Gypsies in Britain today


"Traveller is a generic term, although Romani prefer to be known as Gypsies. Each group has a different history, and to a considerable extent, different customs and traditions. “The cultural identity of all groups is based upon self-employment, self-help and nomadic”

(Okely, 1983, p10)

The women in the Gypsy community are often considered the matriarch, especially as they get older – however, although their roles are still traditional, with many of them expected to rear the children at home while their men work, or hunt i.e. poach, fish etc. It has been observed by many professionals such as those involved with the Gypsy Traveller Reform Coalition that women are becoming the driving force for action. Self-employment is central to the Gypsy man’s identity. Most men are self-employed as Roofers, Landscape Gardeners, or Ground-workers

The umbrella term ‘Traveller’ covers Gypsies, Irish Travellers, Showman, Circus and New Travellers.  The term “Gypsy” encompasses numerous, culturally diverse groups of people, who speak a variety of dialects, including versions of Romani.  It is estimated that there are around 5 million Gypsies living in many countries of the world, speaking some 100 dialects of Romani language.  Various statistics show that between 100,000 and 200,000 live in Britain.  However, ethnic monitoring within local authorities does not always allow for ‘house-dwelling’ Gypsies, so that up until the late 1990's those who had been house dwellers for over two years appeared to lose their ethnic origin. This situation is beginning to change as more and more people are declaring their heritage and young people want to learn about their cultural origins.


Romanichals, numbering around 63,000 constitute the largest group living in England and South Wales and include those who are house dwellers.  They descend from Romanies who came from the Continent in the sixteenth century, and are believed to originate from the mixture of Romani immigrants and travelling show and crafts people who arrived in Britain in the mid- 1500’s.

  1. Case law cited in CRE, Common Ground, 2006, section 1.3.
  2. R v Carmarthenshire CC, ex parte Price (2003) EWHC 42 (Admin)
  3. Power, Colin, Room to Roam: England’s Irish Travellers, 2004, section 5.5


Kale people migrated to Wales from the South West of England in and around the 17th and 18th centuries. Up until recently they continued to speak a version of Romani, keeping some of the Indian grammar.  Nowadays most Kale people live in houses.  Originally this group of around 500 people kept themselves apart from the Welsh and the English, remaining in the Welsh speaking areas of Wales. In Liverpool there is house dwelling population of Kale.


These are immigrant people who have arrived in England within the last 70 years, seeking asylum from countries such as Hungary, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia.  They are also known as Romungri, Kalderash, or Rodari.  The majority of this group of approximately 2,000 (in 1995) live in houses, mostly provided by Local Authorities in various parts of Britain.  Numbers are rapidly increasing as more and more people seek political asylum.


Scottish travellers also are known as Nawkins or Cairds. These nomadic groups formed in Scotland between the period 1500-1800 and were made up of those who had integrated with local nomadic craftsmen and immigrant Romanies from France, Spain and other parts of Europe.  At any one time there may several hundred visiting England, but it is recorded that some 20,000 live in Scotland both on sites and in houses.


Minceirs/Irish Travellers also call themselves Pavees.  They originate from the mixture of Romani immigrants who travelled to Ireland, where a strong group of Irish travellers was already established. The group used a Celtic language called Shelta. Integration led to the present day Minceirs, who use a version of Romani in their modern day language, called Gammon. Irish Travellers make up the majority of the population of Travellers in London, having been drawn there by economic necessity.

New Travellers

The terminology “New” implies that they may not have been travelling for long, but some groups in the original convoys have been nomads for over 30 years, with children who have never known another life style.  New Travellers (often known as New Age Travellers) are a very diverse group of people, and include those from many ethnicities, including some of Romani, Scottish, and Irish Gypsy background. Their unpopularity led the Government to target them and to repeal the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, with the Criminal Justice Public Order Act (1994), which saw travelling as a criminal offence.  The introduction of Poll Tax in Thatcher Government and the increase of homelessness, particularly among young people caused their numbers to grow.  Many decided to adopt an alternative lifestyle as a form of rejection of the increasingly materialistic and fragmented society they found themselves in.

 (Traveller Education Service HCC 1996,p10)

The group originated in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, and was clearly linked to the pop music revolution and subsequent  “Hippie” festivals which took place both all over this country, and other parts of the world.  Although New Travellers were on the whole not born into the lifestyle, there are second and third and even fourth generation families travelling throughout Britain today. (Morris & Clements, 1999, p 11)  It is estimated that there are over 15,000 New Travellers in Britain. 

Fairground people, Circus people and Motorway construction workers are other groups of people who may pursue a nomadic lifestyle, but are not defined under the Race Relations Act 1989 as an ethnic group.

Travellers - a definition

A member of any of the native European Ethnic groups whose culture is characterised by nomadism, occupational fluidity and self-employment.

Irish Travellers

There has been much debate on the origins of Irish Travellers. However, it is agreed that they are indigenous people of Ireland. It is their nomadic roots which are debated.

Although the most common theories are that Irish Travellers were dispossessed during the famine of 1847 or were victims of harsh colonialism, they do not account for the records of nomads centuries ago. Thus it is possible that the original Travellers were nomadic craftsmen who chose never to settle; or were a Celtic group who were nomadic after invasions. The traditional home was a bender tent or canvas slung over hazel saplings bent into a framework.  These were transported by horses. Gradually, horse-drawn wagons were adopted, and in the middle of this century, motorised vehicles and modern caravans followed.

Irish Travellers were skilled horsemen and efficient dealers. Traditionally they would travel in small extended family groups in rural Ireland supporting the rural economies by providing essential trades and services such as tin smithers, fruit picking and horse dealing. The network of horse fairs and markets were vital points of economic and social contact. Many came to England to work as navvies on the canals and the movement continued into the 1940s & 50s with groups of Irish travellers working on the margins of Britain’s post-war reconstruction boom in the fields of scrap, construction, and rubbish clearance. More recently Travellers can be found operating tarmacking gangs, selling carpets, landscaping and doing light building work. Like most Traveller groups they have survived through their ability to adapt to changing circumstance.

Today, there are concentrated groups of Irish Travellers throughout Britain; often forced onto unauthorised camps, transit sites, or into houses by the Criminal Justice Act and its forerunner the Caravan Sites Act. They retain a strong sense of family and national identity and are committed Roman Catholics. Sadly they are frequently victims of racial prejudice as well as suffering the intolerance of settled communities towards all Travellers.

Fairground and Circus Travellers

The history of show people goes back centuries to the rural celebrations combining holiday and religion in medieval church festivals; to the hiring fairs at which itinerant workers were hired for the season and to the skills of some Gypsy families from Europe.

In the late 1700s there was a surge of people who joined the fairs and by the 1830s living vans were adopted. By the time steam developed at the end of the last century, exciting rides established the Golden Age of Showmen. Most people saw new technology for the first time with the arrival of the travelling fair. Later, the Showman’s Guild was established.

The traditional showman’s wagons were palatially decorated and as large as could be horse drawn and were later drawn by the traction engines which also powered the rides. Today, huge, modern trailers are equipped with luxuries and conveniences and are drawn by fleets of powerful trucks. The whole family has always been involved in running the rides, from erecting the equipment to staffing the pay booth. There is a seasonal network of fairgrounds and often a permanent winter site.

The establishment of the Showman’s Guild was an important benefit. It has selective entry to preserve high standards, and controls the letting of pitches on fairgrounds.

Some show people have restored and revived steam rides and frequent the specialist steam fairs; others have settled to run snooker halls, cafes and rides in a permanent base, such as a holiday resort; many still follow the circuit established by their families before them, though the rides have developed to reflect modern life as well as nostalgia.

The history of the Circus lies parallel with the development of Fairgrounds until this century. The shows of the past combine stalls rides and shows – of freaks or curiosities. When the shows diverged they became less static and showed off the skills of talented performers, as well as parading exotic animals such as bears, tigers and elephants.

To the public they were centres of romance, excitement and glamour as they travelled their seasonal routes with the big top and decorated wagons.

However, the change in modern leisure activities to include television, videos and foreign travel has affected the circus. Many small family circuses, which had traditionally toured, were unable to compete and were forced to join larger enterprises or settle to establish other trades.

The influence of animal rights activists who forced the public to debate the ethics of performing animals has caused a decline in such acts and the emphasis has shifted to impressive human performances.

Traditionally the circus was a family affair with an act including several members of one family and the whole show relying on generations to run smoothly. Many of the new companies include performers who have trained especially and have performed to all kinds of audiences from busking to cabaret.


The first canals were built in the middle of the eighteenth century in order to improve industrial communications – it was practical and economical to transport heavy goods. Routes had to be approved by Parliament and were funded locally by those such as colliery owners, traders and landed gentry. Many great canal engineers emerged, successfully constructing the waterways and viaducts, locks and tunnels.

Tens of thousands of navvies, often Irish Travellers dug the canals with shovels, picks, burrows und horses with carts.

Most canal boats were towed by horses, so there was a towpath running alongside. Tunnels rarely had towpaths, so legging -lying on planks and pushing the tunnel walls with feet - was used. Some craft then developed steam-driven engines and eventually a diesel unit replaced these, as an efficient, compact, propulsion method.

Canal-boat people were often whole families living on board, acting as crew. They fished, poached and gathered vegetables or plants for food. The compact cabins were full of polished brass, painted pottery and crocheted curtains. Boats and utensils were brightly painted and horses had decorated harness. Boat-people developed a clothing style that I was practical, but attractive. There was pride in the embroidery and presentation.

As railways developed, canals went into decline. Industry found them less economical and they fell into disuse. There is now a dual population on the waterways - those living permanently on the canal and those holidaying. There are stringent rules imposed by the British Waterways Board to maintain the canals. Permanent Travellers have crafts of all kinds and may moor in one place or move constantly. Some follow traditional trades such as collecting scrap, coal merchandising, performing whilst others have conventional jobs on land.


There has been a steady flow of Gypsy refugees throughout recent years, often seeking asylum in Britain from violent treatment in Eastern European countries. Most have settled temporarily in London and the ports of their arrival. They maintain their cultural identity through language and family, building new communities without the possessions and homes that they were forced to abandon. Many are learning a new language and new skills, whilst awaiting the results of immigration requests. In instances, having arrived in the UK, refugees have been treated with extreme hostility by sectors of the local population