Mike Johns was born on the side of the road in the mid-1950s to a travelling gypsy family. Home was a horse-drawn wagon and a square canvas tent served as the kitchen. Food was cooked over a fire using age-old cast iron pots and pans, and washing was done in buckets, with laundry later cast over hedgerows to dry, gleaming white in the sunshine. It was at camps like these where Mike’s father made his beautifully-crafted barrel-top traditional gypsy wagons, vardoes. Central to their lives, and other gypsy families like them, was the farming calendar as they followed different harvests, from peas to potatoes, to the all-important hop. They were an important and much-welcomed and trusted labour force in rural economies. But times have changed and so has agriculture.
In David Cressy’s book, ‘Gypsies’, he explores at length the curious case of Elizabeth Canning. This young woman, who was a maidservant in the mid 18thcentury, was abducted by gypsies as she walked to her lodgings in the City of London and imprisoned when she refused to become a prostitute. Mercifully, she escaped after a month, limping the ten miles home to declare her shocking experience. Her ‘virtue’ intact, the finger of blame was pointed firmly at the ‘ugly, old, decrepit hag, Mary Squires, gypsy woman’.
An open and shut case, one would suppose? Well, not necessarily so. At the time of the alleged abduction, Mary Squires and her large brood were travelling around the counties of Somerset, Wiltshire and Surrey on foot, providing a niche service to these rural communities in ‘old clothes and silver lace’, as they had done so for decades. Canning’s testimony quickly unravelled when villagers lined up to confirm that Squires and her family had, in the mid-winter of 1753-54, been travelling through southern England. In this case at least, far from being the outcasts as they are so often represented, these gypsies were living alongside settled communities quite companionably.
Today, GRT (Gypsy, Romany and Traveller) voices are hard to hear and their culture, in society/ literature/film/music, is often either appropriated, marginalised, or romanticised. Popular TV shows such as ‘My big fat gypsy wedding’, are said to perpetuate limiting stereotypes. But there have been other attempts at depicting GRT life, on the big screen at least, some with varying degrees of success and ridicule over the years. It could be argued among the more successful portrayals was the 1966 film, ‘Sky West and Crooked’, starring Hayley Mills and Ian McShane, directed by Hayley’s father, national treasure John Mills, with the screenplay written by his wife Mary Bell. It’s quite a brave and honest film for its time, using Romani words and looking at the mistrust between villagers and travellers camped outside the village as romance burgeons between the two lead characters. The BFI described it as a ‘progressive perspective’ of the GRT community. Arguable another contemporary example is the hit/cult TV show, Peaky Blinders. It hit our screens in 2013 and quickly made an impact in its freshness and directness, quickly inspiring fashion trends in clothes and hair styles. The BFI said: ‘Peaky Blinders is one of the most accomplished televisual depictions of Traveller history. With its colourful and nuanced set of central characters born of English Traveller blood, it offers something new – anti-heroic, dashing and complicated protagonists from Gypsy stock.’
Which brings us full-circle to the making of ‘Stories from the Hop Yard’. Time and again interviewees described the arrival of the gypsy labour force, the caravan train, the horse selling and dealing, the food, music, colour. Once so much a part of our countryside, this group of people have all but disappeared from public view. This was a vibrant, hard working community, once so visible on our roads and lanes, working in the fields, following the different harvests around. This film couldn’t be made without their representation. They were an integral part of the story, a crucial labour force farmers could rely on. As one hop farmer put it: ‘My dad used to look forward to them coming.’
Mike Johns’ family picked hops for Mr Paske at Bromyard. There was mutual respect. ‘He looked after all the gypsy families. Our family has always been with the hops, mostly with Paskes at Bromyard, and we’ve always travelled with other travellers, like the Smiths, Blackie Smith, Herbert Smith, Alfie Smith. Mr Paske looked after us really really good.
‘I would say from the sixties through to the seventies and the eighties everything started to change. We’ve always sat by the fire, when mum and dad were alive, and even when we moved into a house we always used to sit by the fire at night time and dad would go right through different stories and he’d tell you really good stories as well. Yeah, I’ve got some good memories. It’s good for younger generation to see the ways travellers used to live, eat and drink and enjoy themselves. The younger ones will never get the chance to do it like we did.’
Mike’s story is a way of life that has changed beyond all recognition. He still clings onto his old ways and is fiercely proud of his gypsy heritage. The caravan and canvas kitchen has gone, but in his garden, he has built a shed, propped up by old hop poles. Inside the original cast iron pots and pans are still there, and on a shelf, sits a miniature barrel topped wagon, beautifully hand-crafted by his father, a reminder of a former life.
Footnote: Maidservant Elizabeth Canning was convicted of perjury and sentenced to deportation.