The World is Your Workshop

In Britain and Ireland, the Romany Gypsys and the Traveller community are often associated with low-skilled work such as scrap dealers, horse traders, musical entertainers, or more nefarious activities outside the societal norms.  However, there were plenty of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen providing goods and services to people around the country.

Below is an image of a couple, working together making footstools outside their vardo while another couple looks on from the comfort of their wagon.

Gypsy carpenters making small and large stools for market. From an early 20th century postcard.  Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

Other Gypsy families were blacksmiths, basket weavers, or similar occupations that could be taken on the road, required little stock or overhead, and could be performed independently or with a minimum of family help.

Gypsy Basket Weavers on Skyros. Source: http://from-hand-to-hand.org/.

There is more to wandering people than the romantic or demonized images we carry.  People are just people after all.

Gypsy Blacksmith. Source.

Gypsies France 1930s-1960s

Encampment on a pitch somewhere in France, early mid-20th century.

Tents and the Vardo Life; What is a Bender?

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The bender tent provides shelter from the damp while keeping the living space outdoors.

Travellers in Europe and Britain have always been associated with a style tent called a bender.  This comes from the construction technique of cutting saplings and bending them into a dome, elongated dome, or half cylinder shape,  These frameworks were then covered with tarps and made watertight in the temperate damp.  The origins of this design are lost in the mists of time and are believed by archaeologists to be one of the earliest style of recognizable tent structure used by humans.

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This size bender can more than double the living space of a vardo in a matter of minutes.

Even after a certain level of affluence allowed some Romany and other Travelling folk to own living wagons, the bender continued (and continues) to be a way to extend the living space without the need for a lot more gear.

In England, Gypsy women often used their homes for fortune-telling, especially around the Gadjo (non-Gypsy) vacation centers. Image, early 20th century. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

The fact that a tent becomes the subject for a Blackpool post card shows the ongoing fascination with “Gypsy Culture,” especially in the British Isles where Travellers are simultaneously suspect and romanticized.

Fortune Teller

The front or vestibule provides a place to do business in relative privacy. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

If you have family that me be Romany, Traveller, or Fairground folk in Britain or just want to learn more, check out the Romany & Traveller Family History Society at http://rtfhs.org.uk/.

A Romany Family in Scotland

Near Boglehill in Midlothian, Scotland, n.d. late 19th century. Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

I really like everything about the image above.  We see three very different types of wagon-home-conveyances and a family, wearing clothing of the time.  Travellers on the margin of mainstream society have been shunned, persecuted, and culturally dismissed while at the same time romanticized for their freedom and seeming lack of attachment to a more mundane life.  I am glad to see a revitalization and pride from reconnecting with family roots.

Legal Documents.

People who have lived “off-grid” so to speak often have few documents or any official standing, making family histories more difficult to trace.  Hospital records, cemetery documents, or government permits, such as the Pedlar’s Certificate above, are the only way for many to trace their ancestry.

 

Diaper Family Portrait.

Fortunately, there is a concerted effort in Britain by the Romany & Traveller Family History Society (RTFHS) to create a clearinghouse for descendants of those often overlooked by the mainstream.

About the RTFHS:  Back in the early 1990s, a group of keen family historians with British Gypsy ancestors first met at a Gypsy family history conference organised by the historian and author, the late David Smith. Until that moment we’d all thought that we were pretty much alone in trying to trace our travelling ancestors and that there was no-one out there to learn from or share our experiences, trials and tribulations with.

Caravans

Here’s another excellent photo of a pack of vardos (caravans) in the wild.  It looks like everyone came out and maybe even spruced themselves up for the photo.  I couldn’t find any metadata on this one but it looks fairly early, probably late nineteenth century.  These appear to be high-end models in great condition still.

Caravan

Happy travels!

Community of Wanderers

Nomads are not loners.  In fact, humans do not do well alone in any setting.  We have always been communal people, depending upon one another for help and support.  Many hands make light work and it is essential to be near others you can depend on.

1930sI have been collecting images of Traveller communities for many years and I really enjoy the gritty, homespun feel of the old encampments with peeling paint and makeshift tarpaulin shelters.  I’m sure this image was not welcome in settled communities around Europe and the shiftless nature of these wanderers led to many suspicions, both unfounded and real.

4203n Woonwagenkamp, een draaiorgel komt langsThese are not the rolling home of the wealthy showmen of idle rich but the best compromise for families destined to live on the road.

FamilyVardoThe vardos bear many differences but within fairly tight physical contraints of size, weight, needs, and technology.  It’s important to remember as well that historic travellers of most varieties didn’t design or build their own accommodations but often modified or improved that which they acquired.

Dutch1940Even though they show few relevant details of the caravans themselves these are some of my favorite images; they give us a glimpse of the people who called them home.

Although Traveller families lived (and live) on the margins of “normal” society they were (are) more like their neighbors than not.

I hope you enjoy the photos as we head into the season of Thanksgiving here in North America and give thanks for what we have.

We are at our best and worst in groups, whether that is family or friends.  Humans are social animals.

Close Call at 65 mph

I decided this was worth a re-post. An incident that could have gone far worse in many ways.

Preindustrial Craftsmanship

I had to wait a while to publish this one but maybe I just need to get it out…

I like to think I’m a safe person.  At least to the point of looking out for others if not always myself.  I don’t drive aggressively, I maintain my vehicles, and don’t take big chances on the road.  That said, I probably stress my truck and the vardo more than most people would.  The truck has spent sixteen years as an archaeologist’s field vehicle and has gone into places I would have never thought I would take it.  I have crept into BLM campsites with the vardo that required it to be tipped up to 45 degrees and I was certain it was going to go over.  I’ve intentionally jack-knifed the whole thing just to push it into place between boulders.

These things are just the nature of travel in the…

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A Dog and Her Vardo

So, a vardo is a small space, especially when living with a dog. 

Stationed for maximum observation.

The old dog loved sleeping under the rig as she took her guard duties seriously but unfortunately, she is no longer with us.  The youngster, on the other hand, has no interest in that sort of nonsense and only wants to be by my side as much as possible.  She loves enclosed spaces so the vardo is a big attraction for her.  She spends much of her time under the main bed, hidden away, and often forgotten about until she decides to get under foot.  I even lost her for the better part of a day when she snuck in while I wasn’t looking, slipped into her bed, and was locked in for several hours.  When I found her, she looked content enough and came out stretching like a sleepy child.

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Making it fit.

Much of 2016-2017 I was lucky enough to spend many nights camped in the gypsy wagon with just my dog for company.  She doesn’t get on furniture inside the house but the dog has decided the floor or her bed are not good enough when she’s in the vardo.  Since she knows she not really supposed to sneak into the bed, the (too small) bench seat is often her compromise in the wagon.  She doesn’t really fit but I guess it makes her feel like one of the family.

A bed’s eye view in the morning.

A couple years ago I learned to be extra careful when sliding out of bed, especially in the dark, as she often plants herself on her favorite felted rug; right under my feet.  In this case, it also happens to be in front of the ceramic heater on a chilly morning.

Photo-bomb. She climbed out from her bed in order to not miss the action.

Even while getting ready to go to work, she seems to manage a photo-bomb; always lurking nearby and not wanting to be left behind.  Just because it’s a small space, there is still plenty of room for a dog; sort of.

 

Tinker Family in Scotland

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Tinker family. Estimated date : 1920 – 1929 ©The Wick Society,

Here’s a wonderful old photograph of a “Tinker Family in Scotland.”  It is believed to be taken sometime in the 1920s but the location was not identified.  The wagon could just about pass for a western American sheep camp.  Even thought they had the wealth to own a wagon it was still a pretty tough life, often unwanted in non-traveller (sic) communities, these people have been marginalized for centuries.

I found this one while perusing the Johnston Collection on the Document Scotland webpage.  Have a look if you are interested in great images of a beautiful country.

A Perfect Vardo

Desert Dream

This is a beautiful photo of Travellers in Britain, 1950.  I came across it a while back while searching out vardo images for my own inspiration.  This one has some great details and has a distinctive Scottish feel.

There’s a flag of the Scottish Caravan Club flying on the roof and some great signage on the walls as well as the typical harness brass horse shoe on the door.  I would love to find out more about this one.  Comments?  Thoughts?

Dugald Semple and a Simple Life

I would like to re-share this older post I wrote about a caravaner, scholar, and philosopher I am quite intrigued by – Dugald Semple

Dugald Semple was a Scottish philosopher of the early 20th Century and an advocate for simple living.  After becoming and engineer he took to the woods and, for a period, a life on the road, living in a tent and in various caravans in order to write and travel and avoid the enslavement of increasingly urban society.

Semple on the beach.

His major question was always “How ought we to live?” an ancient subject for thinkers the world-over and a very important topic in Asian philosophy as well.  His teachings are interesting and he still has a serious following of vegans, fruitarians, and Christian Phlosophers around the world.  He apparently never ate meat, eggs, or cheese, and subsisted on a mostly fruit diet.  It clearly worked well-enough, as he died at the age of 79 in 1964.  Not bad, but think of all the bacon he missed!

DugaldSemple

Of course, my interest in Dugald lies primarily in his simple lifestyle and his fondness for caravans and living in the open.  He married well.  Cathie, his wife was a widow who was independently wealthy, owning a large house and grounds.  This certainly contributed to the success of the life-long experiment in simple living.  Even as he settled down, he still philosophized and associated with his old friends who roamed the countryside and set up guilds of craftsmen (Nerrissa Wilson, Gypsies and Gentlemen).  He envisioned a new generation of skilled travelers who could pack up their trades and families and move to where the work was, thus alleviating some of the new stress of urban life.

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Semple in his summer camp.

I love this camp.  This wagon seems perfectly suited for summertime use with the fully opening sides.  Too bad his dream didn’t catch on, but he admitted that life on road could be stressful and difficult.  At least we can give it a try; even if in a limited capacity.

Joy-in-Living

As an end note, here’s a quote he is well known for on his philosophy of a vegan lifestyle:

Personally, I began rather drastically over 50 years ago by cutting out not only all meat or flesh foods, but milk, eggs, butter, tea and coffee. Cheese I have never eaten; indeed I hate the very smell of this decayed milk. Next, I adopted a diet of nuts, fruit, cereals and vegetables. On this Edenic fare I lived for some ten years, and found that my health and strength were greatly improved. Probably this was also because I lived more in the fresh air and closer to Nature. (Emphasis added by the ed.).

I just don’t know if I can fully trust a man who won’t eat cheese…