beanie (our name for Albina), she was only two years old, and there was also Lindra, she was seven year old and there was Rodney, he was five year old. And then there was Nathan, he was eleven year old, and Madeleine, she was thirteen.
‘So I went along to the police station just as fast as I could go. And I’d no sooner got inside but I heard the sound of chavvies crying, screaming, and then a policewoman with a sheaf of papers in her hand came out of the room.
‘I stood in front of her and I said, “Where are the children? I want my children.”
‘She opened the door of another room and she said, “Go and sit in there and wait. They’re upstairs, having some breakfast.”
‘I’d not been in the room for more than five minutes when I heard the sound of a car outside. I ran out quickly into the back yard of the police station and at that moment saw my children being pushed into the back of a Black Maria.
‘Then I became very tearful and very hysterical when I saw my eleven-year-old with the baby on his lap next to a policewoman, along with the others, Lindra, Rodney, and Beanie.
‘Now the wagon began to move and I made to go and throw myself in front of it but the gavvers grabbed my arm and held me back while me children were driven away.
‘Then they took me back into the station and the sergeant put his hand on my shoulder and he said, “Don’t worry, old man, you and your wife have got to appear in the children’s court at Brentford tomorrow, but it may only be temporary. You’ll probably get them back.”
‘So the next morning we got up early and we went to court and we were told to sit on some benches and then they called out, “Mr and Mrs Lee”, and we went into the court.
‘And the policewoman said that the police had been told that there was a Gypsy family on the green. They had got into the caravan and they found the children in bed and the mother with a sick baby in her arms. And that my wife had said that I had gone to look for a doctor and buy some grub. She said that the children were dirty but they looked in good health. And she went on to say that I was a good father and that I looked after my children well.
‘And the magistrate asked me had I anything to say, and I explained that we’d broken down and been towed now from one place now another from pillar to post, till we got to Staines, and I’d gone out to buy some food for the children. The magistrates put their heads together and started whispering to each other. Then the magistrate says to me, “We can see that you have no money and no prospects in the future of getting any, so therefore we’re going to take the children into temporary care till such time as you can get settled accommodation and can look after them.”
‘And then I saw red. I cursed the magistrates in Romany and I cursed them in English and I cursed the policewoman in English. I said, “You’ll regret this to your dying day. This is my curse upon you. May you never rear another child of your own as long as you live.”
‘At that a policeman grabbed me by the arm and showed me out of the court. And my wife followed. They gave us some forms to sign and they said that they were for us to say that we would be prepared to pay 2/10d each week for the children while they were in care. But I upped and shouted, “I’ll be damned if I’ll pay. You’ve kidnapped my kids and now you can bloody well support them.”
‘At that I ran down from the court to a room underneath where I found the children and a birthday cake with six candles on it. And when the children saw me they shouted, “Daddy, Daddy, take us home, Daddy!”
‘I threw my arms around Lindra and she threw her arms around me. I wanted to seize her and take her home with me. But the policewoman grabbed hold of my little girl and the two policemen grabbed hold of me and that was that.
‘And now I’m a very lonely man since I’ve lost me chavvies, and I go to bed on many a night with an ache in my heart and a tear in my eye, especially after I’ve had a day duckering in the market when I’ve seen happy families and Mummies and Daddies with their little chavvies. To get my chavvies back, that’s all I live for, and then I’ll be a happy man before I die. For now I’ve nothing to live for, me life is empty. They’ve took me kids and me soul and me spirit. I loved them, I loved me chavvies and therefore they’ve hurt me very much. Children which is part of me spirit, part of me blood, they’ve put me children in prison, children that were free and happy, and these are sad days for me. There was a time when folks believed that Gypsies used to steal children. That’s the way they said it was, but the truth is, Gypsies have to be protected from the Gorjios who take their chavvies away.
‘So then I put a curse on this whole country and the curse has worked. Britain has indeed gone to the dogs, everything’s inflation, there have been strikes, money has lost its value and things have gone from bad to worse. There’s been disasters on the rails, disasters in the air, disasters on the sea.
‘Yes, I had had a lovely wife at that time and a lovely life and six little chavvies. But the time came they were taken from me as I had been taken from me Mum and Dad. They were put away till the time we got a house. Well, I got a house, but there was no bath in it, no toilet, that was in the yard, and that was their excuse that I couldn’t have them back and since I’ve been in London I’ve got me name down on the list and I’ve found a tidy number of houses, and they said the authorities would see that I got a house. “You get your chavvies back with you and you can have a house.” Then I went to the people who had the chavvies in care, and they said, “Get the house and you can have the chavvies.”
‘So after that it was a tug of war between the two, and the house people said I’d got to have the chavvies, and the chavvy people said I’d got to have the house, and meanwhile my chavvies have been brought up as Gorjios, been brainwashed, they don’t know a bit of Romany, they can’t rokra Romany, and they’ve been exploited. They brainwashed my boy, especially.
‘And when they took the chavvies, my wife was very very distressed. She was so distressed she had to go to a mental institution. Because when a bird loses its young, when a cat loses its kittens, such animals go berserk.
‘And now she’s living in Aldgate Street, living in shop doorways and getting a shilling or two wherever she can, anywhere. Recently she’s got a job working in a clothing factory for twelve shillings a day, cleaning, and they call it temporary work. They pay twelve bob a day and they make it up to a pound on the Friday. She doesn’t work on a Saturday. She spends most of what she gets on the children. She’s suffering from malnutrition and she’s almost finished. Well, that’s what they have done to us. They’ve come near to destroying her. They have accomplished what they set out to do. So can you wonder why I, myself, is very bitter?
‘I fought in Nazi Germany, I fought for this country against the Germans, but I don’t think the Germans as they are now would do such a thing, or the Russians would do such a thing. There is an old saying, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and often I dream of revenge. I’m not a vicious, vindictive man but what would you do if they walked into your home and kidnapped your children and took them off you?
‘Well, in my opinion, they’ll be punished. I have put curses on many of them. I’ve seen two or three go under already: a judge, a solicitor, and one or two others that’s done bad things to me.
‘And the story of violence didn’t stop there.
‘Because now she hadn’t got the children, my wife became very distressed.
‘And one day, when I was coming back to my varda a little early, I found her having intercourse with an Indian. I was deeply shocked but I think it was because she was so unbalanced by what had occurred.
‘I went a bit berserk, and I don’t know really what I did. But I had some petrol with me that I was going to use to put in a man’s lorry who was going to tow my varda for me.
‘And with me striking her, suddenly the Tilley lamp burst into flames and this caught the trailer and in a moment it was all on fire.
‘And she was screaming to get out, I pulled her out through the caravan window, but I pulled her on to a pile of milk bottles and they broke and this harmed her so that now she was cut as well as scorched and scarred. And they said later that I’d hit her on the head with a piece of wood. That wood I’d been using that day to chop a sheep’s head off with a knife and the bloodstains on it were the bloodstains of the sheep’s head.
‘And the police came, and they said, “Now we’ll see you go down for a long, long time.”
‘And I collapsed and I was taken to hospital.
‘And of course the detectives magnified it. They had three or four charges against me.
‘First they said they were going to charge me with arson, that I was deliberately trying to set me wagon afire. But why should I do that since it wasn’t insured; it was the only hope I had since the bus that I also lived in was now broken down through the accident.
‘I woke up in a hospital bed. They dragged me out with the hair of me head and out of me bed and they took me to court, they said, “Sign this paper, you won’t have anything to worry about.” I said, “I’m signing nothing and I’m doing nothing.”
‘And they brought the Tilley lamp, they brought every bit of evidence they could find and he blackened me, the detective blackened me, he said, ‘We’re going to send you down for a long, long time.” They were true to their word, they sent me down for six years.
‘When he gave me the sentence, the Justice asked me, “Have you got anything to say?”
‘I says, “Yes, your Worship. Before this sentence is expired you’ll be dead and buried with your shoes on.”
‘And he died a month to the very day on holiday in Switzerland.
‘Many people suffered for the sentence that I was given for this passionate crime. And not only them.
‘God works in mysterious ways, if there is a God.
‘Of course, my wife had her excuses. She told me she’d done it to get money so she could have the children back. But I don’t think that was the reason. I think she done it because she was deranged.
‘And so I done my time after these series of disasters. I’d been given six years, but I was let out after four because of my good conduct. I came out of prison with nothing and now I’ve got a couple of thousand in the bank because the world of fortune-telling is getting fashionable now. I’ve got money in the bank and all I want now is a home for my chavvies, where we can be together.
‘I’m saving up, I’m still saving up, till we can get a house where we can be together. It has to be a house now because they’ve been brought up as Gorjios, now they need to live as Gorjios. Until the summertime come and we go out in the varda.
‘That’s what I’m working for all the time. That’s what I’m saving up for.
‘I’m often an unhappy man still. When I see people at Christmas-time, shopping, I get choked off to think of my kids fastened up in that Home. Me and the wife went up there at the back end of March, at the time of the little boy’s birthday, took him some toys; and we caused him to come out of school, and he says, “Mammy, Mammy, I can’t stop, can’t stop, I’ll get into trouble, I must run back into school.” I’ve never seen a child so frightened in my life. We asked to see the superintendent of this Home.
‘We had a row. And the upshot was, he barred me from going to see the kids alone. And he took me to the Children’s Welfare Officer and I had to sit there with a man present all the time that I was talking to my kids.
‘Why don’t they let me have my kids? It costs so much to keep them in care. Whereas they could in the first case have given us a house. It’s costing ten thousand pounds a year to keep these kids in care. It’s costing you Gorjios all that money and has done since 1961, that’s £100,000. All you ever had to do was give us a house.’
I asked Prince Petulengro Lee to speak in more general terms about being a Gypsy. He said, ‘There’s a very big distinction entirely between what the Gypsy wants out of life and what the Gorjio wants out of life. You see, the Gorjios are trying to mould our people into their way of life. And we’re rebellious against it. They won’t let us hatch in the places we used to, and they won’t give us a house.
‘I’d like to have a house. I’d like to have a house so I can send me chavvies to school during the winter months. I’d like to have a house for that. But I’d be away in the varda as soon as the blossom comes, and the thrush begins to sing, then I’d be back again on the open road.
‘That would be cushti, real cushti, because it’s got to be in Rome do as Rome does, and it’s very difficult in the country to get a living. So you have to live in a town and in winter have a house in a town. In the town, in the city, the girls can peg their wares, the artificial flowers they make, do a bit of duckering with the cards for the Gorjio women, and the men could do a bit of tarmacking or a bit of scrap dealing or anything where they could made an honest pound or two. That’s why it’s useful to have a house for a base in a town. But a Traveller must be on the road.
‘These local authority sites that they’ve built, they’ve built sixty such sites so far, but they’re not very good because they’re only for a chosen few, and there’s not more than say a dozen vardas allowed on any site. They have a licence for so many and no more, and when a Gypsy gets a place on one of these sites, he holds on to it because he knows how hard it is to get a hatchintan anywhere.
‘Here, for instance, where I am now, it’s impossible to get a place on a site. There’s the Wormwood Scrubs fairground and they’re fencing it in but they’re fencing it in to make a site not for the Romany Travellers, they’re making it for the Gorjios that come over from abroad for a holiday. And my idea is, you see, that that will be coming to an end in September or October, and it’ll be empty in the winter, so why not get the council to let it off to our people? So that our people can hatch there through the winter and fall away in the spring when the birds begin to sing and the blossom comes out on the trees. And then, as the Romanies move out, the tourists can move in and put up their little tents.
‘In the olden days the Romanies could hatch up a cul-de-sac or a lane, but you see the public health has made certain Acts that there must be toilets and running water, for health reasons.
‘And take it from me, you never see any Romany chavvy going into hospital with any smallpox or chickenpox which the Gorjio chavvies pick up. I’ve never seen the little Romany chavvies with lice in their hair and nits and all that kind of thing because the Gypsy believes that cleanliness is next to Godliness.
‘You may think that, in this urban place, there are not many Gypsies around here. But, actually, there are Travellers everywhere. I need a tan for a start. As you see, I’m actually near the railway, next to the gasworks, and it’s becoming obsolete very shortly, this place where I am, and they’re pulling the gasometers down here, so I’ll need a place. And there are quite a number of Travellers round here, but mainly in houses.
‘And out there on the Scrubs there’s about twenty acres. What are they going to use them for? I’ve been here two-and-a-half years but it isn’t ideal. We’re right against the railway and until recently it was alive with rats. Of course now my Alsatian jukels keep them down, but I need to be here because of the market; it’s handy for the Portobello Market where I can dump my duckering tan. I’ve got a hatchintan at this market where I put my little motor caravan and I can do business with the Gorjios and they simply love it, and of course it means that if I were to go somewhere else I’ll have to start all over again and work up another business. And it’s dispiriting to contemplate that because I’d probably be only there a few weeks before being moved on again. And Gorjios are not called on to move their homes from their jobs. So why should Gypsies be?
‘There are a few other Gypsies in this area. There are one or two settled in caers and sold their wagons, but then it’s probable they’d like to be back on the road.’
‘There are various types of Gypsy. There’s the true-blooded Romany Chal, the blackberry Gypsy. And there’s the Tinker, which is from Ireland. And then there’s the Didecoi, which is very rare, a Tinker girl marrying a Romany Chal, and you get the Pikie which are Tinker and Romany mixed blood.*
‘I myself am a true Romany Chal. I rocker the Romany language fluently, I abide by the Gypsy laws and traditions, I live up to them, although I’ve been tried to be made a slave to convention with the Gorjios, it is very difficult sometimes.
‘My mother was a true Romany rackley and my father was an Españolo Gitano. My Mum was a cushti duckerer and her great grandmother was burned as a witch.
‘And me, like them, I’ve always, always made my living by duckering.
‘My uncle was Petulengro who was famous for his duckering. So any duckerer that has Petulengro blood, he makes the most of it.
‘Some display their birth certificate. But when I was a boy, there was no such thing as a Romany Chal having a birth certificate because our birth certificate was carved on a tree. My birth certificate is on an oak tree somewhere in Spain.
‘So sometimes it is very difficult for my people when they become slaves to environment, hatching in the city: “What’s your child’s name? Where’s his birth certificate?” says the law and the health inspectors … you can’t produce the bloody oak tree, you see.
‘Duckering hasn’t changed much. In the olden days it was the country girls and the country boys but now you get the coloured people that’s very superstitious, the Irish people, and they go to any means and any end to see a good duckerer or palm reader time and time again.
‘For instance, myself, I’ve told ‘em many a time how many chavvies they have, how old they are, what sex they are. I’ve told ‘em in a roundabout way about deaths I foresee – like death on a motor-bike, for instance. But you mustn’t tell them straight.
‘You can’t learn to be a duckerer. It’s bred in you. It’s handed down from father to son or mother to son and it runs in the family. People have been amazed when I’ve told them that they’re married and have got two chavvies and I tell them how old the chavvies are, and what sex they are.
‘And they say, “Someone’s been telling you about me.” But nobody’s been telling me about them because it’s only the first day, it’s the first day that I’ve pulled into that fair.
‘So they come back a week or so later and say, “So and so became of what you told me, and I’m so impressed that I’d like to have the cards now.” And I use the Tarot cards, the old fortune-Tarot cards, belonging to me Granny, and then I use my television that is about five hundred years old – that’s what I call my crystal ball.
‘I first learned about duckering when I used to sit under the table while me Granny was duckering to the Gorjios, and I used to listen, this was in the tent in the summer and the varda in the winter.
‘When a person has their horoscope made by a Gypsy, they must give a date and time and place where they were born. But some of these newspapers, they give everyone born under Capricorn the same horoscope, which is wrong. Because they don’t understand how astrology was invented. It was invented by three wise men. Two were shepherds and one was a Romany Chal. That’s why Gypsies have always been so important in the world of duckering.
‘And people have followed that Chal since then, and in the olden days they used to say: Cross the Gypsy Chal’s palm with gold and he’d look into the future. As a matter of fact my Mum had two little parakeets in a cage on a brush pole and a little door to the bottom. She wrote up the horoscopes herself with a pen and stuck ‘em in a drawer and she put a little parakeet out on a little perch and just by the flick of a finger she’d tell the parakeet which drawer to open and the parakeet would take out a little card with the person’s horoscope written on it and then she would ducker the vass, that is, read the hand. People would play tricks on her; for instance, women would swap rings to see if she could tell you whether they were married or not, they were amazed when my mother told them that they should be wearing the wedding ring and how many years they’d been married and how many chavvies they’d got.
‘My mother would say at the end of the duckering, “Do you love your husband?”
‘”Oh yes, I do.”
‘”You don’t want to lose him, do you?”
‘”Well, put yer ring back on yer hand, missus, because that was put on for better or worse, till death do you part, and you’ve not died yet.”
‘So the woman got frashed to death, she said, “Oh we only did it for a bit of fun, Mrs Lee, to see if we could catch you out.”
‘So my mother says, “You wouldn’t do that in the confession box, would you, to catch out the priest? So don’t do it to me.”
‘When a woman comes to be duckered, it’s very confidential, it’s like a person going to see a solicitor, or to the Citizens’Advice. And my Mammy and myself have made many, many a person happy, and have got many people together that’s been parted and mended broken marriages.
‘Duckering is as old as the hills because when they opened the Pyramids they found slabs of marble with the impress of the hand on, before BC. And it is now a recognised science. I mean I’ve been nicked many a time, I’ve been fined forty pounds, fifty pounds, sixty pounds, in years gone by; I was fined sixty pounds in Manchester and I was fined fifty pounds at Blackpool; two lady police came in plain clothes at Blackpool and one behind the curtain was writing down everything I was telling her friend and she said, “We’re here because you’re breaking the law because there’s an old Act of 1864 that it is an offence to deceive Her Majesty’s subjects.” But I explained to the court that people come to me of their own free will, like they go to a solicitor. I never dragged them in and said, “Would you like to come in and have your fortune told?”
‘Anyway, as far as I was concerned I wasn’t deceiving them. I was telling them the truth. And it was their money that they were spending, nobody else’s money.
‘Actually I believe they’re not prosecuting under that law any more. Because if they did they’d have to prosecute the newspaper astrologers and all the large number of people who are now duckering at every seaside, they’d have to pull in thousands of palmists and astrologers on every fairground, at every seaside in the British Isles and in the United Kingdom.
‘Duckering is not just a profession, it is a way of life. The first time that I duckered was like this: I got kicked with a grai when I was twelve years old, and when I come into the hospital in good old Manchester the nurses all made a fuss of me because I was a Gypsy, something unusual, and they said, “Can you tell fortunes?” And I told one or two for the nurses and they were very pleased. That was the first time. Later, when I was put into the Children’s Home in Liverpool, I spoke my first curse.
‘I used to rob the orchard when I was hungry, and other naughty things, and when it came for the day’s outing to Southport in the wagonette (there were no charabancs in them days, four horses and a wagon it was from Liverpool to Southport), and my name was called out, there were so many bad marks against my name, that I was barred from going to Southport. So I shouted, “It’ll rain, it’ll rain, you’ll be sorry you ever went,” and as soon as they got in the charabanc it started to rain at nine o’clock in the morning and didn’t finish till eight o’clock that night. And when they got back they were very angry. The boys formed up in two ranks and I had to pass between them, and I was kicked and punched till I was black and blue all over and they said, “That’s for putting a curse on us and being in league with the devil.” That was the first time I did a curse.’
‘All through the ages there have been people who have been cursed, you see. I mean, for example, Cain was cursed. I also have this power. People sometimes have asked me, is it right to curse people? To which I reply, is it right that a man should shoot another man that he’s never seen in his life when there’s a war on? So that’s my weapon, my reply. I do put spells on people. People come to me and say, “Gypsy Lee, I’d like a baby boy.” Then I’ve made a love charm and they’d have a baby boy, and that’s why people have got faith in me.
‘Cursing is the Gypsies’ defence, similar to the defence of the porcupine which puts out its spikes to defend itself; but I would never do a bad curse unless I’m driven to it.
‘Once I was up at Herne Bay, working on the pier for the season, working for the Council fifty-fifty. Then the season ended and I drew my motor caravan and trailer to Norwich market where there was going to be a fair at Christmas. We’d settled the caravans down and there was a knock at the door late at night and the superintendent of the fair and a sergeant and a couple of cops came and they said, “Come on, get this thing out of here, the fair’s coming in.”
‘I said, “Look, I’m a travelling showman too, I’ll pay for a pitch, please let me stay. I’ve five kids to feed and I’ll pay you the same as the other people’s paying.”
‘”If you’re not off by twelve o’clock tomorrow we’ll have tractors to tow you off.”
‘I said, “If you put tractors to tow me off, I’ll put a curse on the fair because the fair is out on the cattle-market and there’ll be no fair and there’ll be no cattle sold on the market.”
‘So they laughed at me.
‘So, I sent my little boy to the slaughter-house, he bought a pig’s head and a sheep’s head, a pig’s foot and a sheep’s foot and a cow’s head, we got some cosh and made a little pile of fire in the middle of the market.
‘And it came to pass that I said certain things when the full moon was out and put a cockerel and some blood on the fire and as sure as God’s above, foot and mouth disease broke out next day and spread all over Norfolk and true to me curse no cattle was sold for three months.
‘Then we travelled on to King’s Lynn and at two o’clock in the morning when the chavvies were in bed they brought a tractor. The tractor towed us two mile out, towed us two mile outside the town into a lay-by. Well, I got out the wagon, and fluffed out me long hair and beard, I was fed up at that, and I cursed them. And I went and got a water can and I hammered it full of holes, filled it full of water and I made a curse that the town would be flooded for fourteen days and nights and they’d have to take refuge in the bedrooms with a ladder, and it happened.
‘It’s some kind of gift, you see. Gypsy duckerers don’t believe, like you Gorjios do, that you’ve got only a good spirit. We believe everybody’s got an evil spirit and a good spirit. If a person commits evil, commits murder, we believe that the evil spirit provokes them to do that. And if a man commits a good, the good spirit provokes him to do that good. That’s what we believe. It’s in our own mind, we’re not taught it like you’re taught about heaven and all this thing about religion.
‘And of course we believe in certain things what’s in our minds, you see. Everybody’s spirit’s in the mind and you have the actions controlled by your spirit and that’s why your Romany Chal isn’t frightened to die, because we believe that this life we’re living is a dream and that the real life starts when we’re dead, when the spirit leaves the body.
‘Strange to say, I have been dead so I know what I’m talking about. You’ve first got to experience a thing before you can discuss it. When I was in Tangiers, in Mr Brabazon’s orange grove, I pitched my tent. This Arab was there and I’d seen his shadow on my tent at one o’clock in the morning, this crouching figure, and I’d seen a brown hand coming looking for my wallet, so I just picked up a chopper which I kept lying beside me. I took one blow and I chopped his fingers off. There was the hell of a scream, he ripped the tent open and came staggering in and drove a knife right into my stomach and embowelled me and I’m blessed if I didn’t have to hold me hand over it all the way to hospital. And I was on a table there.
‘The doctor was giving me the kiss of life, and he told me later that I had the heart of a lion, otherwise I would not have survived, for I’d been dead for five minutes.
‘I told a priest of my experience, and he said, “Promise me you won’t breathe a word to anybody.”
‘I said, “Look Father, I’ve been over the border. All my ancestors were waiting, pulling my spirit towards them, and I came back.”
‘He said, “Don’t tell anyone about this.”
‘I can tell you about death. Death was like a dream. I thought it was a dream. You get people dreaming in black and white and some dream in Technicolor. The one who dreams in Technicolor is psychic, and also dies in Technicolor. When I died it was as if I dreamed - beautiful flowers, beautiful trees, beautiful girls in different coloured dresses.
‘Gypsies don’t like anything dull or drab, even in death. At a Romany funeral, for instance, there is singing and dancing and the corpse is laid into a coffin; like me Granny was, put into an oak tree lined with fern, laid to rest in a bright coloured frock with an ounce of baccy and a pipe in one hand and a box of matches and a box of snuff in the other. These things are to see her on her way.
‘We think death should be the same as a wedding. It’s a great thing. You go into a new experience, a new life. Why should people wear black? I said to my father one day, I remember I was a chavvy, I was only about seven year old, I’d seen about six coaches and lovely black horses with plumage, prancing up with these people crying in the carriage, and in front was a coffin and a glass hearse full of flowers and wreaths, so I said to me Daddy, “Daddy, what is them people crying for?”
‘”Look my son,” he said, “in that box they put a sister or a brother, and they’re crying because they can’t get up and smell the flowers that’s around them. They send them flowers when they’re dead, but they don’t send them flowers when they’re alive. The only flowers that I’d like when I die in cauliflowers, I can eat them. They don’t believe in having happy funerals like we do.”
‘We Gypsies believe that the Earth’s been polluted with the exhaust and the oils of motor cars. And, you know how they can inflate a balloon and send it up into the sky, and it’ll go up and up, well, this world we’re living in is like a gas balloon. I’ve heard me Mammy talk about it.
‘It’s all gas in the middle of this Earth, like the gas inside a balloon. They’re sucking the life blood out of this Earth, and my Mammy said, “If you keep on doing it, by 1985 or 1990 this world will have nothing to keep us in orbit. It’ll drop like a falling star, because they’re pumping all the gas out of the Earth and using it. What do you think keeps this world afloat in space? It’s simply like a balloon and I’m forecasting this will happen. The Earth will fall.”
‘You know, I can see the day not far off when you can go to a telephone kiosk and put a fifty pence piece in and you’ll see on the screen the person you’re talking to.
‘And I can see that this plane, known as the Concorde, in five years will be obsolete, because if the Americans are building rockets to go to the moon in a few hours, they will also be able to build a rocket plane which will get you to America in five or ten minutes.
‘And then they’ll have motor cars on the road that fold their wings like a fly does and open their wings again and take off. People will get into this car and go to the Isle of Man or anywhere in this motor car. This is the premonitions I get.
‘My Granny before she died she said, “My son,” she says, “I won’t live to see it, but you’ll live to see men with wings flying amongst the birds in the sky, you’ll see men living amongst the fishes, you’ll see iron horses running on rails, horseless carriages without horses on the roads and men will talk to each other thousands of miles away and see each other thousands of miles away, and they’ll land on the moon, and they won’t be satisfied with that, they’ll want to go further out and they’ll find other planets.”
‘I can foresee a certain day, it could be around the year 2000, there’ll be one house only left in London, and in that house there’ll be a little nine-year-old girl and one woman. And the child will say to the woman, “Mammy, can I go out and play?” And the woman says, “But, my daughter, there’s nobody left to play, there’s no more children left. Go on out.”
‘The child goes out and she comes running back five minutes after saying, “Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, I’ve seen a man!” “No, a man?” Her mother is thrilled. Because that means that there are one man and one woman and one child left in London after the atomic bomb has dropped on it.
‘My Mammy and my Granny was great people for predicting things and it’s a kind of gift. We can’t understand it. My Granny and my Mammy and my Daddy knew the exact day and date they’d die, and I know I’ll live to be ninety, and I’ve been near to death four times, and I’m still here. I’ve seen stronger people than me go in the coffin, and I’m still here.
‘I get a lot of complaints where I am though. It’s only a blank wall at the back of these gardens as you see, but even so, I get complaints. “We pay our rates and taxes” – that sort of thing. “You’ve no right to be here.” But we Gypsies take nothing from this society.
‘I’ve been telling fortunes now, down the Portobello Market, for three years. You see, it’s a wonderful gift, duckering, and I make good use of it.
‘I’ve got a good name and make a good living. I was in Dunkirk, but I get no army pension, I get no old age pension. I give the government nothing and I ask them for nothing, that’s the true Gypsy way of life.
‘You see, my son, what I make of this whole world is this: there’s a law for the rich and a law for the poor. And one half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives and couldn’t care a damn. But for one half, it’s nothing but persecution from beginning to end.
‘And I’d still like to have me children back with me, I still always dream of this. I’d give me right hand to have me children back with me, me son, me little chavvies back. At fresh of the morning and at balance of the day I think of it.
‘God grant that one day I shall see them chavvies live back here with me again.’
When I left him, Prince Petulengro returned to his upright chair and sat there in the dusk till I was out of sight. He was the only Gypsy I have ever met who lived alone.
Postscript: Prince Petulengro Lee was a lonely man when I talked to him but that loneliness was to come to an end. As a result of the publicity arising from the first publication of this book, a former girlfriend recognised him and contacted him through me. Unknown to him she had conceived and given birth to a child of his. Petulengro and his former girlfriend got married. Petulengro died in the 80s. His final days were spent in true Gypsy fashion and were not spent alone.
‘All they got is site mad now.’
Mr Tom Lee, unable to find any stopping place in London, finally parked his caravan outside the Houses of Parliament.
‘I want to raise the matter with them, the governors,’ he informed a policeman.
The policeman replied, ‘Are you aware where you are, sir?’
‘Well, yes, mush,’ said Tom. ‘That clock over there looks to me like Big Ben.’
‘Well, you can’t stay here.’
‘Who says I can’t stay here? I want to talk to the folk in there about the shortage of sites for caravans.’
Tom was eventually persuaded to park in King Charles Street, SW1.
He received a visit from Lord Sandford, Under Secretary at the Environment Ministry, but, though the situation had its bizarre side, Mr Lee was anxious that this should not blind the public to the seriousness of his mission.
‘We Gypsies have been carrying on our wandering way of life as long as the house-dwellers have,’ he said, ‘But just because there’s less of us it is unkind of them to close the verges of roads and our old stopping places to us.
‘It is essential that we are given sites and stopping places close to the centres of population where we are living our lives.
‘Most Travellers live from scrap dealing. And yet central London is very poorly represented for dealers. The Travellers find it hard to travel that far.
‘I call on the Queen or any owner of large public spaces to donate stopping places for the Gypsies.’
On another occasion, Mr Lee parked in an urban cul-de-sac. The local authority disapproved of this but, rather than mount a full scale eviction, decided on the unusual policy of fencing Mr Tom Lee in. They erected a large iron bar across the road. Mr Lee drove his lorry into it and crumpled it.
Next time they put up the same again – in triplicate. Mr Lee treated it in the same fashion.
Next, a pair of twelve-foot-high steel gates was put up across the end of the street in which the trailer of the resourceful Mr Lee was parked. He borrowed an oxy-acetylene cutter and made himself a door. When I called, the various fences and gates had been taken down and Mr Lee was being left on his own.
‘I do feel strongly,’ he says, ‘about the way Travellers have been treated in Britain. In some ways I can see things from a wider angle than other Travellers. One of the reasons is, when I was a kid myself, me brother died on the road, me sister died on the road and me mother died on the road and I’ve seen me father die on a bomb site. Well when you’ve been through that, that makes you think.
‘They died on the side of the road, in wagons. Me brother died at twenty-four from consumption, from damp and cold; me sister died of consumption at eighteen years of age, me mother at forty-five. It’s all from the same thing, dampness, wetness, rain, mud, pushing vehicles about, see what I mean?
‘And if we’re not careful, the kids will suffer the same way. Looking back on it, I suppose, if we had been in a house, I’d still have me family with me. So that’s one way of looking at it.
‘Being on the road may not be an important part of being a Traveller; but it’s what you’re used to. You can’t say it’s important, an important way of life, it’s just what you’re brought up to.
‘The majority of Travellers don’t want Government sites, they want to be left alone and travel as they’ve always done. Once the Government has set up the sites, in my opinion, the travelling way of life is finished, because you’ll be told to go on to the sites, and not be able to move about any more on the roads. And it will just collapse. The travelling life will collapse, it will become extinct.
‘I’m filled with regret about these sites. It was Gorjios getting the wrong end of the stick that were responsible, so I believe. The Government put the idea up and the Gypsy Council took it up and now it’s all got mixed up, they don’t know who’s doing it. Know what I mean? See, some want sites, some don’t want sites; as I say meself, personally, I don’t want no sites.
‘All I wanted to stop really when I became an officer of the Gypsy Council was this: to stop the aggravation of the councils and the police. Nothing about sites whatsoever. I wanted to stop the police knocking on your doors and moving you on. That’s all. Norman Dodds was on about stopping aggravation, the councils, officials, police moving you on. This was splendid. But then they moved on to the idea of providing sites. We didn’t want sites. All we wanted was to stop aggravation, people moving you from place to place. That’s all.
‘And all they got is site mad now. By building sites for us they’re giving the council a licence to move the fifty or sixty other Travellers what’s in the area, they’ll get licence to do it, because they’ll have done their part of the Parliament Act. This other sixty Travellers what’s in the area, they’ll then have the proper authority to summons them and to nick ‘em for camping unlawfully. It will be a licence, a glorified licence.
‘Already it’s been happening. Take Barking. There’s about sixty or seventy trailers round that area. Soon as Newham built a site at Temple Mills, nearby Barking had the council along the week after and nicked the others, for camping illegally on the side of the road.’
I asked Tom Lee for his views on education, but he passed this question to his wife, Margaret. ‘Gypsy children learn to speak quick, they have to learn to fight back and that’s what does it. They have to learn to think quick, and I think that if they were educated they’d be far more intelligent than lots of Gorjio children, because they’ve got that extra intelligence where they’ve learned to fight for their way of life, learned to fight for themselves and they’re quick-witted with it.
‘But the only way that they could be educated would be during the winter months, because otherwise you’d have to stay stationary.
‘I think in the winter months, Travellers like to spend more time in one place because of weather conditions, and also you can’t always find another place to stop. So any time that the Traveller was in one position for a long period, then obviously the children could have education.
‘But I don’t think a lot of the Gypsies want their children educated. The Travelling boys do scrap iron, they don’t need education. The girls grow up, they get married very young. They bring up their children, they don’t need education. I mean we’ve survived years without it, I’m sure we can survive a bit longer.
‘Travellers are not poor as a rule. Travellers in fact do quite well. The reason for this is that we don’t have to pay out so much, I suppose that’s what it is. We don’t get the chance to pay out rates or tax.
‘I think the way we’re treated is because so many people are ignorant of us. They won’t get to know us. And if only they would come to visit us and realise that we’re not bad people. They’ve got some weird ideas that we’re different to everybody else, but we’re not, we’re humans the same as they are, you know. It’s just, you know, that we are a bit dubious of some people because they take the micky out of us. Calling us “Gyppos” and things like that. That can hurt.’
The Lees were just back from the International Gypsy Festival at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.
‘The foreign Travellers,’ he said, ‘they’re a different sort of people, I mean you can’t compare the Continental Travellers to some Travellers in England. They’ve travelled England, and that’s as far as they’ve been. Scotland, Ireland and Wales, Doncaster, Lancaster, back to London – that’s the extent of the travelling of some of them. They can’t compare with Continental Travellers who travel the world.
‘Those Travellers, they roam all over the world, and they don’t care. There was music, music everywhere, everywhere guitars and lots of gaiety. I’m not comparing them with some Travellers in this country.’
‘Would you like to live in a house?’
‘No. When you’ve been in wagons for years and trailers for years, being in a house is like being in a prison cell. And that’s why when you get a Traveller in a cell in prison he can’t hold himself together, don’t know what it’s all about.
‘Then again, as regards living in a house, it depends on the neighbours; you might get in a house and you might get good neighbours either side of you, then again you might get some that resent you. There is a lot of Travellers down the houses that later have come out of ‘em. There’s Benny Webb, he come out; he come out, Harry Smith’s come out.’
‘What was it made them come back on the road?’
‘There’s plenty of answers to that question. Often it is Travellers who have got plenty of money. They return to the road, not because it’s cheaper, but because they’ve had enough of houses and feel more freer. But for others, it could be cheaper for ‘em. Some people come out because it’s cheaper for ‘em to be on the road. Not because they like that sort of life, you can’t go by that. Not necessarily.’
Margaret writes poetry. Here is a poem of hers.
When God made the Gypsies
He said that they should roam,
There would be no need for houses,
For the world would be our home.
He would give us the grass so green,
He would give us the sky so blue,
He would give us the evening sunset,
He would give us the morning dew.
He would give us a lot of laughter,
But he would also give us pain,
For every time the sun shines,
There must always be the rain.
The Gorjios may never love us,
As long as we are in this land,
But of one thing I am certain,
God will always hold our hand.
And so I say to you my friends
No matter where you roam,
God will keep his promise,
We will always have a home.
A year or so after this Tom Lee’s involvement with Gypsy rights took a step further when he became General Secretary of the Romany Guild, a new organisation based on the Folly Lane local authority site at Walthamstow.
‘A Gypsy can see into the future.’
One of the new local authority sites, very tidy. The toilets are all in one block and each Traveller family has a key to a particular toilet. High breasts of grass-covered slag-heaps overlook the entrance to the site.
On this site lives Mrs Geraldine Price.
Geraldine is blonde, in her forties, with a serene and gentle smile. The interior of her caravan is spotless.
‘I’ve never met a ghost but I’ve seen – I’ve seen many things. If ever I’ve got trouble coming, I get warned, I gets warned by one of them what’s dead. This is the truth.
‘There’s been a ghost come to me when me mother or me father or one of me relations was gone and they’ve warned me. Comes to me in a vision or a dream and I know about these things and I know there’s another world. I know this ‘cos I’ve seed good from bad, I’ve seed it when my mother was dying. I’ve seed a vision of God upon the wall. His cross. This is true.
‘A Gypsy can see into the future. A Gypsy feels these things, and they know. I know. I know when there’s going to be trouble amongst my family, or anyone’s going to be ill – I know. I get the feeling of it. I get these feelings, what’s going to happen. No matter how far they’re away. If they’re taken ill I know about it.’
‘Do you believe that the Traveller’s curse can be effective?’
‘Yes. It can.’
‘Can you tell me an example of that?’
‘... I don’t know, you know what I mean.’
‘You mean, you’d rather not say?’
‘It’s things like this you can’t ...’
‘You can’t speak of?’
‘You can’t. You get people involved in things ... and sometimes if I say a word it comes to pass.’
‘... So you have to be careful what you say then?’
‘I have to be careful. If I do say something, something like ... something bad ... or something like that, then that sort of thing could come to pass. It could come. It come.’
‘How much do you pay for this site?’
‘Three pound fifty a week.’
‘What do you get for this?’
‘Oh, we get a toilet, a dustbin and a slab to stand the caravan on. In between the slabs there’s a lot of slack dirt. As you see, all round the site there’s wire netting and barbed wire. And the other side used to be the fairground, but now it’s closed, where all the Travellers used to stop on that all the winter through. I don’t know why they’ve closed it up but they’ve closed it up. There’s been no fair on there this year at all, last year was the last time the fair was on it. And then it was only a small fair.’
‘Are you allowed to keep pets, animals?’
‘We’re allowed to keep pets but no horses, there’s no room for ‘em. We’re allowed to keep dogs, yes.’
‘Are you allowed to have a fire?’
‘No, we can’t have a fire outside like we’d like to.’
‘Can you keep any scrap?’
‘No. We can’t have scrap, but they’ve promised us a little bit of land in time, but it’ll mean more rent. At the moment there’s no place for scrap.
‘They’ve promised that later on they’ll do a little bit at a time. Over there there’s going to be a washhouse and a shower. And all those trailers at the top are fixed up with electricity.’
‘Who collects the rent?’
‘He’s a rent agent.’
‘Is there a warden here?’
‘Yes. He’s a Gypsy.’
‘And what’s his job?’
‘If anybody was coming on he’s meant to fill a form in and get it to the council, or if there’s one going he’s to report it to the council.’
‘Do you like it here? Or would you like to have the old days back?’
‘I’d love it to go back like it used to be. I’d love to see places where a person could pull on and pay a week’s rent. If there was a place in every town or two places in every town, you can go and pay a week’s rent if you wanted to and pull off somewhere else when you wanted to, when you got sick. That’s what I’d like to see. More like the old days. You know, because there’s a lot of people goes tarmacking and to do that they must have somewhere to keep their equipment and on these sites they can’t keep their equipment so there’s no more living for them. Well, I say if it was back like it used to be you could have a few weeks here and a few weeks there, you know, and if you pull on a farm and you give a few shillings he could put your horses in and you’d have no trouble then, when you’re settled down in the country hop-picking, pea-picking, plum-picking, and it was lovely. All the Travellers used to get together , you know. I think they was lovely days ‘cos you find no Traveller wants to be tied down.
‘You have to fill in a form to go from here to somewhere else. Well I call that ‘striction. And there’s a lot of Travellers don’t want ‘striction. All that ‘stricktion’s no good. You got to let a person live their own life. Not too much interference.’
‘A Mumpley, he understands nothing. He’s ignorant to it.’
Jim Riley lives with his wife and family in a trailer caravan in Shropshire and neighbouring counties. We’ve been told he’s parked in a deserted Air Force camp on the outskirts of Bridgnorth. This must once have been a vast camp housing thousands of troops. Now, rank grass grows up; there are the foundations of scattered huts and the occasional remains of brick buildings, the camp cinema and the NAAFI, sticking up like rotten teeth.
No Travellers here.
We continue, and after ten minutes’ more driving arrive at the grass verge of a little lane off the main road. A Traveller’s varda is drawn up here.
‘Have you seen Jim Riley?’
The Traveller says, ‘I haven’t seen him but I know where he is.’
He tells us how to get to the location, just off the Ledbury Road outside Hereford; he wouldn’t have told me if I were alone but he does tell me because I’m with Phillip Donnellan, a man he knows and trusts. So we drive on to the farm, wondering at that bush telegraph which enables Travellers, wherever they may be, to let each other know where they are.
At the farm there is a wide field stretching away. At the end of it ten caravans are drawn up neatly in front of a long hedge; a dog lies tethered near to the first caravan. There is a little green square tent with a pointed top, and hanging fringed edges to its roof. The sun is shining bland across the bright green grass. Some Travellers are eating mushrooms that are boiling over the fire in a vast iron pot.
Jim is a fine-looking man in his thirties, with the easy dignity of one of nature’s gentlemen. He is wearing a dark suit and a trilby hat. His wife, Carol, is beautiful.
‘The lorry is respected now more than the horse. When I was a single fellow I used to have quite a few horses around me, not a big lot, say three or four, but very high-class stuff, so I could always say, “Well I’ll sell that cob there for sixty or seventy quid.” But I can name you quite a lot of these blokes who are rich today and had nowhere near the horseflesh I had, and now today they are rich. And these same blokes they won’t stop to talk to you today; but when I had horses many of them used to come to me and they’d try to get a horse off me, you know, try to rob me of a deal when they had nothing. Well, today they’re up in the air and I’m still the same way, in the same position. They won’t entertain me now.
‘And I’m still gone on horses. I’m very fond of them still. Me heart is in a horse. I love to see horses. Not riding stuff, I like to see working horses. If I see an old working cob, I try me best to buy him but I’ve never succeeded in quite a long time. I do love horses and mostly I do love breaking them in. I give an extra five pounds for one horse unbroken, you know, one real wild horse that’s never saw a bloke, I don’t believe, two or three times, some ones that never saw a road, a hard road, never saw a motor, that’s my type, that’s what I like. It’s my hobby to break them in. I love the fun you know of flagging it out and then getting it to work, you know, to let it know who’s boss. I should like to have a job at that; but my kind of breaking-in would be no good for these riders. You see I break working stuff in. I take a day or so, but these riding stuff folks they aim to take two or three months. Well, one riding bloke I talked to, he was breaking it in in three months; I could have broken it in in a couple of hours.
‘I am sorry in a way that I left the horses, but in another way, all our blokes they’ve all got motor-cars and you know it sort of puts one out if one’s only got a horse. It seems to make out like, you know, he’s got bugger-all and he knows bugger-all: he hasn’t got the knowledge to run a vehicle. I wouldn’t mind going back to horses but still I should still keep a small vehicle.
‘In the old days a bloke would be doing a bit of shoeing his pony before he went. And if he went out and got himself a bag of rags and an old mangle he was quite satisfied; get himself a quid or thirty shillings and he was quite comfortable.
‘But now the Gypsies want more.’
‘We’re not Gypsies, you see. We are not a Gypsy, not as you know us as Gypsies. We are Romanies, what they call Romany Travellers. You see, the Gypsies originated from India, they come over from India. Like that is our right great ancestors, right back, you see. They come over and we’re what they call the new population of the Gypsies. But by law we’re British and we’re born and bred in England. And we’ve took the life up from our people before us. We’re true Romany Travellers, you see. Well there’s the lad now come here today. He come here last night, if you remember, he’s what you call a Mumpley Traveller. He’s not what you’d call true-blooded Traveller, he’s half and half.
‘I can name you eight or nine different sorts of the different sorts of Traveller.
‘A Mumpley, he understands nothing. He’s ignorant to it. He hasn’t got the knowledge to go out and do a day’s work or to do a job of work; that’s what they call a Mumpley.
‘A Hedgecrawler, that is what we call a tramp Gypsy. He’s too idle to wash himself. All that he wants is a fire, to lay around a fire, to eat and drink and smoke; that’s what they call a Hedgecrawler.
‘An old Didecoi, that there is a true travelling bloke. He can turn his hand to anything. I do believe there’s not a job on the face of the sun that I couldn’t do, I’d have a try; I’ve done quite a few jobs in my time. I am a Didecoi.
‘They’re trying to make us sites now, but there’s a disadvantage to this. They only want us to go on there and stop there permanently and then they only want on the site a certain amount of us. Well, say now if me mother now is coming here tomorrow. Well if I went on that camping site and they only wanted a certain amount, say there was only me allowed on, you see me mother wouldn’t be able to come on where I was. We wants a site where anybody can come on. We’d like an open site free to go, free to come and go when we like, come when we like, and as many as we like.
‘Travellers keep in contact by meeting each other. When we meet each other, it’s like a telegram from each one to each.
‘It’s like that bloke I met in Leominster today, Denis Smith. I had a chat with him. He asked me where was me mother-in-law staying; I told him. And he told me where such and such a person was; if I wanted to go out, I should just get in the wagon and drive straight to them. We always meet someone and every day we hear fresh. A bloke was here last night who told us all about his brothers and his uncles, what fresh things they’d got. That’s the way it goes from one to another.
‘When we had horse wagons we used to leave signals. That were when somebody were coming on behind us and he didn’t know the road. But you see now when you’ve got a motor-vehicle, no sooner than a minute and you’ve gone out of sight. The signals we used to always lay would be a clod of grass or a clod of dirt. If we were going to go on to such a place, well we’d put two clods; if we were turning to the left, we’d put three clods. Say if we wasn’t sure of what’s coming behind that might sweep it away we’d put four or five clods. We’d put some this side of the road and some up farther so he could see. We’d always leave him plenty of track, plenty of markers which way we’d turned off and, you see, he’d know then how long we stood there for; he’d just look where the grass had been stood and he could always tell by the horses’ hoof marks how long we’d stood there by the horses trampling about.
‘But now with the motor-vehicles, no sooner you walk on with the vehicle, give me half an hour like, you could be forty or fifty miles away in the caravan. It’s impossible. Give me an hour’s start with a car, no one couldn’t tell. But with horse wagons we could always tell. Say a horse-drawn wagon went from here and I come here say two or three hours later, I could partly tell to half an hour what time he left here by the fire. I’d just rake the ashes and feel the ashes in me hand. If the ashes was warm I’d say he’d be gone for two to three hours. If the ashes were still alight I’d say he’d be gone half an hour. You see we could partly tell; we used to go in the road, and rub our hand in the road across the road you know where the hoof marks have been, and if the hoof marks were on your hand he hadn’t long gone, you see, because the track rubs them off.
‘I don’t know a lot of Romany, we don’t speak it now between one another. We used to, years ago, we used all that sort of talk between one another but it isn’t today, not like they used to years ago. They don’t teach the little ones like they used to. I’ve got a sister, she won’t entertain our kind of talk, if you know what I mean. She says, “Everybody’s looking at you, you’re talking in Romany, everybody’s looking at you, you ought to talk out in English so that I can understand you.” She’ll walk away from me she will, she won’t listen to me if I’m in a town and I say “Joller” like, you know, “Joll” to me, she won’t look at me, she’ll keep walking on, she won’t bother with me.
‘Travellers are superstitious. I wouldn’t move on a Friday even if I had a summons, without I’d moved the caravan on a Thursday. If I hadn’t moved all through the week I wouldn’t have him took up on Friday not for all the money in the world. You know I’ve got that belief that it’s bad luck would follow it.
‘A bird going in the caravan would worry me to death. If it’s gone in there I get sort of upset; I believe in something going to go wrong if a bird goes in the van.
‘If me eye itches, say, which probably yours would do sometimes, I’d say, “Oh, before the week’s out I’m going to cry,” and I usually do – it’s funny, isn’t it?
‘If me eye jumps I say I’m going to see a stranger.
‘I don’t believe in fortune telling though. I don’t believe in that sort of thing because I think what’s on its way you’ll have and that’s it, ain’t it? I mean some people have got that side. Me mother-in-law’s a very good one at it. What she says is true, you see, but I’m not one for it.’
‘When cooking I don’t hardly use any Calor gas, I don’t bother with it. I don’t like gas lights. The weather must be very bad before I use the gas. I mean, when you’ve got to make a fire to fry and cook outside it’s very cold and very bad in the snow. But we’re used to cooking outside, we don’t find it a hardship because we’ve been bred to it.
‘Your oven-cooked food doesn’t taste the same. I’d rather fry a piece of bacon, roast a piece of bacon with a stick through it than go in that caravan and light that gas; you get the fume of the gas on to it and it doesn’t taste the same.
‘We eat a lot of hedgehogs. I’ve had millions and thousands and I shall eat more before I die too. Their fat is a good thing for a bald-headed person, and Carol puts their fat on her hair. You get a hedgehog, open him out, peg him out, stick him in the fire, chuck some salt on him, give him a good wash first, soak him overnight in some salted water, and then give him a good wash again; just peg him out with a stick like a pig, you know, like you’re carcassing a pig; and put him there to cook.
‘A lot of travelling people, now, they use saucepans. Well, I don’t believe in the saucepan. We cook in a pot, and we have a pot there now, you know, which you can’t get for love nor money the type of pot we use.
‘It’s one of those cast-iron pots, but mostly now, you see, they uses all aluminium saucepans, but we always use the iron pan on the fire. Never believe in those little saucepan things, you see.
‘I generally cut a stick out of the hedge, stick a piece of bacon on it, and stick it over the fire; or just chuck a piece of steak straight on the fire. It tastes beautiful. But they don’t believe in that now, that’s dirty to a lot of the travelling people. They say, “Oh, I couldn’t be bothered with them dirty pots,” and they’ll have them crumbled, they’ll have their little cast-iron pots crumbled, you see, but they’re still using the pot but they don’t know it, because when it was crumbled it went to make one of the small kind.
‘When I’m totting, I never go to one particular place; in my line of business you haven’t got to be fussy. Of course you’ve got to go, like, where you think you can get something, like, you know. But of course it doesn’t happen all the time like that. You may go a day, you may go two, you may go a week. I always have been in this line. I do other jobs in between like farm work, farm labourer, painting, decorator. I never saw a job yet I couldn’t do or try to do. But all me majority is scrap, I’ve always been on it. I know a good many folk don’t like it. But it’s what you take to. I used to do a lot of car dealing once, old scrap cars. But I’ve gone off that now; too much hard work.
‘However, it’s a trade that’s dying out fast, scrap; every year it’s getting worser. It’s getting harder to get, there’s a lot of modern stuff coming, a lot of plastic taking over. One time of day you’d see all these landings, fettering, water tubing; now it’s all plastic. Same as on the drainpipes they had, well, they’ve done away with all the scrap for that. It’s the plastic that’s taking all over now. But as years goes on it will be harder to get but the price will be better.
‘I picked the trade off me parents, that sort of thing. We was reared to it. We used to go around with me parents, and of course you hear them talk and you hear them chat. You pick it up. But each one of us has got a different way of going around; each one have got a different saying.
‘Being moved on, we always have been moved, but it’s been worser since we’ve had the vehicles than when we had the horses, ‘cos you had an excuse with a horse, but with these lorries you haven’t. When you have a horse-drawn vehicle after hours, you see, the police knows very well that you could not travel. You could easy say, “Well this horse has come a long way and it’s worn out. I’ve got to stop twenty-four hours,” and, see, that’s where we got the vantage of them.
‘I remember one time, we’d been moved on all hours. A knock’s come on the door at dusk in the morning, about seven o’clock in the morning when it’s been snowing and freezing bitter; and we’ve had to move straight away. We’ve got the little girl up without any breakfast, we’ve had no cup of tea ourself. We’ve just had to back the vehicle on and move. We’ve been stuck in the road skidding, spinning, you know.
‘And, of course, I’m a bloke that quick gets upset with any Government bloke. I’ve been in trouble many a time. Carol always had to correct me. We’ve had the council come to move us off, we’ve left half our equipment behind, couldn’t find it in the snow, and that’s how they get us. It hurts us in the winter.
‘We don’t mind in the summer so much. If anyone comes now and say I’d have to go now, I’d say, “Well I’ll go in the morning.” But when it’s bad we don’t like it, when it’s cold.
‘Just around here they know me.
‘Back in the winter I pulled that caravan in the road there, I’d no time to get off the road but a police car was behind me.
‘So I’d got to get off the road, I pulled in the side, he said I’d got to shift. I told him to come out the way, to move his mini-van. I told him to move it or else I was going to move it for him, I was going to pull over.
‘So he said, “You’ve got to go.”
‘So I said, “I don’t think so, it’s getting late,” I said, “and I’ve had no tea and my little girl’s very hungry,” I said. “She wants to get ready for bed.”
‘It come to a bit of an argument so I pulled over.
‘He said, “You won’t go?”
‘”No.” I said.
‘So I was here for a week after.
‘He come again, I told him to get off, and we was here for seven weeks, wasn’t it? We was here after for seven weeks. It was the snow that kept us here.
‘So he come again, didn’t he?
‘I said, “When the roads is clear.” I said, “When the roads is clear, I’ll get that caravan on the road, and the wagon, I’ll go, but not before.” But they never bothered us after.’
‘This is a good life, I mean I wouldn’t change it, I’ve had the offer to settle down. Mind you I like settling down in the winter and I likes to move off then as I please.
‘I like to be free. I like to be me own boss. When I’m on this job I can take orders and I can give orders. I just like to be me own free boss; do what I like, go when I like, come back when I like. So long as I just get a bit of living I’m quite happy. I ain’t a rich bloke and never will be. But we can manage, me and the missus and the little girl; we’re quite happy.
‘Sometimes you touch, sometimes you don’t, you see. That’s how it runs. There’s an old lady she’s got some old copper geysers. I tried to buy them Tuesday but I failed to buy them. They told me to call back, it was still no good, got to wait again. That’s how you get it, you see, up and down, up and down. To know which is the good, which is the bad.
‘I live a lot decenter than some of these housewives. I goes around some of these houses – oh Christ – they ain’t fit for a dog to live in. Well my caravan it’s fitting for the Queen to come and live in.
‘I’ll admit some of us goes about dirty looking, but our bodies is always clean. We are free from any vermin or anything like that and we’re very healthy. And it’s very rare you see us travelling folk ill unless it’s a natural illness like, but everything else we’re very fit.
‘I reckon it’s a very rude word, Gypsy. I don’t mind anybody calling me a Gypsy if I can’t hear it. But if I’m in company or out in a pub having a drink and anyone calls me a Gypsy, I go ashamed.
‘But I’d never live in a house. I think if I lived in a house it would be no good to me ‘cos it’s too close, I like the open air, that’s what I like about it. And I think if I went in a house I wouldn’t stay there a minute. I’ve had chances to go in but I couldn’t.
‘Instead I’ve travelled all over the world: Scotland, London, everywhere, Ireland. But now we’ve ended up here, and there it is, we’re hop-picking you know.
‘I don’t want to be on a permanent site. If I was on a permanent site, with a trailer it’s just the same as a house. I like travelling. I like a month in one place but after that I like to go again, I get sick of the same place. That’s why I don’t like it. I wouldn’t like to settle down.
‘Of course you’ve got to think about the children, haven’t you, schooling and that. I think I will settle down in a caravan for a bit when me daughter gets older, about three or four months in one place if I can, but not to settle really, you know, all the time.
‘It is boring sometimes for me; I’d love to read and write. If I’d have knowed how I’d love to have gone to school. Me mother and father could read and write but not me. Me Grandma reared me up like, and she was a real Gypsy, you know, she used to travel about. But she didn’t believe in sending babies to school, you know.
‘I’ve never voted. We’ve been asked scores of times to vote, but we never believe in it. I mean it’s no good the likes of one of us going in to try and vote ‘cos we can’t. We’re no scholars, I mean, we can’t read or write. There’s very few of us scholars.
‘And, I mean, it would be no good we going in and voting for one company, one lot of Government, if it was Labour, Liberal, whatever it was, we shouldn’t understand it, you see. There’s nobody for the Travellers.’
‘It’s harder for a Traveller to be inside than a Gorjio.’
A derelict waste in the industrial Midlands. Twenty caravans scattered as if washed up on a shore from which the tide has departed. A winding canal at one side of the area, marshy land below it. Caravans, lorries, dismembered cars, washing hung on makeshift poles, piles of tree branches for burning.
Two Gypsy girls pass, carrying a dustbin between them. They dump it in a ditch, then depart. A man sitting outside a caravan sorting out metals. A few open fires burning. In the depths of the canal old iron lies rusting. Beyond it a huge factory with shunting chugging noises coming from it, smoke pouring out of its chimneys. Two Travellers are approaching with a pram along the canal bank. The pram falls over. They right it and continue towards me. A girl is scooping up water from the canal in a plastic bowl. Two Travellers are peering into the canal perhaps to see if any fish lurk in it.
A man at the local school has told me, ‘The land that the Gypsies camp on is derelict, an unsightly land, it’s been derelict for ages and it shouldn’t have been allowed to be so. This is exploited country. It’s fucked-up. It’s the most fucked-up countryside in the world.’
There are hundreds of Gypsies in the area. This Gypsy stopping place is one of many similar to it. Towards the back of the caravans stopped here stands the caravan of Mr John Sheridan. John’s living comes mainly from laying tarmacadam drives for Gorjios.
He is a broadly built man in his twenties, wearing a grey shirt with rainbow-coloured slashes let into its sides. He invites me in and we get talking. As we speak he snatches the cigarette from his wife’s hand, just as she is about to smoke it. ‘Don’t do that,’ she cries. But I can see that it is a gentle teasing way that they have of expressing the relationship between them. He asks me if I’d like tea and says to her, ‘Fill the kettle.’
The pretty rakkli says, ‘Go and do it yourself.’
A fierce row develops. At length a friend says, ‘All right, I’ll do it, to settle the problem,’ and goes out to fill the kettle. They are full of these rivalries, and in them seem to express something loving and compassionate to each other. He addresses his wife as ‘little ’un’ or sometimes ‘short ‘un’.
As we are talking, she listens, saucy-eyed, her bright eyes rimmed with black mascara, and tosses her blonde hair, opening her mouth to look into its pink interior in one of the mirrors that line the caravan.
Later we go out for a drink and as we drive in his lorry, she’s constantly watchful, warning him when he’s likely to run into something, warning him, ‘There’s a car there coming, Johnny ...’
I ask him, ‘Would you like your children to grow up as Travellers?’
‘Oh yes, it’s a life that you was brought up to, we do it the whole time, you know. We’d never settle down in a house.’
‘What’s the longest you’ve ever stopped your caravan in one spot?’
‘The longest was twelve months. In Wolverhampton. One trouble is getting hold of water. We’ve been refused from garages and been refused from houses. We’ve had to drive miles and miles to get water. Some places they’ll charge us five shillings a churn for water, see what I mean, different places. Some garages will give you water if you put petrol in first, then they’ll probably oblige you. Sometimes they won’t give it to you.’
‘Every time we go, we hear, “The police have told us and warned us not to give any water.” The police is doing all this. The police is telling the people in the houses not to give us water. Why the police is doing this, I don’t know. And the police warns them all. When you go to buy in a shop you have to show your money and they’re watching you all the time. I can’t understand these policemen.’
The other Travellers are buying them drinks because a relative of theirs has lost a child. Rums and pints of bitter are being handed around in great numbers.
‘Are you with John?’ they’re asking me. ‘Here’s a drink for you.’
There’s talk that they’re all going to pull out in the morning to go up to the funeral.
Johnny is a popular man. A member of a tightly knit extended family that, left to itself, would always, so you’d think, support him. They were not left to themselves. Johnny Sheridan was falsely accused, falsely imprisoned, humiliated, suffered alone in prison the pain of learning that his family were destitute, tried to kill himself by swallowing razor blades; was given cotton wool to eat and, in solitary confinement, given the ‘freeze’ treatment. When six months of hell were over and he was finally released, the recompense he was given was negligible.
None of this would have happened, so I believe, if he were not a Gypsy. As it was, his lot was injustice. He had professional friends and he was lucky in this. If he had not, like many another Gypsy, he might be falsely in prison still.
What happened was that on the evening of Friday 14th February 1969, two policemen in a police car ‘keeping observation’ on a van parked by the road, saw two men come round the rear of some buildings carrying a gas boiler and some piping. The men put these things into the van. The boiler and piping had been taken from a derelict building. Their scrap value was about £5.
The policemen drove up in their car and got out to question the men. One of them ran away and was chased by PC Brown. The other man was arrested.
Two days later the two policemen, with a sergeant, went to a stopping place of the Gypsies and they were talking to the first man who was now out on bail. Johnny Sheridan went past. He was immediately claimed by the two policemen to be the man who had run away.
And so Johnny Sheridan was arrested and the sergeant told him that the two policemen identified him as the second man concerned in the theft of metal. Johnny replied that he didn’t deal in metal.
Later, at the police station, an ignition key was claimed to have been ‘found’ on him which fitted the lock of the rear door of the van. Sheridan couldn’t understand how this key had come to be in his pocket. He was charged and he then said, ‘Honest to God, it wasn’t me, sir. I never deal in metal, sir.’
Johnny explained it like this, ‘I told the police, “You’ve got the wrong bloke.” I knew they had me for the wrong bloke. So I told them about this, they wouldn’t listen. “Oh,” they said, “you’re the fellow, you’ll do for him.”
‘They already had the man they arrested there, he told the police, “What you brought him in for, you’ve got the wrong bloke there.”
‘They said, “Oh, never mind about that, he’ll do, we’ll accuse him of the same thing.”
‘So they had me a week on remand. I had witnesses where I was at the time of the theft. I had six witnesses altogether. They wouldn’t listen to me. Two policemen swore blind I was the man. That was it. They took my coat, shoes and tie off me and left me in a cell. About an hour later three policemen came in. One of them said, “These officers recognise you in connection with the larceny of some metal.”
‘I said, “Are you rightly sure what you’re talking about? You’re making a very big mistake here. You must have me for someone else. You want to get your eyes seen to. You must be going blind.”
‘One of them said, “You’ll do well enough for now.”
‘And they went out.
‘Half an hour later they gave me back my shoes and brought me upstairs to the CID. They started questioning me about this stuff and I told them that I knew nothing at all about it, I was innocent. I said, “There are more blokes at that camp similar to me. You want to go back there and make sure.” They wouldn’t listen to me.
‘They had some tea brought in and tried to sweeten me up. They said, “Plead guilty and you’ll be out of court in the morning.”
‘I said, “I’m not stupid or daft. I’m innocent. I know nothing at all about it.”
‘Then they took me back to the cell and locked me up.’
Johnny’s alibi was not believed. In court the man who had been arrested pleaded guilty to the theft of this almost worthless scrap from a derelict building, and the jury appeared to believe Johnny was the man who had been with him.
‘It’s harder for a Traveller to be inside than a Gorjio. Gorjios have friends inside but a Traveller can’t get outside to where his friends are. I think it’s twice as hard for a Traveller to be inside any time. Well, a Traveller, like, he hasn’t got things he can read and write, like the Gorjios. I couldn’t write, you know, to the wife. And this makes you feel very lonely.
‘It is lonely especially when a Traveller’s been free all his life and is put within four walls, it’s miserable. This was the first time I’ve been inside four walls. I’ve never lived in a house before, and it was very bad. Enough to drive you mad to be quite honest.
‘There’s another difficulty: the Traveller likes to be his own boss. Whereas in prison everybody’s bossing you around. I mean you’re locked up all the time. You have to do what you’re told, and if you don’t do what you’re told, it’s bread and water, you know.’
The solicitors representing Johnny, and Johnny’s relations, continued to reiterate his claim that he was falsely in gaol.
And they took a statement from the arrested man saying that it wasn’t Johnny who was with him.
‘They transferred me from Shrewsbury to Walton prison in Liverpool. Then I felt terrible. Very sad. So I swallowed a packet of razor blades.
‘They gave me some cotton wool and some porridge to eat. Then they locked me in a cell alone, stripped naked with just one blanket on me for three days. That was what they did when I ... tried to kill myself ... They gave me this cotton wool to eat and stuff, you know, to get the blades out. They had me there for two weeks. They they had me back to Shrewsbury.
‘Soon after that the court case come up.
‘The way I felt that when I went to prison if they just turned round to get a gun to shoot me it would have been better. I’d sooner be dead than be in there. It was just like a nightmare.’
One day, in a very battered state, his face covered with blood, the man who was really guilty appeared in the office of Ivan Geffen, Johnny’s solicitor. Looking out of the window, Mr Geffen saw a crowd of members of Johnny’s family standing outside. Mr Purcell described the incident and said that he was the second man who had taken the metal, and who had run away and it wasn’t Johnny Sheridan, who had nothing whatever to do with it.
Mr Geffen urged him to go to the police, and he did. A detective sergeant made this report, ‘With regard to the statement made, I have discussed it with PC Brown and the facts mentioned in it appear to be unusually accurate. The only mistake made is in saying that the tall policeman, PC Denant, went after him when in fact it was Brown. The description of the ground over which this took place is remarkably accurate.’
There were more delays, lasting for months, and then, at last, the police decided to charge the right man and he finally appeared before the Justice. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced.
During all this time Johnny Sheridan had remained, an innocent man, in gaol. The police now claimed that there was a third man at the place of the crime. No one had ever suggested this before. Perhaps Johnny was this third man, said the police.
There were further delays. Finally Johnny’s case came up for appeal. And the police still maintained that he was guilty.
The man who ran the appeal, Lord Justice Phillimore, denounced them all:
‘Today, when Sheridan’s appeal comes before this court, we have Counsel for the prosecution saying that he is instructed to help the court, but in fact maintaining that Sheridan was properly convicted.
‘This court thinks that this attitude on the part of the prosecution is utterly wrong. And we think that a proper attitude on the part of those responsible for the prosecution should have been able to recognise this months ago and to have been anxious that this matter should have been put right and that any question of injustice should have been avoided. Not a bit. That is not what has happened ...
‘Mistakes are inevitably made from time to time, but when it is appreciated that there is a risk of a mistake being made then every attempt should be made to put it right, not to preserve the error. That’s what has happened here.
‘This court is quite satisfied that this conviction is, to say the least, unsafe and unsatisfactory and this man ought to be released immediately,’
‘What did you think the first day you got out of prison?’
‘I thought I was in a different world. I thought I was walking on air. I just couldn’t believe it.
‘My trailer was in a different place, had been moved on the whole time. While I was in prison the wife had to pay £2 each time to get the caravan moved on. And all me tools I go to work with, those had all gone. She had to sell them. She had to sell a £500 caravan for £50. The day of the court, my wife went to court, so I’d know where to come back to the caravan. I had no money. Me money was all spent. I’d nothing. They give me money to go to the Assistance, but we never got to draw any. We never go to the Assistance. We like to fend for ourselves.’
Though Mr Sheridan was now at last set free, no effort had been made to compensate him for his six months inside.
Extract from a letter from his solicitor, Ivan E Geffen, to the Secretary of State, dated 28 November 1969:
‘... I have been asked to approach you for compensation for Mr Sheridan for the loss of his liberty. In this context I draw to your attention the fact that the actual offender, when he appeared at Aldridge Magistrates Court on October 13th, was sentenced to a small monetary fine and costs totalling together less than £26. While the innocent Mr Sheridan’s records are different. The discrepancy between the punishment imposed on the two men is startling.’
Nothing seems to have come of this letter, or of another, or of a third.
Extract from a letter from Mr Geffen, this time to the Home Secretary:
‘... My client is a working man, who was deprived of his liberty for over six months, as a result of a wrongful conviction at Stafford Quarter Sessions, a confession signed by the actual wrongdoer was forwarded to the Registrar of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). Despite this, bail was refused to my client, pending the hearing of his appeal and when the matter actually came before the Court of Appeal, the prosecution were sharply censored by the court for the attitude it had taken.
‘While he was in custody, my client not merely suffered the loss of his liberty; he was also very much upset by the hardship endured by his family. Mrs Sheridan is unable to read or write, and instead of receiving help from the offices of the Ministry of Health and Social Security, she was sent from one to another and throughout the period of her husband’s imprisonment she was able once only to obtain any assistance. This amounted to £6.
‘To put it bluntly, the treatment of this man has been scandalous, and I trust that you will now intervene personally to ensure that something is done to right the wrong done to him and his family.’
Finally, after yet another letter, it was agreed that Johnny should be paid. But the sum offered, £750, was in fact less than he would have earned if he’d stayed at liberty. There was no recompense for the indignities he’d suffered or for his loss of liberty; or for the fact that his wife had had to sell most of his possessions for a pittance.
Extract from a letter from Mr Geffen to the Home Secretary, 30 December 1970:
‘I have seen my client today. His financial position is such that although the amount which you offer represents the exercise of power over right, he has no alternative but to accept the sum of £750.’
Johnny blames some of all this on the fact that he is not literate.
‘It helps to be a scholar, it helps to be a scholar very much.’
I blame it on the fact that he is a Gypsy and that justice in the traditional British sense is not yet available for Gypsies.
* Other Travellers have slightly different meanings for these words, and their usage seems to change according to what part of the land one is in. Also, Romany should correctly be spelt Romani: I preferred to keep the better-known spelling in this and some other Romany words.
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