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March 2007 Meeting Report

Gypsies and Travellers by Peter Edwards

If any members of the Sawston Village History Society had any prejudices (but surely not) about the travelling folk, these should have been dispelled during the March meeting. The guest speaker was Peter Edwards and his subject was “Gypsies and travellers” and he illustrated his talk with a fascinating photographic collection.

Peter told us that he was well qualified to speak on this subject as he himself was from a travelling family who mainly travelled around Wales and the borders, although now he was now based in Peterborough where he often gives talks, especially to local family history societies.

The origins of the Gypsies, who are also known as travellers, Romanys, and sometimes, more disparagingly, didicois, are believed to have originated from northern India and the first known records in England were in 1417, and in Scotland a hundred years later. The Indian origin appears to be confirmed by many words of Hindi origin, for example mush = man; grai = horse; yarg = fire; varda = vagrant; chavy = child. It is a commonly held misconception that the name Gypsy is derived from Egypt, although Peter did not offer an alternative explanation for the name.

The English based Gypsies have names which are indistinguishable from English names, although there are surnames which are typically Gypsy, such as Boswell, Lee, Lovell,Locke, Scamp, Price, Togood, Taylor and Buckland, amongst others. Confusingly, however, the Gypsies appear to be somewhat flexible in their own names, often choosing to adopt several different names. This must cause considerable annoyance to the bureaucrats who try to keep track of them, but perhaps not only bureaucrats. Their Christian names are often derived from the Bible and since most gypsies are very staunch born again Christians or Pentecostal, perhaps that is not surprising. This strong religious belief is also reflected in their attitudes towards morality. It is unheard of for a couple to live together without being married first.

As for how they earn their money, any self respecting Gypsy will try anything. The traditional crafts are tinkering, that is mending pots and pans, scrap metal dealing, horse traders, antiques, door to door selling (hawking), rabbit catching with ferrets, rat catching, hop picking, and fairs. The Gypsies love of horses is reflected in the very popular Wotton Horse Fair in Norfolk which attracts travelling folk from throughout Britain and Ireland.

Peter conceded that some Gypsies were sometimes involved in dubious activities such as getting drunk on cider, hawking without a license, shooting pheasants, camping on highways and witchcraft, and er, perhaps, leaving lots of litter (of course ordinary folk wouldn’t dream of dropping litter on the streets)

The Gypsies traditional way of life is now under considerable restriction due to local and central government bureaucracy and the lack of demand for the traditional Gypsy crafts. However, now that recycling is becoming increasingly fashionable many of these crafts may become more important. They are, after all, the ultimate recyclers, and probably fairly carbon neutral.

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