Squalor and Struggle

York’s Gypsy and Traveller community has been exiled to the margins of the city. Liam O’Brien is shocked by their living conditions and police intrusion on their sites

The police are an intrusive presence on the Osbaldwick site

The police are an intrusive presence on the Osbaldwick site

Gypsies and Travellers are the last minority group in our country against whom many feel it’s reasonable, normal and permissible to harbour indiscriminate racism. After decades of education in civil rights, people keep the N-word and the P-word to themselves, but happily launch into ‘pikey’ and ‘gypo’, and tirades about their dirty, criminal lives. It’s seen as acceptable to hold these beliefs because they have never been challenged by authorities, and they’ve been reinforced by a steady slew of local and national legislation which, since the Second World War, has sought to rob Travellers of their cultural heritage, their means for a good standard of living and has driven them to the margins of society. In these aims our government and local authorities have experienced great success.

The average life expectancy for a Traveller is just 66, 12 years below the national average, and far behind those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups – apparently regarded as the most deprived minority populations in the UK. Almost one in five Traveller mothers will face the trauma of losing a child in their early years, and only one in ten of those that survive will go on to gain five good GCSE passes – the golden ticket that represents job opportunities and a living wage.

Few will be aware of this shocking deprivation. The Travellers’ existence is generally perceived as an annoyance. When Iain Wright took up his post as the Minister for Gypsies and Travellers in 2007, he said, “People feel able to talk about Gypsies and Travellers in one block, as if they could be the devil incarnate.” But speaking to Travellers in York, mostly identifying as English Romany Gypsies, and those who work with them, it becomes apparent that Middle England’s stereotypes are, to no great surprise, unfounded.

On visiting York’s Traveller sites, it is painfully obvious that the squalor of their living conditions is a disgrace, and the authorities held responsible for their welfare should be forced to do something to remedy the situation. A 1998 report by the University of York showed that the Travellers then faced overcrowding, below average healthcare and educational provision, and police harassment. According to the latest report by a team of academics speacialising in social justice, nothing has changed. In fact, the number of Traveller children regularly attending school has taken a ten percent dive.

It’s estimated that there are nearly 380 Travellers living in caravans at York’s main sites at James Street, Clifton Moor and Osbaldwick. Across York, there are 1,000 overall, a number which sounds far-fetched, but is rendered realistic by the fact that Gypsies in York struggle to obtain tenancy agreements for their ‘pitches’ (a small piece of land large enough to house a caravan). Effectively, this means they are classed as homeless. Some live by the roadside, with children, wagons and animals in tow. On my visit to the Osbaldwick site, one Traveller informed me that he’d been waiting 11 years for a tenancy agreement, and was therefore living illegally in the site. This is by no means uncommon. The community fears the law not just because of its heavy-handedness, but because people are forced, through simple common sense, to live outside it.

Media coverage of the Travellers rarely offers any kindness. York’s community in particular is deeply suspicious after years of partisan reportage and police raids. Nationally, though, we have made a move from Daily Mail hate-mongering to seeing the Traveller community as anachronistic caricature. The Channel 4 documentary My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which aired last month to good critical notes and five million viewers, set Travellers up as something to be mocked. A cruel edit saw a shot of a young girl claiming she didn’t like “tacky weddings” followed immediately by her plans for an awkward 50ft train on her dream dress.

The Travellers want to be treated with more respect by the police. They’re tired of them coming in absolutely mob-handed every time there’s a rumour about drugs.

Ignored completely was the isolation of Travellers up and down our nation. Gary Craig, a visiting Professor at Durham University and one of the writers of “Marginalised and Excluded?”, the most recent report with specific research on York Travellers, insists, “Gypsy Travellers are the most excluded and deprived community in the country. The way they are treated is a national disgrace. They live way below the poverty line in whichever way you want to define it.”

Police raids on the Clifton Moor and Osbaldwick caravan sites have incensed Gary, as has their subsequent presence in the York Press. On 5 February of this year, 160 police officers with drug specialists and sniffer dogs arrested ten people at the Clifton Moor site, seizing 21 cannabis plants and £750 in counterfeit cash. A week later, a force of similar size collected heroin and ecstasy with a street value of £20,000 from the same site. The police had acted on a series of complaints from residents in the local area.

Nevertheless, these operations have been heavily criticised for their heavy-handedness and their disastrous effect on York’s Traveller community. Christine Shepherd, Co-ordinator of York Traveller’s Trust, a charitable foundation aiming to help the Travellers, has been continually frustrated by the police’s actions: “Back in 2004 there was a raid in Osbaldwick and that was absolutely over the top. I understand that the police have a duty to protect their staff but there were 200 armed police officers, animal help, helicopters… You name it, it was there. I’ve been trying to build bridges between the Travellers and the settled community and that destroyed all the work I’d been doing. These recent raids on the Clifton site were totally disproportionate. Drugs aren’t just a problem in the Traveller community but outside too. All the Travellers are tarred with the same brush when in reality it might only be one or two individuals.”

After reading full-page articles in the York Press on the drug swoops, Gary Craig accused its Editor of racism given the complete disregard for the appalling treatment of the Travellers. The Press then published an article with a more positive portrayal. For Gary, though, the police handling of these issues needs to improve, and quickly: “The Travellers want to be treated with more respect by the police. They’re tired of the police coming in absolutely mob-handed every time there’s a rumour about drugs. There’s this constant feeling they’re being watched. The police stop children and talk to them. The raid on Osbaldwick in 2004 produced such an atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion that it’s going to take ages to recover – it was such a damaging experience. The Travellers just don’t believe that the police have their best interest in mind.”

Fully supportive of the Travellers, though, is Christine Shepherd, who juggles her work as the only full time member of staff at York Travellers Trust with an MA at the University of York’s Centre for Women’s Studies. Her friendly office is located in a residential area of the city, and her desk is covered in the tidy mounds of paper you might expect in an ordinary job. Her work is anything but.

“It can be absolutely anything from one day to the next,” says Christine, “Job searches and applications, making sure the Travellers are compliant with the most recent legislation, training, helping with key skills like money management and budgeting, and generally getting shouted at by the Travellers!”

Christine also deals with individual welfare cases, which in the circumstances of extreme poverty are often harrowing: “We had one young family on the Clifton site. A poor young girl was living with her family and two young children. The family had a fallout and she was thrown out with her kids. So this single parent pulled into an area where they turn the cars around, not doing anyone any harm. She was then told by the council that she would be evicted onto the roadside. What would be the sense in that? It’s a long and expensive process to evict someone. The Travellers do it because they’re desperate for accommodation, not for the fun of it.”

A traveller's horse enters an industrial site near the Osbaldwick camp

Gary, who worked with Christine for almost a year in compiling the report, was cautious about the organisation’s future: “The York Travellers Trust’s funding is due to run out in a couple of years. Christine is really respected by the Travellers but they know she’s completely overwhelmed. If the local authority took the issue of the Travellers seriously they would put much more funding into that organization, because it’s broadly trusted.”

Christine has headed the Trust for ten years now, and as she guides George, our photographer, and I around the James Street site, it’s clear she has built a hard-earned rapport with its residents. The site is opposite Morrisons supermarket, just off the Lawrence Street area where many students live, but until I researched this feature I had no idea of its existence. The report cites flooding and environmental pollution as two key problems on the site, and Christine adds, “When Morrisons was built a large brick wall was erected. They said it was to protect the Travellers from noise pollution. It seems like they want to hide them away and keep them in. Like all the sites, again it’s overcrowded.”

Obscuring the Travellers from the eyes of passers-by is a common practice. The site was purpose-built by the council on an industrial estate, just a little further down from The Raylor Centre where you find car mechanics and building firms. Perhaps as soon as the authorities became aware of the likelihood of increased traffic through the area, they closed off the view of the site from the outside, so no one would feel endangered, or offended.

Nevertheless, given all I had been told, the James Street site came as a welcome surprise. The residents clearly have good community spirit and live in reasonable, if not ideal, conditions. A few Travellers there partake in an annual Race For Life for Cancer Research UK. Much has been made by locals of dogs roaming the site, barking loudly, but in my time there for the most part they just wandered politely between the caravans. Initially, one resident is a little suspicious of George’s camera, believing him to be from the York Press, but once assuaged we passed through the site without bother.

Cally, a Traveller who has been on the site for 15 years, welcomes us into her caravan. It is spotless inside and out; the windows are not even marked by rainwater.
“Over the years living here has gotten better,” she says, “A lot of things are getting done that weren’t years ago. I enjoy it here, everybody just gets on. We all live the same on here.”

Cally has been working part time at the Travellers Trust, and Christine beams as she says, “Cally’s a great motivator. When we get people in for sessions or do any training Cally encourages people to get to the project and get involved.”

As I say we should move on to the Osbaldwick site, one Traveller laughs. “It’s not like this site,” warns Christine.
“Why?” I inquire, “Are the living conditions a lot rougher?”
“More the people.” The Traveller replies.

Christine clarifies: “The Osbaldwick site is the worst site, definitely. It’s the location, the problems on there, people are packed in to such a small space and the conditions are quite horrendous. I can’t believe the local authority thinks it’s acceptable for people to live in these conditions. There’s been a huge problem with fly tipping on the site for years. It’s certainly been there as long as I’ve been around. Each pitch is overcrowded. There are at least two families living on a pitch only really designed for one family.”

According to Gary, Travellers on the site are used to police, media and industrial intrusion at random and frequent intervals in their everyday life.

The camp is used as a dumping ground

“They’re very concerned about the CCTV cameras [erected by local businesses] and living on an industrial estate. They essentially have to live with their curtains closed all the time because the cameras point straight into their living room.” One resident said that Keyline, a supplier of timber and other materials, had cameras able to distinguish whether you were making a cup of tea or coffee in your kitchen.

The site itself is hidden away at the very end of a long stretch of dirt-road. As I drove along, I asked George whether we were going in the right direction. Luckily, discernible in the distance was a Traveller’s horse trotting towards, eventually running through some industrial gates. The road to the site is paved with industrial litter and general debris, and is said to be used as a dumping ground by many Travellers not residing in Osbaldwick. As we park on the site, we see that waste gathers in its every corner and the children – some in school uniform, some not – merrily negotiate their way around it. Much of the ground is not concrete, but wet mud, and the stench of horse manure flies into the surrounding air.

George’s camera causes the locals to erupt. They emerge from their caravans, a few of them threatening to smash it up. George quickly deletes some of his photos, increasingly grateful that he left his longer, flashier lens in the car. After years of having their police presence be accompanied by a local reporter, they associate the media with family members being taken away, arrests, and with the discrimination they suffer on a day-to-day basis.

The difficulty of Christine’s job is all too clear. In these (and it is not a stretch to say this) Third-World conditions the Travellers are understandably angry and confused. One female Traveller says, “Cally’s only been to see me about going on a reading course,” in a tone that exasperates Christine. A roadside family has a go at her over their terrible predicament: they have a small brick building, four caravans, and a menagerie of dogs and horses on one tiny pitch that isn’t even theirs.

As we leave a police car pulls in, winds down the window, and talks to the children who directed us out of the site. Suddenly we catch the smallest glimpse of the Travellers’ daily reality. It is little wonder they treat outsiders with such caution when everyone eyes them with the same, perhaps even greater suspicion.

That this abandonment has managed to find its home in local policy, and that this discrimination has worked its way into the minds of the local and national populace, without any hope of remedy or betterment, is nothing short of disgraceful. In the longer term, strategies are needed for better integration and understanding, for improved education and health. But short-term provision is essential. Christine tells me that the council has been instructed to provide more accommodation in the form of another site, a solution that would relieve overcrowding problems. She remains doubtful: “The roadside family we just saw only want a small space of their own, and they’ve been waiting four years. Imagine how long it’ll take for them to build an entire site.” M


  1. The majority of these so called Travellers are scum, they lie, steal, cheat, are a society within a society, and rightly so they should be treated like the filth that they are. I have many times in the course of my employment come into contact with travellers from the York area and have tried at times to give them some slack and a chance. Each and every time they have reneged on agreements, left an unbelievable mess and on a couple of occasions stolen from my place of work. I have no pity or empathy whatsoever for them and they deserve all the bad press they get.

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  2. Horrible human being you are, peter.

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