Housing & Welfare

Gypsy Assimilation and Resistance in Welfare State Britain

In Hampshire archives there is an arresting picture of a man – Mr S – with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, standing with a pile of scrap metal in front of him, and a caravan ablaze behind him. Mr S was a Gypsy, and in Gypsy and Traveller culture it is customary, on death, to burn the deceased’s trailer. But in this instance no one had died. Rather, Mr S was burning his trailer as a symbol that he had been ‘rehabilitated’, that he was no longer ‘a Gypsy’ and was instead ready to take his place as a full citizen of post-war Britain.

‘Mr S’ setting his trailer alight upon having become ‘rehabilitated’. Credit: Hampshire County Archives.

Mr S was a resident of one of Hampshire County Council’s ‘Gypsy rehabilitation centres’ that came into being in the early 1960s – at what we might think of as the high point of the welfare state – and that housed many of the county’s Gypsy population until they were closed in the early 1970s. At a time when other councils were putting all their efforts into harassing and evicting Gypsies and Travellers from their districts, doing whatever it took to move them out of the area, Hampshire stood out. Having worked in the years immediately after the war to remove the Gypsies from compounds in the New Forest and settle them into council houses, by the early 1960s it was ready to turn its attention to the other hereditary nomads of the county.

What can we, as historians, make of this move? Was it an indication that local government finally saw Britain’s Romany Gypsy and Traveller populations as citizens rather than as nuisances? And, as such, as deserving of the benefits of the welfare state as the rest of the population? It is certainly the case that these centres – there were five dotted around the county – were well resourced. As well as being equipped with good quality prefabricated housing – housing that many from the wider population appreciated for their fitted kitchens and ample cupboard space – each had a full-time husband-and-wife team living on site supporting the men in finding waged work, and teaching the women housecraft, hygiene, child development and how to manage budgets.

But, we argue, there were other attitudes and forces at work here too, ones that spoke of the social and racialised conformities of the post-war welfare state. The presence of the on-site supervisors chimed with the work of other social workers and ‘home advisers’ of the period, who were tasked with bringing ‘problem families’ into the fold of the nuclear-family ideal. No matter that the families were economically self-sufficient, engaged in a range of scrap work, trading alongside a range of seasonal activities, the goal was to find them settled, waged work. This, the council reasoned, would be the only way to get them to break with a mobile lifestyle.

This was not all. In common with the assimilatory ethos that accompanied the social management of New Commonwealth migrants to the UK after 1945, the council’s concern was with changing their behaviour – their visible ‘Gypsyness’ – so they would not disrupt the social/racial landscape. As with the New Forest Gypsies, when the families were deemed sufficiently rehabilitated and were moved out of the centres into council housing, they were scattered across the county. In the words of one journalist, ‘the council deliberately separate them, do not put them in areas where they jar on the nerves of respectable white collar workers’. But it had another effect too, as dispersal shattered two fundamentals of traditional Gypsy and Traveller culture: the centrality of family and the importance of proximity to sustain support networks and social exchange.

View of the prefabs at Rownhams Lane, North Baddesley Rehabilitation Centre. Credit: Hampshire County Archives.

No surprise then that Hampshire’s rehabilitation scheme was feted as a success. A Times Education Supplement editorial, ‘The End of Gypsies’, imagined that within a generation the only trace left of their culture would be ‘a number of families in the Southampton suburbs who will be darker than most’, but otherwise unremarkable and indistinguishable from their neighbours. There was an honesty to this article. Whereas the County Council’s welfare department claimed they were there to equip Gypsies and Travellers for their shift to bricks and mortar, the purpose of the centres (so the writer put it) was to teach them ‘how to look less like Gypsies’. The burning of the caravan by Mr S, then, can be read as a story of the assimilatory state triumphant.

And yet this is not the whole story. While over Gypsies and Travellers, unlike New Commonwealth migrants, the possibility hovered that they could lose their taint of ‘otherness’ simply by changing their behaviour, this meant that council officials exhibited hype-anxiety around any ongoing expressions of ‘Gypsyness’. Take the case of Ernest Smith, who was settled into a council house in Andover after apparently having been ‘rehabilitated’ at Longmeadow centre. The rehabilitation scheme’s principal, J. Ashmead explained, ‘as a heritage of his former way of life, Mr Smith continues to keep a pony’. Ernest Smith’s pony, we should note, was not being kept at or near his home, and he had even offered to rent some disused land from the council on which to graze it. Even so Ashmead made it clear that the council should ‘persuade Mr Smith to sell this pony and conform in every sense now that he is living on a council estate within the community’.

Ernest Smith’s pony had touched a nerve. A pony, to state the obvious, is not a horse. A horse, in the ‘dehorsified’ world of late twentieth-century Britain, conferred status and spoke of the privileged worlds of racing and showing and hunting. A pony, unless kept for a child who was going to progress to a horse, was a workaday animal, traditionally bred for labour and hardiness, and was smaller and so cheaper to keep than a horse, all qualities that made them valuable to Gypsies and Travellers. We don’t know what the pony looked like, but can imagine it as a skewbald or piebald – these two colourings being most favoured by British Gypsies and Travellers, who prize their unique and decorative markings – rather than the chestnuts or bays beloved of the elite horsey worlds. In short, the only status Ernest Smith’s pony would confer on him was that of ‘Gypsy’.

Despite being described by council officials as a ‘former Gypsy’, Ernest Smith’s pony signalled something else. It served as a four-legged reminder that he had not fully renounced his previous life; his desire to keep his pony was indicative both of his personal failings and his lingering Gypsyness. These contradictions seem to have proved too much for Mr Smith, and by 1973 he and his wife and child were again living on an unauthorized encampment.

Mr S’s dramatic burning of his caravan might be taken as one symbol of the top-down post-war welfare state, but Ernest Smith’s pony might be taken as another. One that both speaks of the long-standing ability of minorities – Britain’s Gypsies and Travellers included – to evade the regulatory attempts of the state, and of how government ambitions were forced to reckon with the changing times. By the late 1960s assimilation as a tool for managing cultural and racialized difference was coming under attack, by a coalition of anti-racist activists generally, and for Gypsies and Travellers by the Gypsy Power movement specifically. The Caravan Sites Act 1968 required local authorities to provide pitches for Gypsies living in and moving through their area, not as a precursor to settling them in houses, but a grudging acknowledgement, it seemed, that mobility was an essential and acceptable expression of their culture.

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