The unique culture of the Travelling communities

Our James family were criss-crossing the highways and byways of England for at least four generations. My family are Showmen, fairground people who worked the fairs around the country. I have this officially documented from the middle of the 19th century to the third quarter of the 20th century. I was lucky in that the births were registered and my forebears were mostly included on the census returns. That isn't always the case with members of the Travelling communities, who can be extremely elusive in official records.

Fortunately I do have the family listed in the census of 1911. This was the first occasion when households completed their own census returns as we still do today. Many travelling people did not have permanent addresses at which to receive the census forms, and as most were illiterate, they would have been unable to fill them out in any case. 

Interestingly, my great-grandparents were both unable to read or write, but the census form was completed and returned, probably on their behalf. In that census the family are listed as being resident 'In a Field off High Street, Stratford' and my great-grandfather is listed as being a Travelling Showman. At that time, he owned his own shooting gallery and was also a master craftsman. For some reason he is listed on the census form as being born in Forest Gate, London, England, when in fact he was born in Battersea, Surrey (which is now in south London).

Travellers were commonly unable to read or write, not because they were stupid or thick, but simply because a life on the road was not conducive to formal education. The ability to read or write was also not a requirement of the travelling way of life. Many Travellers may have been illiterate, but they certainly knew all about money. In a deal, you will rarely if ever, get the better of a Traveller, and woe betide you if you try to cheat one.

Things are of course different now amongst the Showmen and Romany’s in England, especially given that many have now settled and may even live next door to you. The Irish Travelling community are different and there is still a great deal of illiteracy amongst them. This is mainly due to the fact that many still travel on a regular basis, which can lead to them dropping out of formal education at an early age. Their culture does not generally see the worth of continuing education onto a secondary level either. They marry younger than the settled community and take on adult responsibilities at a much younger age too.

The connections between Showmen and Romany’s have always been pretty close, and they would often work the same fairs and meet each other on a regular basis. Inter-marriage happened as well. Marriages between Romany's and Irish Travellers and between Showmen and Irish Travellers have not been common in the past, the connective bond just wasn't there, but in modern times things are beginning to change. Notwithstanding, there can still be a huge amount of friction between Romany's and Irish Travellers.

There has been possible past inter-marriage with people from the Romany tradition in my family, there is genetic evidence that points in that direction. In my direct line of descent, we are linked to Ireland, as witnessed by familial connections and the family’s Roman Catholic faith. There are members of my family who can speak the English Romany language, as I am told many Showmen once did.

Roman Catholicism 

The Roman Catholic faith has been an acquisition since 1847. Prior to that date, the family were definitely Church of England, especially given that my forebears in the 17th and early 18th centuries were religious Parish Clerks. To be a member of the Roman Catholic faith at that point in time was extremely dangerous, and was often equated to virtual treason and having dangerous Jacobite sympathies.

I have more family history research to conduct in Northumberland, wherein rests the earliest firmly documented evidence I have for the origins of the James family. Although of course, James is not a native surname to Northumberland and there are earlier origin theories for the family, as outlined elsewhere on this website. This is one reason why family history research is so absorbing and fascinating, you just cannot predict what will turn up next as you sift through the sands of time.

My great grandfather, Charles Edward James was a master craftsman as mentioned earlier, and a builder of traditional Travellers horse-drawn caravans. He carried on that craft as well as travelling with the fairs. At one point he had a yard in Battersea, London, and used to operate from there. He would often sell these caravans to the Travelling community at such fairs as the one held annually on Epsom Downs in Surrey. Some examples of traditional Traveller caravans can be seen in the video at the bottom of this page.

Unfortunately I have no written records from my great grandfather. Like most Travellers at the time, he was unable to read or write, yet was nevertheless naturally gifted in woodworking, carpentry and engineering. Most Romany's and Travellers in general, seem to possess a unique gift or skill, often passed down through the generations. 

My grandfather was a gifted musician and was an extremely good drummer. He even used to play in a jazz band at one point. He too was unable to read or write and he certainly couldn’t read music, he just had a natural gift for it.

Traveller Culture

What we today think of as traditional Romany caravans were first built for Travelling Showmen and their families around 1820, and were then also adopted by Romany’s prior to 1850. They were comfortable, cosy and ornate. Any misconceptions you may have about Travellers and Romany’s being ‘dirty’ should be discarded, as it is simply untrue, a product of ignorance and prejudice.

Romany's and Showmen have always taken a great pride in cleanliness and good hygiene, as it is vital to the well-being of the family. They may have lived a life on the road, but they were often far cleaner than the settled people of the towns they visited. The great conurbations of 19th century England were fetid places, rife with poverty and squalor. That kind of filth would never be tolerated in traditional Travelling communities.

Romany's and Showmen today are still just as careful in respect of health and hygiene. They will not keep pets in their caravans and they are also extremely careful about the cleanliness of the areas that are concerned with food preparation. They will certainly not have a toilet fitted inside the caravan either, it just isn’t considered to be clean or in the interests of good health.

A Settled Life

Traditionally, Travellers would not have any dealings with banks and would most certainly never entertain the concept of debt. They worked hard and saved for what they wanted, and they were never beholden to the vacuous pointlessness of materialism and mass consumerism. Excess cash was usually invested in gold, which would often be worn. Travellers do not wear ‘bling’, they simply carry their wealth in an easily transportable manner that can be readily exchanged if the need arises.

Life on the road was hard, as it still can be, but there was and still is, a real sense of community among Travellers, a shared bond of experience. Travelling families are close knit, blood and kinship is extremely important to them. With so many now being forced by circumstance into a settled lifestyle, those bonds are under threat. I know from my own family that the bonds between my thirty odd cousins are looser than they would have been, had we still been on the road and working the fairs as our forebears did.

My 93 year old grandmother, who is still sprightly and as sharp as a pin, is the matriarch of the family and binds it firmly together. She is the focus for the whole brood and that last solid link to a true Travelling lifestyle. When she is no longer around, which I hope won’t be for many years yet, I can foresee the family structure beginning to fracture and becoming totally submerged in the culture of the settled community. I do hope that family members do try to remain anchored in their culture, despite the pressures and moral decay that settled life all too often brings.

Settled life and contact with the settled community brings relationships and marriages outside of the Travelling community, and it can weaken the strict code of morality that Travellers have. That can only change the way life is looked upon and the aspirations thereof. The constant drip of materialism can easily become a flood and once that happens, Travellers cease to be what they once were. It is little wonder that many older settled Travellers would dearly love to be back on the road, if only it were possible.

Many Travellers do instinctively kick against this submergence, but I just wonder for how long they can hold back the tide? This is especially so when present government policy is set against the unique lifestyles of the various Travelling communities. Governments don’t like free thinkers and those who reject the shackles and bonds of the established order, as they are not so easy to manage, indoctrinate, control and tax until the pips squeak. 


Traditional bow top caravans

Return to Top

©Copyright - James of Glencarr