The Travellers who visited the sea

By Cllr Maya Evans

On National Roma Day, 8th April, a Traveller community visiting Hastings was evicted for the third time in less than a week of arriving in our seaside tourist town.

Tanya stood outside her caravan telling me about her adventurous life on the road, with a twinkle in her eye. Her irrepressible character sparkled like a rough diamond.

 “Growing up, my family travelled around the country working the land. In Kent we’d pick apples and sweet peas; sweet peas were my favourite: they were good to eat and easy to pick.Too many apples would eventually make you sick, or make you crap a lot. We would do sprout topping and all sorts. In the evenings we’d all gather round a fire and cook up a big pot of stew to share. It was a good life back then.”

Looking at their motor homes pitched up on our seafront car park made her idyllic-sounding childhood seem like a completely different era.

One of the caravan windows was broken. The night before someone had fired ball bearings at their homes using a BB gun.

Tanya explained: “We heard something hitting our van. The kids asked me what was it? I said it was the seagulls dropping stones on the roof. I didn’t want to tell them the truth.”

Tanya and her partner were travelling with four children. One of them has Downs Syndrome and is terminally ill with a heart defect: “Doctors say he will only live until 13. All the time we have with him is borrowed. They operated on his heart when he was born.”

 Sonny Jim stood wrapped in a blanket ecstatically grinning and hopping with glee. “His health has improved since we started travelling. When we were settled in our council flat in Tottenham, he was always sick.”

Looking into the caravan I was amazed that six people were able to live in such a compact space. It was fastidiously tidy, everything obviously had a place, possessions minimal. It made me think that their carbon footprint must be minuscule compared to that of static house dwellers.

Her accent had an Irish lilt and sang with humorous stories of high adventure on the open road, a lust for travel and an unquenchable thirst to live freely. Tanya is a Romany Traveller, while her husband is an Irish Traveller. She explained how their families had not wanted them together, plus, at the time, she was ‘settled’ in a house, another mark against her eligibility.

She nestled a cup of tea against her chest. She had barely taken a sip in the hour we chatted, too distracted by childhood stories of travelling around with her father who won strongman competitions and made a small income out of the prize money: “My brothers and sisters would sit either side of an iron bar; he would pick us all up. He worked as a labourer. He could do lots of things. He could mend things, take something which wasn’t useful and make it into something good.”

Her youngest son, Paddy, who looked around 8, was dressed in a blue Monsters Inc dressing gown. His spiked hood was pulled up for extra monster effect. He peered up at me: “Is this rain or snow?”

 The weather couldn’t decide what it was doing as specks of sleet settled on his freckle-filled face.  The blue mini-Monsters Inc figure then hared off toward the beach, his small stature disappearing behind a mound of shingle set against a backdrop of overcast grey and languid turquoise sea.

Young in spirit, it was hard to pinpoint Tanya’s age, but from her life chronology, I would guess she was around 50. She explained how she loved Hastings and had always visited as a child, and now she tried to visit every year, as they love the town so much. She told me about an aunt who, 40 years ago, had lived in a cottage in Old Town. Originally the small fisher cottages had been slum-quarters for the working people. Now the cosy cottages are exclusive and much sought after, fashionable, quaint and cute holiday homes or expensive Air bnb. Tanya pointed at the East Hill: “My Aunty lived near the big blue house. We’d come and stay with her for a few weeks every summer and eat chips on the beach. It was a brilliant time.”

The controversial police bill going through Parliament will not only curtail protest rights, it will also further criminalise Travellers. In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act limited Travellers to convoys of six caravans. The Police Crime and Courts Sentencing Bill currently going through Parliament will limit them to just a single caravan, in effect completely outlawing an already criminalised and endangered way of life. The aim is obviously to eradicate this community. 

If a Traveller community is found to be breaking the law, the maximum penalty is a £2,500 fine or a three-month prison sentence. Families will be separated, children sent to care homes, or worse, ‘secure schools’, which will be the new UK child prisons run by the Oasis Charity Trust. If the Police Bill passes, children as young as 12 could be sent to places like Medway Secure School for ‘civilising’ and other forms of education based on colonial Christian missionary practices. 

Gypsy, Roma and Travellers were the first minority to be targeted by 1930s Nazi Germany, the first to be sent to concentration camps and forced into gas chambers. If the Police Bill passes, Gypsy, Roma and Travellers will be the litmus test for further repressive legislation, using the most vulnerable within society to see how far draconian law can be pushed.

Maintaining a nomadic lifestyle has only been achieved by a small number of ethnic groups. During visits to Afghanistan, I have been lucky enough to meet the nomadic Kuchi who largely survive by grazing livestock. Similarly, the Kuchi are persecuted. In the hierarchy of discrimination, their subsistence nomadic tent-dwelling lifestyle is considered the least desirable within society.

The Roma are thought to have originated from India, but due to their dark features people assumed they were from Egypt, which is where the word Gypsy comes from.

Travellers are generally of Irish or Scottish ancestry and have probably always roamed this country, choosing not to settle when most humans built permanent dwellings around the time crops started to be farmed. In the last 500 years these three nomadic groups have overlapped and lived side by side, with different histories, but similarly persecuted. It’s remarkable to think we have all originated from nomadic tribes, that humans evolved as a species to constantly be on the move.

Roma, Gypsy and Travellers have a long and proud history in Britain. They were known as story tellers, musicians and entertainers. They have been mobile, cheap and versatile labour – helping to build our extensive canal systems, roads, the factories which fuelled the industrial revolution, casual seasonal farm labour, serving soldiers during war, everything from blacksmithing to basket weaving. They have been an integral part of building this country, though, throughout their service, they have been persecuted. At times they were shipped abroad and even hanged.

“I hated living in my council flat in Tottenham: having four walls felt like a prison. We were also targeted by our neighbours, with attacks on our home. My kids were picked on at school. The final straw was when a Traveller said to me, ‘You’ve settled, you’re no longer a Traveller.’ That was it, I packed up a few special things, took my children and went on the road. I couldn’t live knowing I was depriving my children of their heritage.”

In fewer than two days of arriving in our town, a Facebook campaign against the Traveller community had been launched. First of all, accusations about stealing sweets and forcing a nearby gift shop to close, when in reality, the shop was actually short-staffed and employees “felt intimidated”.

Tanya struck me as a woman who has really lived life, and having had 16 children in total she is certainly a hard-working person. Her hair was casually pinned up with a plastic diamond studded clip. She wore dangly gold ear rings finished off with a jazzy floral cotton top and a dressing gown thrown over. High cheekbones and soft blue eyes made her mature beauty striking. But what really shone was her energy, her lust for life and a natural knack for humorous story-telling and a fast-thinking intelligence. Proud yet at the same time humble, she proclaimed: “My children won’t be anything special like a doctor or a policeman, but they’re good kids.” A couple of times she referred to her eldest daughter who had tragically passed away. Never going into detail, it was obviously a sadness constantly at the forefront of her mind. Her analysis and understanding of racism was perceptive: “The government is coming after all of us, Blacks, Muslims, Refugees, we’re all the same, they want to criminalise us all. The discrimination we experience is racism, same as Black people, in some ways it’s worse. Everywhere we go, people make up stories about us.”

Three days later, I caught up with the community at their third location in as many days. The night before they had been evicted from a recreation ground near the town’s dump. Police issued a Section 61 eviction notice after an argument in a playground involving one of the Traveller kids.

Tanya was still in good spirits: “It’s true, our kids get excited when they play in proper playgrounds, but you’ve got to understand, we’re normally on the road, it’s not often they go in a proper playground. Our four-year-old had an argument with another kid, I think it was over a swing.”

Another Facebook campaign ensued. The official police justification described an altercation in a playground and the discovery of “human faeces” in the same play area. Upon reading this officially filed explanation my mind started to boggle – had the police really carried out a rapid forensic test on excrement, or, like the rest of our town, was it in fact the result of an irresponsible dog owner? Obviously, I am aware of the racist trope around Travellers being unclean, but seeing this unconscious bias written down as an official justification for a legal eviction notice was completely jaw-dropping.

Currently Hastings doesn’t have a site for Travellers to legally pitch up, which means that wherever they stop in our town, they are automatically criminals. The shared attitude within local authorities is to try and get Travellers out as quickly as possible, and being seen as soft will lead to a ‘mass incursion’. The only legal stop site in the county is in Lewes, some 30 miles away, but there’s no guarantee of getting a place. Over the last ten years there has been an 8.4% decrease in local authority transit stops.

As a town, one of our main industries is tourism. A Victorian borough specifically built for leisure, we pride ourselves on hospitality. We are also a ‘Community of Sanctuary’, which means we offer shelter for those fleeing persecution with nowhere else to go. It was deeply saddening that our travelling visitors were not provided with the sanctuary we proudly advertise.

Within less than 24 hours of being parked up in a pub car park, which was closed due to Covid restrictions, the Travellers were evicted by bailiffs, and before evening, they were in another town 40 miles away. The last I saw of them, their half dozen caravans were resting under giant Douglas Fir trees, the spring sky piercing blue, illuminated by the bright midday sun. Tanya called out to her kids who were running around the car park. It was almost like a promotional video for a caravan holiday camp, if not for the bailiffs dressed in black prowling around, tow truck in the wings.

Only the previous week there was uproar within the Labour Party, when the Shadow Equalities Minister tweeted out a photograph of her delivering a leaflet which described “traveller incursions” alongside tackling anti-social behaviour, fly tipping and waste transfer sites.

The word ‘incursion’ is normally used to describe a hostile foreign military invasion. Listing Travellers alongside these other particular complaints is just outright racist. It’s generally acknowledged that racism is rife within Britain, but it’s unlikely you would get the Labour Party in this day and age describing a community of British black people as an ‘African incursion’ to be dealt with alongside rubbish.

Within a week I have had my eyes opened to the discrimination experienced by one of the most persecuted minorities in the country, and indeed, the world. I have regularly heard that the GRT community are one of the most persecuted minorities, but in all honesty, I had never really processed what that actually meant. For the community visiting Hastings, they were shot at, had a window damaged, were (unknowingly) subject to two Facebook campaigns, legally accused (without evidence) of defecating in a playground, and evicted three times, all of this within less than a week. And this is their life every week of the year. No wonder Travellers are known for their toughness.

Being hostile towards Gypsy, Roma and Travellers is still completely acceptable and unchallenged within mainstream society.

The discrimination experienced by the GRT community has a high price: acute deprivation, which results in life expectancy 10-12 years less than that of the national average, suicide rates four times higher. Some 42% are affected by long-term conditions and one in five women will experience the loss of a child, compared to one in a hundred in the non- Traveller community. They have disproportionate number of children in the care system, or with issues affecting mental health, depression and alcoholism. State-run criminalisation and racism mean it has become harder and harder for this community to survive. Gypsies and Travellers also have the lowest rate of economic activity of any ethnic group.

It’s curious to consider where these outwardly racist attitudes have come from, especially as most Travellers are white and have roamed these lands for hundreds if not thousands of years. It strikes me that Travellers are one of the last sectors of society not to be controlled by the state and capitalism.

In the last week, one of the main complaints was: “They don’t pay taxes”. This of course is ridiculous: everything in this country is highly taxed – you buy a bar of chocolate and you’re paying tax. Billionaires with offshore tax havens in the Bahamas dodge millions in tax, but they don’t receive the level of vitriol, discrimination and criminalisation which is directed towards the GRT community. 

In some ways, Travellers have refused to be bent by the rules, they refuse to be forced into houses or into repetitive office jobs. They treat land as ‘common land’, unperturbed by the concept of capitalist ownership. They have relatively subsistent lifestyles, minimal possessions and a lack of willing to conform. They are perhaps the most non-conformist sector within British society. They know all about our world, but choose to live in another, which we know very little about.

I would be in denial to try and claim all Travellers are exempt from criminal activity, but an acknowledged enlightened understanding of racism is that it’s unfair to stereotype. For discriminated minorities, the system has made life twice as hard, and constantly turning the other cheek when you’re persistently treated with disdain is unimaginable. 

Maya Evans is Hastings Borough Council lead member for Travellers. She is the first Hastings Councillor to visit a Traveller site. She has been an international peace activist for the last ten years, visiting Kabul and working with youth activists. In 2005 she was the first person to be criminalised under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for a peaceful protest which remembered the Iraq war dead by reading aloud the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians who had been killed in the ongoing conflict. Maya is now the Hastings Borough Council Cabinet lead member for Natural Environment, Leisure and Climate Change Strategy.

Main image: Hastings Old Town. Source: Author: Oast House Archive, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Photo credit of Travellers visiting Hastings: Jake Bowers

Photo credit of Maya with placard: Lily Kim

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