Ask anyone from the settled community (known as ‘gorgias’ to Romani Gypsies and as ‘country people’ to Irish Travellers) what Gypsies do for money and the list would be short: tarmacking, roofing, scrap-metal dealing, hawking or maybe horse dealing.
This picture, of course, has a germ of truth in it. Many Gypsies still work as skilled labourers — but what’s remarkable is just how entrepreneurial they are, too. These are trading peoples, with a global attitude towards seeking work that would impress even Iain Duncan Smith. I’ve been astonished to discover that many English and Scottish Romani Gypsies are enthusiastic Freemasons. Away from evictions such as Dale Farm, in October 2011, most Romani Gypsies and Travellers get on with life — trading both inside their communities in what one Irish Traveller entrepreneur, the antiques dealer Candy Sheridan, dubs a ‘parallel economy’ and, somewhat quietly, outside with the settled community too.
Traders are comfortable travelling abroad to find work. Many Gypsy men are not only fluent in English but also speak German, French and a smattering of Scandinavian languages. This is striking, since academics often bewail the fact that many can’t read or write — a relic of a nomadic lifestyle where they were often moved on every few days from stopping places and few attended schools. But their linguistic skills are very impressive. So is their lack of dependence on benefits, which many men in the cultures feel are shameful to obtain. They would rather travel across Europe to work.
Professions vary in the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but the more traditional unskilled jobs are disappearing fast. Many have turned themselves into tree surgeons or landscape gardeners, for instance, as casual work in the agricultural industry has dried up. More worryingly for the Gypsies, as of this year, regulation of the scrap-metal industry has tightened. Hard as this is in the short term, it is probable that the communities will adapt fast. The evangelical Gypsy Church Life and Light, which is spreading fast throughout the communities, holds Bible-reading classes for adults. These are boosting literacy rates, and that in turn makes it easier for adults to obtain professional certification for skilled work.
More traditional professions are respected abroad, if not here. The Gypsy cob, a powerfully built, quiet and handsome horse, usually of piebald or skewbald colouring, with feathered feet and a luxurious mane and tail, has become popular abroad, exported by British Gypsy dealers.
Two years ago, British dealers were selling cobs for tens of thousands of pounds as far afield as the US, Brazil, Australia and Russia. That market has shrunk since the recession but remains active. One such dealer, Loretta Rawlings, who alongside her husband has been exporting cobs since 1999, told me that the elders who dealt in horses were taken aback by the welcome they got when they went to the US, where the Gypsy Horse Registry of America maintains a DNA database of the breed. ‘The dealers are treated like royalty there. Funny that they have to travel 3,000 miles to get respect, and they are outcasts here.’
Despite the impression that Gypsy and Traveller culture is male-dominated, women are well-respected traders. Go to any horse fair and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women running stalls with considerable flair, trading traditional clothes, antiques, bedding and collectable china (Crown Derby being most coveted). The aforementioned Candy Sheridan, who rose to prominence when she challenged the eviction at Dale Farm, maintains that Gypsy and Traveller women are born entrepreneurs. ‘We are brought up to work. Most girls and women contribute to their fathers’ and husbands’ businesses. Women traders are popular at the markets and the fairs, and they like supporting their families. But perhaps we’ve been a parallel economy for a long time, so people haven’t known about it.’
She also points out that many do not advertise their identity when they sell to gorgias. ‘Go to any car-boot sale or to any market stall and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women selling alongside men. And we are good saleswomen, remember we have always sold, we would dukker [tell fortunes] around the houses of the settled people and hawk, selling lavender, heather, holly, pegs, paper flowers. I’ve still got my grandmother’s hawking baskets. It’s a great distortion when you see Gypsy girls sitting at home not working.’
Their entrepreneurial spirit is feeding their success in other fields. Tom Ewer, a chef with Welsh Romani roots, has cooked in the Oxo Brasserie and now cooks at Caravan in King’s Cross. He also writes a popular blog, where he features old Gypsy recipes, including foraged food, drawing on tradition. He attributes his strong work ethic — he gets up at 5.30 every morning — and his passion for cooking to his roots: ‘Through an understanding of the way my ancestors lived, worked and ate, I have built an ethos and cooking style that reflects that. For me, family, tradition and simple but flavoursome food made to share with others is paramount when thinking about my job.’
Billy Welch, a sherar rom or elder within the community, organises Appleby Horse Fair every year in Cumbria, which attracts about 10,000 from the community and a further 30,000 tourists. He told me that the links between entrepreneurial Gypsy men and the Freemasons are also helpful for business. Showing me his intricate masonic ring, he said: ‘This was my father’s ring, he was one too. Freemasons aren’t anti-Gypsy; the thing I like best about Freemasonry is that in it all men are equal.’
The links between Freemasonry and Romani Gypsies are thought to go back centuries. Cornelius van Paun, in his Philosophical Researches on The Egyptians and The Chinese, advanced the theory that Freemasonry was introduced to Europe by Romani Gypsies. James Simpson, in his History of the Gypsies, published in 1866, observed that there were many Gypsy Freemasons, including lodge masters. This link remains strong today. Billy Welch comes from Darlington, a town known as the ‘Gypsy capital’ of the UK, as it’s estimated that around a third of the population has Romani roots. Welch notes: ‘A couple of my cousins have even been in the chair, they’ve been quite high up.’
Damian Le Bas, editor of Travellers’ Times, explains the reasoning behind Freemason membership. ‘If it’s good for business, they will do it. If you think about it rationally, if you have got people who are part of the rural and urban economy for 500 years, it would be miraculous if they weren’t, especially a community that is so typically self-employed, fiercely entrepreneurial, where masculine identity is so tied up with making a living. Our identity is all about making good business contacts, being the boy who makes good, and that is the prototype of working-class people that Masons are looking to incorporate.’
But it’s not all plain sailing for Gypsy and Traveller businessmen, says Billy Welch. Such is the stigma of being a Gypsy that many successful businesspeople still hide their Romani or Traveller roots. Billy Welch told me: ‘I could take you to mansions, people who have houses worth millions, who drive Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, who have tennis courts, wine cellars and swimming pools. But they hide their roots because if they don’t people stop trading with them. I lost a lot of business when I started to organise Appleby. There are Gypsies and Travellers living in expensive apartments near Harrods, who spend half the year in Dubai. Then there are the 500, as we call them, who own skyscrapers in New York, who are all -originally English Gypsies. They turn up at our big weddings in limos, and they still pull on at Appleby, at least once in their lives.’
Some of the biggest businesses in the country are owned by Gypsies — shipyards, car dealerships, scrapyards, caravan suppliers, carpet shops and exporters, Welch says. ‘We are true business people, we are like Asians or Jewish people. We don’t just tarmac, or sell beds and windows. We do big business. We just keep quiet about it.’
Katharine Quarmby is author of No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers.