The words “gypsy” and “traveller” are often thought to have the same meaning. Indeed a search of the internet reveals a great deal of confusion in the use of these terms. The census statistics rarely make any distinction. Only a few websites rightly distinguish Romany gypsies from travellers of Irish ancestry and other smaller groups, though they are all in fact historically different societies with different traditions and cultures – and they haven’t always got on well with each other. There’s no denying of course that these traditionally nomadic people face a lot of criticism. The factual evidence however suggests that much of the criticism is based on stereotyping and should not be generalised.
The travelling lifestyle is of course much more suited to a farming economy rather than to the urban industrial and business economy which dominates now. The cultural heritage of the Gypsy community is at risk as the number of people who self identify as gypsy or traveller has declined rapidly.
But there was a time when gypsies and travellers were very popular, indeed essential to farmers who depended on them for seasonal labour. That has made the Romany gypsy community very much part of Denham’s long farming history and there is no-one better to tell it than someone well-known and well liked in the village. We asked Edwina Mackay to tell her story. It includes a remarkable tale of a connection to one of Britain’s most successful and popular artists.
I understand that I am quite well known in Denham as I help quite a few village residents with their cleaning. Even if you don’t know me personally, you might have heard me because I do admit to having quite a loud voice and a habit of heading off to work in the village deep in conversation with my phone jammed to my ear.
What is perhaps not so well known is that I am half-Romani with a childhood steeped in gypsy tradition. I have lived within bricks and mortar on the edge of the village since 1972. My travelling days are long gone, but I still hang on to some of my gypsy traditions and a few years ago I found a reason to feel prouder of my heritage than at any other time in my life – but more of that later in my story.
Romani Gypsies are believed to have migrated from Northern India, the Punjab, arriving in Britain at least as early as 1515 a few years after the beginning of King Henry VIII’s reign. Their slightly darker skin caused the people they met here to believe that they had come from Egypt, a part of the world that was already known about in England in 1515. That's how we came to be called Gypsies.
“Roma” and “Romani (Romany)” are very old, and more accurate, descriptions, the origins of which are not clear, but are thought to describe groups of travelling musicians and dancers. These descriptions were adopted in preference to Gypsy by the world community in 1971, though I think many Romany people in the UK are quite happy with the title “Gypsy”.
My dad, Ambrose Smith, was born on Christmas Day 1933 in Cricklade in Wiltshire. His birth was registered in nearby Devizes. I believe that, as was the custom, my grandmother delivered him herself at their camp on a Cricklade farm. I assume the family were working down in Wiltshire planting crops. They were by then based for most of the year in South Buckinghamshire at a settlement in Iver.
My mother is not Romany. She was born in Halifax in 1943. She left home in Halifax at the age of 15 and found her way to Hayes where she took a job at Nestles. But she had nowhere to live. A kindly friend put her in touch with my Dad’s family. She was welcomed into the family and she was offered somewhere to sleep in a milk cart under a tarpaulin roof. She joined the travelling community and later married Ambrose.
I was born in 1962. My first “cot” was a milk crate though it was better known to my family as a bushel box. It held 8 gallons when it wasn’t holding me and was also used to store onions, corn and fruit. I spent the first nine years of my life living on a caravan site in Langley. I went to school in Langley, but didn’t attend when I was off with my parents as they worked on farms in Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire usually helping with the harvesting of spring vegetables. I do remember being warmly welcomed back to school by teachers and pupils whenever we returned to Langley.
Gypsy travellers are often accused of leaving behind their rubbish when they leave an encampment, but my childhood memory is exactly the opposite. My dad insisted that the children go around the site picking up every scrap of rubbish which was then taken either to a local tip or to an area to which we were instructed by the farmer.
When not working on the farms my dad earned a wage at three different scrap metal sites owned by the family sorting out the metals and loading them onto lorries for collection.
It was obviously quite a poor and quite tough life, the kind of life and work many people expect of members of the Gypsy community. But I don’t remember it as an unhappy life. I was close to my dad. There were strong values in the community and rules by which we lived. We valued the freedoms of the lifestyle we had.
When I was 10, after a year in a caravan on the site at Wyatt’s Covert, we moved into a house in Priory Close and I went to Alderbourne Secondary School where Lindsey Road is now. Once I turned 15, I went to work at Lea Farm at weekends picking coriander for the farmer Mr. Stylus.
My grandparents and great grandparents on my father’s side were important figures in the community. My grandmother Rosina was a fortune teller. I remember that both she and my grandad Gilderoy carved flower shapes from wood to sell. The photo here shows Grandad Gilderoy carving. His name is said to mean "The Golden King".
And here is my grandmother, Rosina preparing palm branches to sell for Palm Sunday.
My dad’s sister-in-law was Freedom Smith. It was a name that suited her. She was otherwise known as Beulah which I understand means "married to the land", again an appropriate name.
My great grandmother, Eliza known to the whole community as “Lilo” was very special, very dignified and authoritative in her classic gypsy costume with magnificent hats.
Another photo of Gilderoy and Rosina looks like it may be a wedding photo with my grandad wearing uniform and my grandmother obviously very smartly dressed..
My dad always spoke the Romani language at home. I still use it myself in conversation with other people in the Roma community. There was one incident quite recently which surprised me but gave proof of where the Romani people came from so long ago. I was with a Romani friend and another friend from the Punjab in Northern India and whilst we were talking I mentioned something to my Gypsy friend in the Romani language which I didn’t expect my Indian friend to understand. I had quite a shock when she broke into the conversation asking “Why did you say that?” She had understood every word. Our language in common has obviously survived for a thousand years or more.
In 1936 Dame Laura Knight became the first woman in 167 years to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy. She was in her lifetime among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. Included in the wide range of subjects she chose for her paintings were members of the gypsy community. In the mid-1930s she befriended and painted groups of Gypsies at the Epsom and Ascot racecourses.
Dame Laura frequently returned to the racecourses and painted from the back of an antique Rolls-Royce car, which was large enough to accommodate her easel. Often pairs of Gypsy women would pose at the open door of the Rolls-Royce, with the race-day crowds in the background.
As a result of her paintings at Epsom, Laura Knight was invited to the Iver Gypsy settlement which was normally closed to outsiders. These visits resulted in a series of portraits of members of the Gypsy community.
I knew of Laura Knight and her paintings but had never seen them. A friend told me about an exhibition of her work at the National Portrait Gallery in London and encouraged me to go to see it. There I was amazed to find myself in a small alcove surrounded by astonishingly lifelike and beautiful portraits of members of my family. It felt as if they were following me around the room with their eyes, as if they had come back to life. There were my grandad Gilderoy Smith simply titled “The Gypsy”, my aunt Freedom. I have read that it was Laura Knight who renamed her Beulah, but I'm not so sure of that. It wasn't at all unusual for members of the community to have nicknames by which they were generally known.
Great grandmother Lilo had been painted several times. The most impressive of these portraits of Lilo was simply but perfectly titled “Gypsy Splendour”.
And then there was “Young Gypsies”, painted in 1937, old style caravans in the background behind three children, two girls playing in the grass and a boy, maybe four years old, hands stuffed firmly in his pockets watching over the scene. It's my dad.
Many years later, in 1957, Laura Knight wrote about her painting of my grandfather Gilderoy “‘He, a gentleman called Mr Smith, one wet day, at Iver, Bucks, in the camp there near the railway, posed for me in a little lean-to tent - just a corner in shelter, crowded by a big double bed where an old gipsy and his wife slept. I painted it in 3 or 4 hours. ... I haven't anything more to say about that Mr Smith except that he figures in several other pictures I painted at Iver - one in particular, his whole family which is somewhere in Scotland - wife, three children and his mother, a beautiful old Romany, queen of the camp.”
No doubt it was Lilo who was “queen of the camp”. The painting said by Laura Knight to be “somewhere in Scotland” obviously includes my dad and my grandmother, Rosina. I wonder where it is.
The ladies from Gloucester
There were two other women in that corner of the exhibition and I noticed that they seemed to be listening to my excited descriptions of the people shown in the paintings. Finally one of them asked “Excuse me, but do you know these people”. I explained that they were all members of my family.
They were thrilled to meet me. They had travelled from Gloucester, where my grandad Gilderoy was born, to visit the exhibition. They had become fascinated by the Smith family as the subject of Laura Knight’s paintings and had researched the family’s history . They told me things about some of my relatives that I had never known and they had even found the grave of one of my ancestors in Gloucestershire.
I felt so proud of my family that day.
Copyright laws prevent us from displaying images of Dame Lauras Knight’s paintings here, but they can be found on the internet. An image of the portrait of Gilderoy Smith, “The Gypsy” can be viewed here - ‘The Gypsy‘, Dame Laura Knight, exhibited 1939 | Tate. Other portraits of Edwina's family by Laura Knight can be seen by internet searching for "Laura Knight Gypsy paintings". Look out for Lilo, Beulah and the "Young Gypsies, 1937" for Edwina's father as a four year old.
Laura Knight by Bassano Ltd half-plate glass negative, 20 February 1936 Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974 Photographs Collection NPG x19409 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Edwina Mackay and family
Wikimedia Commons images
Edwina’s visit to the National Portrait Gallery was the result of a chance conversation between a member of the DCHP team and a friend of hers who had happened to pick up a leaflet about the Laura Knight exhibition on a train. Happy chance.