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A history of racism against Travellers and Gypsies

This article is over 12 years, 8 months old
Grattan Puxon spoke to Socialist Worker about the long history of anti-Traveller racism, the reality of Travellers’ lives—and how to fight racism today
Issue 2269

Racism against Travellers in England goes back to Tudor times. The Roma first arrived in England from France in the Middle Ages.

They were regarded as a dark people who had come from somewhere strange. The Roma were called “Gypsy” because it was thought they came from Egypt.

Severe laws were brought in very soon after their arrival. Parliament passed the Egyptians Act in 1530, expelling what it called the “outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians”.

The Act said Gypsies were criminals. In 1547, Edward VI imposed a law that forced Gypsies to be rounded up, branded, and enslaved.

A few years later, the death penalty was imposed on the “vagabonds calling themselves Egyptians”.

You could be hanged for being a Gypsy or even for associating with Gypsies, and a number of people died.

Roma faced violence and expulsion in many other European countries. They had arrived in the Balkans by the 14th century and in Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal by the 15th century.

In some cities, such as Paris, the church ordered Roma to leave because they read palms and told people’s fortunes. They became convenient scapegoats.

This deep prejudice against Travellers has been carried forward to today.

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a terrible phase across Europe as governments tried to force Travellers to “assimilate”. In some cases, they took Roma children away from their parents and handed them to non-Travellers.


This legal assault on Travellers led up to the Nazi persecution of Gypsies in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The Nazis targeted Gypsies, alongside Jews, on a racial basis.

They murdered up to half a million Gypsies.

There’s nothing strange about the discrimination that’s aimed at Travellers. It’s the same old racism.

It gets worse when economic times fall a little harder and you tend to see the release of nationalism.

Common racist stereotypes about Travellers have been around for centuries. Some of them affect other ethnic groups too—for example that Travellers are dirty, lazy, criminal and so on.

But the press and politicians use language about Travellers that they would find it harder to use about other ethnic groups.

One reason for this is that we have very few people qualified to hit back because there is a lack of education. So Travellers are more marginalised than other ethnic groups.

However, there have been times when Gypsies have fitted in better. For a long time they provided an important service as metal workers going from village to village.

They have also worked in agriculture. In the 1950s and 1960s, a lot of Romany people and Travellers worked picking fruit. They were a mobile labour force that could go from place to place where work could be found.

Changes in the economy and work have impacted on Travellers’ lives. Lots of the trades that Travellers used to work in have gone. But new ones have replaced them.

Self-employment is endemic within the Travelling community. That partly arises from not having any choice—if you lack education and face discrimination, your prospects can be quite narrow.

Travellers are quite happy to be successfully self-employed. They have shown themselves to be very adaptive and entrepreneurial.

But while this is encouraged for other people, life is made difficult for Travellers.

Planning laws have become tighter and gradually squeezed the Traveller way of life—there is great pressure on land. The defence of “green belt” land is used as an excuse to target Travellers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Back in the 1960s, we had a Labour government with some kindness towards Travellers, and got the Caravan Sites Act.

We got progress and provision for Travellers.

Something like 400 caravan parks were built around Britain under that Act. But things went downhill after 1994 with the Criminal Justice Act.

It abolished the Caravan Sites Act and scrapped the duty on councils to provide land for Travellers.

And police were given much greater powers to act against Travellers. We have won the most progress by organising and fighting back ourselves. And we are stronger today than we have been in the past.


When the Gypsy Council was founded in 1966, there were only about a dozen organisations in the whole of Europe.

That was again partly because of the huge toll that Nazi persecution had taken.

But recently the numbers have grown hugely, partly through the holding of a series of World Romani Congresses. These congresses bring together representatives of Romany and Traveller associations around Europe.

We have to be clear and determined about how to beat racism against Travellers. We have human rights, and we’re going to stand up for those rights.

We are entitled to have a space to live. We simply want to be on equal terms with other people and have our right to a place in the sun.

Traveller Facts

  • The Romany (or Romani) people are an ethnic group living mostly in Europe.
    Most speak a dialect of Romani as well as the language of the country they live in.
  • Irish Travellers are a largely nomadic group from Ireland, who are not Romani.
    They live mainly in Ireland, Britain and the US. They speak Shelta, a language with two dialects, Gammon and Cant.
  • Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as distinct ethnic groups.
    As such they are protected under the Race Relations Act in Britain.
  • A 2007 report found that more than half of Travellers do not live past the age of 39.
  • Suicide rates were almost seven times higher among Traveller men compared to non-Traveller men.
  • One third of Travellers in Britain don’t have a legal or secure place to live.

Grattan Puxon is secretary of the Dale Farm Housing Association. For more information contact [email protected]

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