|Johnny Eastleigh looks at 500 years of attempts by parliament to create outlaws of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population|
It’s no news to any of us anymore that Romany people were targets of the Egyptians Act 1530. The Act went through a couple of changes over the centuries, but the core threat stayed the same – anyone in England found to be Romany was punished with death by execution. It sounds extreme, but it’s a matter of history – you can find a copy of the Act and records of some of its victims with a quick Google search. What’s a little harder to find is the advice of the Privy Council in 1559, which ordered that lawmen specifically ‘target their heads of family and their chiefs’. This plan was cooked up to better terrorise grieving wives and children into obedience. The idea that was by losing their husbands or heads of family, those remaining would be forced to live ‘normally’. Since we’re all still around today, we can assume those wives and children were made of much stronger stuff than the Privy Council gave them credit for.
By 1743, the government had finally realised we weren’t so easily controlled. They upped their game. They introduced the Justices Commitment Act which, like the Egyptians Act, punished people for the sole act of being Romany. By this time they had likely included Irish Travellers, who had by then begun migrating to England. Unlike the Egyptians Act, this time it was enough to just look, act or seem like a Romany or Traveller to be prosecuted. So keen were they to control these ethnic groups that even being mistaken for one was grounds for prosecution – can you imagine being so afraid of such a small group of people?
It wasn’t successful. The Turnpike Road Act had to be introduced in 1822 (if you’ve ever wondered where the old slur comes from, ‘turnpiker’ is one of the leading theories). This Act forbade Romany and Traveller people from stopping on the turnpikes – it seems like they had at least learned by now that execution wasn’t effective, because the punishment in this Act was instead a very dear fine. The Egyptians Act was finally repealed in 1856, after more than 325 years of defiance, failure and frustration for those who thought it was the solution to their ‘Gypsy problem’.
The following 1900s were one long steady stream of Acts that specifically tried to control or knuckle under Romany and Traveller people, and scrape back some pride after 400 years’ of failed attempts. The forest compounds of Hampshire in the 1920s, their deconstruction in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 and the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which forbade the building of private sites, and the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act which removed the responsibility of local authorities to provide sites themselves. By removing private site provision and absolving themselves of responsibility to build any new ones, they seemed to think they could finally pull a fast one. ’94 was nearly thirty years ago now – yet we’re here stronger, more mobilised and more united than ever.
It seems like our entire history in this country has been one long list of legislation. Since we’ve been here, not a century has passed since at least one piece of legislation was passed that we might consider nowadays as a human rights violation. Eventually, you have to wonder if the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is all that new or inventive – or if it’s just the latest link in an old stumpchain that could never hold any horses in the first place.
That question remains open. Where the Police Powers Bill will end, if we don’t stand up to it, is an open question too – this time the tactic is to make our traditional ways of life outright illegal. It’s the most blatant attack on Romany and Traveller communities since they were hanging men on sight. If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that they’ve tried their damnedest and their hardest – and they haven’t managed to beat us yet.
The first demo of our ‘summer of discontent’ will be held in
Parliament Square, July 7th, 1 PM.