Direction of travel

A Romani caravan in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (picture from the museum website).

I was doing some research among my dad’s files for another project when I came a across an old police bulletin from 1982. These were notices that were circulated within the police force when, for example, they were on the lookout for a fugitive. They would contain information such as a description of a suspect, the registration number, colour, make and model of relevant vehicles, as well as instructions on places of interest to search, such as towns, roads, ports, motorway services and motor auctions.

Of course back then, there was no email, and so they would most likely be sent by fax machine or internal post to all the relevant divisions that needed to receive them. I was struck by some of the dated language and the specific instruction to be on the lookout for ‘itinerants or gypsy types’, which is a reflection of the prejudices of the time, and language and practices that were accepted then (you would hope) would not be so tolerated today.

It wasn’t the first time this week that the word ‘gypsy’ cropped up. You might recall that a couple of weeks ago I discussed my dad’s complicated numbered filing system. Today, I decided to go right back to see what his very first folder contained and what it was entitled. Folder number 1 of 183 is called ‘Gypsies’ (by the way, there are far more than 183 folders, as many of his topics have sub-folders, numbered 50.1, 50.2 etc).

In there I found many clippings taken from newspapers from the early 1960s onwards. Unfortunately the earliest of them do not show the date as dad only got into the habit of dating them later on, so I can’t be certain what years they were written, but what is interesting is that there are a fair few composed by the man who started the Countryman’s Diary column 100 years ago in 1922, Major Jack Fairfax-Blakeborough.

His love and knowledge of the racing world meant that he had fostered a respectful relationship with members of the travelling community, having met many at horse fairs where they would trade in racehorses. He declared their knowledge and expertise on breeding and the quality of a mount was second to none. He distinguished between true gypsy clans and other nomadic caravan dwellers. “The gypsy proper has always suffered from confusion with other restless wandering nomads. The real gypsy has has little affinity with the very considerable army of hawkers, tinkers, general dealers, scrap merchants …and those who claim to be gypsies with a long lineage…All these restless creatures of the open air have been lumped together under the same heading,” he said.

But having got to know those he calls ‘true’ gypsies, and accepting that they did do a bit of poaching merely to feed themselves, it’s clear he had a real fondness for these people of the road. He says: “I found true gypsies to be honest, dependable men of their word, and for many of them had a great liking and respect.”

He was also quite adamant about the correct spelling, that ‘gypsy’ should be spelled with a ‘Y’ and not an ‘I’. Throughout this folder, there are a variety of spellings, such as ‘gypsy’, ‘gipsy’, ‘gipsies’ and ‘gypsies’. The Major declares it should be with a ‘Y’ as it derives from the word ‘Egyptian’ and stems from the fact that when the Romani first arrived in Europe in the 14th century, people believed they had come from Egypt. Even today, some of us mistakenly believe they originated in Romania, but in fact the Romani nomads trace their origins back to India, possibly to the north-west region of Rajasthan. The westward migration is believed to have begun as far back as 500AD due to invasions and unrest in the region.

On another note, I’d like to thank reader Richard Baker who got in touch to point out the cruelty of running snares for catching wild animals. Another reader had mentioned one to me in relation to the picture of a fox skull that I featured in my column a couple of weeks ago. By using the picture, I was not suggesting that I approved of such traps, it just happened to be the circumstances in which the long-dead animal was found, but I would like to thank Mr Baker for highlighting the matter.

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This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 11th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 9th November 2022