Participants’ accounts portray considerable variation in the individual preference for a nomadic lifestyle, which impacts personal circumstances such as access to services, employment and family relationships.
Close relationships with family were recurrently described as fundamental to Gypsy and Traveller values and well-being, but a move away from traditional lifestyles and, with this, greater separation from family, was felt to be occurring.
Diverse views were expressed on gender roles, with some stepping outside of what were seen as traditional gender roles among Gypsies and Travellers, and emphasising the importance of education for young women, while others valued arrangements described as traditional among Gypsies and Travellers, such as men being the primary breadwinners, while women are responsible for care of family members and the home, with their work outside the home flexing around these roles.
A range of experiences and relationships were described regarding non-travelling communities; some felt comfortable and accepted while others described past negative interactions resulting in wariness of the settled community and a preference for socialising with other Gypsies and Travellers.
As well as a sense of loss associated with an evolving culture, some participants focused on new opportunities for themselves and the next generation, embracing new ideas and values, for example, in relation to education, housing, healthcare and gender roles.
Running through participants’ accounts were experiences of perceived prejudice and hostility in many aspects of life, which influenced decisions about whether to disclose or avoid revealing their Gypsy or Traveller identity with employers, educators and non-travelling people; in some cases, the choice was removed and they were “outed” either directly by others or indirectly by their accent, address or surname.
Throughout discussions about sharing their identity, participants recurrently expressed a desire to be recognised as an individual, not on the basis of preconceived ideas about their ethnic group.
This bulletin explores the diverse lifestyles, values and aspirations of those who participated in the research, as well as what they see as important aspects of Gypsies’ and Travellers’ lives and identities today, and how that has changed over time.
This study focused on people currently living in England and Wales identifying as Gypsy or Traveller. Within these broad groups, people described themselves in different ways such as Romany Gypsy, English Gypsy, Welsh Gypsy, Irish Traveller or Romany Traveller. Others said they have mixed ethnicity including combinations of the above as well as Showmen and ethnic groups from the settled community.
As Gypsies and Travellers are traditionally nomadic groups, this is important in many aspects of their lives including education, employment, health, housing, family, and wider social and community relationships.
In this study, participants of different ages recounted their personal histories, sometimes stretching back over generations. For example, people now aged in their eighties remembered their own childhood and shared stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ lives as well. They described personal and social values linked to a traditional need to look after self and family while travelling, particularly as public services such as healthcare and education were commonly viewed as inaccessible or unwelcoming to Gypsies and Travellers. Examples of this type of self-reliance appear throughout this series of bulletins, such as:
- participants teaching themselves to read and write when formal educational opportunities have been perceived as limited, inadequate or unsuccessful (education and employment)
- opting for self-employment to make best use of one’s skills and abilities, possibly despite a lack of formal qualifications and perceived discrimination in the labour market (education and employment)
- delayed seeking of healthcare and in some cases, use of home remedies which were once an important, more readily available alternative (health)
- a desire to be on the road and in nature or in a trailer, which felt closer to a traditional nomadic lifestyle where participants could live more freely and independently (though participants varied as to whether they currently wanted to lead a nomadic lifestyle, as noted in homes)
While recognising how their heritage has played a part in who Gypsies and Travellers are today, participants also highlighted the importance of treating people as individuals in their own right and recognising the diversity between and within Gypsy and Traveller communities, in keeping with other ethnic groups. In their own lives, participants varied in their beliefs, values and behaviour. Some adopted what they saw as traditional Gypsy and Traveller values and lifestyles, while others opted for new approaches or tried to strike a balance between the two.
There was also discussion of how traditional ways of life are changing and how this affects the lives of Gypsies and Travellers today, as well as trajectories for the younger generation. Some participants experienced changes away from traditional values and lifestyles as a loss of familiar and positive aspects of their culture, while others focused on new opportunities or acknowledged a need to live differently in a changing world.Back to table of contents
Participants’ life stories suggest that there is now considerable variation in the extent to which Gypsies and Travellers choose a nomadic lifestyle today and the personal value it has to them. This in turn is affected by a range of individual circumstances such as health, ageing, family relationships and priorities, and employment.
The choice to lead a nomadic life was also viewed by participants as constrained by legislation in England and Wales, which makes it difficult and potentially precarious to live this way in practice. This is explored in more detail in our homes and justice bulletins.
Against this context, a range of different approaches to travelling, both currently and in the past, were discussed by participants, highlighting the diversity in Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles, personal histories and experiences. Some participants described moving from place to place almost continuously for much of their lives.
Others had a settled base for part of the year and travelled part of the year, or transitioned between travelling and settling.
The different variations of a traditional nomadic lifestyle, and different choices people make around travelling highlight the diversity in Gypsies’ and Travellers’ lives and their different individual needs and priorities.
Their choices are also affected by wider society. For example, recently introduced legislation prohibiting unauthorised stopping and variations in the provisions made for Gypsies and Travellers to stop in each local authority area have contributed to the perception that it is increasingly unfeasible to choose a traditional nomadic lifestyle in England and Wales. A common refrain was that this represents “a dying way of life”.Back to table of contents
The importance of close-knit family and social groups was described by participants as fundamental to Gypsy and Traveller culture, communities and well-being.
These values were also described as an important aspect of traditional child rearing, where children were, and in some cases still are, encouraged to develop life skills and practical, vocational skills early on, working alongside family members.
Some participants also described moral values instilled from a young age in family and community life, such as honesty and respect for others, especially elders.
There was also recognition that, as in any group in society, not everyone adheres to these norms in equal measure. This was sometimes discussed, for example, in relation to family breakdown or on particular sites where relationships were strained between community members.
There was also discussion of how things may be evolving in Gypsy and Traveller communities. For example, some described a sense of widening disparities over recent years in many aspects of life including wealth, living conditions, educational aspirations and attainment, working lives, values and lifestyle choices such as accommodation, between individuals and groups, and between generations.
The speed with which transitions have occurred away from traditional lifestyles and practices, and towards the adoption of different values and approaches has also created strain, leaving some with a sense of uprootedness, loss of belonging and uncertainty about shared values.
Some described a perceived loss of closeness to family and friends. In some cases, this was linked to geographical dispersion of family groups because of more limited opportunities for families to remain together on Gypsy and Traveller sites, because of a lack of space. Additionally, a loss of perceived closeness was attributed to the social and inter-generational disparities noted previously.Back to table of contents
A range of examples were given as to how gender roles play a part in Gypsy and Traveller culture. This was another area in which diverse views were expressed by participants, with some appearing to adhere to gender roles for men and women seen as traditional among Gypsies and Travellers, while others made different choices in their lives.
“Traditional gender roles” were described in relation to a range of expectations about unmarried women avoiding alcohol, remaining “pure” by avoiding sex before marriage and “keeping to themselves”.
These views may also negatively affect the willingness of some parents to send their children to school beyond the age at which the curriculum involves sex education, as highlighted in our education bulletin.
Others seemed to find this less of a barrier to supporting their children’s educational trajectories.
For some Gypsy and Traveller women, these described traditional gender roles appeared to play an important role in shaping the nature of their relationships with men and the balance of power within their households.
In describing their lives, women also recurrently highlighted the central role they play in the care of family members of all generations, including personal care and support, organising healthcare, cooking, looking after the home and organising education or home schooling for children.
Linked to this, participants described a traditional expectation that unmarried women will stay on in the family home to look after a parent and siblings if the other parent dies.
Although both men and women may work outside the home, men have traditionally been considered the primary breadwinners, and women have been responsible for care of family members and the home, with their work outside the home flexing around these roles.
As with other ethnic and cultural groups, there is diversity in this as well with some Gypsy and Traveller families doing things differently, and sometimes stepping outside of the described traditional gender roles.
Traditional gender roles also appeared to be shifting for some in relation to education, and women’s lives and aspirations.Back to table of contents
Participants were also asked about their experiences and relationships with people from outside their own Gypsy and Traveller communities. Who people thought of as part of or outside their own community and the terms they used to describe other groups varied. For example, “countryman” and “gorger” are terms used by some to refer generally to groups outside Gypsy and Traveller communities.
Similarly, “non-Traveller”, and “non-Gypsy” are also used to refer to others outside Gypsy and Traveller communities as is “the settled community”, although it is important to note that Gypsies and Travellers may also live in settled accommodation in the wider community, attend schools, colleges and universities, and work in a range of employment settings.
Some described feeling comfortable with and accepted by people in the non-Traveller community:
Others felt more wary of mixing with others from the settled community, typically linked to negative interactions and perceived prejudice in the past and fear of encountering this again.
Some participants also described a greater sense of familiarity and ease in being with other Gypsies and Travellers, particularly among friends and family or among those with similar values, experiences and traditions.Back to table of contents
As well as a sense of loss associated with an evolving culture, some participants focused on new opportunities for themselves and the next generation, embracing new ideas and values, for example, in relation to education, housing, healthcare and described gender roles.
Some parents described education as important to their children’s future well-being and have made new choices and personal sacrifices in their own lives, such as settling in one place, to support their children’s education.
In some cases, mixing between parents and children at school was also viewed as one way of bringing more positive relationships and empathy between Gypsies and Travellers, and non-Traveller communities.
Participants also described pursuing careers, including self-employment, involving higher level skills, education, qualifications and employment (covered in more detail in our education bulletin).Back to table of contents
Although there were diverse experiences reported by participants, an important theme running throughout their accounts is the perception of prejudice and hostility towards Gypsies and Travellers, described by some as permeating many aspects of their lives. This formed an important part of the context within which they made personal decisions about whether and with whom to share their Gypsy or Traveller identity.
Participants took different stances on this, ranging from those who felt proud and did not want to hide their ethnicity.
To those who feel more conflicted and avoid others knowing they are a Gypsy or Traveller.
Linked to previous experiences and in anticipation of future discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, some participants described hiding their Gypsy or Traveller identity as a means of avoiding possible harms. A range of circumstances in which people chose to hide their ethnicity were discussed, as well as strategies for doing so.
For example, some participants described acting and speaking differently when among people from settled communities to avoid being identified as a Gypsy or Traveller. This is captured in a common expression: “Be a Gypsy among the Gypsies and a Gorger amongst the Gorgers”.
Others discussed minimising their interaction with people from the settled community to avoid being identified. Examples included avoiding mixing with other parents from their children’s schools, sending children to schools some distance from where they live or avoiding interaction with neighbours when living in bricks and mortar housing.
Additionally, participants discussed trying to prevent current and prospective employers becoming aware that they are a Gypsy or Traveller, for example, by not including any information on job applications or interviews that would indicate their ethnicity, and living in fear of losing their jobs if employers were to find out.
Concealing personal information, such as names associated with local Gypsy and Traveller families, was also a way to access opportunities they felt they might otherwise be denied.
Despite attempts to control whether and with whom they share their ethnicity, some participants also gave examples of being “outed” and described a range of negative impacts when their ethnicity became known. People were “outed” both directly and indirectly, with both forms of “outing” taking away their choice about whether to disclose the information for themselves.
Examples of indirect outing happened, for example, when people gave their address as a site exclusively for Gypsies and Travellers (to police, employers, doctors, schools or emergency services) or when others saw them entering or leaving these sites.
Examples of direct outing involved someone else disclosing their ethnicity without giving them a choice. Cases of direct outing included being introduced to others publicly as a Gypsy or Traveller without prior consent and an official calling an employer about an incident involving a Gypsy or Traveller and disclosing their ethnicity.
Looking at their wider life stories provides the context within which people’s current decisions about sharing their identity can be better understood.
Participants described wanting to hide their identity for several reasons including:
avoidance of possible harm or negative interactions
enabling others to know them as an individual prior to learning their identity in the hope of avoiding perceived prejudiced views towards the group as a whole
unlocking better access to new opportunities such as improved material living standards or better education for their children
Avoiding harm was a recurrent theme among participants and sometimes co-existed alongside a desire for a different life, both reinforcing a desire to hide their identity.
Participants trying to avoid harm, stigmatisation and vulnerability by hiding their identity tended to focus on past experiences of perceived discrimination and feelings of being stigmatised, vulnerable, “treated like scum” or as “second-class citizens” linked to being a Gypsy or Traveller.
They also described shielding their children from discrimination they feel they have experienced and delaying disclosure of their ethnicity so they can first be known as an individual and perhaps avoid stigmatisation on the basis of their ethnicity.
By contrast, participants who described living with greater openness about their identity as a Gypsy or Traveller focused more on having a sense of pride in their ethnicity and heritage, and potentially wanting to stand up to perceived prejudiced attitudes towards Gypsies and Travellers, and call it out.
They generally recognised that others could respond negatively to their ethnicity and saw this as a reason to be honest and up front about it, addressing it head on and “owning” who they are as a way of dealing with discrimination and maintaining self-esteem.
Participants also felt that it is important to give children a sense of “who they are” and see their Gypsy or Traveller heritage as a source of strength for themselves and their families.Back to table of contents
Whatever the choice, it is important to acknowledge that decisions, such as to share one’s identity as a Gypsy or Traveller, are made in the context of individual’s lives and at specific points in time. Choices around sharing information about ethnicity appeared linked to a desire to be recognised as an individual. This was also a recurrent theme; to be recognised empathetically as an individual rather than treated on the basis of stereotypes about a group as a whole.
Participants also highlighted examples in the media which they felt erroneously presented Gypsies and Travellers as a homogenous group, potentially reinforcing stereotypes.
The consequences of the choice to withhold or be open about ethnicity may also have implications beyond the individual, for Gypsy and Traveller communities more widely and for future generations. For example, some participants highlighted famous Gypsies and Travellers who help to increase their community’s visibility and can serve as positive role models for young people.
Local and central government participants also recognised the importance of finding new ways to engage more effectively with Gypsy and Traveller communities to improve understanding, trust and policy development.
Back to table of contents
Bricks and mortar
This term is used commonly by Gypsies and Travellers when talking about homes which are permanent structures, such as houses or flats.
In this bulletin, “community members” and “participants” refers to people currently living in England and Wales, aged 16 years and over, identifying as Gypsy or Traveller, who took part in this research. Where quotes have been used from local or central government participants, this is explicitly stated. We aim to portray the views of participants and to reflect their words as closely as possible. Some quotes have been edited for language and grammar to improve accessibility, without changing the content or meaning.
Living at the roadside means staying temporarily on public land, such as in a car park or on a verge next to a road.
A term used to refer generally to communities who are not of Gypsy or Traveller ethnicity, sometimes referred to as “countrymen”, “gorgers”, “non-Gypsy” and “non-Travellers”.
Gypsy and Traveller sites are authorised places of residence which may be owned and managed by the council or privately.Back to table of contents
More information about the background and rationale, approach to sampling and recruitment, strengths and limitations and design of the material and approach to analysis can be found in our accompanying methodology article.Back to table of contents
Office for National Statistics (ONS), released 7 December 2022, ONS website, statistical bulletin, Gypsies’ and Travellers’ lived experiences, culture and identity, England and Wales: 2022
Contact details for this Statistical bulletin
Telephone: +44 1633 455674