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“Unauthorised encampments”, “Moveable Dwellings” and “Invasions”: Restrictions and Resistances from Centuries Old and New

“Unauthorised encampments”, “Moveable Dwellings” and “Invasions”: Restrictions and Resistances from Centuries Old and New

In our research project, exploring Romani contributions to EU public space, with a focus on markets and fairs in the UK and in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we find Romani and non Romani actors caught up in events that are embedded in, or lead up to, world wars, changes in economies, industries, and urban and rural societies, and with this documents and occurrences that are at once distant from and reflective of contemporary issues and actions.

Last week the UK Home Office opened a consultation on strengthening police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments, asking “whether criminalising unauthorised encampments would be preferable to the amendments we originally proposed to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and if so, how it should work” (the 1994 Act removed the responsibility that had been placed on local authorities to provide legal stopping-places for Traveller families). Commentary in the Guardian newspaper makes the point that the amendments are discriminatory against Roma and Traveller communities, and the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity oppose the consultations, commenting that they propagate a “dangerous and discriminatory rhetoric”. The FFT make the point that existing laws already exist to combat any damage or littering, and also published a report that a majority of police responses to the issue did not support criminalisation.
There are some echoes of current debate to be found across our two country case studies, albeit in different guises. One British example is the Moveable Dwellings Bill, first tabled in 1888 and 1889 and rejected by select committee in 1893 (though subsequent bills were tabled). It was envisaged and supported by the reformer George Smith of Coalville, and called for registration and regulation of people residing in caravans and canal boats. It also suggested powers for local authorities to enter caravans to check conditions. The bill met significant resistance from the communities which it most affected, and led to the founding of the Showman’s Guild which organised to oppose it, as well as the campaign of the then famous “King of the Epping Forest Gypsies”, George “Lazzy” Smith, who went to the House of Commons in 1891 with a delegation to oppose the bill.
In Germany, a few years later, a large number of German Roma and Sinti left the country as a result in part new discriminatory and restrictive laws, such as the 1906 Prussian “Directive on the Struggle Against the Gypsy Nuisance”. This had followed a series of measures whereby travelling people needed to be registered and documented and be in possession of a valid trading licence. Police would need to be notified of any people in the area, length of stay, and activities. The directive moreover actively encouraged the prosecution of Romani people. During our research we found this to be a point in time when case studies from the two countries we explore briefly overlap and we find members of a German Sinti horse trading family here in the UK during what was then called the “German Gypsy Invasion”. Our 1906 migrants, amongst them the named horse trading families which we are researching, encountered difficulties in crossing and returning through borders in Europe, despite having valid passports. On arrival in the UK they were constantly escorted by police and became an ongoing newspaper spectacle. They also managed to live, trade, to marry, to have children – before being accepted back into Germany in December of 1906. Having passports did not make passage easier; indeed, a notion of different categories or affordances of citizenship depending on who the citizens were was already evident.

In 1906, German Romanies responded to new legal restrictions on travel in another way that is familiar to us from the British context: They attempted to buy property so that they could settle down – but everywhere they were frustrated by community campaigns against them.
People, events and fates come in and out of view in archives. As our research focuses on the shared activities and social, economic and cultural exchanges between people and communities, we find examples of the importance and values of everyday interactions. Where there is so often a challenging social or political backdrop, we find cases of resistance and unity across communities, for example in the union against the Moveable Dwellings Bill in England, or in the weddings, performances and celebrations that accompanied the “German Gypsy Invasion” of 1906, or indeed in the fact of transnational travel because of - and despite - heavy restrictions. We also inevitably find more negative consequences of such restrictions and the struggles against them. These are recorded in arrest, prison or workhouse records, or for the German families, records of the National Socialist regime and persecution, where we find the sons and daughters of the 1906 migrants once more, as explored by Eve Rosenhaft and Jana Müller in their travelling exhibition.

Tamara West

Photo credit : The National Archives, HO 45/10995/158231

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