The secret history of Southwark’s travellers

Charles Harrison (04 November, 2021)

"There’s good and bad in our community like any other community. We all shouldn’t be painted with the one brush.”

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They’ve been in Southwark for years and are the number one target of online hate speech in the UK proportionate to their size – and hardly anyone knows anything about them, writes Charles Harrison …

While there is no exact definition of Travellers, a widely accepted one is that they are people who are nomadic in their way of life, regardless of their race or origin.

Romany Gypsies, Irish, Welsh and Scottish Travellers are recognised in law as ethnic groups and are identified as having a shared culture, language and beliefs.

This community have been shrouded in misunderstandings since they first came to the country – for instance, the word “gypsy” derives from the 15th century, when English natives incorrectly assumed that Indian Travellers were Egyptian due to their complexion.

While the 2011 census found that there were 263 Travellers in Southwark, charity organisation Southwark Travellers Action Group (STAG) estimate the number to be closer to 1,250.

Earlier this year, STAG ran an exhibition in Peckham during Hate Crime Awareness Week to showcase the lives of travellers who have settled in Southwark.

Key to the exhibition was the abuse and mistreatment often faced by Travellers. Despite comprising only two per cent of the population, Travellers account for fifteen per cent of racist or discriminatory slurs overall. 82 per cent of Gypsy, Roma or Traveller respondents had also experienced media incitement to racial hatred.

The exhibition focused on, among others, the Joyce family, a group of Irish travellers who moved to Southwark in the 80s.

In a letter still kept by STAG, mother Margaret Joyce wrote to the Royal family in 1991, requesting help when they were left without any facilities from Southwark Council.

Issues the travellers faced included having to use chemical toilets designed for temporary use, and rats “the size of cats.”

But it was her children’s health and education that were Margaret’s biggest concern.

She highlighted: “Last month a lass of 2 1/2 fell in the chemical toilet and God knows what would have happened but for a nine-year-old who pulled her out.

“Can you tell the D.O.E and Southwark Council to settle their arguments and build the 45 pitches that are needed so that us and our children can live the decent life that we want and deserve.”

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Margaret Joyce’s letter to the Queen

The letter resulted in Margaret meeting the Queen.

While studies on the lives of Travellers are limited, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found an excessive number of miscarriages, stillbirths, neonatal deaths and premature death of older offspring. They were also higher rates of suicides and reported anxiety.

Travellers continue to face struggle and discrimination. One unnamed Traveller child said: “We don’t get a lot of opportunity to go travelling as we’re sent away by every town, village and place we go…there’s good and bad in our community like any other community. We all shouldn’t be painted with the one brush.”

In a 2012 report by the Southwark Council Health, Adult Social Care, Communities & Citizenship Scrutiny Sub-Committee, the council identified a need for better support for early child development among travellers.

STAG help to promote this by offering free trips to local places, including the cinema and bowling, for Traveller children, as well as a Women’s Group which offers weekly health and well-being sessions.

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