For hundreds of years New Forest Gypsies roamed the Forest as freely as the deer and ponies, living by their own standards and rituals as a tribe apart from the rest of society, for whom they posed no threat.
The origins of Gypsies, also known as Romani (or Romany) people, have been the subject of much speculation throughout the centuries with various theories regarding where they came from. In fact the English term Gypsy derives from the early English gypcian, short for Egipcien, in other words an inhabitant of Egypt, as it was thought that they had migrated across Europe from North Africa. However, nowadays it is widely accepted that Gypsies originated in Northern India, from whence they spread throughout Europe via the Middle East. They spoke their own Romani language and those that lived in the New Forest were known as the Nevi Wesh (Romani for New Forest).
For generations since they first settled in this country sometime during the 15th century, the wilderness of the New Forest had appealed to Gypsies . It suited their lifestyle of roaming, catching their own food and making their own medicine from nature’s resources. They were naturally at home in the Forest as it provided for all their needs with its abundance of herbs and other medicinal plants, plus its wild game and supply of fresh water. Their alternative lifestyle made them an easy target for prejudice and hostility and as long ago as the reign of Henry VIII they were legislated against with the passing of the Egyptian Act 1530 which sought, but never entirely succeeded, in expelling the “outlandish people calling themselves Egyptians (meaning Gypsies) using no craft nor feat of merchandise, who have come into this realm, and gone from shire to shire, and place to place, in great company; and used great subtlety and crafty means to deceive the people”. The ultimate penalty under the Act was death.
Thereafter Gypsies suffered centuries of persecution at home and abroad (more recently including the Holocaust). There is no doubt that they lived by their wits and were crafty and opportunistic which often brought them into conflict with law officers and members of the local population. However, there is no evidence to suggest that their transgressions progressed further than a little poaching and some pilfering to make ends meet. They were also well known for being economic with the truth, at least as far as outsiders were concerned.
New Forest Gypsies lived by their own strict standards in their communities where they observed established rituals for births, betrothals, marriages and funerals. Apart from funerals, these were opportunities to let their hair down with dance and music plus the almost obligatory fight, such was the intense rivalry between gypsy families. Marriages outside the Gypsy community was not tolerated in order to “keep their blood pure” and any member doing so would be disowned. A similar view was taken if any member was found cheating or stealing from a kinsman. True Romany Gypsies were regarded as being of the pure “black blood” and the word “black” was regularly used as a compliment, particularly in people’s names, meaning a gypsy of the purest type.
Some families lived on the Forest all year round whereas others would drift away during the summer months with Kent being a popular venue to earn some money fruit and hop picking. Those remaining on the Forest made clothes pegs, artificial flowers and woven baskets from natural materials readily available to them whilst some others offered a travelling knife sharpening service around the local villages or engaged in a little horse dealing (or occasional stealing!).
Gypsy camps deep in the Forest were found by other gypsies by a series of secret signs made out of twigs or clods of earth. The traditional “home” of a New Forest Gypsy was the “bender” – the bender (pictured above) was made using flexible branches, such as those of hazel which were stuck into the ground, then bent and woven together to form a strong dome shape. The dome was then covered using any blankets or tarpaulin they could find and a hole was left in the middle under which they had a fire for cooking and warmth. It is thought that the first Gypsy caravans (known as a “vardo” in Romani) appeared around 1850. Gypsy men folk had a penchant for wearing brightly coloured scarves wound around their necks while their children were usually dressed in rags and rarely wore shoes. Evenings were spent around their fire, known as a yog which was the centre of gypsy family life.
As the Gypsy community did not keep written records, it is difficult to piece together their early history in the Forest. In his definitive book on the New Forest published in 1862, J R Wise commented that Gypsy families “lived in various rides and droves in the Forest driven from place to place by the policeman” and went on to say that “they still, to a certain extent, keep up their old dignity and must by no means be confused with the strolling outcasts and itinerant beggars who also dwell in the Forest”. This latter group were known to the true Gypsy as didikais – often regarded as a derogatory term.
Wise also mentions that the Deer Removal Act 1851 had a significant impact on the supply of available food for the Forest’s Gypsy families as they had always been adept at using their Lurcher hounds to help provide venison for the table. Without detracting from their Spartan lifestyle, they had been accustomed to a stock pot well supplied with game which enabled them to live rent free and with no taxes in the heart of the Forest. It is thought that from this period onwards, the Gypsy population started to dwindle.
During the 19th century there is also evidence that missionaries and members of Christian charities tried to convert Gypsy families into a more “civilized” lifestyle. In his book “Gypsies of the New Forest” published in 1909, Henry E.J.Gibbins, writes of these efforts, “I am sorry to say that I have not seen any signs of this bearing fruit yet, certainly not in the parents or grown up members – you might as well try to bend an old Forest oak as to convert them”. Despite this, efforts continued to be made by the New Forest Good Samaritan Charity to encourage the young gypsy children into some form of schooling as their vocabulary was generally small, confined in most cases to less than a hundred words which is all they needed to get by in their own environment. Henry Gibbins was a member of this charity which was formed to encourage gypsy families to live in houses and follow trades in order to earn a living.
By the end of the 19th century there was no one left among the Forest Gypsies who could speak the Romani language although certain random words still remained in use among its community. The last person capable of speaking Romani was Mrs. Hannah Lakey (pictured left), known as Queen of the New Forest Gypsies, who died at the age of 85 in 1903. She spent the first 80 years of her life living in a bender but, as a result of failing health, the New Forest Good Samaritan Charity persuaded her to move into a small cottage near Beaulieu where she spent the last five years of her life. The charity paid her rent and kept her supplied with tea, groceries and a weekly allowance of one ounce of tobacco!
With the dawning of the 20th century laws were in place that restricted Gypsies from remaining on the same piece of land for longer than two days. The majority abided by the law and moved on every forty eight hours travelling a regular route around the Forest. In 1926 the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) established seven areas that were set aside in the Forest for the Gypsies to camp – Shave Green, Copythorne, Longdown, Godshill, Crystal Hollow, Thorney Hill and Millersford Bottom. They were no longer permitted to roam and camp where they chose, thus ending a lifestyle that had lasted for centuries. However, despite these new regulations some families gradually drifted back into the more secluded parts of the Forest.
At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the seven Gypsy encampments were reduced to five when much of the Forest became occupied by the military and new airfields plus a bombing range were established on it. The families assumed that after the war they would be able to return to their pre-war circumstances but this was not to be the case. Many Gypsy men were conscripted into the Army and for many it was an end to their secluded rural lifestyle and nothing would be the same again.
A review of the five Gypsy sites was undertaken after the war in 1947 by the New Forest Committee and it reported that the Gypsies were living in appalling conditions, “hardly reaching the standard of the Stone Age”. By this time, their population on the Forest was much reduced, totalling just over 400 and the review triggered a policy of resettlement by the local councils, moving the families from the five encampments into permanent housing. They were placed in council houses and some in the empty barracks at former WW2 military sites. Gypsy families were spread across the New Forest area, often many miles away from their kinfolk. The last family was forcibly moved off the Forest in 1963 bringing to an end the long history of New Forest Gypsies or “New Forest Royalty” as they were once nicknamed.
The following newsreel clip from 1947 shows a family of New Forest gypsies.
Nowadays Romany Gypsies are recognised as an ethnic group for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976. and are recognised as having shared culture, language and beliefs – a far cry from Henry VIII’s Egyptian Act.