The Echo has spoken with Chris Smith about his views on challenging the attitudes directed at the travelling community, following news stories about groups pitching up in sites in Southend, Rayleigh and Basildon, and the “Irish Option” making trespassing an illegal act.

Mr Smith is a 59-year-old Romany Gypsy employed in the learning disability care sector for over 30 years, including managing several different care services.

He is an Independent Advisor for Minority Ethnic Groups with the West Mercia Police Service, and is writing his first novel.

Why do you think so much racism is directed at the Traveller community?

Racism is led by those in positions of power. In recent years some MPs in parliament, have described GRT people as ‘a scourge and a plague on society’.

This type of inflammatory language is seen by some members of the public, and the media, as a ‘green light’ that it is acceptable to act in a racist manner towards Gypsies and Travellers.

Negative views of GRT people are widespread, and getting worse. People always need scapegoats, and governments are no different. You don’t have to look hard, historically, to find evidence for this. Difference, is frightening for many, and fear, coupled with hate, leads to appalling acts of cruelty, especially in times of war or hardship. 

Prejudice is dangerous, and we have lived with it for centuries. Persecution of Travellers has always been prevalent in this country, and across Europe. During the Second World War, it’s estimated that between two and six hundred thousand Gypsies were exterminated, in concentration camps, by the Nazis.

This is known by us as Porraimos, (the devouring). No one knows the true number murdered, as no one bothered to count. We simply didn’t matter, and still don’t in the eyes of many people. 

Travellers are the most marginalised ethnic group in the country, regularly sacrificed as offerings by governments and the media. The use of distraction politics is common, and Travellers provide the perfect opportunity for our leaders to scapegoat, and influence people, through the media, to act in a prejudiced, racist manner.

What are all the differences in these Traveller groups, and how important is it for that to be recognised?

Travellers are distinct groups. English, Welsh, and Scottish Romany Gypsies have a shared heritage and a common ancestry. Our bloodlines originated in the Uttar Pradesh area of India, and much of our language, known as the ‘Pogardi Jib’ comes from that area, as well as other countries across Europe. The Pogardi Jib is made up predominantly of Romany words mixed with English, Welsh and Scottish Cant verbs. The language varies slightly depending on the different regions.

Irish Travellers are a separate group of people that originated in Ireland and have their own unique identity, and culture. Some Travellers of Irish heritage identify as Pavee or Minceir, which are words from the Irish Traveller language, Shelta.


Travellers at the Kursaal building last year

Roma, are sometimes known as Romani, they share their heritage with Romany Gypsies. Roma usually refers to Gypsies living in Europe, but can also be found in the Americas.

English and Welsh Romany Gypsies, Scottish Travellers and Irish Travellers have been declared by the courts to be protected as “races” under the Race Relations Act, 1976 (amended 2000); the Human Rights Act 1998; and the Equality Act 2010.

Roma people living in most areas of Europe also have protected status.

Other groups include:  

New Travellers, sometimes called ‘New Age Travellers’ originated from the Hippy and Festival culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Show People: Who are a minority group, have operated funfairs and circuses for many generations.

Barge Travellers: Sometimes known as ‘River Gypsies’, live on the canal network.

These groups are not protected races under the Race Relations act.

It is important to recognise all of the different groups, but when writing about the ‘protected’ groups, capital letters should be used for: Gypsy, Traveller, or Roma, as a mark of respect for their protected status. Many publications and organisations, including the BBC, still do not do this.

What key history of Travellers should people be aware of?

Gypsies have been in this country since 1515. In 1530 Gypsies were forbidden to enter England under Henry VIII. Those already here were deported, or sold as slaves. In 1554 Queen Mary of England passed the ‘Egyptians Act’. Simply being a Gypsy was punishable by death. This is the only time that fraternising with an ethnic community has been punishable by death, usually by hanging. 

From the 1830s until the mid 20th century Gypsies lived and travelled in horse drawn covered wagons. From 1945 onwards Travellers started to use motor-drawn trailers, and some buy their own land, creating private sites.

From 1970, the Government had to provide caravan sites for Travellers, following introduction of the Caravan Sites Act. In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order act was introduced by the Tory government and they abolished the Caravan act.

In 2004 The Labour Government made it a legal duty to assess the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers. In 2005 The Sun newspaper launched its ‘Stamp on the Camps’ campaign against Gypsies and Travellers.

In 2021 the Tory government are attempting to pass the ‘Police Bill’, part of the Bill racially targets nomadic Gypsies and Travellers, by criminalising trespass, instead of it being a civil matter.

Some of this information is from the Romani Cultural and Arts Company


Travellers at Millenium Park, Southend

What can people do to help challenge the stigma that surrounds the issue of Travellers?

One of the easiest things everyone can do to help challenge the stigma that surrounds Gypsies and Travellers is to ask themselves: ‘Would I be comfortable with this press report, speech, or government statement, if it related to any other ethnic group?’ If we took some newspaper headlines or reports about GRT people, and substituted the terms ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’ for ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’, would you be comfortable reading or hearing it?

Channel 5 have made a programme called ‘Here Come The Gypsies!’. The preview for the show states: “They are the neighbours no one wants to live next door to”. Ask yourself if it would be considered acceptable to title a television programme, ‘Here Come The Blacks’ or ‘Here Come The Jews’? Of course it wouldn’t, so why is it acceptable to do this to Gypsies and Travellers? It’s not, and the substitution of words shows it up as: Racism, Prejudice and Stereotyping. 

Gypsies and Travellers are employed in a wide variety of different roles such as: The NHS, Care Services, The Police Service, Local Government, and The Armed Forces etc. The vast majority of GRT people live alongside settled people either in housing, or on private, or local authority sites. You may already be living next door to, or working with, a Gypsy or Traveller without knowing it.

What more can the media do to help with this?

It would help if we saw more GRT people being employed by the media, both in front of, and behind the cameras, as well as more positive representation in the press. Gypsies and Travellers have contributed greatly on a cultural basis. Charlie Chaplin, David Essex, Bob Hoskins, Elvis Presley, Yul Brunner, Rita Hayworth and Pablo Picasso, all have Romany Gypsy backgrounds.

Actor and activist, John Connors, world champion boxer, Tyson Fury, actor and singer, Shayne Ward, and Big Brother winners Hughie Maughan, and Paddy Doherty are all of Irish Traveller origin.

The media should be taking a balanced view. The use of inflammatory language such as: incursion and invasion, which are military terms, and have no place being used for a legitimate ethnic minority that have lived here for over 500 years, are commonly used by the press and government ministers when reporting on, or discussing, GRT people.

There are proven links between media reports that use inflammatory language, and incidents of hate crime perpetrated upon the GRT community. The media could help to change this by reporting on the lack of provision of permanent, and transit sites for Travellers.

It’s ironic that under existing planning law, to qualify for a permanent site, Travellers have to prove they will continue to travel, at a time when the government is proposing that a nomadic lifestyle could be considered illegal.

When you ‘other’ a community it can have dire effects, just ask the family of Johnny Delaney, a fifteen year old Irish Traveller, who was kicked to death in a park in Ellesmere, Liverpool, in 2003, by a group of thugs, simply because of his ethnicity.

The media have a choice as to whether they take a responsible view of the issues regarding Gypsies and Travellers, or continue to perpetuate tired, prejudiced, racist, stereotyped, thinking. The media have a duty to help improve the lives of GRT people, as they do for any other ethnic group, by asking the questions that governments often don’t want to answer.

It could start by asking government ministers about the pernicious effects of the proposed new ‘Crime Bill’, on those Gypsies and Travellers who wish to lead a nomadic lifestyle. As the Bill stands, Travellers could be fined £2,500, jailed for three months, and have their homes and vehicles confiscated. This will inevitably lead to their children being taken into care services.

The question is: Will the media take this opportunity?


Travellers on Canvey