As June ends and we say goodbye to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Heritage month, Senior Librarian Louise Birch takes a look at what our Local History collections hold regarding West Yorkshires 7,000 strong Gypsy & Traveller community.
“In many cases Gypsies are invisible in the usual records” Freda Matthews, Gypsies in Leeds Local History (in Aspects of Leeds 1, edited by Lynne Stevenson Tate, 1998)
The majority of local history collections are anchored in records – birth, marriage and death registers, burial records, census records and trade directories. One thing they have in common is they are based around geographical areas defined by boundaries.
Searching for a non-geographically based community’s history can be very frustrating. It is certainly easier if your family had a history of settling in one place, but if your search centres around nomadic communities with predominantly oral history traditions, then things become more complex. But records can be found buried in registers and the census, however a true history needs to come from within the community. A number of years ago we worked with GATE, the Leeds Gypsy & Traveller Exchange, a grassroots organisation doing community activism, social action and advocacy. GATE provided us with images for the Leodis photographic archive, these images when combined with official records build a picture of a Leeds community going back over 400 years. In 1530 laws were passed making the existence of Gypsies travelling over from Europe illegal. After this you start to find records appearing in Parish registers as families strive for protection from expulsion through documentation. The first entry in Leeds appears in the 1572 Leeds Parish Register with the birth of Elizabeth, child of Antony Smawleye.
The 1871 Leeds Census records families living in what is called ‘Gypsy Corner’ near Stonegate Farm and Moor Allerton. Possibly the ancestors of a group who would later settle in the Meanwood area creating an area known as ‘Gypsyville’.
In 1934 an encampment of over 150 vans, tents and huts known as Brickfields, opposite Armley Park, was closed down. The site had existed for 15 years, a combination of settled and visiting Gypsies, who were evicted using the Public Health Act. Despite paying rent and having amenities they were evicted with no future site and once again their way of life made illegal.
Freda Matthews worked for the Leeds Travellers Education Service in 1987 and notes that despite families having relations up and down the country, there is a contingent who considered themselves to be ‘Leeds Travellers’, who for the most part either became settled in Leeds or travelled around the city with generations of families staying at the same stopping spaces over time.
Birkby Brow Wood in Morley was one such popular stopping site with the 1941 census showing a camp on this site and Sir Titus Salt’s autobiography recalls seeing the camp as he walked to school from the Manor House in Morley.
Cottingley Springs became one of these regular stopping spaces, possibly because of its position on the Leeds / Morley border – historically police forces from one place would not have jurisdiction in another so to be moved on in Leeds would mean a short hop across the border into Morley. In 1987, after pressure from advocacy groups, Leeds City Council a set up a permanent site at Cottingley Springs, however the 16 spaces came nowhere near what was needed for the 200 Leeds Traveller families. In 1990 a second site was opened next to the first with further accommodations, creating a total of 41 spaces.
It’s not just stopping places that tie the Gypsy & Traveller heritage to Leeds. The Lee Gap Fair in West Ardsley is named for the local vicar Dr Lee who helped keep the fair in existence during Tudor times. Still running, the Lee Gap Fair is thought to be the oldest fair in England dating back over 800 years.
The advantage of the Leodis photographic archive is that it is not just those images provided by GATE that tell the story of the community in Leeds. Freda recounts the story of Mrs Maggie Doyle of Doyle’s China shop (1937-1963), first on Boar Lane and later Albion Street. Maggie spoke of Gypsy women “placing orders of between £50 and £100 for Crown Derby or Worchester plates and ornaments. These had to be ordered and sent on so the Gypsies deposited jewellery in her safe until they came round again.”
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History month runs every June, our gallery of images can be found here on the Leodis website. For further images search Leodis using the keywords: Gypsy and Traveller.
Gypsies in Leeds Local History, Freda Matthews: (in Aspects of Leeds 1, edited by Lynne Stevenson Tate, 1998)