The word ‘Romani’ or ‘Rom’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘domb’a, meaning ‘a man from a...group who were musicians’. The word ‘Gypsy’ comes from the mistaken belief among many European peoples that the Romany originated in Egypt
At an ISSA event in May 2014 Emeritus Professor Trevor Parmenter AM, in speaking to his paper - 'Inclusion in a neo-liberal society in the context of marginalised groups such as people with a disability: an impossible dream’ - drew attention to society’s often non-caring, judgemental and frequently discriminatory attitudes towards the disabled – categorising them as ‘others’ and frequently excluding them.
Unfortunately, history is all too full of examples of ‘others’ - those who are marginalised for whatever reason – and whose stories are often not recorded. As I have outlined, my particular area of interest is with the history of the Romani in Australia: one such group.
From my reading – and largely reinforced through the press – today as in the past Romani too are ‘others’ in the eyes of many. Again from my reading, I believe there is no doubt that this has been the case for the last 1,000 years in Europe and England.
What is beginning to intrigue me more and more is that from around the turn of the 19th century Australians too began to see the Romani – both as a group on the margins of society and one that falls easily into the category of ‘others’.
My question is why - when, only around 100 or so were sent to NSW. Here I should note that these are only the ones that can be identified or who were so identified by the authorities. Others may have arrived, served her/his sentences and been absorbed into the population without identified as ‘gypsies’.
As I will also go on to discuss, there is no real evidence that any Romani groups make the journey to the Australian colonies until the ‘Greek Gypsies’ of 1898.
The simplistic answer is prejudice - prejudice against ‘Gypsies’ as ‘others’.
The Romani and Liverpool Public School
On 2 September 1927 Mr S A Hanscombe Headmaster of Liverpool Public School sent a memorandum to the Inspector of Schools at Penrith on the subject of the enrolment of a band of Gipsies at Liverpool School. In his memorandum Mr Hanscombe stated that they [the band of Gipsies] expect to camp at Liverpool, for two months, all claim to be Australian born. He reported that he admitted eight children, listing them by name and age, although noting that in some case they appeared to be older than the age stated.
He reported that they were all making efforts to master reading and writing. As he added, ‘I send this information so that you will be aware of the facts’.
The Chief Inspector of Schools sent a response on 6 September stating:
'Regarding the enrolment of eight gipsies at the school under your charge I desire to inform you that only children of Primary School age should be admitted. Any of the children who you consider to be about Primary School age should be excluded from attendance.'
Mr Hanscombe’s dilemma was not over yet however!
On 5 September he wrote again. This time the memorandum was addressed to the Chief Inspector of Schools in Sydney.
In it he asked whether he should admit a band of 12 Gipsies to the school, stating that he had admitted 8 on 3 September and four additional Gipsies had applied for admission to the school on 5 September. He wrote:
'As the school is really full now I told the 12 of them this morning that they must wait admission and I would definitely know next Monday. I felt this would give you time to reply to me. I did turn one away as far too dirty for admission.
I wish to point out that their admission would be the means of driving many pupils from my school. Their ages vary from 5 to 18 years.'
Mr Hanscombe added a postscript to his memorandum.
'Their admission would certainly have a bad effect on the School, as the various members (adult) prowl around the School fences while the juveniles are in school.
However, I believe they are all Australian born and some method other than their attending the Public School at Liverpool might be devised for them.'
The response dated 12 September signed by the Acting Under Secretary of the Department of Education stated:
'...while the admission of children under 14 years of age would be quite permissible, even these children may be excluded if their presence is likely to be objectionable from any point of view. It would be desirable to give other members of the troupe to understand that their presence on the school premises or within the precincts is open to objection, and to seek the assistance of the local Police if necessary.
Furthermore, if you are in doubt as to the cleanliness or health of any of the children, you are quite at liberty to exclude them. On no account should adolescents be admitted.'
There is nothing further in the Liverpool Public School file at State Records relating to this matter. It seems the troupe moved on to Preston according to an article in The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate of 20 September 1927.
'A Liverpool resident writes: ‘I looked up my friends at Liverpool Public School ...Having heard that a band of gypsies had located themselves in their district, and some of the children were attending the School, I made some inquiries about these wandering strangers.
I found that a number had enrolled, their ages varying from 9 to 19, but evidently their enthusiasm for knowledge was transitory, as our dusky friends have not attended since. It is rumoured, however, that several were enrolled at Preston's school, where they remained for two days. Their education now is probably complete.'
Points of interest
- The children all had the same surname
- Travelling as a troupe (showfolk?)
- Questions: Where had they come from? When did they arrive in the Australian colonies? For this we will have to step back in time to 1898.
In reading these collection of letters a number of questions come to mind.
* ‘all claim to be Australian born’ – hence came under the provisions of the Public Instruction Act 1880 directed parents of school-aged children (6 to 14 years of age) to 'cause such children to attend school for a period of not less than seventy days in each half-year'. The parents would be in breach of the Act if their children were not sent to school.
* some of the children were beyond Primary School age. The Inspector referred the memorandum on seeking the Department’s ruling as to whether Mr Hanscombe had acted rightly in admitting Gipsies of ages 16, 17 and 18 years. As noted above students could be excluded from Primary School if they were over 14 years old.
* ‘children may be excluded if their presence is likely to be objectionable from any point of view.’ This was one of the reasons for excluding other ‘others’, such as Aboriginal children.
* ‘if you are in doubt as to the cleanliness or health of any of the children, you are quite at liberty to exclude them.’ Again, this was regularly used as an excuse to exclude Aboriginal children from the local school. As a result in NSW Aboriginal children were sent to ‘Aboriginal schools’.
At this point I would like to leave the story of the Romani and Liverpool Public School and take a quick look at history of the Romani, I will then return to the history of the Romani in New South Wales.
Background - Romani origins and migration
- According to Romani scholar Ian Hancock (based in Texas in the US), there are about 12 million people worldwide who belong to the ethnic group known as the Romani, more commonly known to outsiders as Gypsies.
- Most Romani (about eight to 10 million) live in Europe - that continent’s biggest minority.
- As Hancock details in his 2002 book ‘We Are the Romani People’ ...a growing body of genetic evidence point to India as the Romani people’s ancestral homeland.
- The grammar and vocabulary of the Romani language both bear similarities to languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent around 1,000 AD, suggesting that Romanies once lived there but left roughly around the time that a Moslem army (known as the Ghaznavids) invaded India. Romanies may have been taken as slaves or unwilling conscripts or they may have fled as refugees.
- Those Romani fortunate enough at least to remain free became persecuted outcasts, excluded from European society and forced to remain on the move.
- By the 1100s, as historian David Crowe has noted, eastern European documents refer to a new group of immigrants, who worked as skilled metal craftsman, musicians, and soldiers.
- While some eastern Europeans initially saw the Romani as useful new residents, in the Balkans, laws were passed barring Romani from marrying spouses from other groups. Many Romani were seized and forced into slavery, a practice that persisted in the Balkans for five hundred years into the mid-1800s.
- Historian James Minahan, author of One Europe, Many Nations: A Historical Dictionary of European National Groups’, states that Romani were subject to many of the same sort of restrictions and penalties exacted against the Jews.
Timeline - England
- 1514 – First mention of Romani in England.
- 1531 - Egyptians Act passed. Its purpose was to expel ‘Gypsies’ and ban their immigration. ‘Gypsies’ were accused of robbery and deception (principally through fortune telling) and given sixteen days to leave the country, their goods and properties being confiscated in the process.
- 1554 - Queen Mary passed a subsequent and similar Act to the 1531 Act. It stated that ‘Egyptians’ were plying their "devilish and naughty practices and devices“. Death penalty for remaining longer than one month.
- 1562 - An Act passed ‘for further punishment of Vagabonds, calling themselves Egyptians’. Any ‘Gypsy’ born in England and Wales is not compelled to leave the country if they quit their idle and ungodly life and company. All others should suffer death and loss of lands and goods.
- 1650s - The last known execution takes place in England of a ‘Gypsy’ simply for being a ‘Gypsy’. Roma are expelled to America.
- 1783 – legislation repealed previous Acts.
Romani in literature
- Shakespeare, references include:
Othello: Desdemona’s handkerchief a gift to Othello's mother came from a Gypsy ‘Egyptian charmer’ who can almost read the thoughts of people.
- Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders. Moll's earliest memory is of wandering ‘among a group of people they call Gypsies or Egyptians’ in England.
- Jane Austen, Emma. Gypsies bait Harriet in a lonely lane.
- Charles Dickens’, Old Curiosity Shop. Describes the first literary mention of an English Romanichal vardo or wagon.
- Prosper Mérimée's short story Carmen, upon which the opera was based. Carmen is a Romani.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse novel Aurora Leigh. Marian Erle is Romani.
- D H Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy.
Rumours of children being kidnapped by ‘gypsies’ have circulated for centuries, even creeping into lullabies:
Hush nae, hush nae, dinna fret ye
The black Tinkler winna get ye.'
- wandering, spreading disease, violating and murdering others
- in Victorian and modern British literature as having ‘sinister occult and criminal tendencies’ and as associated with ‘thievery and cunning’
- in English Renaissance and baroque theatre as incorporating ‘elements of outlandish charm and elements which depict [them] as the lowest of social outcasts," connected with ‘magic and charms’, and ‘juggling and cozening’.
- In opera, literature and music, throughout Europe, Romani women have been portrayed as provocative, sexually available, gaudy, exotic and mysterious.
In a BBC news article of 26 May 2005 starkly entitled ‘Gypsies are “Europe’s most hated”’, Dr James Smith, co-founder of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire stated that:
'their plight is often forgotten and they remain ‘demonised’…Up to half a million were killed. Yet even after the Holocaust, gypsies remain perhaps the most hated minority in Europe'.
From BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4486245.stm)
Romani in the Europe and the UK: literature
There is a considerable body of contemporary literature relating to the Romani in the UK as well as the publications of the Gypsey Lore Society, dating from 1888.
The Gypsy Lore Society, an international association of persons interested in Gypsy and Traveller Studies, was founded in Great Britain in 1888. Since 1989 it has been headquartered in the United States. Its goals include promotion of the study of Gypsy, Traveller, and analogous peripatetic cultures worldwide; dissemination of accurate information aimed at increasing understanding of these cultures in their diverse forms; and establishment of closer contacts among scholars studying any aspects of these cultures.
Romani in Australia: literature
Books, theses and articles
To date, my findings suggest that there is little mention of the Romani in Australia published works on Australian history in the 19th and early 20th century.
- J Plummer, ‘Why There Are No Gipsies in Australia’, Victorian Review, 1 April 1881. Among other things the article claimed that two or three gentlemen had conceived of a plan some year prior to set up a scheme of gipsy emigration from England to NSW. (The claim has not been confirmed through the official NSW records.)
* Why Romani had not settled in Australia
* Australian was not a land that would offer any inducements to Romani to settle.
* Long ocean voyage – Romani averse to ocean voyages.
* No support for them in the colonies.
- Cheryl Brandner’s 1997 MA thesis, A History of Romanies (Gypsies) in Australia
- Wendy Morrow’s 1998 Master of Educational Administration thesis, Education and the Gypsy People of Australia: An Untold Story’
- ‘Recognising Difference: the Romani 'Gypsy’ Child Socialisation and Education Process’, Tracy Smith, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol.18, No.2, 1997
- Newcastleacademic Kenneth Lee’s writings.
- ‘The Shame of Lilli Stubeck: Racist Stereotyping of Romani ('Gypsy') People in the 1985 Australian Children's Book of the Year, Overview, vol.3, no.2 Winter 1995.
In Tracy Smith’s article in Overview, published in 1995, titled ‘The Shame of Lilli Stubeck: Racists stereotyping of Romani (“Gypsy”) people in the 1985 Australian Book of the year’ asserts that it is a racist book, whose stereotyping of Romani... people has been ignored by literary critics. The Stubecks are stereotyped as thieves, beggars and scavengers, who are lazy, aggressive, primitive and dirty.’
As Tracy Smith puts it ‘These racist images correspond with anti-Romani stereotypes found in world media. Lilli is not just wild and wilful... she is a “local outcast who deserved little pity and more contempt. After all she had been born a gypsy’’’.
Why then has the book received little criticism for its overtly racist stereotyping of Lilli?
‘I can tell you why’ I hear you say and yes I have seen those modern day scams by those said to be ‘gypsies’ in the street of Paris and of course the inevitable tale of the ‘gypsies’ on the Razorback Mountain who streamed out to read the fortune of those hapless travellers stopped on the side of the road with overheated radiators.
To best answer the question raised by Tracy Smith I suggest that it is necessary to look back at the history of the Romani over the 1000 plus years since they left western India.
- Vagrant ‘Gypsies’ and Respectable Greeks: A defining moment in early Greek Melbourne, 1897–1900 by Andonis Piperoglou (online)
- James Jupp’s Encyclopaedia of the Australian People.
Newspapers articles are now accessible thanks to TROVE.
The NSW Police Gazettes are other source that I have found very useful. While not limited to those who have committed crimes it has been very helpful in following the small number of 19th century perpetrators with ‘Gipsy’ in their name – Gypsy Tom and so on. Whether they were Romani is not always clear. Sometimes the ‘Gypsy’ appears to have been applied to them on the basis of their alleged criminal activity.
There are also some websites and incidental references. Unfortunately, some of the information on these sites has not been authenticated.
Romani in Australia - Some background information
- The size of the Romani population in Australia is unknown; estimates range from 500 to 20,000.
- The earliest Romani arrivals appear to be the convicts transported to New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia.
- The first was probably Lazarus Scamp, who arrived on the Scarborough’in 1790. He had been sentenced in Hampshire in 1788 for stealing a sheep.
- Some claim that James Squire – of brewing fame - was Romani but there is some doubt about this.
- To date, I have identified just over 100 Romani convicts being transported to New South Wales.
- Others may have travelled alone or with small groups of ‘paying passengers’, particularly after the discovery of gold in the 1850s.
- The earliest recorded group of Romani travellers was in 1866 but this may not be genuine. (I will come to this later.)
- The main clans to be found today are English Romanies (descendants of the earlier deportees and newer voluntary emigrants), Kalderash(who came from 1898 on), and Roma from Eastern Europe after 1945.
Browsing TROVE from 1803 until 1902, using the terms ‘gypsy’; gipsy; ‘gypsey’; ‘gypsies’; ‘gypseys’ and ‘romany/romani’ shows some distinct trends. The history of the Romani (Gypsies) is a recurrent theme in the colonial newspapers.
Browsing TROVE from 1803 until 1902, using the terms ‘gypsy’; gipsy; ‘gypsey’; ‘gypsies’; ‘gypseys’ and ‘romany/romani’:
- theatrical performances/plays/poems/gypsy concerts and the Romany Dramatic Club (‘Gypsy King’)
- Localities/real estate/houses
- Pejorative ‘poor dependent gypsy like race’ 1831
- Shipping/ships with the name ‘Gypsy’
- Horse racing/dog racing
- ‘Gypsy’ meals in the bush
- ‘Gypsy’ numbers in the UK and Europe
- ‘Gypsy’ outrages in Europe and UK/stealing children
- ‘Gypsy’ palmistry/fortune telling
- Bushrangers – ‘Gypsy Smith’ captured in 1841, ‘Gypsy Clarke (James)’, ‘Gypsy Joe’
- ‘Greek Gypsies’ in 1898
Report of the 1866 Romani travellers
Perhaps the most interesting of the reports is the article on the 1866 Romani travellers. While questionable in its authenticity, it is the first account of a group of Romani travellers. It was reported in the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 24 May 1866. The original article was said to have been published in the Orange ‘Guardian’ whichcannot be located.
NSW Immigration Restriction Act 1898
A number of the colonial governments including NSW introduced written tests to restrict non-white immigration.
Into the picture come the so called ‘Greek Gypsies’ who arrived in South Australia on the Ville de la Ciotat in June 1898.
They appear to have been refugees from the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Greece at the time.
‘Greek Gypsies’, 1898
As Andonis Piperoglou notes ‘their arrival coincided with the establishment of the Greek community of Melbourne and the emergent politics of Australian nation-building. As a group of semi-nomadic, questionably “Greek” migrants they were treated in contradictory ways. They received charitable assistance from some settlers while others – predominantly immigration restrictionists and the Greek-Melbournians – regarded them as a burden to colonial progress.’[i]
Newspapers reported that they had paid for a passage to Sydney expecting that it would be easy to walk to their destination. With the limited financial resources they had they intended to briefly camp at Adelaide and then proceed by foot to Melbourne and then to Sydney.
From South Australian Charity to Victorian Hostility
Three days after the ‘Greek Gypsies arrived an article appeared in the South Australian Register, titled ‘Greek Refugees at Largs Bay’. It informed its readers that a ‘batch of supposed Greeks’ had formed an encampment on the sandhills of the Largs bay.
On the same day, The Advertiser also altered its readers of the arrival of these migrants but its headlines asserted they were ‘NOT GREEKS BUT GIPSIES’. The reporter stated that with the assistance of an interpreter he was able to determine that the new arrivals ‘were not naturally born Greeks but gipsies, who claim to be Greeks’ because they had resided in Greece. When questioned as to how they intended to live in the colonies they ‘replied with a shrug of the shoulders– “Oh any way. We will go from town to town”’. They had paid for a passage to Sydney and were under the misapprehension that it would be easy to walk to their destination. With the limited financial resources they had they intended to briefly camp at Adelaide and then proceed by foot to Melbourne en route to Sydney. The information that was obtained from South Australian interpreters and correspondents painted a mixed picture of the new arrivals. At one level, they were described as ‘Greek refugees’, which implied that they should be treated with a degree of sympathy, while on the other, they were labelled as misinformed poverty-stricken ‘Gypsies’.
Their journey from can be followed through newspaper reports as can the changing, hardening and racist attitudes towards the group. It is this changing attitude that I would like to speak about before moving back to 1927 and opening the discussion up to questions.
I suggest that all the weight of the prejudice against Romanies in the Australia colonies came to the fore when the ‘Greek Gypsies’ arrived on our shores. Gypsies rated little more than a passing reference when it was an individual. A group (even a small group) – now that was a different thing.
They were ‘others’ and suffered all the prejudice of a society used to excluding all the other ‘others’ in society – women, Aboriginal people and of course the Chinese and others who were the targets of the discriminatory 1898 legislation.
Likely origins of the troupe at Liverpool
It is likely that the children who were attempting to enter Liverpool Public School in 1927 owed their origins in part to the ‘Greek Gypsies’ of 1898. It is clear that the Sterio family – this was the surname they used – travelled between Australia, the UK and the US and Canada.
Whatever their origins it is clear is that they were subject to the prejudice towards ‘Gypsies’ that was awakened with the arrival of the ‘Greek Gypsies’ in 1898.
Whether they were all related is something I would like to resolve as I take my research further. Whether this is the case is incidental – it is really my interest in family connections.
[i] (Source: Vagrant “Gypsies” and Respectable Greeks: A defining moment in early Greek Melbourne, 1897–1900 by Andonis Piperoglou - accessed online)