In the 1990s, the threat of ‘New Age Travellers’ was used as a warning to the residents of Elsfield in their battle to close the road. There were already and still are travellers in the parish, as can be seen by the field name ‘Gypsy Corner’ given to a field alongside the Islip road. ‘Gypsies’ feature in accounts of Elsfield life in the 1950s. Jill Dewhurst remembers the gypsies camping beside the road near the junction with what is now the A40, the ring road, and Michael Clarke, grandson of Dorothy Chaulk, whose family lived in Elsfield in the 1930s, recalls that when he saw the gypsies camped alongside the road he, along with the other local children, was frightened of them. He later came to know the Romanies Arthur Bowers and his father Alford well and played darts with Arthur and his father in the pub at Old Marston.
There are about 7000 Traveller families in Britain – about 40,000 people in all and because they have had a different lifestyle from the majority of the population, they have often been perceived as a threat. They are the epitome of the ‘other’, belonging nowhere, and moving from village to village to find work. Historically, they have played a valuable economic role, doing seasonal work, disposing of scrap metal and supplying goods and products to fill gaps in the market. Because of the changes in farming and land use, their traditional way of life has had to change and many now would like to stop travelling or have already done so.
There is one such family in the parish. Their preferred term for themselves is ‘travelling people’ though they no longer travel. They guard their privacy fiercely but are integrated into mainstream society in many ways. The children go to local schools and the baby was born at the local hospital. They now live in mobile homes, rather than trailers, but all the family lives on one site on land bought by them in 1996. Each adult has his or her own mobile home and one has an extra unit used as a play room for the children. While this family is thought of by some Elsfield people as not belonging, they have in fact been in the area for at least sixty years and probably considerably longer.
There are still patterns of behaviour which can be identified as specifically Romany. Tea towels are not washed with the rest of the washing, as this is seen as dirty. They are washed in the sink in the kitchen. The baby clothes are washed separately and all the washing is done outside. Although there is a bathroom, the lavatory is not used but there is an outside toilet which is preferred. This drains into a cess pit dug by the father of the family and his eldest son when they settled there.
Some parts of the Romany language are still preserved but it is mixed in with a great deal of English so is really more dialect than a separate language. Many of the words used by the mother of the Romany family were of European Romany origin, words such as ‘bawlo’ for pig, ‘baram’ for sheep, ‘jukkel’ meaning dog and ‘dai’ meaning father. ‘Mush’ for man, ‘sloppi’ for drink, ‘pobus’ for apples, ‘rakli’ for woman and ‘yowri’ for eggs were also from the same source. Other words, however, showed a different origin. The word she used for horse was ‘grai’, which came possibly from Armenian, while ‘ranee’, which she said meant a woman from the outside world, is a Sanskrit word meaning queen. ‘Yarg’, meaning fire has come from the Hindi ‘yag’, as does the ward for water, ‘pani’. Some words such as ‘chavi’ meaning boy and ‘cosh’ meaning stick have been adopted into English slang, as has ‘mush’.
The Romany family who live on the fringes of Elsfield are descended from the people who figure in people’s accounts of the ‘gypsies’. The mother was born in Somerset and met her husband, who was born in the fields near Mill Lane, and who died recently, when they were both picking peas at Drayton St Leonard. Like most travellers, they had a set routine for travelling, visiting Alton to pick hops, Oxford for potato picking and Cambridgeshire for the strawberries.
As children, they lived in horse-drawn vans with the cooking done in the open air, much as Mrs Hambidge at Post Box Cottage did. “We would look for a stream to camp by but if we could not do that, people would supply us with buckets of water. We got very dirty from all the work in the fields and had baths, me and my sister used a long tin bath and the boys used the wash tub” she said.
She explained that she and her husband had married at the registry office in Banbury Road so the children have his name, but his parents didn’t get married because they could not afford to, so he took his mother’s name. It was the same for her. She took her mother’s name because her parents were not married.
She likes the convenience of living in a mobile home as she does now.
“These mobile homes have running water, calor gas heaters and bathrooms. We generate our own electricity though it’s not enough for our needs. It is very different from the times when we lived in trailers. When I was a girl, my family had two caravans. There was one van with two beds in it for my parents and me and my sister and the sleeping area was shut off from the living area by sliding doors. The boys had a separate van called an open lot, which was square. Our mother went out selling pegs and flowers to earn some money, and the whole family went potato picking, so there was no opportunity to go to school or learn to read. Though I can’t read, I can deal with numbers and if I’m stuck, the children help me. When my older brothers were working, the family had more money and my father got a lorry. He collected scrap, did landscape gardening, sold wood – anything to make money. We got a caravan, in place of the horse-drawn van.”
Because they can no longer make a living in agricultural work, which is now often undertaken by European immigrants, they make money as and where they can. On the run up to Christmas, they make between 800 and 1000 wreaths and sell them to garden centres. They also sell Christmas trees and buy all the greenery at Christmas Common at the end of November.