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History of Romany Gypsies on Belvedere marshes

PUBLISHED: 11:08 24 February 2011

Gypsy Lee's niece at Danson Park 1935 from Bexley Local Studies & Archive centre

Gypsy Lee's niece at Danson Park 1935 from Bexley Local Studies & Archive centre

Archant

In winter months of the 1940s up to 1,700 Gypsies would congregate on marshland in the borough — making it the largest caravan site of its kind in the country.

Traveller family in Long Lane, Bexleyheath 1890. From Bexley Local Studies & Archive centre

Gypsies who were mostly of English Romany descent settled on the Belvedere Marshes in Erith helping out with harvesting on farms during summer months and labouring in the winter.

Simon McKeon, borough archivist at Bexley Local Studies and Archive Centre, said: “When they were needed, they were very useful here working on the farms but when the labouring opportunities were finished, that’s when people perceived them as being a 
nuisance.”

Erith borough council considered Gypsies to be a cause of concern and attempted, for 20 years, to remove them from the marshes.

Mr McKeon added: “In 1947, there were 1,700 Gypsies on the marshes which dropped to about 600 during the summer. During the winter time the area was very much linked to the Gypsy heritage and this can be seen today with the recently installed cob horse sculpture in Belvedere.”

The cob inspired by the Gypsy community who would breed and sell horses on the marshes

The council’s eviction process even made it into the national press in 1948 when The Daily Mirror’s “Ruggles” cartoon strip featured the plight of the Belvedere community where Councillor Alford was depicted as describing the Gypsies as a “blot on the good name of Erith”.

Fate took its turn in 1953 when floods washed away the site and many Gypsies were housed by Erith borough council, others were moved on.

The council finally got its own way in 1956 when 700 people and “ramshackle structures” were removed from the marshes drawing to an end over 100 years of Gypsy history on the marshes.

But not all politicians were intent on moving the Gypsy community but in the ’60s Norman Dodds, Labour MP for Erith and Crayford, passionately campaigned for their rights to have better water and sanitary facilities.

Family in East Wickham from Bexley Local Studies & Archive Centre.

He died in 1965, but James Wellbeloved who became the MP for the same seat, took up the campaign and in 1968 the Caravans Sites Act was passed by 
Parliament.

The act placed a duty on all local authorities in England and Wales to provide sites on which Gypsies could place their caravans and stay, either temporarily or permanently. It was in turn repelled by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1995.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson published proposals in 2010 to reduce the London-wide target of 
Traveller sites from 538 to 238 but this was axed due to the coalition Governments decision to abolish regional strategies.

Today there are three remaining Gypsy encampments in the borough with around 40 residents located in Jenningtree Way, Belvedere, Powerscroft Road, Sidcup, and Thames Road, Crayford, where a combination of stationary trailers, houses and caravans remain.

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