I went to visit the Gypsies of Bolton

'Thirty years I socialised with them locals. And they’re good people but they end up looking down on you, because of all the carrying on of the newspapers and gossipers at the pub'

Dear Millers — our weekend read is about a Traveller family in Farnworth, just south of Bolton. It’s the second part of our new Northern Project series, in which we are trying to focus more reporting on communities in the north of Greater Manchester.

Our first story in the series — and our explanation about why we are doing it — went out to Mill members last week. Soon we will have a members’ discussion forum to discuss the series and where we should send our writers.

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Inside Harpurhey, a 'suburb on its way up'
Dear Millers — today we announce a new reporting series we’ve been plotting recently — our attempt to focus more of our reporting and writing on communities in the north of Greater Manchester. Joshi writes about that below, and then we have the first story of the series from Dani…
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By Mollie Simpson

On the way to visit a small Gypsy site near Bolton, on a neglected road in the middle of a valley in Farnworth, a local woman asked me: “God, why are you going there?”

Good question. I had an idea that I might learn something from the community, when so much media coverage of Gypsies, Travellers and Romas is concerned with crime and violence.

The path to the site curves away from the nearby road, and I step into the warm evening sunlight. Tommy Senior introduces himself and shakes my hand. I haven’t arranged to visit, but he welcomes me in. He’s thin and around 5 feet 7 inches tall, wearing a white and blue shirt and beige trousers. A dog barks at me. “He doesn’t bite,” he says. “Come on love. Let me show you.”

We walk away from the concrete and the caravans, towards a stretch of grass on the edge of the site, where horses graze amongst the wildflowers. “We’re all proud to be Gypsies,” he says. “But we didn’t choose to be Gypsies. That was God’s way.” The horses come closer and we stroke their manes. Bella, a pretty black and white one, looks at me with deep, soulful eyes. 

“I grew up in hatred,” Tommy tells me. We’re talking about the prejudice he’s experienced for being a Traveller. He was miserable at school and bullied so relentlessly his dad eventually decided to take him out. He can’t read or write. “Maybe I could be educated,” he says. “But that was taken away from me.”

The family are Irish Travellers but they also refer to themselves as Gypsies. Tommy has lived in Greater Manchester for more than 30 years, and at 57 is the oldest on the site. He lives with his wife, who struggles to see. His daughter and her three kids, his son and his niece all live in nearby caravans. In his home, there’s a beautiful photo of his daughter in her mid-20s, in traditional Gypsy clothing with her family.

A photo on the wall of his grandson is framed by large silver wings. “He died when he was three, he got sepsis,” Tommy says. His son also lost a daughter when she was five years old, and suffered a breakdown after. He doesn’t believe in organised religion but says if you believe in God, you’ll be okay. “And they can’t take that from you,” he says. “But if they could, they would.”

To live on the site, each family pays £600 a month to Bolton Council, for which they get a pitch with a shower unit, kitchen and bills included. Some of the family do casual labouring work, and others claim benefits. Tommy says they don’t pay tax. His grandkids go to a local school, where he says they have been picked on and called names.

Tommy used to be a regular at the local pub but recently he was told by bar staff that they couldn’t serve him. He asked why and they told him “his kind” had done wrong in the past. “Well do you know me?” he asked. “What have I done?” He says they repeatedly refused to serve him and he walked away. 

He senses that something has changed in the past ten years. He has noticed more locals averting their eyes when he meets them on the road. He’s been told to “Fuck off, you Gypsy bastard.” He thinks local press coverage has something to do with it. “Thirty years I socialised with them locals. And they’re good people but they end up looking down on you, because of all the carrying on of the newspapers and gossipers at the pub.”

The Bolton News, the local paper, has published 8 stories about Gypsies and Travellers in the past year, all of which concern stolen vehicles, police raids, illegal encampments or anti-social behaviour. Past stories on the paper’s website have dozens of disparaging comments about the Traveller way of life. One wonders whether online comment boards like this — and the rise of local Facebook groups — have hardened anti-Gypsy sentiment.

More recently, the paper has reported that police raids on the site have recovered stolen property but don’t say where the property was found. We walk past empty sheds and plots where there’s litter and abandoned furniture. “That could have been there for months,” he says, guessing it came from the previous residents. “And nobody knows what's in it. Because it's none of our business. We've got no business on that plot. So we get judged for something we haven’t done.” 

A spokesperson from Bolton Council says that residents are “directly responsible for ensuring that they remove waste build-up on their own pitches and for making sure waste does not build up elsewhere on the site.” They say the site has recently been “blighted” by the tenants using the empty plots to store rubbish, adding: “We are aiming to address these issues by increasing plot areas and establish new boundary fencing where necessary.”

The former home of the largest Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller community in the UK, in Dale Farm, Essex, who were evicted in 2011. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Outside of council-maintained permanent sites like this one, families like Tommy’s have limited options for where they can stop and pitch. Last year there were only 13 permanent sites and 5 transit sites with available pitches across the whole of England, with 1696 families are on the waiting list.

The issue has returned to the national news agenda recently because of the government’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which proposes three-month prison sentences and fines of up to £2500 for unauthorised encampments. It would also allow the seizure of vehicles and trailers if there is a likelihood of “significant damage, disruption or distress”.

The normally liberal Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote in May that it’s time we stopped “pandering” to Gypsies and Travellers, describing their way of life as “a doomed mindset” and claiming that councils are currently forced to provide sites for them. We should, he argued, “​​begin a gradual but relentless squeeze on anyone who tries without permission to park their home on public property or the property of others.”

The barrister and Telegraph contributor Matthew Scott described the Parris column as “a call for something approaching cultural genocide,” and wrote on his blog: “Mr Parris’s argument is not just brutal. It is also remarkably ignorant. The law does not ‘force’ local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers.”

Scott explains: “Instead of clear legislation there is now a bewildering patchwork of housing, planning and human rights law, open to differing interpretations, and in practice relieving unwilling local authorities of any incentive to provide sites for Gypsies.” His blog condemns “the evil of a proposed law permitting the police to confiscate the homes of the poor”.

Earlier this summer I met a small Traveller community who were living on a green space in Radcliffe, tucked behind some long grass. A circle of motorhomes faced inward. Theresa, one of the community, told me they’d been there two days, after being moved on from a field near Little Lever.

“It’s alright here. The locals don’t mind,” she said. She was sitting with her sister, who looked upset. “Maybe call on us another time?” she suggested. “We’ve got some family stuff going on.” When I came back the next day, it was raining and they were gone. A local woman passing by told me someone had complained to the council, and they were told to move. “I didn’t mind them, they were no problem,” she said. “These people — they’ve got nowhere else to go, have they?” 

While permanent sites offer long-term security, they’re not insulated from danger. Tommy walks me around and shows me craggy bits of metal poking through the concrete, an electric shed with a water pipe that floods when it rains, broken fences, potholes, poor drainage, an abandoned car, and a shed full of rubbish from previous residents.

His days are spent cleaning up the site and fixing maintenance issues. He worries his grandkids will hurt themselves when they’re out playing and exploring. Recently, his daughter’s son nearly hit his head. “Kids is kids,” he says. “They’re blind to danger. They just see this as play.” He says he’s called the council to ask for help fixing the gates many times but nothing gets done. A spokesperson for Bolton Council said the building work to brick up unused utility blocks has been completed, and any other issues with general repairs should be reported.

“They don’t care, because they’re up there, in their offices.” He gestures up towards the trees as if there’s something that towers over us. His daughter paid from her own pocket to fix the bathroom in her caravan after it was flooded. Her daughter, Tommy’s granddaughter, wet herself last week because she couldn’t go to the loo.

When asked about the flooding, a spokesperson for Bolton Council said “the site is located in the bottom of a valley, and this does cause some issues with drainage. The area has also been impacted by the unexpected high volumes of rainfall that has caused disruption across Bolton.” Pump trucks have visited the site to clear the flooded drains, the council says.

Tommy’s daughter is an energetic woman in her late 20s. She has long blonde hair tied in a loose ponytail that brushes her shoulders. Her husband is taller, and they tease each other occasionally while we talk about the horses and the kids. She remembers reading a comment on a news article about the site that said “Burn them all to the ground”. “That’s my babies,” she says to me, while holding her son, who is barefoot and wriggling by her legs. “Like, who would ever wanna see a baby burn?”

She’s worried my article will incite more negative comments. “Because once it’s got people talking I’ll be treat worse. I’ll be treat worse,” she says. I promise not to mention her name, and we’ve agreed I won’t photograph anyone. In the past, the family have been called tinkers, pikeys, gyppos, scum, and vermin. “It’s hurtful,” Tommy says. “Maybe some kids say ‘fucking pikey’ not knowing what they’re doing to us. It’s hurtful to us, our kids, it’s hurtful. It’s like you’re slapping them.”

They also have positive contacts with the outside world. Tommy is close with the postman, who will often stop for a cup of tea and a chat if he has time. And his daughter tells me a story about the last time some people visited them, an old woman and man, who had been walking for miles and were desperate for the toilet. 

“‘I’m not asking, I’m begging’, the old lady says to me,” she explains. “She says ‘I really can’t hold it in no more’. I say of ‘course you can, by all means, come in.’” She can’t resist a smile as she recalls asking them if they were scared to enter the site. I imagine them tentatively walking up the path, the sound of the road giving way to chatter and laughter.

As they sat and drank coffee and tea together, the old man said: “Yes, I was scared. But I’m so happy now I’ve met you, we’ve seen you’re nice people, you’re not as bad as people make you out to be.” They had nothing to worry about in the first place. "I help anyone in this world,” she says. “Anyone in this world I would help."