Meet the Gypsy entrepreneurs

Travelling people are putting their business skills to increasingly impressive use

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

Ask anyone from the settled community (known as ‘gorgias’ to Romani Gypsies and as ‘country people’ to Irish Travellers) what Gypsies do for money and the list would be short: tarmacking, roofing, scrap-metal dealing, hawking or maybe horse dealing.

This picture, of course, has a germ of truth in it. Many Gypsies still work as skilled labourers — but what’s remarkable is just how entrepreneurial they are, too. These are trading peoples, with a global attitude towards seeking work that would impress even Iain Duncan Smith. I’ve been astonished to discover that many English and Scottish Romani Gypsies are enthusiastic Freemasons. Away from evictions such as Dale Farm, in October 2011, most Romani Gypsies and Travellers get on with life — trading both inside their communities in what one Irish Traveller entrepreneur, the antiques dealer Candy Sheridan, dubs a ‘parallel economy’ and, somewhat quietly, outside with the settled community too.

Traders are comfortable travelling abroad to find work. Many Gypsy men are not only fluent in English but also speak German, French and a smattering of Scandinavian languages. This is striking, since academics often bewail the fact that many can’t read or write — a relic of a nomadic lifestyle where they were often moved on every few days from stopping places and few attended schools. But their linguistic skills are very impressive. So is their lack of dependence on benefits, which many men in the cultures feel are shameful to obtain. They would rather travel across Europe to work.

Professions vary in the Gypsy and Traveller communities, but the more traditional unskilled jobs are disappearing fast. Many have turned themselves into tree surgeons or landscape gardeners, for instance, as casual work in the agricultural industry has dried up. More worryingly for the Gypsies, as of this year, regulation of the scrap-metal industry has tightened. Hard as this is in the short term, it is probable that the communities will adapt fast. The evangelical Gypsy Church Life and Light, which is spreading fast throughout the communities, holds Bible-reading classes for adults. These are boosting literacy rates, and that in turn makes it easier for adults to obtain professional certification for skilled work.

More traditional professions are respected abroad, if not here. The Gypsy cob, a powerfully built, quiet and handsome horse, usually of piebald or skewbald colouring, with feathered feet and a luxurious mane and tail, has become popular abroad, exported by British Gypsy dealers.

Two years ago, British dealers were selling cobs for tens of thousands of pounds as far afield as the US, Brazil, Australia and Russia. That market has shrunk since the recession but remains active. One such dealer, Loretta Rawlings, who alongside her husband has been exporting cobs since 1999, told me that the elders who dealt in horses were taken aback by the welcome they got when they went to the US, where the Gypsy Horse Registry of America maintains a DNA database of the breed. ‘The dealers are treated like royalty there. Funny that they have to travel 3,000 miles to get respect, and they are outcasts here.’

Despite the impression that Gypsy and Traveller culture is male-dominated, women are well-respected traders. Go to any horse fair and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women running stalls with considerable flair, trading traditional clothes, antiques, bedding and collectable china (Crown Derby being most coveted). The aforementioned Candy Sheridan, who rose to prominence when she challenged the eviction at Dale Farm, maintains that Gypsy and Traveller women are born entrepreneurs. ‘We are brought up to work. Most girls and women contribute to their fathers’ and husbands’ businesses. Women traders are popular at the markets and the fairs, and they like supporting their families. But perhaps we’ve been a parallel economy for a long time, so people haven’t known about it.’

She also points out that many do not advertise their identity when they sell to gorgias. ‘Go to any car-boot sale or to any market stall and you’ll see Gypsy and Traveller women selling alongside men. And we are good saleswomen, remember we have always sold, we would dukker [tell fortunes] around the houses of the settled people and hawk, selling lavender, heather, holly, pegs, paper flowers. I’ve still got my grandmother’s hawking baskets. It’s a great distortion when you see Gypsy girls sitting at home not working.’

Their entrepreneurial spirit is feeding their success in other fields. Tom Ewer, a chef with Welsh Romani roots, has cooked in the Oxo Brasserie and now cooks at Caravan in King’s Cross. He also writes a popular blog, where he features old Gypsy recipes, including foraged food, drawing on tradition. He attributes his strong work ethic — he gets up at 5.30 every morning — and his passion for cooking to his roots: ‘Through an understanding of the way my ancestors lived, worked and ate, I have built an ethos and cooking style that reflects that. For me, family, tradition and simple but flavoursome food made to share with others is paramount when thinking about my job.’

Billy Welch, a sherar rom or elder within the community, organises Appleby Horse Fair every year in Cumbria, which attracts about 10,000 from the community and a further 30,000 tourists. He told me that the links between entrepreneurial Gypsy men and the Freemasons are also helpful for business. Showing me his intricate masonic ring, he said: ‘This was my father’s ring, he was one too. Freemasons aren’t anti-Gypsy; the thing I like best about Freemasonry is that in it all men are equal.’

The links between Freemasonry and Romani Gypsies are thought to go back centuries. Cornelius van Paun, in his Philosophical Researches on The Egyptians and The Chinese, advanced the theory that Freemasonry was introduced to Europe by Romani Gypsies. James Simpson, in his History of the Gypsies, published in 1866, observed that there were many Gypsy Freemasons, including lodge masters. This link remains strong today. Billy Welch comes from Darlington, a town known as the ‘Gypsy capital’ of the UK, as it’s estimated that around a third of the population has Romani roots. Welch notes: ‘A couple of my cousins have even been in the chair, they’ve been quite high up.’

Damian Le Bas, editor of Travellers’ Times, explains the reasoning behind Freemason membership. ‘If it’s good for business, they will do it. If you think about it rationally, if you have got people who are part of the rural and urban economy for 500 years, it would be miraculous if they weren’t, especially a community that is so typically self-employed, fiercely entrepreneurial, where masculine identity is so tied up with making a living. Our identity is all about making good business contacts, being the boy who makes good, and that is the prototype of working-class people that Masons are looking to incorporate.’

But it’s not all plain sailing for Gypsy and Traveller businessmen, says Billy Welch. Such is the stigma of being a Gypsy that many successful businesspeople still hide their Romani or Traveller roots. Billy Welch told me: ‘I could take you to mansions, people who have houses worth millions, who drive Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, who have tennis courts, wine cellars and swimming pools. But they hide their roots because if they don’t people stop trading with them. I lost a lot of business when I started to organise Appleby. There are Gypsies and Travellers living in expensive apartments near Harrods, who spend half the year in Dubai. Then there are the 500, as we call them, who own skyscrapers in New York, who are all -originally English Gypsies. They turn up at our big weddings in limos, and they still pull on at Appleby, at least once in their lives.’

Some of the biggest businesses in the country are owned by Gypsies — shipyards, car dealerships, scrapyards, caravan suppliers, carpet shops and exporters, Welch says. ‘We are true business people, we are like Asians or Jewish people. We don’t just tarmac, or sell beds and windows. We do big business. We just keep quiet about it.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Katharine Quarmby is author of No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers.

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Show comments
  • Susan Lostocco Nadathur

    An interesting read that works against stereotype. Nice to read about a more positive side of the Gypsy traveler experience.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Well, the lady had a book to write.

  • CraigStrachan

    Well, there is also the fairground business, whch isn’t doing so well. (And, yes, I know showmen see themselves as a distinct group. The preponderance of Anglo-Romani family names on the membership rolls of the SGGB is a pure coincidence, I’m sure).

    • katharine quarmby

      Interesting point – in fact I decided, as the Showpeople have such a distinctive history that it needed a book in itself and I couldn’t do their heritage justice in my book! Whether or not the business is flourishing or not at the moment, I couldn’t say – although last year, in Cromer, we did visit and enjoy a so-called ‘Austerity Funfair’ which was clearly run by Showpeople.

      • CraigStrachan

        There’s definitely another book there. Billy Welch’s point about how successful traveller businesspeople sometimes hide their roots definitely applies to showpeople. In fact they are probably the first and classic example of it. Of course not all are from Romani blood, not even most. But a good number are, for obvious historical reasons, including some of the best known fairground families. They’re cagey about it, though!

        • Joyce

          they are very cagey with outsiders – to be honest they probably wouldn’t tell you a damn thing – they only talk to their own – One of my cousins had some female knocking her door saying she heard she had a lot of Romany photos and could she use them and write a book on them – she got sent on her way with a flea in her ear – the Romany and Show people write their own books and if you look round you will find them

          • CraigStrachan

            Yes, and I have some of their books! It’s not so much that they won’t tell you a damn thing, it’s that what they tell you – about their Romani heritage for example – is often the offical version, for public consumption, and sometimes not exactly accurate.

            For instance, I know a fair bit about Romani history and genealogy. I know what family names tend to indicate Romani heritage. And then there are certain given names that are almost exclusively gypsy in a U.K context.

            So I had to smile when, at Newcastle Town Moor many moons ago, I got a lecture from a old showman about how showpeople were an absolutely separate culture from the gypsy people, and the two should never, ever be mixed up. In fact, a showman would be very offended to be called a gypsy.

            The old gentleman’s name was Aquila Toogood.

          • Joyce

            they do have mixed marriages – it happened in my own family – but they follow one culture or the other – families tended to stick to certain names I know my family does though nowadays we have added to them but the youngsters are still using old family names for their babies in many cases –
            I have a cousin who still owns a fair and he is a Showman but I was brought up to be Romany and the trend these days is to be called Romany and not Gypsy as since the TV series Big Fat Gypsy Wedding the general public think we are associated with the Irish Travellers and they are very different from us and we disassociated ourselves from them as far as we possibly could –
            Todays Romany are mainly settled and like I said in another comment well educated – many of the young ones are University graduates and that includes universities like Oxford – Cambridge – Bristol – Exeter – Bournemouth – Lampeter – Portsmouth and Exeter –
            there are Quite a few Romany building firms as well who detest what the Irish Travellers do conning old people as they get tarred with the same brush
            My own family has always been very private and never appeared in any of the old books when the reporters and photographers started going round many years ago they disappeared – usually into the New Forest -unlike a lot of the old Romany families who would speak to and pose for the photographers – that was the way it was for our family and my parents told no-one anything from outside – to be honest none of us are too talkative now

          • CraigStrachan

            Yes, the wedding show generally doesn’t do a good job distinguishing between Irish travellers and Romani people.

            I thought the one episode that was alright was the one featuring those two young Romani girls – I think they were cousins, from the Smith and Stanley families. One was determined to stay in school, the other had already left (at 12) and was living a more traditional life, helping her dad with the cobs. I think they both came across very well, and the show actually addressed some issues for once, rather than just gawking at over-the-top dresses.

          • Aware

            Here we have the problem, while you, “brought up to be a Romany” (I’m not sure what that means, are you a born Rom? ) would ask for your people not to be subject to generalisation, you are quite happy to generalise about Pavee people aka irish Travellers!

            Do not ask for what you would not give!

          • Joyce

            I was born Romany – it is by blood – and not all Irish travellers are Pavee

          • Aware

            The Pavee know who they are by their ancestors, starting with their parents and going right back…there is no hiding if you are not…

            If they are not an Irish Traveller then they are not Pavee and if they are not Pavee then they are not irish Travellers

            We do not have the issue with who is true or not..we know!

            The issue of equality is; If claiming it be prepared to offer it.

            If not offering it why expect to receive it?

          • Joyce

            I see no reason and many of my Romany friends and relatives take the same view why any one born in Britain should have any different status than anyone else or special treatment – that has only come up in the last few years – when we were inundated with Irish travellers wanting to be able to break laws left right and centre and want to ruin 100 years or more of integration by our families – the Romany knew the old ways were almost over after the war and made their decisions then to get their children educated and stay in one place though still retaining the old values in their new settled homes – I was the last of my immediate family born on the road – my brothers and sisters came after my parents settled – after both WWI and II when the survivors came back from the war they started to settle – The Romany and Showmen went to war with the rest of the men of the country – New Age Travellers took to the roads leaving a trail of destruction behind them as do the Irish travellers which was why the law was passed in Ireland 10 or so years ago they would not tolerate the destruction and mess left behind any longer and banned roadside camping by ;law –

          • Aware

            Joyce, Your post is very disturbing in many ways

            The Pavee, aka Irish Travellers, have been documented in this country from the 11th century..We have not just arrived on a shamrock boat.

            That being the case, IF there were any merit in who was in the country first then it would be on the side of the Pavee.

            The accusation against Pavee as criminals is the very same one used against Romany people…if what you say is the truth of the Pavee then what the non-Travellers say about the Romany can be considered the truth as well! Can it not?

            ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave’

            You seem to feel sufferance by the wider society is a valuable thing? Do you not look for equality?

            To get that you need to be able to give it…Your posts seem very lacking in that.

            You feel because you came off the road those who are still on the road are inferior than you?

            Would it then follow that those people who were never on the road are entitled to look at those who were as inferior to them? Going by your own rule.

            I personally know of two of my Pavee relations who fought and died in the War to end all wars. Aged 15 and 18.

            Their bodies were never recovered and they have plaques on the Menin gate and the Thiepval memorial. They went to war with a whole group of Pavees including their Father. He survived.

            You posts are as damaging to your own people as they are to any Travellers you mention.

            In my opinion you should look to yourself and think what your ancestors would make, of the extent of the integration you have made with the wider society…

            Your words are self-accusing!

            You say you are a Romany yet use ‘us’ when referring to showpeople…

          • Joyce

            one of my grandmothers was a showman’s daughter – I was brought up to believe a Romany was the equal of any man woman or child on this earth and better than some – –
            you say Pavee and Irish Travellers in UK are the same – so what you are saying goes against the behaviour of the Pavee’s I know – who are honest hardworking and educated – a lot of the Irish travellers here are thieves – con men and enslavers of vulnerable people who they treated worse than dogs – is that how you want us to think of Pavee ?- is that what you want to claim ? they camp on children’s play areas – football pitches in schools amongst other private areas and destroy everything round them and use all parts as a toilet – I am sure the Pavee I know will be delighted to have them – they destroy the transit sites that are available and then ask for more sites and wonder why they get no help – they want different planning rules and the education system for the children –

          • Aware

            By your heritage you will know there will be many Romani who would not class you a true Romani and might use that to explain your stance on another Traveller community.

            Yes indeed, criminals in the Pavee community are few and far between regardless of what perceptions people have, including you.

            Your proof that is the case is the fact you know Pavee but don’t know any criminals among them

            Would you say Romani criminals are not Romani because they are criminals..?

            There is no distinction between a Pavee, the true name of the people, and an ‘Irish Traveller’ the name bestowed on the Pavee by society. They are one and the same.

            There are criminals in every community, and of course different ‘classes’ of people within those communities, to define whole communities as criminal is rather disturbing and a form of criminality in its own way..ie a moral ‘crime’

            The crimes you laid at the door of Travellers, regardless from which community, can be laid at the door of the non-Travellers just as easily…

            You talk of Pavee camping on council land ignoring the fact Romani do the very same..have you so lost touch with your people that you dont know why this happens?

            You, I’m afraid, come over as a poacher turned gamekeeper..your hate of the Pavee and mayhap the Roma is more akin to a right-wing gorger than to a member of the communities..you seem to have integrated to the point you have taken on all the worse aspects and memes of those you have integrated into in regards to Travellers ..sister you have been too long off the road…

            Hopefully one day you’ll find the road back to yourself…thats always the hardest road to find when it has been lost.

          • CraigStrachan

            An insightful post.

          • Alex

            Hi Joyce,
            Could you point me in the direction of some good books or places that stock them?

          • Joyce

            Hello Alex
            Fairground Folk – Fairground Strollers and Show Folk – both by Francis Brown and probably available from Amazon still – Fairground Folk has just recently been updated and reprinted so probably available to order from Waterstones – – as by the titles they are Showman books – with loads of family photos in – That book is about the Matthews fairground family and my grandmothers family – Frances is a descendant of Joseph Matthews – my own great grandfather Chorley’s younger brother.
            Any book by Maggie Bendall Smith who has written several –
            Maggie is a true Romany and still lives in her trailer I believe in Somerset – they are available off the shelf in most bookshops –
            Those 2 authors will get you started – there are other Romany writers . Len Smith – is another author – but his books are hard to come by

          • Aware

            Len Smith? I seem to remember there was a question mark over his status as a Gypsy.

      • Joyce

        you need to be part of a showman’s family to write a decent book on it – too many outsiders try and jump on the band wagon – leave us to write our own books – many of us do

        • Aware

          Joyce you claim to be a “born Romany”but post “us” when talking about showpeople….?

          • Joyce

            I was referring to books on Romany /Showmen in general – no-one knows either unless they are born to it and only tell what they want outsiders to know – because bluntly both lots value their privacy – there are many instances where Romany and show people marry – and have done over the generations and in the main speak the same language and share many of the same customs

      • Aware

        The show people demanded to be treated differently from Gypsies and set up their guild..This helped them in the short term, less attacks and hate directed at them but they then lost out in the long term when the Gypsy were given ethnic minority status.

        • CraigStrachan

          Yes, although the “we’re not gypsies, oh no, not us” routine is getting rather old. I heard a representative of a section of the Guild say basically that very thing in testimony to a parliamentary committee. And quite recently. One of the MPs more or less replied – so what if you were? Which seems to me to be the right response.

          • Aware

            I agree…going to the bother of denying implies there is something wrong with being from the community. The cross party committees are really only seeing and getting evidence from those who have decided they talk for the communities..In regards to the Pavee (aka irish Traveller) communities, most of those who claim to be the representatives are not even from the community…yet claim a mandate for speaking for the Pavee…all without consultation with the community…

            The Pavee do not have their own voice…and because they don’t they can’t get that information out. a A la Joseph Heller.

            I’m a Pavee by the way. Yet my words cannot be heard over the voices of those deeming it right to speak for me.

  • Jorge Orwell

    You forgot thieving in the list of jobs

    • Joyce

      they also forgot the following – police officers – prison officers – doctors – nurses – teachers – university lecturers – medical researchers – accountants – business men and women – florists – servicemen and women – solicitors – bank tellers and managers – sportsmen and women – and that is just in my own Romany family

      • Hexhamgeezer

        ….and do the Rom make do with one word for prey and house dweller?

        • Joyce


          • Hexhamgeezer

            sorry, should have been ‘still make do….

          • Joyce

            don’t know what you been reading – but we don’t – sorry

          • Hexhamgeezer

            Do you still chalk those little codes on pavements outside people houses?

          • Joyce

            why would any Romany doctor – nurse – accountant – police officer – serviceman – builder – teacher – university lecturer – medical researcher – florist – shop assistant etc etc bother chalking outside a house – do grow up and get some common sense – many of todays younger Romany’s are all educated and in employment

        • Aware

          They do have a few words for idiots though.

        • Aware

          Did they ever?

      • Aware

        Footballers, boxers, actors. singers etc etc

    • Aware

      Which would be the same for every community on earth

  • blindsticks

    Propaganda. For every entrepreneur you still get a thousand and one dodgy ones.

  • crosscop

    I once asked the local Police Gypsy Liaison Officer (who monitored the large number of Irish Traveller sites in our locality) if there were any adult males in their community who did not have criminal records. He thought for a while and said “No. There’s not a single one.”
    They do have some good points, though… well, if you are into cock-fighting and bare-knuckle boxing, that is.

    • robert

      Really? Every single adult male Traveller is a criminal? That policeman is just as stupid and bigoted as you are then.

    • Aware

      You poor old soul..looking for any and every article about Travellers to spew the same post out..

  • Fergus Pickering

    I wouldn’t have my drive tarmacked by a travelling Murphy.

    • Aware

      Then do it yourself..

  • Jo Mrsc

    A friend who I respect more than any, is a X-gypsy. ( Laws of this country, now mean they are herded up and put into camps, because the locals still dont like it ) I have met his family, his beautiful children, and inlaws etc. He is desperately trying to earn a hard days work. I keep telling him to tell his customers that he comes from Dublin, just because he has an Irish Accent,he is judged ??

    You lot should be watching THIS lot !!

    • Aware

      If he is a Traveller with an ~Irish accent its more than likely he is a Pavee rather than a Romany..

      The Pavee have been in the Uk since before the 11th century but as a very insular community, even more so than the gypsies, they retain their mother accent.

  • Myriam Roberts

    So now people are understanding the Gypsies have a lot of money and know about how to run a business! Hello! What??? This is common knowledge!

  • JabbaTheCat

    We saw the pikey enterprise spirit first hand a couple of weeks ago, when one weekday in the early hours of the morning, the pikeys removed a section of fencing on a piece of land on the edge of our industrial estate and drove in two trucks towing caravans. After the security patrol discovered the fence breach, the police were called, and credit where credit is due, had the pikeys out off there sharpish. The pikeys then brazenly moved to the car park of the trading estate next door. It then took the owners of the trading estate a few days to get a court order to have the pikeys removed from their land because they hadn’t broken in causing criminal damage. We then heard last week that the pikeys had parked up in another industrial estate down the road and the whole process started again for another property owner as they went through the expense and aggravation of getting the pikeys cleared off their property. Thieving free loading scum, would be a polite start to describe how all the business owners, their employees and local residents feel around this neighbourhood on the subject of pikeys and their behaviour.

    • Joyce

      PIKEY – in it’s original form was a keeper at the turnpike stiles and a well respected job as it involved taking the tolls –

    • Aware

      Your ignorance shine like a full moon through the lines of your post!

  • tom golightly

    Obviously the author has no knowledge of freemasonry or freemasons – the points made in the article regarding freemasonry are plain wrong

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    ‘…yeh the thing I like about free masonary is that all men are equal’, sorry but I’m of these roots, my family are in construction and demolition, i’v spent the last decade escaping their male dominated rule, which has been handed down over decades of abuse called tradition. Getting educated, studying, working and travelling, as soon as Tories come in to power i am a target for psychiatric abuse, the battering ram for everyone’s problems and the black rotten sheep, because i am not willing to take it up the bottom, and deal with the verbal molestation. Cos apparently the jews and hippie types have changed me from a nice girl in to someone who actually thinks for herself!!Obviously we have to consider that the tribes are all very different and if you happen to be a mix, like me then well you’ll only get labelled a crazy cat lady dyke.

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    Ireland effectively evicted their gypsy population when they passed a law making camping criminal trespass. Should any country in the EU be allowed to pass legislation effectively evicting thousands of their poorest people? I have made an e-petition asking the UK govt to challenge the Irish legislation before Europe. The petition is epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions59307 Challenge Republic of Ireland land trespass law 2002

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