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Romanichal facts for kids

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Romanichal Travellers/Gypsies
Romanichal family.jpg
A Romanichal family
from Derby, England in 1910
Total population
c. 490,000 worldwide
Regions with significant populations
 United Kingdom 200,000 (estimate)
 United States 164,000 (estimate)
 South Africa 14,000 (estimate)
 Australia 6,400 (estimate)
 Canada 3,900 (estimate)
 New Zealand 1,400 (estimate)
English and Angloromani
Pentecostalism, Protestantism
Romani mythology, irreligion, witchcraft
Related ethnic groups
Romani people, Kale (Welsh Romanies), Scottish Gypsy and Traveller groups (specifically Scottish Lowland Travellers), Norwegian and Swedish Travellers, Finnish Kale, Irish Travellers

Romanichal Travellers ( more commonly known as English Gypsies or English Travellers) are a Romani subgroup within the United Kingdom and other parts of the English-speaking world. There are an estimated 200,000 Romani in the United Kingdom; almost all live in England. Most Romanichal speak Angloromani, a mixed language that blends Romani vocabulary with English syntax.


The word "Romanichal" is derived from Romani chal, where chal is Angloromani for "fellow".


Romanichal are found across the United Kingdom, particularly England, Lowland Scotland and Wales. The Romanichal diaspora emigrated from the British Isles to other parts of the English-speaking world. Based on some estimates, there are now more people of Romanichal descent in the United States than in Britain. They are also found in smaller numbers in South Africa, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.


The Romani people in England are thought to have spoken the Romani language until the 19th century, when it was replaced by English and Angloromani, a creole language that combines the syntax and grammar of English with the Romani lexicon. All Romanichals also speak English.

Many Angloromani words have been incorporated into English, particularly in the form of British slang.


Many, but not all, Romanichals are noted for a fairer phenotype than that of other Romani groups in Europe. Lighter-skinned Romani are not uncommon, and a light phenotype, including individuals with blond hair and blue eyes, can also be seen in established Eastern European Roma communities.

Constantine, Prince of Moldavia in his 1776 decree against the intermarriage between Moldavians and Romani wrote: "In some parts Gypsies have married Moldavian women, and also Moldavian men have taken in marriage Gypsy girls, which is entirely against the Christian faith." The French writer Felix Colson, writing in 1839 about his visits to slave holdings in Romania, remarked of some of the Romani slaves: "Their skins are hardly brown but blond and beautiful." Lighter-skinned Romani girls in Slovakia, noted for their beauty, were given the nickname "Papin" or "Papinori" (white goose) in the Romani language to indicate their light skin tone.

The same phenomenon of a light-skinned phenotype observed on the continent can be seen in other Romani communities, including the Romanichal in Britain, due to some limited intermarriage between themselves, settled people and/or other Traveller groups.

Stereotypically, darker skin is seen as a racial characteristic among the Romani. This attitude has proliferated the myth of the "True Romani", an inadvertent discriminatory term described by some Romani scholars as one that "...allowed writers and policy-makers to dismiss people as an unwelcome social blot on the land, people of 'little or no Romani blood' who gave the 'True Romany' a bad name."

Blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes are not uncommon features among both the Roma and British Romani groups. Examples include lighter-skinned Roma who were conscripted into fighting units during WWII; a Slovakian Roma called Otto Baláš wrote an account that stated: "They also took my cousin Paľo. He didn’t look like a gypsy—He was white." Other light-skinned Roma were able to pass as non-Roma and avoid the Romani genocide or Porajmos, as in the case of Vojtěch Fabián, who told a doctor he was a Roma but was admonished: "Never say you’re a Gypsy, you don’t look like one" and consequently was able to hide his Romani ethnicity from the authorities. Some Roma have been noted as passing for Slovak or Hungarian despite being of Romani descent, while the Bulgarian Roma, musician Ivo Papazov, has stated of the light-skinned phenotype: "I am one of the few light-skinned people in my family but I know I am Romani."

As with the varying phenotypes in continental Romani groups, the British Romanichal are an authentic subgroup of the Romani people. They display genetic markers distinct from those of other people of the British Isles. These markers show them to be most closely related to continental Romani groups like the Sinti from Germany, Austria and the Romani people from Eastern Europe. The Finnish Kale, a further sub-group of the Romani people, allege that they are descendants of Romani people from the UK.


Movimiento gitano
The migration of the Romanies through the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe.

The Romani people have origins in India, specifically Rajasthan and began migrating westwards from the 11th century. The first groups of Romani people arrived in Great Britain by the end of the 15th century, escaping conflicts in Southeastern Europe (such as the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans).

In 1506 there are recorded Romani persons in Scotland, arrived from Spain and to England in 1512. Soon the leadership passed laws aimed at stopping the Romani immigration and at the assimilation of those already present.

During the reign of Henry VIII, the Egyptians Act (1530) banned Romanies from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. During the reign of Mary I the act was amended with the Egyptians Act (1554), which removed the threat of punishment to Romanies if they abandoned their "naughty, idle and ungodly life and company" and adopted a settled lifestyle, but on the other hand increased the penalty for noncompliance to death.

In 1562 a new law offered Romanies born in England and Wales the possibility of becoming English subjects, if they assimilated into the local population. Despite this legislation, the Romani population managed to survive, but it was forced into a marginal lifestyle and subjected to continuous discrimination from the state authorities and many of the local non-Romanies. In 1596, 106 men and women were condemned to death at York just for being Romani, and nine were executed. The others were able to prove that they were born in England.

Samuel Rid authored two early works about them in the early 17th century.

From the 1780s, gradually, the anti-Romani laws were repealed, although not all. The identity of the Romanichals was formed between the years 1660 and 1800, as a Romani group living in Britain.


Shipments to the Americas, Caribbean and Australia

A British Romanichal

England began to deport Romanichals as early as 1544, principally to Norway, a process that was continued and encouraged by Elizabeth I and James I. The Finnish Kale, a Romani group in Finland, maintain that their ancestors had originally been a Romani group who travelled from Scotland, thereby supporting the idea that they and the Scandinavian Travellers/Romani are distantly related to present-day Scottish Romani and English Romanichals.

In 1603 an Order in Council was made for the transportation of Romanichal to Newfoundland, the West Indies, France, Germany, Spain and the Low Countries. Other European countries forced the further transport of the Romani of Britain to the Americas. Many times those deported in this manner did not survive as an ethnic group, because of the separations after the round up, the sea passage and the subsequent settlement as slaves, all destroying their social fabric. At the same time, voluntary emigration began to the English overseas possessions. Romani groups which survived continued the expression of the Romani culture there.

In the years following the American War of Independence, Australia was the preferred destination for Romanichal transportation, due to its use as a penal colony. The exact number of British Romani deported to Australia is unknown. It has been suggested that three Romanichal were present on the First Fleet, one of whom was thought to be James Squire who founded Australia's first commercial brewery in 1798, and whose grandson James Farnell who became the first native-born Premier of New South Wales in 1877. The total Romani population seems to be an extremely low number when we consider that British Romani people made up just 0.01% of the original 162,000 convict population. However, it has been suggested that Romanichal were one of the main target groups and were discriminated against due to the transportation laws of England in the mid-18th century. It is often difficult to distinguish British Romani people of Wales and England from the majority of non-Romani convicts at the time, therefore the precise number of British Romanies transported is not known, although there are occurrences of Romani names and possible families within the convict population; however it is unclear if such people were members of the established Romani community. Fragmentary records do exist and it is thought with confidence at least fifty or more British Romanies may have been transported to Australia, although the actual figure could be higher. What is clear is that such deportation (as for all convicts) was particularly harsh:

"For Romani convicts transportation meant social and psychological death; exiled they had little hope of returning to England to re-establish family ties, cultural roots, continuous expression and validation that would have revived their Romani identity in the convict era."

One, however, is known to have returned. Henry Lavello (or Lovell) was repatriated with a full pardon with a son born to an Aboriginal woman who accompanied him back to England.

Racism against Romanichal and other travelling peoples is still endemic within Britain. In 2008 the media reported that Romani experience a higher degree of racism than any other group in the UK, including asylum-seekers, and a Mori poll indicated that a third of UK residents admitted to being prejudiced against Romani.


In the 17th century Oliver Cromwell shipped Romanichals as slaves to the American southern plantations and there is documentation of English Romanies being owned by freed black slaves in Jamaica, Barbados, Cuba, and Louisiana. Gypsies, according to the legal definition, were anyone identifying themselves to be Egyptians or Gypsies. The works of George Borrow reflect the influences this had on the Romani Language of England and others contain references to Romanies being bitcheno pawdel or Bitchade pardel, to be "sent across" to America or Australia, a period of Romani history by no means forgotten by Romanies in Britain today. One term reflects this in the contemporary Angloromani for "magistrate" is bitcherin' mush, the "transporter."

Romanichal culture

Historically, Romanichals earned a living doing agricultural work and would move to the edges of towns for the winter months. There was casual work available on farms throughout the spring, summer and autumn months; spring would start with seed sowing, planting potatoes and fruit trees, early summer with weeding, and there would be a succession of harvests of crops from summer to late autumn. Of particular significance was the hop industry, which employed thousands of Romanichals both in spring for vine training and for the harvest in early autumn. Winter months were often spent doing casual labour in towns or selling goods or services door to door.

Mass industrialisation of agriculture in the 1960s led to the disappearance of many of the casual farm jobs Romanichals had traditionally carried out.

During the 20th century onwards Romanichals became, and remain, the mainstay of travelling funfairs, scrap metal dealing, horse dealing, tree surgery, tarmacking, hawking, fortune telling and wooden rose making. They have also produced notable boxers such as Billy Joe Saunders as well as some notable footballers like Freddy Eastwood, and journalists, psychotherapists, nurses and a whole manner of professions.


Romanichal wagon
Romanichal style Reading Vardo late 19th century.

Originally, Romanichals would travel on foot, or with light, horse-drawn carts, and typical of other Romani groups would build Bender tents where they settled for a time. A Bender is a type of tent constructed from a frame of bent hazel branches (hazel is chosen for its straightness and flexibility), covered with canvas or tarpaulin. These tents are still favoured by New Traveller groups.

Around the mid- to late 19th century, Romanichals started using wagons that incorporated living spaces on the inside. These they called Vardos and were often brightly and colorfully decorated on the inside and outside. In the present day, Romanichals are more likely to live in caravans or houses.

Over 60% of 21st-century Romanichal families live in houses of bricks and mortar whilst the remaining 40% still live in various forms of traditional Traveller modes of transport, such as caravans, trailers or static caravans (a small minority still live in Vardos).

According to the Regional Spatial Strategy caravan count for 2008, there were 13,386 caravans owned by Romani in the West Midlands region of England, whilst a further 16,000 lived in bricks and mortar. Of the 13,386 caravans, 1,300 were parked on unauthorised sites (that is, on land where Romani were not given permission to park). Over 90% of Britain's travelling Romanichals live on authorised sites where they pay full rates (council tax).

On most traveller Romanichal sites there are usually no toilets or showers inside caravans because in Romanichal culture this is considered unclean, or 'mochadi'. Most sites have separate utility blocks with toilets, sinks and electric showers. Many Romanichals will not do their laundry inside, especially not underwear, and subsequently many utility blocks also have washing machines. In the days of horse-drawn wagons and Vardos, Romanichal women would do their laundry in a river, being careful to wash upper body garments further upstream from underwear and lower body garments, and personal bathing would take place much further downstream. In some modern trailers, a double wall separates the living areas from the toilet and shower.

Due to the (British) Caravan Sites Act 1968 which greatly reduced the number of caravans allowed to be pitched on authorised sites, many Romanichals cannot find legal places on sites with the rest of their families.

Like most nomadic groups, Romanichals travel around for work, usually following set routes and set stopping places (called ‘atching tans’) which have been established for hundreds of years. A lot of traditional stopping places were established before land ownership changed and any land laws were in place. Many atching tans were established by feudal land owners in the Middle Ages, when Romani would provide agricultural or manual labour services in return for lodgings and food. Nowadays most Romani travel within the same areas that were established generations ago. Most people can trace their presence in an area back over a hundred or two hundred years. Many traditional stopping places were taken over by local government or by settled individuals decades ago and have subsequently changed hands numerous times, however Romani have long historical connections to such places and do not always willingly give them up. Most families are identifiable by their traditional wintering base, where they will stop travelling for the winter, this place will be technically where a family is ‘from’.

British acts of legislation

Rumnichal Site UK
A Rumnichal 'Atchin Tan' or Romani Site as they are known in English
Rumnichals at Appleby Fair
Horses on show at Appleby Fair, England, Europe's largest Romani Horse Fair

The Enclosure Act of 1857 created the offence of injury or damage to village greens and interruption to its use or enjoyment as a place of exercise and recreation. The Commons Act 1876 makes encroachment or inclosure of a village green, and interference with or occupation of the soil unlawful unless it is with the aim of improving enjoyment of the green.

The Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960 states that no occupier of land shall cause or permit the land to be used as a caravan site unless he is the holder of a site licence. It also enables a district council to make an order prohibiting the stationing of caravans on common land, or a town or village green. These acts had the overall effect of preventing travellers using the vast majority of their traditional stopping places.

The Caravan Sites Act 1968 required local authorities to provide caravan sites for travellers if there was a demonstrated need. This was resisted by many councils who would claim that there were no Romanies living in their areas. The result was that insufficient pitches were provided for travellers, leading to a situation whereby holders of a pitch could no longer travel, for fear of losing it.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 removed the duty of local councils to provide authorised pitches and gave the Council and Police powers to move travellers on, subject to certain welfare issues. The official response of the government was that travellers should buy land and apply for planning permission to occupy it. However, those that did so found it extremely difficult to get planning permission, with more than 90% of applications by travellers refused.

In the first phase of the Second World War, the Nazis drew up lists of Romani individuals (many of them Romanichals) and persons with Romani ancestry from the United Kingdom to be interned and subjected to Porajmos in the event of the country's occupation.

The crisis of the 1960s decade, caused by the Caravan Sites Act 1968 (stopping new private sites being built until 1972), led to the appearance of the "British Gypsy Council" to fight for the rights of the Romanichals.

In the UK, the issue of "travellers" (referring to Irish Travellers and New Age Travellers as well as Romanichal and other groups of Romani people) became a 2005 general election issue, with the leader of the Conservative Party promising to review the Human Rights Act 1998. This law, which absorbs the European Convention on Human Rights into UK primary legislation, is seen by some to permit the granting of retrospective planning permission. Severe population pressures and the paucity of greenfield sites have led to travellers purchasing land and setting up residential settlements very quickly, thus subverting the planning restrictions.

Romanichal including other ethnic groups of travellers, Irish Travellers and New Age Travellers, argued in response that thousands of retrospective planning permissions are granted in Britain in cases involving non-Romani applicants each year and that statistics showed that 90% of planning applications by Romanies and travellers were initially refused by local councils, compared with a national average of 20% for other applicants, disproving claims of preferential treatment favouring Romanies.

They also argued that the root of the problem was that many traditional stopping-places had been barricaded off and that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 passed by the previous Conservative government had effectively criminalised their community, for example by removing local authorities’ responsibility to provide sites, thus leaving the travellers with no option but to purchase unregistered new sites themselves.

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