Gypsies and Travellers in Housing:
adaptation, resistance and the reformulation
of communities
Dr. David M Smith
School of Health and Social Care
University of Greenwich
[email protected]
Long established communities in urban areas. Urban
anthropologists unlike other migrant groups urban Gypsies
tendency to remain in working class districts over successive
The travellers were here with the Irish a long time before
they moved the blacks in after the war. Then the yuppies
started coming and now the black folk are being pushed
out...We were here first there’s a long connection my
grandfolk and their people came from down country in the
1920s and camped in yards in Mitcham, Wandsworth and
Battersea. Sheepcote Lane (Battersea) was all yards in the
50s and they were all related to us...A lot of the old families
are still about though many moved away and some went
back on the road in the 80s...this was a good area once but
its changed for the worst since the property developers and
professionals started moving in (Male, 64, Battersea)
Adaptation of traditional economic traits of self
employment, flexibility and family based employment to an
urban context (e.g move from horse to car dealing, scrap
metal, construction, market trading etc).
It is apparent that economic and institutional factors have
combined to bring travellers into the city on a more
permanent basis without altering the essential elements of
their world structure’
Sibley, D. (1981) Outsiders in Urban Society, p. 76.
Battersea early 20th Century
Development of semi permanent shanty towns on edges
of towns from late 19-mid 20th C (e.g Mitcham ‘redskin
village’, Belvedere Marshes)
Impact of urbanisation on perception/ imagery of G&T.
The Gypsies pitched their tents and halted their vans in
areas of transition, on brickfields and on waste ground,
on sites of intended buildings and where buildings had
been pulled down…Many of their camps were in the most
depressed areas. Mayall, D. (1988) Gypsy-travellers in
nineteenth century society, p. 35
20th C numbers fuelled by housing shortages, caravan
dwelling resort for the poor (correlations between
caravan dwelling and homelessness see Belton, B (2005))
Anyone who wants to see the effects of the housing
shortage should visit the dreadful caravan dwellings that
exist in numbers in many of the northern towns…I
inspected those in Wigan with considerable care and I
have never seen comparable squalor except in the Far
Orwell, G. (1937) The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 54
Impact of legislation/ policy from mid 20th C
Shift in policy from spatial expulsion/ execution in Middle Ages (e.g 1530 Egyptians Act)
towards assimilation/ conversion from 19th C. Anti nomadic nature of policy underpinned by
‘That system of ideas and practices which serve to normalise and reproduce sedentary modes
of existence and pathologise and repress nomadic forms of existence (McVeigh, op cit, p. 9)
Increased rates of settlement from mid 20th C: policies restricting nomadism and attempting
to settle Gypsies and other caravan dwellers on permanent sites and into housing.
Post war housing shortages rise in caravan dwelling and unlicensed sites.
1960 Caravan Act required site owners to obtain planning permission and licenses – closure of
many sites, rise in unauthorised camping and tensions with settled community.
1968 Caravan Act required LA’s to provide sites for G&T’s residing in their area combined with
tougher enforcement against unauthorised camping. Based on spatial segregation and
minimisation of contact with settled community.
Many sites poor quality, on contaminated land, next to motorways, railway lines, sewage
Sites were rarely anything more than poorly serviced, often vandalised and the focus of local
prejudice, discrimination and police surveillance. In effect many sites could be likened to small
Bantustans sometimes surrounded with deep ditches, corrugated iron and/ or barbed wire.
Belton, B. (2005) Gypsy and Traveller Ethnicity: The Social Generation of an Ethnic
Phenomenon p. 119
1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act – context of moral panics about NA
Travellers and illegal raves late 80s’early 90s. Made UA camping a criminal offence and
withdrew obligation on LA’s to provide sites. GTANA’s indicate net decline in pitch
The power of these stereotypes however, relates to the context of their supposed
transitions, that is a purified countryside. The countryside it seems belongs to the
middle class, to landowners and to people who engage in blood sports. A rigid
stereotype of place – the English countryside – throws up discrepant others. The
presence of these discrepant groups reflects the anxieties of those in dominant
positions who see their material interests threatened.
Sibley, D. (1995) Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West, p. 57.
94 Act encouraged development of private sites (90% planning applications rejected
compared to 10% among general population) amidst strong local opposition.
Both social scientists and government planners fail to appreciate the role agency plays
even – perhaps especially- amongst the most excluded groups in society...There seems
to be a cycle in the spatial relationship between the British state and Gypsy-Travellers
with the state asserting methods of spatial control and then Gypsy-Travellers finding
ways to subvert it.
Bancroft, A. (2005) Roma and Gypsy-Travellers in Europe: Modernity, Race, Space and Exclusion p.
Methods/Research Locations
 Ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation (Kent and S. London
 200 Gypsy Traveller Accommodation Needs Assessments (GTANA)
requirement in 2004 Housing Act.
 158 surveys and two focus groups with G&T’s (103 housed) on
accommodation and employment related issues (semi rural/small town
 20 in depth interviews and 2 focus groups with housed young people, their
families, social/local authority housing officers and community workers.
(semi-rural Dorset)
 20 questionnaires, two focus groups and qualitative interviews with
housed G&Ts and housing officers (small city Kent)
 20 questionnaires (research on-going) housed Irish Travellers ( Inner
 Oral history project (ongoing) with elderly G&T’s on settlement and
housed communities in mid 20th C (S. London)
Routes into Housing
40% entered housing due to a lack of authorised sites
and/or stopping places.
We were stopping on the marshes. The council said if
you go in houses just till we’ve built you a site so we
went in houses but the site was never built for us they
only built a site for the roadsiders that hadn’t gone into
housing when us lot did’ (female, Kent).
I’d love to be on a site but there’s a 10 year waiting list.
They offered me the flat and we took it because there
was nowhere else to go (male, Inner London)
10% entered after failing to get planning permission to
develop private sites.
The wife liked the area but we couldn’t get our land
passed so we sold it and bought the house (male,
‘I’ll tell you the difference between us and you. You can
put in for planning permission. You haven’t gotta say
who you are. We put in for it, we’ve gotta put in as a
Gypsy. Then, you’ve gotta turn round and prove that
you are a Gypsy. Now you tell me if that happens
anywhere else’ (male, Kent)
21% entered after being accepted as homeless (dwell in a caravan but no legal place
to put it)
We wanted a place on the site where my mum and brothers are but there were no
places I’m down on the list but we’re stuck in this house‘ cos there’s nowhere else to
go. I hate it here it’s ruined my life. Everything I need I could have on a site in a trailer
(female Kent)
20% entered for ‘family reasons’ – to live close to family and/or access to education
and health services.
‘because dad’s sisters live round this way and they helped out after dad died’ (female,
‘I don’t like this house its not how we’ve lived. But we’re getting older now and need
to be here so I can get seen by a doctor when me or the wife’s poorly’ (male, Dorset)
We ain’t here for me it’s the chavvis they need an education. A lot of them (schools)
won’t take them from the roadside so you need an address to get them into school. I
want mine to get an education not grow up and not be able to read and write like me.
We were on the road when I was growing up and I never got any schooling (male,
South London)
Kent survey (103 housed) 65% of those housed for between 1-10 years would give up
their house if a pitch on a site was available (Smith, D. (2007) Sittingbourne Gypsy and
Traveller Survey)
Impacts of settlement
I know a house is bigger but in a trailer you’ve got windows all around and can see outside all
the time. In a house you’re closed in like in prison you’ve just got the walls to stare at and the
air’s not good central heating’s not right. I was never ill in my life till we were put here (male,
We don’t like the stairs the dogs use the bedrooms we sleep downstairs in the living room how
we slept in the trailer...At our old place we could keep the trailer outside and most nights we’ll
sleep in that and use the house as little as we could. I don’t like being in houses it’s not our
way they should build us sites and give our houses to those that need them (female, Inner
Gender dimensions of settlement: isolation and ‘nerves’ experienced by women evidence of
increasing rates of drug/alcohol abuse emerging in housed populations (breakdown of
extended family/ patriarchal systems of social control)
It’s one of the loneliest things that can happen to a travelling woman. It’s alright for the men
they can go off to the fairs and everything else. It’s the women, men aren’t in the house 24
hours, the men probably won’t come in until 8pm and they’ve been out all day and they just
go to bed but we’ve been there all day. It’s been really, really hard (female, Dorset)
‘You have a drive down the High Street and have a look at the boys I grew up with …they're
either out of their head on drugs or on Tennants Super, because they're getting rid of the day,
there's no point in them having a day…They're all stuck in houses now, all stuck in the council
estates, they don't want to be there but where are they going to go? (female, Kent)
Relations with neighbours
70% of entire sample experienced prejudice and hostility from neighbours (though
variations: highest in Kent, lowest in S and Inner London).
Before we even moved in they found out and broke in and wrote ‘dirty Gypsies’ all over
the door’ (male, Kent)
The gorgers (non Gypsies) cannot take criticism of their kids and if you complain it’ll end
up in a fight whereas Travellers, they will take advice and sort their kids out when they
play up ‘cos we all know each other so ‘I’ll tell your father’ normally does it (female,
Social segregation based on stereotypical images attributed to Gypsies/Travellers and by
Gypsies/ Travellers to their neighbours.
They think we’re dirty gippos and we think they’re dirty gorgers and the difference with
us and them is that they we’re clean but they really are filthy so we don’t mix (male,
The gorgers on this estate are the worst, Really badly raised and most would argue over
a penny piece because they’re scag heads. They should all be under social services for
the way they bring up their kids (female, Kent)
It’s like anything if you know someone hates you before you start, you puts up the
barrier and think why be nice to these people. It makes you a different person…we put
our hand up to the people [wave] they turn away, and one woman kept coming over
about the music, but it wasn’t loud. But the gorger neighbour had the music twice as
loud nothing was said’ (male, Dorset)
Recreating Communities
Kent, Dorset ‘Gypsy’ estates containing over 50% Gypsy/Travellers residents. Result of housing
allocation processes and housing transfers that allow for a significant degree of nomadism
within housing.
They put us in substandard housing because that’s what they think we are – substandard
people (male, Dorset)
As much as people try to separate Gypsies in housing in this area, they’re wheeling and
dealing to be in houses near their own families, so then you end up around this area with
estates full of travellers, and people don’t understand why they want to be together. But it is
that family network (male, Sittingbourne focus group).
If they come into housing off a site or the roadside they’ve generally lived a very communal
type existence and to be put into a house where everybody lives their own lives behind closed
doors is a very difficult adjustment to make, hence they tend to bunch together in particular
estates and live in the same manner that they’re used to’ (Housing Officer, Dorset).
Through the mutual exchange system they are very mobile within housing and don’t stay put
for long, they’re moving around and using houses like wagons the lifestyle doesn’t stop just
because they’re in housing(Housing Officer, Kent)
We move around more than we did in trailers because if you got a stop you’d stay for as long
as you could. In houses though I can’t stay for long ... we’ve been here about three months
now and we’ll give it another month or two then I’ve got a cousin we’ll stay with then come
back here in the New Year for three four month then go on the road for the summer fairs
(female, Kent)
Moves in the past five years (103 G&T households)
None 28%
Once 18%
Twice 22%
Three 18%
Four 5%
Five 5%
Six + 4%
Not many gorger friends. Far more Traveller ones I feel more comfortable with other
Travellers ( Kent, male).
I got family all over this estate there’s so many of us the gorgers wouldn’t dare give us
any trouble that’s the best thing about being here (Dorset, male)
We stick together if there’s trouble but because people know we’re Gypsies they always
point to us whenever there’s trouble (Dorset, male)
When we came here there were three other travellers on this estate. After they (council)
cleared the marshes and didn’t build the site they promised they housed a lot of them
here from the marshes and the gorgers started to move away swap their houses with
travellers ‘cos they don’t want to be near us (Kent, male)
Academics/commentators historical continuity – impending extinction of G&T’s
‘…the Gypsy identity to which these young people cling is no longer the same as that of their
elders…(we may be) witnessing the last flickering of the Gypsies centuries old resistance to
Charlemange, J. (1984) ‘Bridging the Cultural Gap’ Unesco Courier, pp. 15-17
Neglect dynamic nature of identity in the face of external changes; the decline of nomadism
and convergence with working class youth regardless of ethnicity.
It will never disappear, because my kids, all these little kids, and their kids there’ll still be
Gypsy generations even 20 years down the line. When mine grow up they’ll say ‘my mum
was a Gypsy’ (female, Dorset)
People say they’re Travellers this, Travellers that and Travellers the other but deep down
they want to be like us. They dress like us with the gold earring and they talk like us (Dorset
focus group)
They do say to me at school I wish I was a Traveller (Dorset, focus group)
Focus groups with young G&T’s stressed that nomadism/ caravan dwelling were not
essential to ethnic identity. Emphasis on ethnic origins, identification with cultural norms,
rituals (horse fairs, weddings, working practices) and family descent.
I hate it when people say ‘I was a Gypsy’ [or] ‘my nan was a Gypsy’ [or] ‘I am a Gypsy
because I live in a trailer (Dorset focus group)
‘What bugs me is that just because we live in a house and don’t go travelling that you’re not
Travellers. It doesn’t mean that at all, you’re still Gypsies even though you don’t go travelling
(Dorset focus group)
New Labour – GTANA’s would identify the need for sites and
feed into Regional Strategies.
Coalition scrapping of regional plans for new sites , restrict
and penalise unauthorised encampments and
developments and ‘localism’
Local opposition – rise of planning refusals and evictions
pushing more onto the road or into housing.
Wider implications for BME groups – how localised decision
making can encompass diversity at the local level.
Parven (2011) growing polarisation between political
engagement between manual and non-manual and
between affluent and deprived areas. Localism may
‘merely replace one form of tyranny with another, by giving
engaged, articulate, advantaged members of local
communities the power to dominate and marginalise
disengaged, disaffected disadvantaged members of that
same local community’ P. Parvin, ‘Localism and the left: the
need for strong central government’, Renewal (Vol. 19, No.
2, pp. 37-49).
• we will radically
reform the planning
system to give
neighbourhoods far
more ability to
determine the
shape of the places
in which their
inhabitants live,
based on the
principles set out in
the Conservative
Party publication
Open Source
Planning” (Cabinet
Office, 2010, 11).

Gypsies and Travellers in Housing: adaptation, resistance and the