Surrey’s Gypsy, Roma & Traveller (GRT) pre-war population
(Text from original research by Alan Wright, Surrey Heritage volunteer)
Surrey’s GRT community has been established since the sixteenth century. It is difficult to assess the size of the GRT population in Surrey at the outbreak of war; the 1911 census records around 30,000 people not residing in a permanent dwelling, although this total includes all itinerant workers, labourers, tramps, showmen and ‘nomads’.
In the years preceding the First World War, despite the GRT community’s contribution to the county’s agriculture and economy, there was a strong perception within the settled community that Surrey suffered from ‘The Gypsy Nuisance’ (as described in an inflammatory headline in the Surrey Mirror, 7 May 1909). Four month earlier the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society had reported, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that in January 1909 the county ‘…was up in arms against its ten thousand nomads…’ Strenuous efforts were made by local landowners to control the GRT presence and to persuade the government to introduce legislation. This in turn encouraged efforts to collect hard evidence to prove that Surrey was disproportionately affected. Sir Reginald Bray wrote to the Chairman of Surrey County Council on 8 July 1912:
‘Surrey is the County most affected by this nuisance, first because it has such a large extent of unenclosed land, next because it is conveniently close to London and last because the police in neighbouring Counties are much more active in driving them off, and hence they flock to Surrey.’
The shaping of local policy in line with that perception was put on hold by the outbreak of the First World War, but not before a comprehensive exercise was carried out on 22 June and 31 August 1913 by Surrey Constabulary and the Metropolitan Police in response to a request from Surrey County Council for a detailed count of the number of Gypsies in the county. The survey provides interesting insights into GRT activity at a time when they were perceived by the settled community to be particularly active.
When the results were collated, the police surveys identified 1,469 Travellers in the Surrey and Metropolitan Police areas (excluding Guildford and Reigate Boroughs) in June and 1,208 in August. The main concentrations across the two surveys were, in ascending order: Walton on Thames, Woking, West Molesey, Warlingham and Ash in June, and Tatsfield, Esher, Walton on Thames, and Ash and Woking in August. Surprise was expressed in Surrey by the apparent absence of Travellers from some areas such as Chobham, Seale, Sutton, and East and West Molesey, which might be explained by the survey taking place at a time of year when travelling would have been at its height. Walton on Thames featured highly in both months because of an influx of pea and fruit pickers in June, and Showmen in August.
By the time of the First World War, changes in the countryside ranging from the declining numbers of local fairs and festivities, to the increase in agricultural mechanisation were well advanced. These factors impacted on the demand for general labour and seasonal employment. In the 1913 survey, 53% of the 247 Traveller encampments identified in June and 45% of the 306 identified in August can be linked directly to agricultural work. In reality, this is probably an underestimate as many individuals identified in other categories of encampment – ‘Gipsy’, ‘tramps’ and even ‘hawker’ – will have taken on such work as their financial needs and the availability of opportunities dictated. The main agricultural activities identified in the returns were hop-picking (although this was relatively minor in Surrey compared to the neighbouring counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire), pea picking, fruit picking, hay making and general field work. The locations mentioned specifically for these activities were Ash and Normandy (hops, fruit and field work), Chertsey (peas and market garden work), Walton on Thames (peas and fruit), West Horsley and Esher (peas), Chilworth, Newdigate and Weybridge (field work), Frimley, Send and Ripley, Walton on Thames and Warlingham (fruit) and Mickleham (hay).
For many, travelling family life during the war continued with all the usual hardships but for some there was the added hardship of male family members enlisting. Many men from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community in Surrey and indeed travelling showmen, are known to have served in the armed forces. The prevailing myth that they absconded or did not volunteer is no more correct than for any other part of the male population. Indeed, new research into the lives of the community and family histories give an insight into the contribution of Gypsy servicemen who demonstrated exemplary patriotism and commitment and were admirably suited to the type of life they encountered in the army. Their expertise with horses resulting in some being sent into the Veterinary Corps and their prowess in hunting small game at night gave them sniper skills which were not only an asset in enemy territory but also when it came to foraging for food.
Military enlistment forms did not request details of a serviceman’s ethnic background and the absence of this, coupled with a reluctance to identify their origins in the face of popular prejudice, makes it difficult to assess how many men from the GRT community served in the war. The problem is compounded by the destruction of the majority of service records by German bombing in the Second World War.
War memorials around the county carry the names of well-established Surrey GRT families. Henry Ayres, Sidney Harris and Albert Williams were three such men:
Pte Henry Ayres was the son of Gypsy parents, Neptune and Talitha Ayres, and he worked as a brickmaker for Messrs Roake of Hatch Farm, Chertsey. He fought with the 2nd Battalion Leicester Regiment and died 9 Mar 1917. His death was reported in the Surrey Herald, 25 May 1917 and he is commemorated on the Basra memorial http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1655203/AYRES,%20HENRY
Pte Sidney Harris came from a Gypsy family and fought with the Berkshire Regiment. He was killed on the Western Front in March 1918 and his name is recorded on the Esher War Memorial. He is also recorded on the Arras Memorial. Find out more about Sidney Harris.
Sidney was a Gypsy soldier who fought with the Berkshire Regiment and was killed on the Western Front in March 1918. His name is recorded on the Esher War Memorial, Esher Green, and on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Roll of Honour. He is also recorded on the Arras Memorial, Bay 7, http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/82700/ARRAS%20MEMORIAL.
Pte Albert Williams, from a Gypsy family in Kingfield, Old Woking, fought first with the East Surrey Regiment and then with the 2nd Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. He was killed on 4 October 1917, most likely in the battle at Polygon Wood. His name appears on the Woking Town War memorial and at Tyne Cot http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/877212/WILLIAMS,%20ALBERT .
If you know of other Surrey Gypsy men or women who served abroad or on the Home Front in the First World War, please add their story to this website, we’d be delighted to hear from you.
Knight, Jim, Addlestone’s Victory Park : tracing the backgrounds of the servicemen whose names are inscribed on Addlestone’s civic memorial to the First World War, Addlestone Historical Society, 2012
McGowan, Alan, ‘Henry Ayres’, Romany Routes, Romany & Traveller Family History Society, Sep 2015, p.161
Census of England and Wales: Reports and Appendices, 1861-1911
Census of England and Wales Summary Tables, 1901 and 1911
Surrey Police Returns of Nomad population June and August 1913 and related correspondence (Surrey County Council Papers, SHC ref CC28/249)
Surrey County Council Chief Clerk’s Department Papers (SHC ref CC28/249)
Bray Mss (SHC ref G85/29)
Surrey County Council Annual Reports 1880-1913 (printed and bound, held at Surrey History Centre)
Images of Surrey Gypsy families in the Gypsy Lore Society collections, held at the University of Liverpool library can be searched online at http://libguides.liverpool.ac.uk/library/sca