José Patterson reveals the stereotypes and shows us the real lives of different Travellers’
“‘But gypsies!” I cried, thinking of the unsavoury stories I had heard of them – dirty people, thieves.’
`I don’t think people like that are altogether to be trusted. Nobody knows where they live, or how.’ `… a fierce wandering tribe who would steal children for the sake of their clothes and pilfer anything they could lay their hands on.’
Three references to `gypsies’ taken from stories for children; the first published in 1977, the second in 1953, the third in 1887. A remarkably consistent portrayal spanning nearly a hundred years. A long time? Dennis Binns’ fascinating analysis of how Gypsies are depicted in children’s literature from which these examples are taken shows that this image was clearly established at the beginning of the nineteenth century and is still current in books being published today. Gypsies by these accounts are dishonest, dirty, given to petty thieving and child stealing; they tell fortunes and the women in particular have mysterious and magical powers; they live outside `normal’ society and while not to be trusted can be seen as romantic, exotic and strange, colourful people, free spirits, with `swarthy faces and flashing eyes’, a threat and challenge to the dull and everyday.
The fear, suspicion and hostility which so often greets the Gypsies as they move about the country cannot be unconnected with such a longstanding stereotype. Indeed it is so firmly established that it is reflected in entries in currently available encyclopaedias for children. As the Swann report pointed out, no matter how individuals behave negative perceptions are exaggerated and unfairly generalised to all Travellers.
An HMI discussion paper, issued in 1983, estimated that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 Traveller children of school age in England. Those that attend school, and many do so only seasonally or sporadically, are inevitably brought face to face with this prejudice. Many local authorities make special provision for the education of Traveller children; teachers involved in this work recognise that as well as adapting what they do to the particular culture of the children they teach they have also to combat stereotyped views among non-Traveller children. So what is the truth about Travellers?
The term `Traveller’ denotes a range of different groups: Gypsy, Fairground and Circus people. While many Travellers are fully nomadic, others move seasonally. The Gypsies, who form the largest group, include communities from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland each with its own ethnic identity and language. For many, educational disadvantage is compounded through lack of adequate site provision. Those who do not live on authorised sites have great difficulties finding places to camp. This factor, combined with racial prejudice and hostility, leads to continual harassment and evictions.
The 1968 Caravan Sites Act gave local authorities a duty to provide caravan sites for Gypsies `residing in or resorting to their areas’. When adequate accommodation is provided, the county becomes `designated’ and unauthorised camping a punishable offence. Some authorities abuse `designation’ by using their powers of eviction without having qualified for it under the government’s own regulations. Thus the shortage of official sites where the children can usually benefit from mainstream education, coupled with the effects of `designation’, forces the Traveller to lead an unstable and unsettled existence on illegal or roadside encampments.
The Fairground families settle into their winter quarters in late October until March when the first fairs coincide with Easter. They have their own strong central association – the Showmen’s Guild – and their own newspaper, World’s Fair, which helps to keep them all in touch. A Chief Steward is elected from the Showmen’s Guild for each large fair. Many schools which children attend during the winter provide individual programmes for their pupils to be completed during their long absence in the travelling season. The responsibility for `homework’ rests mainly with the mothers, many of whom are often stallholders in their own right. Their children work alongside, developing a natural business and money sense and practical skills – often undervalued in schools.
For circus families the time spent in their winter quarters has become shorter in recent years. The soaring costs of animal fodder and council pitches compel circuses to remain on the road for longer periods of time to cover their costs. This constant movement forces the children at school into the role of perpetual `new pupils’. Two big circus companies have recently established their own mobile schools with the support of their local LEA who have equipped the schools and appointed the teachers. In this way educational continuity is maintained and the timetable adapted to give the children time to practise their own circus skills.
Gypsy, Fairground and Circus children share many characteristics. They are part of an extended but close-knit family unit and have a highly developed sense of responsibility to the family in its widest sense. Gypsy girls, for example, are expected to assist with the chores and help mind their younger siblings or relatives. Growing up in a large, caring extended family, the Traveller child becomes a member of adult society from an early age. New friends from outside `the family’ are not a high priority.
Traveller children are part of the economic work force of the family and are trained from an early age to take their place in the group. Thus Gypsy children are allowed to earn their own money, which gives them a feeling a self-sufficiency. Fairground children are trained to take charge of their stalls and rides and Circus children acquire a variety of skills from their environment.
Feelings about going to school can be ambivalent. Many Traveller parents lack formal education, or at best, have memories of unhappy educational experiences. It is not surprising that some of their fears and anxieties are transmitted to their children. Traveller children, like all children, enjoy listening to a good story. Though some may not be literate they frequently have a rich stock of oral stories and are good tellers of tales; a fact which may be undervalued or ignored in school.
The strength of story in the Traveller culture- points to one obvious and enjoyable way in which the attitudes of Gaujo – non-Travellers – can be changed and their knowledge of the Traveller life-style and heritage increased.
There are many good books written about Travellers, but those written by Travellers themselves (or edited from tape recordings) give us the best insights of all. The Book of Boswell (sadly out of print) is a classic of its kind. Betsy Whyte’s The Yellow on the Broom (now in paperback) is a moving account of a Scottish Tinker family, while newly published Traveller by Nan Joyce describes her hard life in Ireland and her struggle for tolerance and understanding. I Remember Wagon Time by Nan Maughan uses her first steps to literacy to describe how her father built barrel-top wagons. Duncan Williamson’s fine Fireside Tales gives us (thanks to the efforts of his wife) a written account of the rich oral tradition of story telling – not just for children! Traveller children have contributed in a special way. The Black Unicorn and other Stories, edited by Dennis Binns and Julie Smith, is the fourth anthology of children’s stories and poems. The Travelling People’s Story, a poem by Margaret Gavin aged 12, gives her account of life on a site – it is direct and devastating.
A good book about Travellers is one in which stereotypes are exploded and the Travelling people dealt with as human beings. Geraldine Kaye, Olga Sinclair, Rumer Godden, Barbara Applin, Mollie Hunter and William Mayne – all non-Travellers – have made notable fictional contributions in this area.
As a teacher involved in Traveller Education I was commissioned by Hamish Hamilton to write two books for their non-fiction series `The Way We Live’ which focuses on children in our multi-cultural society. The first of these was a A Traveller Child. My first task was to gain the consent of a Traveller family which was prepared to accept publicity – not an easy task – and my request was turned down by several families. Lee’s parents understood that I was trying to portray them in a positive light and gave me every support. Liba Taylor’s beautiful photographs serve to challenge stereotyping by portraying, for example, the immaculate interiors of their homes. Phyllis’s old traditional Gypsy skill of making paper and wooden flowers was utilised in supporting a school fund-raising project. Lee’s family live on a small well-planned permanent site and are protected from the difficulties of being `moved on’ in contrast to the situation portrayed in Mary Waterson’s fine book, A Gypsy Family. Although the book was written to inform the young Gaujo reader, a teacher wrote to tell me that after seeing it a Traveller boy had been inspired to show her how to make paper flowers!
A Circus Child, the second book, was easier to research. John Roberts Junior welcomed the proposal and the entire company were kind and cooperative at all times. Through my contacts with Bernie Hasler I learned a great deal about circus life and the hard work needed to make the circus school a success. The text of the book emphasises the care given to performing animals, the way in which the children adapt to school and their training, and the world of clowns and clowning.
My work with the Regional Advisory Service for Travellers’ Education in Oxfordshire and Berkshire involves visits to sites, supporting teachers in school, liaising closely with Education Welfare Officers and other professional groups, and arranging in-service meetings and conferences. One of my first contacts was with the library services in both counties – a sound investment! We now have an interesting collection of books on Travellers which reflects the life of Travelling communities and the literature it has produced. Some selections from that collection with annotations and additional information follow this article. Nathan Lee, President of the National Gypsy Education Council, was asked how the public at large could help the Travellers. He replied, `What we need is more sites, more tolerance and more understanding.’
I hope that the information here will encourage wider awareness and use of these books and help to combat ignorance and foster that much-needed understanding.
Books about Travellers
Thomas Acton, Macdonald Surviving Peoples series (1981), 0 356 05956 1, £5.95 Widely acclaimed as `the best book for children on this subject’. Very comprehensive, lots of excellent photographs and packed with follow-up information. Interesting and approachable for children 9-13 but anyone could profitably read this as a starting point.
A Time to Come Alive
Wilfred Hall, pub. Wilfred Hall (1976), 0 9594992 0 X, £1.50
A photo essay capturing in black and white the atmosphere and delight of Appleby Horse Fair in June. Brief captions. Available from Romanestan Publications.
At the Fair
Helen Herbert, Cambridge (1984), 0 521 31933 1, £1.25 pbk
The Gypsies: Wagon Time and After Denis Harvey, Batsford (1980), 0 7134 1548 7, £9.95
A pictorial celebration of the gypsies of Britain. 230 picture showing all aspects of gypsy life.
John Hornby, Oliver & Boyd Signpost Library (1965), Blackwell (1970), o/p
A little dated and romanticised now but quite a good semi-fictional account for the younger reader.
Juliet Jeffery, Strand Press (1983) Collection of drawings showing different vans, carts, wagons and tents. Available from Juliet Jeffery, Memorial Cottage, Compton, Chichester, Sussex P018 9AD.
Mog Johnstone, A & C Black Beans series (1985) 0 7136 2702 6, £3.95
An account of the life, work and heritage of a family who own a traditional galloping horses roundabout. Colour photographs. Bright and informative.
Traveller: an autobiography
Nan Joyce, Gill & Macmillan (1985), 0 7171 1388 4, £4.95
Very direct and absorbing, dictated by Nan Joyce. This articulate and independent woman speaks of the concerns of Travellers, their rights, her life and hopes. Nan Joyce is the campaigning leader of the Irish Traveller movement. Secondary.
Men of the Road
Charles King, Muller (1972), 0 584 10170 8, o/p
History, customs, language: the Gypsy in modern society, a useful look at the international picture. 9-13.
I Remember Wagon Time
Nan Maughan (1983)
Reminiscences of a Traveller describing life in a wagon in Ireland in the 1940s. Eighteen pages. Suitable for juniors. Available through `Write Here’, 697 Attercliffe Road, Sheffield S9 3RE.
A Traveller Child
Jose Patterson, Hamish Hamilton (1985), 0 241 11573 6, £3.95
A real family shown living on a fixed site. Lee goes to school. Points of contact found between Gypsy and Gaujo life-style and culture. Colour photographs. 7+.
A Circus Child
Jose Patterson, Hamish Hamilton (1986), 0 241 11817 4, £3.95
Circus life depicted from the inside through the life of a real family. Colour photographs. 7+.
Olga Sinclair, Blackwell (1967), 0 631 06710 8, £2.95
A simple text with no stereotypes. Fairly comprehensive, accurate information. 6-9.
Make Things Gypsies Make
Marjorie Stapleton, Studio Vista (1976), o/p Step by step instructions, drawings and photographs show how to make pegs, flowers, baskets, wooden chrysanthemums, etc. 7-13.
Gypsies and Nomads
Ruth Thomson (ed.), Macdonald First Library series (1973), o/p Seven pages in this title are devoted to gypsies. Useful information without stereotypes but some generalisations.
Mary Waterson, A & C Black Strands series (1978), 0 7136 1831 0, £3.50 Text with black and white photographs traces day to day living in a mobile Gypsy family. Excellent. 6-10.
Fairs and Circuses
Paul White, A & C Black (1972), 0 7136 1323 8, £4.50
Historical survey using contemporary sources and illustrations. 9-13.
The Yellow on the Broom
Betsy Whyte, Chambers (1979),
0 550 26365 6, o/p; Futura, 0 7088 2938 4, £2.25 pbk
An autobiographical account of her childhood and life as a Scottish Traveller. Betsy Whyte was born in 1919.
Romano Drom Song Book
Denise Stanley and Rosy Burke, Romanestan Publications (2nd edition 1986), 0 947803 01 7, £1.95
Thirty songs of Gypsy origin from English and continental sources. Music and words with black and white drawings. Translations given. Valuable cultural meeting point for Gypsy and Gaujo alike.
At the Circus/At the Fair Picture Pack Macmillan Education (1982), 0 333 31836 6, £14.95
24 large colour photographs showing circus and fair scenes.
Barbara Applin, Macmillan Ranger series – range 2 (1980), 0 333 27791 0, 85p A story centred on Appleby horse fair. Part of a structured reading scheme – junior level, 12+ interest.
Rumer Godden, Macmillan (1972),
0 333 13848 1, £5.50; Puffin, 0 14 03.0753 2, £1.50 pbk
Televised as Kizzy. A very enjoyable story about the pressures on eight-year-old Kizzy to assimilate and live `in brick’ when her grandmother dies and her travelling life must end. Good detail, no stereotypes, happy ending. Top junior/lower secondary.
I’ll Go My Own Way
Mollie Hunter, Hamish Hamilton (1986), 0 241 11685 6, £5.95
An absorbing account of Catriona McPhie’s life as a Scottish tinker. Set in the 1970s, it takes an interesting contemporary line on Traveller tradition in which a father passes on his skills to his firstborn son. Cat is Jim McPhie’s only child; he is keen to teach his daughter-she, eventually, enjoys the learning but will this make her the kind of girl no Traveller boy will want to marry? Slightly idealised and some jarring notes but a good read for 14+.
Nowhere to Stop
Geraldine Kaye, Hodder and Stoughton (1972), 0 340 16253 8, £4.95
The only one of Geraldine Kaye’s `gypsy’ stories that is still in print. At Christmas time young Liberty Lovell and his family try to stop on the town dump. Angry residents, six gypsy children at school, the Christmas play, tentative friendships, Liberty’s pregnant mother, a campaign for a proper site for the Travellers all combine to produce a believable and unsentimental story.
Tawno Gypsy Boy (Hodder 1968) and Billy-Boy (Hodder 1975) like Nowhere to Stop, have Gareth Floyd’s excellent covers and line illustrations and deal, as do Runaway Boy (Heinemann 1971) and A Different Sort of Christmas (Kaye and Ward, Early Bird Series 1976) with meetings between gypsy and Gauje. Children of the Turnpike (Hodder 1976) has a similar theme with an early nineteenth century setting. All worth searching out in libraries. The stories have worn well and are particularly good for reading aloud
A Strange Experience
Kathleen Love, New Canterbury Tales Vol. 1, 80p
Written by a Gypsy adult literacy learner at a centre in Kent. A ghost story about Travellers settling into a house for the first time and being frightened out by a ghost. Available from Romanestan Publications.
William Mayne, Puffin (1985), 014 03 1681 1, £1.50
Drawing on the customs and language of the Travellers, Mayne tells the story of Issy’s search for the Travellers’ true chief, long-since mysteriously abandoned by them. The quest is closely tied up with the Travellers’ need to establish their right to their winter quarters.
Olga Sinclair, Fontana Lion (1981), 0 00 671963 5, £1.25
This story of ten-year-old Minty’s life with her father reflects many aspects of traveller life including weddings, encounters with the police, bender tents and Appleby horse fair. When Minty’s dad is disqualified from driving they have to abandon their trailer; Dad finds an old vardo and a horse and they take to the roads in traditional fashion. A good story for juniors and younger listeners.
Carolyn Sloan, Chatto (1983), 0 7011 2663 9, £5.50
Skewer is part-Gypsy. This story tells how Skewer tries to make a garden from the junk-filled yard that surrounds the family house.
The Queen of the Pharisees’ Children Barbara Willard, Julia MacRae (1983), 0 86203 148 6, £6.25
Sim Swayne is half tinker, half pedlar; he lives the wandering life with his wife, Moll, and their children, Will, Delphi, Fairlight and baby Star. But the family is attacked and robbed of their cart and horse and they have to make shift as best they can. When Sim is accused of vagrancy the family is cruelly separated and all Moll’s magic as the Queen of the Pharisees (the fairies), as she seems to her children, can do nothing to prevent it. A powerful historical story. A challenging but rewarding read.
Peter Rush, Kaye & Ward (1983), 0 7182 5085 0, £4.95
Excellent collection, well-written and realistic. Pleasant illustrations. 7-10.
Russian Gypsy Tales
Collected by Yefim Druts and Alexei Gessler, trans. James Riordan, ill. Harry Horse, Canongate (1986), 0 86241 082 7, £7.95
Colourful tales told by Gypsies from all over the Soviet Union. Translated by Jim Riordan with a delightful feel for the different voices of the tellers.
Fireside Tales of the Traveller Children
Duncan Williamson, ill. Alan Herriot, Canongate (1983), 0 86241 100 9,;£3.95 pbk Collected traditional tales from a Scottish Traveller storyteller. An excellent introduction gives background to the tales and the teller. Not to be missed.
The Broonie, Silkies and Fairies: Travellers’ Tales
Duncan Williamson, ill. Alan Herriot, Canongate (1986), 0 86241 104 1, £3.95 pbk Magical tales from Highland crofters and Travellers remembered from Duncan Williamson’s early years in Argyll. Incidental glimpses of Traveller life.
TRAVELLER CHILDREN’S WRITING
Tootsey and the Pups (1980), 50p
The Black Unicorn and Other Stories (1985), 30p
National Gypsy Educational Council Available from Romanestan Publications.
ILEA Teachers for Travellers (1983)
A set of seven booklets written by Irish Traveller children, each containing simple stories and drawings about life on a Gypsy site. Obtainable from c/o Hague School, Wilmot Street, London E2.
Some books in this selection are out of print but are worth seeking out in libraries.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION FOR TEACHERS
Children’s Literature and the Role of the Gypsy
Dennis Binns, Manchester Travellers’ School (1984), £1.80
A fascinating examination of the role literary heritage plays in perpetuating fears and anxieties about Gypsies. A survey of 120 books for children since 1814 illustrating enduring and developing stereotypes. Obtainable from the author or publisher (see Useful Addresses).
A Gypsy Bibliography (2 volumes)
Dennis Binns, Dennis Binns Publications (1986),£5.00
First volume compiled in 1982; second volume, made up of entries from annual supplements, added in 1986. Over 2,000 items in all, covering books, pamphlets, articles, broadsheets, theses and dissertations pertaining to Gypsies and other Travellers post 1914. A must for any teacher or student concerned with Gypsies.
Journal of Traveller Education Today
Ed. Dennis Binns, £1.80 (annual publication)
Includes stories and drawings by children, and reviews of book on Travellers suitable for children. Volume 21 contains an article by Bob Pullin on `The Fairground as a Curriculum Resource’. Available from Romanestan Publications.
The Traveller – Gypsies
Judith Okel CUP Changing Cultures Series (1983), 0 521 28870 3, £7.95 pbk
An anthropological study which challenges popular accounts of gypsies.
Thomas Acton, 22 Northend, Warley, Brentwood, Essex CM14 5LA. Tel: 0277 219491.
Supplier of books and materials. Very useful source of information on addresses, recent publications, resources, journals, tape recordings, etc. Also, information about NGEC (National Gypsy Education Council).
18 South Drive, Chorltonville, Manchester M21 2DY. Tel: 061-881 2411.
Manchester Travellers’ School
c/o Abbott CP School, Rochdale Road, Manchester M10 7PR. Tel: 061-834 9529.
ACERT (Advisory Committee for the Education of Romanies and other Travellers)
Mary Ward Centre, 42 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AJ. Tel: 01-8317079. Information leaflet giving lists of book collections and bibliographies and brief selection of books about Travellers.
HMI with special responsibility for Traveller children.
NATT (National Association of Teachers of Travellers)
c/o Educational Service for Travelling Children, Broad Lanes, Bilston, Nr Wolverhampton. Tel: Bilston 405091/2.
List of specially designed resources for Traveller children: `Guide to Information and Resources’.
President NGEC, London Strategic Policy Unit, Room 603, Middlesex House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1
Information re. hire of video cassettes: `Travellers: Moving On’ Middle English programme, and `Here to Stay’, etc.
East Herts School Library Service
Churchfields, Hertford SG13 8AE. Tel: 0992 556647
A Traveller Education collection of 300 books, periodicals, pamphlets, reports and some audio-visual items. Largely the idea of Mary Waterson – one-time Adviser for Traveller Education in Hertfordshire, now Field Officer for ACERT. New listing of holdings in preparation. Phone for details of how to visit.
Museum of Gypsy Caravans, Romany Crafts and Lore
Commons Road, Pembroke. Tel: 0646 681308.
Dept. of Education, Sheffield University
A member of the Showman’s Guild, author of Swings & Roundabouts, the education of travelling fairground children in a survey (1982).
Romany Folklore Museum and Workshop
Jose Patterson is the Regional Advisory Teacher for Traveller Education in Berkshire and Oxfordshire. She can be contacted at Advisory Centre for Multi-cultural Education, Union Street, Oxford OX4 1JP. Tel: 0865 770451.
Book selection from the Collection of Traveller books compiled by Liz Wilson, Senior Assistant Librarian, Oxfordshire School Library Service, and Sue Dearing, Secondary Schools Support Librarian, Berkshire Education Library Service.
Annotations by Liz Wilson.