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Fellow Travellers - Victorian representations of showpeople, canal boat people, hop-pickers and Romani people

Posted by. Leeds Trinity University
Posted on 08 April 2015

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In March 2015, Dr Jodie Matthews, Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield and a member of the Northern Nineteenth-Century Network, gave a paper as part of the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies seminar series.

​She drew together representations of showpeople who took fairs and entertainments around the country; canal boat people who plied the waterways of Britain and lived on board their boats; seasonal agricultural workers such as hop-pickers; and Romani people who moved for work, as a cultural practice, or because of persecution. These representations came from newspapers, visual culture, popular fiction, and literature. Here, she considers the contemporary relevance of this work.

Research into Victorian Migration

 
Throughout the long nineteenth century, identifiable groups such as seasonal crop-pickers, showpeople, canal boat people, and Romani people travelled regularly within Britain for the purposes of work and/or as a cultural practice. Some travelled for months at a time, others made journeys once or twice a year. These forms of travel were ways of life, but they also constituted a radical idea that could be threatening and/or desirable to the majority sedentary population. Travellers were, apparently, different. Their arrival, stay, and departure were recorded in newspapers, fiction, drawings, engravings, paintings, pamphlets, and on the stage and in song. That they had come from elsewhere in Britain, that they brought alternative behaviours with them, and their need or urge to travel at all, made them worthy of comment. They represented, simultaneously, escape and privation, freedom and poverty, timelessness and anachronism, colour and danger, dirt and entertainment.
 
The academic literature in a wide variety of disciplines on migration is broad and well-developed (see, for instance, the trans-disciplinary ‘Diasporas, Migration and Identities’ programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council); varied scholarship on nomadism also exists, and this has previously overlapped with writing about vagrancy. My current work considers something in between: not a permanent migration from A to B, being a colonial settler, for instance, and not perpetual movement. Rather, it considers cyclical, circuitry travel and the relationships between those who travelled and those who did not.
 
Victorian Views of Travellers
 
To summarise brutally the attitudes manifested in a very broad nineteenth-century archive: the arrival of showpeople in a town or village was usually viewed as disruptive, despite the fairs they attended being well-established elements of sedentary citizens’ communal life. Any perceived bad behaviour by one set of showpeople led to others being denied lodgings and other services. They were expected to cheat, to drink, and to break laws. Rarely was the fun they provided framed in a positive light. Parents feared their children would be tempted to abscond with them, and they were seen as being ‘beyond the pale of civilization’.
 
Canal boat people were also considered by many to be uneducated, irreligious, heavy-drinking and violent. Again, the vital role they played in British manufacturing and commerce well into the railway age was rarely commented on. Instead, the strangeness of their life was seen as troubling and dangerous.
 
England’s hop harvest would have mouldered on the vines without thousands of pickers travelling from large urban areas (significantly, Birmingham and London) to pick it. Their arrival, by cart, on foot, or on specially organised trains, was annual, predictable, necessary, yet also endlessly worried about in local and national media. Where would they sleep? Who might they sleep with? How much of their pay would be immediately spent on drink? How would they worship? For the most part, they were described as dirty, immoral, and lazy.
 
Finally, Britain’s Romani population was simultaneously romanticized and vilified in this period, represented in every possible cultural form and desired and feared in equal measure. They were seen as exotic and oriental. Associated with thievery and trickery, only a very few texts—usually those written by authors with an interest in folklore—focus on linguistic, equestrian, and craft skills and specialisms within this community.
 
Relationships Between Migrants and Settled People
 
All of these groups were seen as exceptional and eccentric, and the quotidian relationships between these domestic migrants and settled people are generally elided. Traces of those relationships do exist in archival sources, however, and it is these that I am determined to bring to light. Invested in this project is a sense that we miss a trick by continuing to see the histories of people who travelled as separate from larger narratives of Britain’s social past. Daily, people who tended to live in one place all year nevertheless traded, talked, worked and walked alongside those who travelled.
 
In just one example, Thomas Frost details a fair in Hyde Park in 1838, during which the wife of the gingerbread vendor gave birth to a child. The child’s name was apparently registered at birth as Hyde Park to honour the family’s stopping place. As a consequence of the event, the stall was allowed to remain for several days longer than the rest of the fair, and was visited by many ladies ‘who made presents to the child and its parents’.1
 
I investigate what motivated the more divisive nineteenth-century attitudes towards people who travelled, and reflect on the way that representations in various forms allow us to rethink what connects these communities, like the ladies living near Hyde Park and the gingerbread vendor’s child.
 
Amongst these various travelling groups, one has been most culturally visible: narratives of British Romani/Gypsy experience and representation in Britain are most often told in isolation, rather than via the comparative approach my research takes. This research is, in part, a move to demonstrate the ways in which attitudes towards practices of travel around the country contributed to the development of persistent Gypsy stereotypes. It does this by putting historical representations of travelling Romani communities in Britain alongside those of other travelling groups. My hope is that I can demonstrate the ways in which stereotypes of mobility were constructed around a number of travelling practices, and that these have become over-determined when associated with Romani people in Britain since the nineteenth century and, more recently, with Roma immigrants to Britain from mainland Europe. By emphasising the relationships necessitated and facilitated by travel, and by seeing the lives represented in texts from the past in their detail rather than as abstractions, my work looks to reveal shared histories, bringing nineteenth-century travelling lives out of the margins.     
 
1 Thomas Frost, The Old Showmen, and the Old London Fairs. 2nd edn. (London: Tinsley, 1875).
 
Image details: ‘Portrait of a young boatman and two boatgirls’, The Waterways Archive, BW191/4/1/1/32. 
 
The Northern Nineteenth Century Network (NNCN) brings together research-active Humanities staff and higher degree students at partner universities. To find out more about The NNCN, visit: http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/departments/history/victorian_studies/pages/the-northern-nineteenth-century-network.aspx