Exhibition at East Boldre Village Hall in May will showcase the life of the New Forest Gypsies
A REMARKABLE exhibition later this year will shine a light on 600 years of the New Forest’s Gypsies.
The showcase is thanks largely to one man’s amazing treasure trove of hundreds of photos which he has collected over 43 years.
Tony Johnson has been fascinated by the Gypsies who lived in the Forest for centuries.
He said: “The first record of them being in Hampshire is in the 1600s, but I believe they were here a hundred years before.
“They originally came from India, then split into various factions settling in Europe and Britain.
“Their preferred title is Romanies. Their name for the New Forest was Nevi Wesh.
“This exhibition is something I have been dreaming about for over 10 years.”
His interest is shared by Stephen Antczak, and the two men have been researching the history of the New Forest Gypsies for their forthcoming exhibition.
Both men went to school with some of the Gypsies in the 1950s and remember them well.
Steve said: “We knew they were Gypsies and that they had a different way of life but we all just played together like kids do.”
Tony says it is difficult to know exactly how many lived in the Forest, although one police survey in 1947 put it at 411. But he says there “used to be hundreds more than that”.
He said: “To us the conditions they lived in seem tough but to them it was their way of life.
“They lived in ‘bender’ tents which were formed out of Hazel sticks covered in anything they had. In winter they would create a central tent-like a wigwam with a fire inside it, then two bender tents would be connected at either end as bedrooms.”
“They did not have any kind of flooring because the Forestry Commission of the time would not allow them. The Gypsies respected the Forest and never destroyed the areas they were in.”
Photos of the bender tents show grubby-faced children peeking out from inside. But other pictures of the youngsters show them in their Sunday best with ribbons in their hair ready for a visit from religious groups such as the Salvation Army.
Tony said: “The Gypsies lived off the land hunting and foraging. They had squirrel traps, for example, as they would eat them.
“But they would also did jobs for local people. There was a knife sharpener, for instance. Men would do odd jobs while women would sell clothes pegs, baskets and flowers – hawking door to door. They would also tell fortunes for money.
“Gypsies also picked hops, strawberries and veg at local farms.
“The Romanies in the Forest lived in great harmony with the local population for many hundreds of years.”
On display at the exhibition will also be some of the postcards which featured the Gypsies as they lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Stephen said: “People were very curious about them. Tourists, photographers and authors would visit them, and religious groups would take in touring classrooms to educate the children.”
The erosion of the New Forest Gypsies’ way of life began, believes Tony, with the arrival of the railways in the mid-1800s.
He said: “It brought well-to-do people to the area who said ‘this is a nice place to live, let’s get rid of the Gypsies’.
“There was also a law brought in in the late 1800s which was aimed at stopping travellers squatting on landowners’ ground.
“It gave them the right to evict them after 48 hours, but it was misinterpreted and used against the Gypsies. Where they had once lived peacefully for years in one place, now they had to continuously move.”
A further blow came in 1926 when the Gypsies were restricted to camping only in seven compounds – including Thorney Hill, Shave Green and Longdown – and no longer allowed to roam the Forest freely.
Thorney Hill was the largest of the compounds with up to 400 inhabitants.
By 1947 there were only five compounds where, by then, a total of just over 400 Gypsies lived some in make shift shacks, others in WW2 barracks, or still in tents which they refused to leave.
Tony’s grandfather was a postman who used to deliver to the compound at Latchmoor.
He said: “The Gypsies would ask him to read their mail and get him to write their letters. In return they would give him gifts of all sorts.”
By the late 40s the local authority decided they were all living in “appalling conditions” and resettlement plans were put in place.
In 1960 Hampshire County Council decreed all Gypsies had to leave the Forest and erected 22 pre-fab houses on the Thorney Hill site. Tents and wagons were no longer allowed.
As Tony said: “Their way of life had been going on for 500 years and now it was over.”
Stephen says he has found the research into the New Forest Gypsies “absolutely fascinating” adding: “We think the exhibition will be hugely popular and will teach a lot of people about something they know nothing about.
“We will have artefacts including a tin bath from a compound.
“There will also be amazing wooden models of Gypsy camps, and outside we hope to build a full size bender tent.
“We hope the local Romany community will come to it and share their memories of their lives.”
The exhibition will be held at East Boldre Village Hall from 25th to 27th May.