River Wissey Lovell Fuller


September 2020

A few ago I researched the life of a true Romany bred gypsy woman because her story was so interesting. She was very co-operative - that is until I got round to having it published. She then claimed she was getting ‘bad vibes’ and changed her mind. My manuscript is still filed away somewhere in my study. It’s a pity because her story fascinated me. She told me a lot about Romany culture - much different to the Irish travellers. She told me of pride in their traditions, their respect for the countryside, their language and about the wagons they lived in. They believed the countryside looked after them so they should look after the countryside. Yes, they used their wits and lived off the land and certainly weren’t adverse to taking the odd pheasant or rabbit for the pot nor turning their horses into farmers’ fields to graze, but she was taught by her father that ‘to take more than you need leads to greed.’ Do you remember a fair haired gypsy woman, (not all Romany have black hair and swarthy complexions), named Christine who used to set up camp on the wide verges between Barton and Beachamwell? When she moved on after a few days the only signs she left of ever having been there were a small circle where she’d had her fire to cook over and larger ones where she’d tethered her horse Compo to graze. No mess at all. She spent the spring and summer travelling around Norfolk. True Romany gypsies can trace their ancestry back a thousand years to the regions of northwest India. Caught up in defending that area, when India was invaded by Persian Muslims, they eventually became cut off from their homeland. So began their relentless wanderings. By the end of the thirteenth century they’d reached Greece, in the fifteenth they spread through Serbia, Croatia, Romania and Hungary and then westwards into Europe reaching England, via Scotland, in the early 1500s. In those days, folk weren’t used to people coming in peace, or who looked different, lived a different lifestyle, held different values and spoke a foreign language. Romanys were treated with mistrust and persecuted; something that has continued to this day. It was made a crime to ‘wander abroad and sleep in the open air’ but nothing could suppress their desire to be free. For centuries they were punished with deportation or hanging. They were opportunists living off the land. Meadows, woods and hedgerows provided much of what they needed. Before the Enclosures Acts most of it was common land, then suddenly, the wealthiest became landowners expecting people to work and obey rules. Almost all the countryside, and that which lived in it, became owned by someone. Romany people were excluded; they couldn’t adapt to a way of life where freedom was denied them. Their life became even harder in the mid-nineteenth century when they were joined on the road by itinerant Irish people, coming to Britain to escape the famine.

Continued next month

Jill Mason

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