Mapping the Histories of London’s Travellers

Dr Anna Hoare is an independent scholar and UCL alumna, currently carrying out research in support of a project to erect the first blue plaque in London commemorating the Gypsies and Travellers of Wardley Street, Wandsworth, and collaborating with Traveller activists in the UK and Ireland on law and human rights. In the following piece, she describes her work to produce interactive multimedia maps of London, based on the histories, perspectives and voices of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers. Click here to view the maps.

A glimpse of a huddle of trailer roofs from a train or motor way is the closest most people ever come to a Traveller site in the UK. The isolation of sites and their visible separation from the neighbourhoods of non-Travellers has become the norm, but it wasn’t always the case. As London rapidly expanded through the nineteenth century successive generations of Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller families owned yards, houses and businesses across the city and around the periphery, and engaged in an extraordinary range of trades and professions.

Open areas such as Belvedere Marshes – now Thamesmead – had communities of several hundred families, most of whom lived in caravans and owned or rented land and yards on the marshes, gaining access to the economic hub of London’s East End via the Woolwich Ferry. Others were based close to clients, occupying and owning yards such as those in and around Battersea, where businesses included building and repairing all sorts of vehicles, horse–drawn carts and carriages.

In Wandsworth, Wardley Street was the home of many of London’s hereditary costermongers, whose mobile shops sold fresh vegetables and flowers in summer, and logs and coal in winter. In areas with few shops, costermongers were essential providers of seasonal fresh food, and consumable goods too heavy to carry. The reign of London’s costermongers, whose traditional cries were renowned for their artistry, lasted from Elizabethan times until the late 1950s, and the 1949 electoral roll of Wardley Street reveals a plethora of well-known Romany as well as Irish Traveller surnames.

A black and white photo of a Traveller couple, dressed smartly and smiling
Newly married couple, Foot’s Cray, 1950s
Tracie Giles & the Smith family

Mapping the Histories of London’s Travellers, a project I was privileged to work on as Community Research Officer for Hackney-based N.G.O. London Gypsies and Travellers, has produced interactive multimedia maps of London, based on the histories, perspectives and voices of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers. By selecting a location with numbered records you can home in on archival material, news media, photographs, and recordings of Travellers describing their experiences of living and working in London from the 1950s to the present day.

Two maps cover the period up to 1970 and from 1970 to today, marking the dramatic change in Travellers’ lives around this time. Many yards had been bought under Compulsory Purchase Orders, as London gradually rebuilt; a rare exception, Mills Yard (pictured), was recorded in the ownership of the Mills family in 1904, and is still owned by them today. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act ushered in the politics of sites, effectively enforcing dependency on local authority sites in return for minimal legal security. Where a single site of fifteen pitches was provided in a borough, a council could seek to be ‘designated’, giving them new powers to expel caravans. By 1983, nineteen of the thirty-two London boroughs were ‘designated’, and much of London had become a no-go area for Travellers. The later map records the early days of Traveller activism and the role of people such as Tom Lee, Secretary of the Romany Guild, who compared the new law to the Group Areas Act of South Africa’s apartheid system.

Black and white photo of a group of Romany men seated on the ground, with one man speaking to them
Romany men listening to London Missionary, William Larmour, Corke’s Meadow, 1951
Bert Hardy/ Picture Post/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

The pre-1970 map has demonstrated the importance of geographical intersections between ‘green corridors’ and direct arteries into and across London, such as the old A2 from Kent (Roman ‘Watling Street’). ‘Green corridors’ is a term Travellers used to describe areas free from cultivation and permanent settlement surrounding rivers such as the Cray, the Lea, and the Wandle that flowed into the Thames. Wherever these corridors gave access to the Thames bridges or ferries, Travellers could move in and out of the city, confident of finding quiet camps and water and grazing for horses. Where a major route across London intersected with a green corridor, popular stopping places developed. Some of these, Corke’s Meadow and Ruxley Pit, for example, were recorded by London photographer Bert Hardy in the early 1950s.

While images of caravans and horses against a backdrop of gasometers or East End bomb sites might appear out of sync with their surroundings, Gypsies and Travellers in post-war London were creative and adaptable to the new opportunities that arose. In a series of remarkable recordings linked to different locations on both maps, Joseph Jones describes how his grandfather and uncles kept cattle on Belvedere Marsh, which they took across the Thames via the Woolwich Ferry to a slaughterhouse they owned in the East End. They sold meat to restaurants across central London. Travellers were quick to recognize opportunities. After the war many bought army lorries sold off by military bases and expanded into new businesses, including the sand and gravel industry. All the gravel pits on the outskirts of London were eventually bought by Travellers and are still owned by the same family today.

The maps give remarkable insights into the variety and continuity of Romany and Irish Traveller communities and their experiences through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in London. They span an era of dynamic change in London itself, and of the lives of nomadic people, whose businesses, dwellings and property were radically attenuated by post-war planning and the reconstruction of the city through the 1970s and ‘80s. Exhibitions based on the maps were held in 2019 at City Hall, Mildmay Community Centre in Hackney, and at Peabody’s centre in Thamesmead, close to Thistlebrook, the largest site in London, where descendants of the Travellers of Belvedere Marsh continue to live today.

Black and white photo of traveller caravans in Mills' Yard, Battersea
Mills’ Yard, Battersea, 1964
Mills family/ Graham Downie, National Fairgrounds Archive

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL

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