Fellow Travellers

I’ve been a-gipsying, or, rambles among our gipsies and their children in their tents and vans, by George Smith of Coalville, published in 1883. Smith’s rambles took him into Essex. In spite of the somewhat picturesque illustrations (see below), he found nothing romantic about Gypsies, and his mission was to end their way of life and restore them to God.

There was an astonishing headline in the Maldon & Burnham Standard recently: ‘Travellers “most polite we have dealt with”’ (the online version went for the more predictable ‘Traveller crackdown set after encampment on the Prom in Maldon’). A police spokesman said, ‘The travellers moved off the prom at Maldon and I have got to say they were the most polite, cleanest and engaging group of travellers I have had the pleasure to police.’ It is rare to read a ‘good news’ story about Travellers, but Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month provides an excuse to look beyond the stereotypes.

That is certainly what Essex Police’s Gypsy, Traveller and Rural Engagement Team (GTRET) do, based on my experience of spending a couple of days with them. They are a small team (a sergeant, four constables, and a special constable), covering the whole county, and their remit includes not just enforcing the law as far as unauthorised encampments are concerned, but dealing with a whole range of crimes that come under the umbrella of ‘rural’, such as wildlife crime, hare coursing, theft of agricultural machinery, and heritage crime, notably nighthawking (illegal metal detecting). Because they have to spend a lot of time driving round the county in their distinctive Ford Ranger pickups, they are the most visible police presence in the remoter parts of Essex.

Unauthorised encampments are a fact of life, given that there are no transit sites for Travellers in Essex, and there are clearly defined ways of dealing with them, occasionally under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, but more commonly by Court Order, a process which in most parts of Essex is handled by the Essex Countywide Traveller Unit (ECTU), run by the County Council.

The great thing about both the GTRET and the ECTU is that they treat Gypsies and Travellers as individuals, who have the same rights and are deserving of the same respect as any other members of the public. In the last few years we all, and especially those of us involved with public services and the judiciary, have quite rightly been trained and educated to treat all people equally, whatever their race, colour, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Somehow Gypsies and Travellers seem to have been overlooked in that process. It is now becoming something of cliché to say that language and behaviour directed towards Gypsies and Travellers is the last accepted form of racism, but still it goes on.

One day this week Lucy and I were honoured to be asked to attend a Travellers Forum in Chelmsford Prison. These events are arranged every couple of months by Sister Philomena of the Prison’s Chaplaincy Team, and they provide an opportunity for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers to come together to celebrate their heritage in a way that has long been available to other heritage and faith groups. On this occasion we were joined by Eddie Gilmore and Breda Power of the Irish Chaplaincy in London, as well as an Irish band of a fiddler and two accordion players. About twenty prisoners were present, and two officers – one of them a Traveller herself, the only Traveller prison officer (so I am told) in the country. After an hour or so of music and singing and a lot of good-natured chat, much of it between family members (brothers, fathers and sons) a traditional Gypsy dish of bacon, cabbage and potato was served, cooked earlier in the prison kitchen. It went down well.

A friendlier and more polite bunch of men you could not hope to meet, and it was a privilege to sit down with them and share their food. They did not need to give us a card, before we left, thanking us for coming to see them and, as one wrote, ‘learning more about us’. We could all do with learning more about them, and trying to understand them and their way of life. And as Sister Philomena said afterwards, ‘whatever we do for our men, however small, is never lost’.

The Gypsy, Traveller and Rural Engagement Team was renamed the Rural Engagement Team in October 2019, when it was also announced that the unit would be enlarged to about double its previous strength.

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