George Ewart Evans was born in South Wales in 1909 but moved to Suffolk and wrote several fascinating books about East Anglian folklore, including Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956) and The Horse in the Furrow (1960). In his books about the folklore of the horse and the horseman in Suffolk, he drew heavily on the local knowledge that he obtained by talking to the people of his village, Blaxhall, where folk culture appears to have remained alive right through the twentieth century and beyond. The local pub, the Ship, has long been a centre for traditonal folk song which deservedly received the attention of another scholar’s Ph.D. thesis (published as The Fellowship of Song : Popular Singing Traditions in East Suffolk by Ginette Dunn ca. 1980).
Evans believed that the strange combination of mysticism, folklore and practicality that imbued the role of the Suffolk horseman (think “horse whisperer,” if it helps) came from the gypsies who travelled around East Anglia. In fact, there were several families in Blaxhall who were descended from gypsies who had settled in the area and some local folkloric and musical traditions may have come to the area with the gypsies and thus from other parts of the British Isles and other travelling people.
The first official record of the presence of gypsies in Britain was made in 1505, but oral tradition suggests that they were present in East Anglia following the Black Death of 1348-9. Presumably, they were attracted by the opportunities to work after many villages in Suffolk had been completely depopulated by the plague. Many gypsies travelled around East Anglia working on the land, the Fens being the most favoured area as agricultural labour was more readily available. There are many examples of a generally happy co-existence between the gypsies and local people, for example, descriptions – probably romanticized – of massive gypsy weddings are common in local literature. The East Anglian Magazine often featured letters and articles of recollections about gypsy life right up until the 1970s. George Borrow and John Heigham Steggall also wrote (perhaps fancifully) about the subject in the nineteenth century.
The reality may have been a little harsher. The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, volume I, (1888-9) tells us that “between 1513 and 1523 some “Gypsions” were entertained by the Earl of Surrey at Tendring Hall, in Suffolk (Works of H. Howard, Earl of Surrey, ed. Nott, London, 1815, vol i. Appendix, p.5). On October 7, 1555, the Privy Council Register of Queen Mary records at Greenwich a letter to the Earl of Sussex and Sir John Shelton, Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, returning again to them the passports and licences of ‘suche as name themselves Egiptians of wch company they had some in prison requiring them to examyne ye truth of their pretended Licenses, and being eftsons punished according to the Statute to give order forthwith for their transportaticon [sic] out of the Realm.’ “
The following January, a further letter to Mr. Sulliarde, Sheriffe of Norfolk & Suffolk, instructing him to “proceed” with the 5 or 6 “Egiptians” he had apprehended. They should be sent out of the Realm with charge not to return upon “pain of execution.”
“About 1650 Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676) says, in his Pleas of the Crown (1778, i. 671): “I have not known these statutes much put into execution, only about twenty years since at the Assizes at Bury [St. Edmunds, in Suffolk] about thirteen were condemned and executed for this offence, namely for being Gypsies.’ (p. 24, Early Annals of the Gypsies in England by H T Crofton.)
The last known gypsies to be executed (for the “crime” of being gypsies) in Britain were, in fact, put to death in Suffolk in the 1650s.
The travelling families that settled in Blaxhall seemed to be well-integrated into village life by the time that George Ewart Evans made his study of the area. However, there was still a consciousness of differences between those villagers who were “local” and those who had “gypsy blood,” as he described in Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay: “To say that a man has gipsy blood in him is to put him down as unreliable, And finally to place him beyond the pale of the true village community.”
Even Evans’s use of language seems strikingly hostile to the present day reader, he uses the expression “the accusation of gypsy blood,” for example, although he was in fact sympathetic. When he was interviewing people in Blaxhall they would recall the gypsy origins of some of the families in the village: “Oh, his grandfather (or great-grandfather) married a travelling woman. The Picketts and the Taylors and the Becketts were the names you used to meet most among the travellers. I believe it was a Pickett he married. They were nice folk but they had a different line o’ life entirely to us.”
Despite the apparent integration, however, events took a sour turn in around 1900: ”About 50 years ago… the travellers were turned off their usual pitch on the Common. The reason given for this action was that their horses and donkeys roamed about at night and broke into and spoiled the villagers’ common yards. But they also worried the farmers by poaching, and by surreptitiously letting their horses on to the pastures late at night, retrieving them early in the morning before any of the farm people were about. …
“The Parish Council, on which two or three of the most influential farmer’s served, [my italics] was the chief agent in banishing the travellers. Robert Savage was himself a member of the Parish Council for 52 years and recalled the occasion: ‘All the village didn’t want the travellers to be moved off the Common. And I came in for a few shots at the Ship, mostly from people who were hinting that I was running in with the farmers in having the travellers turned off. But at the next Council meeting when the chairman asked, “Is there any other business?” I got up and said: “Yes, there’s more parish business done at the Ship than there’s done here!” And I told ‘em my mind. Nobody said nawthen to me after that.’
“The eviction was accompanied by a kind of ceremony – a ceremony of ejection – that many of the old villagers remember vividly. The body of men, who emphasized that they had nothing against the travellers – ‘The people wor all right: it wor the horses and donkeys!’ marched from the Ship Inn in a column headed by a trumpet and mouth-organ. This military seeming demonstration, however, met with no resistance; for the travellers had already had word. By the time the column arrived their horses and donkeys were harnessed ready to pull their caravans and carts on to the road. This they did, and the police are waiting on the high road to compel them to move on to another parish.”
Presumably, there are many people in East Anglia who have gypsies or other travelling people amongst their ancestors. Not only that, they have made a largely unacknowledged contribution to the traditions, language and culture of the region.