Circa 1959 © Tom McCready
Gypsy life revolves around the ever-present need to earn a living.
Many of our traditions and much of our culture is centred on a strong work ethic. In Gypsy society, everyone, regardless of age or gender, is expected to contribute. This is not to say that our youngsters are forced into a life of drudgery, but they are encouraged to do what they feel capable of, be it a 15 year old doing a 10 hour stint picking strawberries, or a 5 year old carrying a spare halter while his dad moves the horses.
Working together brings a feeling of belonging, a sense of self-worth. It is the conduit through which we learn life’s lessons, and the thread that binds families together.
Maintaining a nomadic lifestyle means that you have to be able to provide for yourself, wherever you happen to be, using the resources available, and the key to that is adaptability.
Gypsy trades are constantly evolving. Ancient occupations like horse-trading and fortune telling are supplemented and often supplanted by modern endeavours such as dealing in motor vehicles or doing property maintenance. When embarking on an unfamiliar task, innate confidence and a can-do attitude often have to make up for a lack of experience.
Changing seasons bring both challenges and opportunities. Summer and autumn is a favourable time, with various crops to gather such as strawberries, plums apples and other fruit. This is ideal work for Gypsies because it means that the whole family can be involved. Dads, mams and older children do the picking, while grandparents mind babies and ensure everyone is fed and watered.
As an added bonus, pickers are usually welcome to stay on the farmers land for a few weeks, this gives them the chance to meet up with other families and renew old acquaintances.
With everyone together there is usually a “holiday” atmosphere, despite the long hours and early starts. Most Gypsies have fond memories of ‘strawberry time’.
Tree felling and gardening work is another popular trade practiced in all but the coldest months. The necessary equipment is easily transportable and the work is required in all areas of the country, making this a good choice for Gypsies on the move.
Over the years, garden work has blossomed into other home services such as fencing, concreting, roofing, UPVC fitting and various other types of building and groundwork.
It is important that Gypsies learn new skills to meet changing demand. Property maintenance type work can be carried out during the winter months, so it is a useful addition to a Gypsy man’s portfolio.
Gathering scrap metal and other recyclables has long been an occupation for Romany families, providing numerous jobs for everyone, from collecting to the subsequent “cleaning” (separating ferrous from non ferrous metals, or sorting woollens from rags etc).
The recent upsurge in metal prices has made this time-honoured trade appear attractive to people from all walks of life. Strong competition, high vehicle insurance prices for waste carriers and increasingly frequent accusations of metal theft have brought about the decline of the traditional “Rag and Bone” man.
Where possible, Gypsies will settle into a winter camp for a month or two either side of Christmas. Preferably somewhere sheltered with a bit of hard standing.
Being in one place means having to work the same area week after week, so it’s a good idea to provide something that is needed on a regular basis.
Consumables like firewood logs or bags of potatoes are a winter favourite, and if your service is reliable and your prices reasonable, it’s possible to build up a regular round.
Holly wreaths are another source of income during the winter months. Orders are taken from florists, garden centres, market stallholders and the like. Nature provides most the materials, and the Gypsies do the rest.
Many families see this prickly, painstaking task as both a curse and a blessing. The work is hard and monotonous, but the money is very useful around Christmas time.
In the past, Gypsies had to make use of whatever materials were available to them.
Hedgerows provided willow for making pegs and baskets, and the elder wood from which decorative flowers were whittled.
Heather was gathered and tied into sprigs. These, along with items such as cheap lengths of lace and ribbons, combs, toothbrushes, dusters and of course lucky charms were hawked door to door by the women, who would also tell fortunes if the opportunity arose.
Spring brings itchy feet and that familiar longing to be on the road again after the long winter lay-up.
A popular springtime job was selling manure as garden fertiliser. Manure is widely available and can be obtained either free, or for a nominal fee from farms across the country. In fact it was often easier to find a supply of manure than it was to find the bags to put it in.
Spring was also a good time for grinding. This involved going from door to door sharpening knives, scissors, garden shears, lawnmowers etc. It was a great job to do whilst travelling.
Grinding equipment took many forms. ‘Modern’ Gypsies made use of sharpening stones driven by 12-volt motors, which they would salvage from electric lawnmowers and connect to the lorry battery.
Before that, they used brightly painted homemade wooden ‘barrows’, which were operated by a treadle system, or ‘grinding bikes’ which were ordinary push bikes modified by adding a stand to raise the back wheel and a pulley to power a grindstone.
Grinding bikes were especially popular during wagon time, because they allowed you not only to go to work without the bother of harnessing a horse and yoking a dray, but provided you with a convenient form of transport for dozens of other tasks.
For Gypsies everywhere, work and tradition are important issues, and in an effort to reconcile the two, they walk a fine line between learning new skills and trying to preserve old ones.
A Gypsy man may have the latest model chain saw in the back of his van, but he will still keep his grandfather’s peg-knife in his toolbox.