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The History of Gypsies in the New Forest

It is believed that Romany Gypsies originated from India and travelled through the Middle East, between 1000 AD and 1200 AD. The name ‘Gypsy’ is understood to have been made up from the original word for ‘Egyptian’. Gypsy Traveller culture evolved during this migration. The first recorded arrival of Gypsies into the United Kingdom was in Scotland in 1505 and into England in 1514.

In 1530 an act of Parliament was passed aiming to rid the country of all Gypsies by requiring all Gypsies who were already living in England to leave within sixteen days. It also banned immigration; this act was called the Egyptian Act. In 1554 the Egyptian Act was amended and death penalties become imposed for Gypsies already living in England if they did not leave within one month. A second Egyptian Act replaced the previous ones in 1783 and all through the nineteenth and twentieth century’s further Acts of Parliament continued to affect the Gypsy Traveller traditions and way of life.

A coloured postcard titled New Forest Gipsy Camp
Printed by Photocrom Co. Ltd., c1904 -c1961
Courtesy of Georgina Babey from her private collection

The earliest known document to record Gypsies in Hampshire is an entry in the Chawton, near Alton, Parish records in 1638. For three hundred years Gypsies were able to camp anywhere they wished within the New Forest in small family groups. They had their usual places to stop where they often met up with their family and acquaintances.

They looked after their elderly members and were very family orientated. From the start of the nineteenth century Gypsy Travellers, travelled on foot or in light carts sleeping in a Bender, which was a tent made of hazel branches and covered with tarpaulin. Because of their nomadic existence the children did not usually attend school but were taught important living skills and crafts by their elders. Gypsies had great pride, high morals and respected their elders.

During the middle of the 19th century Gypsy Travellers started to use horse drawn wagons with fitted interiors but often still slept in Benders. With the coming of the motor vehicle in the twentieth century a number of Gypsy Travellers started to use trailers and caravans instead of horse drawn vehicles.

A postcard titled Gypsies in the New Forest (PC1)
Courtesy of Georgina Babey from her private collection
Printed by E A Sweetman & Son of Tunbridge Wells 1924 -70

At the start of the twentieth century the Law stated that Gypsy Travellers were not allowed to remain on the same land for longer than two days. The majority of Gypsy Travellers would abide by the law and move on every forty eight hours travelling a regular route which took them around six weeks to complete. Local residents of the forest would look out for the regular return of the Gypsy Travellers in anticipation, so that they could have their knives sharpened, purchase pegs and baskets and have odd jobs carried out for a fair price such as china repairs and beehive making. The Gypsy travellers also carried out seasonal work such as potato digging, hop and strawberry picking, and the woman told fortunes and went hawking.

Gypsies were welcomed into all the New Forest pubs and have been remembered for their singing and dancing talents. They were well known and respected by the local police, villagers and tradesmen.

In 1926 the Compound system was started which meant that seven areas were set aside in the forest for the Gypsies to camp without interference but they were no longer to be allowed to roam the open forest and camp where they chose. These sites were at Thorney Hill, Broomhill, Shave Wood, Blackhamsley, Hardley, Latchmoor and Longdown. Movements between these compounds were not restricted but they were forbidden to camp outside of these compounds.

Postcard which was posted in 1950 titled A New Forest Encampment (PC4)
Courtesy of Georgina Babey from her private collection.

The compounds had either an insufficient or nonexistent water supply for the inhabitants and no toilet arrangements. Living in the compounds interfered with the Gypsy way of life because they had preferred to live in small family units rather than a community; this quickly led to trouble and arguments between families. The compound system also restricted the Gypsy Travellers earning potential because they were no longer able to travel earning an honest living along the way. Rather than live in the compounds some families moved out of the New Forest altogether.

By 1935 many Gypsy Traveller families were camping back in the open forest making sure that their existence was not obvious. They caused no harm and the police usually turned a blind eye having known them from their pre-compound days.

At the beginning of the Second World War the seven compounds were reduced down to five and the Gypsy Travellers were once again collected up and moved into these five compounds. The families assumed that after the war they would be able to return to their pre-war circumstances but this was not to be.

In 1947 these five compounds were visited by the New Forest Committee who reported that the families were living in appalling conditions they also suggested that the Gypsy Travellers would be a problem to the surrounding population. At this time the total population of the five compounds was 411 but a few were apparently not of Gypsy Traveller origin but unfortunate individuals who had been displaced due to the war such as a Hindu girl whose home had been bombed in Southampton.

Shortly after this report was carried out, The Rural Council for Ringwood and Fordingbridge started a policy of resettlement, moving the families from the compounds into Council accommodation and the New Forest District Council soon did the same. The Gypsy Traveller families had no choice but to move into this settled housing, for some it offered a better standard of living, but for the elderly it was very hard to adapt to living in a house after years of a Nomadic existence.

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