Mary Margaret’s Story
There’s a warmth and calmness to Mary Margaret that’s impossible to forget. And I reckon she could give Kim Woodburn a run for her money where cleaning’s concerned; I’ve never seen a home so spotless. When I arrive at her site, the sun is bright, the air crisp, the sky azure blue, so we decide to sit outside; her two dogs skittering around us. Given it’s November, I’m glad to be wearing a chunky cardigan. Mary Margaret, however, sits happily chatting in her t-shirt, Live in the Moment emblazoned in sparkles across the front. Her voice is strong, and her deeply revved r’s and clipped ends to her words convey her north-east heritage.
“My Christian name is Margaret and I h’absolutely hate it. Me daughter is called Mary Kate, so I just thought, I’ll stick a Mary in front of it. When I’m up the north east, everyone knows me as a child calls me Mammy – because that’s me nickname. We’ve all got nicknames. Me sister’s called Lydia, and she gets called Minnie. Me brother’s Joseph and he gets called Winn. So everybody knows us ‘em nicknames. But I meet new people, obviously I’m not going to say my name is Mammy.
I was born in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. I only became stationary when I moved here. Until then I were travelling the whole time. There are not that many Travellers travelling now. This is it, it’s all just dying out at the minute, innit? It is getting harder, they’re changing the rules – councils are – about camping out.
It’s not an easy life – at the time you don’t think it’s easy. But even what I have got now – I still like them days. My kids, they’ve never had them days. Been brought up here.
I’m fifty-three now, and 27th September this year I’ll have lived in Piddlehinton eighteen year. I was over the New Forest and got to know a lady there, coz I was looking for a base for my kids to have education. My youngest son, he’s got many problems, medical problems. He’s autistic and has Crohn’s Disease. So I needed a base and she told me about this camp. I think truth she was telling me ‘bout another over at Wareham. But coz I was a stranger round here I seemed to come here and just as it happened there was a vacancy.
They’re all related on this site, or they’re related to ones near. I’m the h’outsider here. It’s a completely different way of life to up the north east. We get sunshine here. It’s 100% warmer. I’ve never been abroad, but to me down ‘ere is like being abroad. The beaches are h’absolutely beautiful, the north is just pure cold – no beaches. And it’s better down ‘ere for men getting the money. The north east is a poorer country – for non-gypsies and everyone. Although it is getting better for – I think you would say – the economy.
The man who used to run the camp here was called Mr Brett Easter, and Peggy Easter, which was his wife. Really nice people. He was a Para in the army and it wasn’t run the way it is at this moment. It was really up together, spic and span. Grass like a bowling green. No litter, just really, really great. Since he’s left, ‘bout three year ago, it’s sort of like going downhill.
I have four children, who just do anythink and everythink. Eldest is 28 and the youngest is 19. They’re round about here, in Dorchester. Me son’s got his own place, with a caravan on. Me daughter’s got a full-time job in a care home in Dorchester. She’s got a caravan too. They’ve all got ‘em. But permanent ones. Me son, Jacob, lives with me. He sleeps in his caravan, but all the eating and everything we do in the big one.
I have a shower block, and where the washer and dryer is. And I’ve got a garden out the back. Well, you couldn’t call it a garden, it’s more… meadow. Her eyes twinkle. I’ve just left it for the wildlife.
Me oldest son’s just went back up to the north east, because he’s just parted from his wife. Me youngest daughter, Mary Kate, has just yesterday went and got herself married. I know’d it was coming, but not as quick. She’s just up sticks and gone. Married another Traveller.
When I ask Mary Margaret what she likes to be called – Gypsy or Traveller – she looks thoughtful.
I get this a lot, coz in my generation, if you got called a Gypsy it was a very, very bad word. Really offensive. So years ago we never called ourselves Gypsies. Because like, the non-gyspy community, it’s coz they all, ‘The dirty stinking Gypsies are back in town.’
But now it’s used as way of life, like… I can’t describe what I mean, maybe so like a pride sort of thing. When I first heard it – because I go to the council meetings or whatever where they discuss the sites – I was really shocked. Now I’m sort of getting used to it.
You say New Age Travellers, but they’re not, to us they’re hippies. You put them in the same category as us but just put New. Which is very unfair because we know ‘em as hippies.
I’m happy to call myself a Gypsy, but it still touches me a bit. It’s hard to get around the fact. We always used to say Travellers. Romany Travellers. I’d more call myself an English Traveller. Although, at the end of the day, we never know where we come from, do we?
I ask what makes her proud about her unique heritage?
Everything makes me proud. Just a way of life, innit. It’s like… I don’t know. It’s just the way of life, the way you’ve been brought up. Marriage, not living with somebody – that’s really strong. As long as you’re married you don’t get a bad name. If you are not married you get a bad name and then, if it didn’t work out, you’re unlikely to get anybody else in our community basay so like you’ve gotta branch out on the outside.
You’ve gotta be married to live with someone. Really strong with that. I know a lot of things is changing but I haven’t changed them ways. There is a lot going a different route, but still.
When the man and the woman is married, or some of them, as I say, is living together, the women don’t work, they’re called, um…. What’s the word, somebody taught me… to use for a lady that lives at home. Um… house, uh? Homemaker. That’s what they call her.
I laugh, and remark that it appears to be a very foreign term.
That is something new. Yeah. We just call it slavery. We get married, and that’s it. In a Gypsy marriage the woman doesn’t have very much say.
No feminist revolution?
If that’s what you wanna use. Yeah. You get married, you have children. The husband supports you in food. And whatever money you need’s his.
I ask if some women in the community are asking for equal rights.
Do you vote?
Have you ever voted?
Do any travellers vote?
Not of my knowledge. No. Although we pay our taxes and have national insurance numbers. In the olden days they never had none. Some didn’t have birth certificates. Didn’t know the ages. They were just born and that’s it.
I have got a lot of opinions. I’m not stupid. And I do want better for us, as women. But not just coz I’m a woman. I want a better society for all of us, for men, and our grandchildren, if you know what I mean.
But we’re survivors, aren’t we, and it makes me proud that we can survive through anything. The tools get learned and passed down through generations. We can survive living on a roadside, with no electricity, no water, not heating, no food. We was teached how to do it. You don’t need all them things. They’re materials. You can live off the land, so you don’t need to go to the shop if you don’t want to, or you’ve never the money to. You would not go hungry. I’m proud of how them traditions get passed on.
I ask what it was like, living off the land.
I think it was better, because there was no obese people in our community years ago. Obvious’ we used to go to the shop for bread and that, but we’d live off pheasants and rabbits, ‘ares and deers.
Obesity is now an issue. Now food is just now there, it’s easy got: sugar intake, sweets, crisps. We never had that, growing up, it was fruit, veg.
We used to be in the Midlands a lot, where you don’t rarely see deer. Nor fish. Flat land. They grow a lot of fruit and veg, openly, in the fields. You just go in and help yourself.
I ask if the farmers minded. Again, her eyes twinkle.
We never asked. We could be next door to potatoes, then, next door to that, corn on the cob. Then it could be strawberries. Just took what you needed. Farmers didn’t know. And the amount we took, wasn’t like… a field full.
I wonder how they used to hunt.
We always had dogs, we call ‘em coursin dogs. Me dad just go out hunting with a dog for catching ‘ares, rabbits and pheasants. If a pheasant got run over, we used to eat it. Now, I’d eat ‘em if I had ‘em but I don’t go out personally getting them. I go to Tesco or whatever.
And my kids don’t. I once gave them a deer stew and they didn’t know they had it. Said it was lovely, and when I told them what it was they started being sick.
If there’s somebody in another community what’s got a deer, I’ll ring up and say give me a piece, and vice versa. There’s a lot of Travellers in Dorset. Lots of camps. Although lots have got their own places, live in their own property. But still have caravans and that.
I ask her to tell me more about her childhood.
We’d stay in one place as long as what we could before we got moved on. It was mainly on the verge, or down lanes. Never in a field. But I don’t think I’ve suffered bad from pollution because it was never on a busy main road.
My dad used to collect scrap – iron, rags and woollens – that was his main. As we got older and he got older the way of living changed, even amongst the Gypsy men. All the old traditions went. Years ago, they used to deal horses, or dogs, or whatever to get money. Before that they used to collect scrap on the horse and carts, because that was just survival money, and do a lot of farm work. Farmers used to really welcome Gypsies because the time before me, me dad and mam’s generation, they used to do a lot. We did a bit as children, I can remember, but to us it obviously wasn’t getting paid – obvious me dad used to get paid – but we thought it was like fun. Not work.
I ask how the other locals treated them.
It depends on where you were based. Some people all right. Most people, you got a lot of abuse. Stopped on the verge, vans or cars used to go by, shout out the window, ‘Dirty stinking Gypsies, you need burning.’ Used to get our glass windows put out a lot. Lots of verbal abuse.
Apart from racist ignorance on the part of the abusers (nb: in 2004, abuse towards against this community was described as the last acceptable form of racism), I ask where she thinks this negative image came from.
You know h’obviously there’s good and bad within every community. I don’t know how far back it come from. Every generation there’s a thief or a burglar or whatever, but not that long ago, when I travelled, this was my opinion of it. People in the village or the countryside we stopped in, there was these non-gypsies in the area were the thieves, or whatever. But automatically we’d get the blame because we’re newcomers – and it just stuck. D’you not understand? So people were doing it more, and we was getting the blame and it just stuck.
Years ago we had very strong morals about not stealing. If you wanted it, you asked for it. You never got it? You never got it. But things is changing. And I think why thing’s is changing … well my generation, and generation before then, I would say, we never mix with non-gypsies. Now I’m not saying all non-gypsies are thieves, or whatever, but we never mix with them. We kept to our own. There was no drugs – not as my knowledge. The men smoke and they drunk alcohol. But now there’s drugs, there’s marrying outside, or living with non-gypsies, having children. We’ve integrated with non-gypsies and picked up their habits. And that’s where things is changing.
But also, you never get to see the good parts – on the news, the social media – and there’s good and bad in all of us. I’m not saying I’m no h’angel, but we just get the bad h’end of everything.
Like a couple a year ago, d’you know they do these nominations? Well, Gypsy communities, with the internet, they do a lot of nominations. It happens throughout the year, it’s a laugh, basically. Like, I nominate you to go and jump in a bath of ice. And coz a Traveller’s told you to do it – especially men – it’s very hard for the person not to.
So this gentleman went to a big toy warehouse and got a whole load of trollies, full of toys, then nominated his brother to go and get something for charity, and that’s how it kicked off. Then there were hundreds of Gypsies and Travellers doing it – the ones what can read – donating trolley loads of toys. They were closing the shops off and just letting the Travellers go in and buy whatever they wanted, and then they were donating it, through the church, to people and charities for other people.
Now either the staff was concerned they were going to walk out without paying, or there was that many in the stores that other people couldn’t get their shopping before they restocked the shelves. Because, I mean, Travellers were spending thousands and thousands of pounds. But that was never shown on the news, but it was all over the internet, on social media, in our community.
I ask her for any other memories from her childhood.
Back then, the fire was never out. Even though me mam could cook indoors – because we had what we called a moderna caravan, with gas rings, we still cooked on the fire. It was very cold.
I’m surprised that her smile widens at this point, and ask if she preferred her life then.
I didn’t enjoy it, not at the time. But I would like to go back to them days.
Coz then you see different people, Different, like travelling groups. You live outside, more or less, you just go inside to sleep. Childhood was 100% different to as I brought my children up. You’re outside playing, there was no technology. You had to go and get water, you had chores to do. Everybody in the household, you all had to do summat to make that household live – if you know what I mean. Everybody had a job to do, just to get through the day.
And you were a lot fitter. A lot, lot fitter, Keeps you going I think. I love those frosty mornings and that. My kids used to have fires before they got out of bed. When we was little we used to have sleeping bags that used to have stuck to the bunks with ice. Even though it was indoors.
There was me, me sister and me brother and me mam and dad. Me dad’s dead now, and me mam’s in Bedale, where Dad originally comes from. She was on a camp, but she’s just recently gone into a bungalow coz she can’t walk and that. Bad with arthritis. She’s 80.
But to be quite truthful, in my eyes, moving into a home, it just finishes us off. My mam was quite fit, as I say, then she went into the bungalow and just went downhill.
I ask if she thinks the old ways of her community will die out.
Yes. I think one day there won’t be no Travellers. It will just finish. Just like the…. ‘em…. the dragons and whatever died out – or got extinct. Basically.
Eileen Rawlings, who lived ‘ere, she passed recently, she was about 74. She had the bad thing. She had it for a lot of years and that. She had chemo and everything and then it just caught ‘old of her, really. She did suffer, poor thing.
She was born in Dorset and met her husband, David when he was walking by one day when she was camped on the roadside. Really romantic story, he married her, even though he wasn’t a traveller. Then they lived on the road all their life – open fire, no telly, no electricity.
So when they moved here everything was frightening to them. We explained everything, it was a laugh really. The daughter brought her an electric kettle and she put it on the gas ring. And then there was a grant for something with the council and they bought them a microwave, and David put the food on top of it, instead of inside it. He was getting Alzheimers, poor gentleman, but he thought the characters were actually behind the telly when we showed him it.
Eileen, she ‘ated ‘ere. ‘Ated. But they got to the age when they couldn’t travel. Lived in a wagon all their life. Had the children underneath it. She told me a story once about one of her children she had, outside, as David biked to the local midwife, try and get help. The midwife come, but she’d already had the kid and cut the cord. Then she wrapped the baby in a sling, chucked it on her boob, and went hawkin’ with her basket, walked off with her basket selling stuff, having just given birth.
This is what I’m trying to tell you about how the h’olden people were strong people. None of this going into hospital for days at a time. Getting pampered. You would have loved it. She’d ‘ave been alive, she would have been giving you some stories.
But no-one can stay on the road now, they just get moved on immediately. There’s a section 32, that if you’re on private land, it’s immediate move. My old way of life is being made impossible.
For instance, this site’s been here thirty-odd years, forty or whatever, and basically they mek us come on ‘ere. Because if there’s a site local and you’re camping out, as we call it, if there’s a vacancy they h’offer you it. And if you don’t take it, you’ve got to move out of say, like Dorset – the county. You’ve gotta leave it, if there’s a vacancy.
There’s fifteen plots on this camp, most of them man and wife, so that’s thirty. Then there’s kids and adult children, so maybe a fifty of us? And it can cause problems when other people pull on. Coz family feuds – they still happen.
And the sites what they done, they’re not suitable. The rules don’t correspond to our way of life. You’re not allowed outside fires. And that’s one of our main things: an outside fire. It brings the full community together, all around the fire. You cook on it, you do a lot else too. Yes, we have got the modernisation today, we’ve got ovens, gas rings, fires indoors and electricity. But not that same centre of community.
I don’t know why we’re not allowed them. I have a lot of shit with the council. For instance, an old Gypsy man’s tradition is collecting scraps, rags and woollens. That was one of the ones when they left the land. And every site, as my knowledge, always had a scrap area where you chucked your scrap, metals and woollens (different to our normal tats as we call them), then you weigh them once a week, then we’d take them to the scrap yard (what you now call recycling) and get paid for it.
There were whole areas to do that for each person. We had one on this site, but the council’s taken it away, for no apparent reason. And we’re not allowed now to fetch anything back to this site. So that’s one of the old traditions the council’s done away with. Not that we can go to the recycling anyway. Most Gypsies have vans, they need that for their living. But even if you’ve just got ten bags of your own stuff, if you’re in a van it’s classed as industrial and you have to pay.
And then there there’s the clothes. Years ago, us children used to bill for them: put notes through people’s doors then go round for a day and there’d be a bag there waiting for ya. But now there’s not much of that either, because it’s charities people give to.
But we’re survivors, so we change. We’ve gotta jump on the bandwagon of what everyone is doing. So now the men do drives, cleaning them, power washing, tarmacking. And gardening – trees and all that. A lot of them do that today.
I ask if, having spent her life outdoors, she’s noticed much change in the environment.
To be quite truthful it would be hard for us to give you an opinion, because one minute we in Dorset, next minute we in Scotland and so for and so for. So we couldn’t give you the right temperatures.
The difference I have seen is the pollution that’s come from the Enterprise Park. Their h’outlook, I think, is ‘We was ‘ere first’. That’s what the Enterprise Park think. But we live ‘ere, and now they’ve built around us.
I did get one of the factories closed down, coz he put me in hospital. He was a shot blasting company, just behind those laurels. She points to the trees a few metres from her plot. He was emptying his tanks and it was just coming out pure dust and very, very small fibres of steel.
I’ve got COPD and was bad for months, but couldn’t think what it was. And then I was sat where we are at this same table (above), and I wiped it and said, ‘Look at that dust.’ And it cut all me hand. Wasn’t dust, it was the stuff that he was letting out.
So I phoned Brett and he phoned the Environment officer and he went over there and the man, he’d broke twenty rules and the Environment man said. ‘If you don’t get these rules done, we’re shutting you down.’ But those rules must have been very expensive, because he packed up and left.
Beyond this fence I just don’t know what they’re building. All this summer they’ve been at work since half five, dust coming over, drilling, banging. We don’t get included. We never get notified about anything. But we pay our taxes, just the same as anyone else.
I ask if she sees herself as part of the village, or separate?
Separate. But this is the one and only place, Piddlehinton, where I’ve ever been included with the villagers. They’re very acceptive. It’s the only place I’ve ever felt welcomed.
There’s Vickey, and Katie and Magdalena. And there’s the Yorkshire man, John, and his wife. I don’t talk to them like we’re doing now, but I just know them. And the rest of the village have never ever given us grief, if you get my meaning. You got in the village and you get, ‘Good morning.’ You never hear the villagers saying, ‘Oh, the dirty Gypsy camp is just down the road,’ or avoid ya in the shop. We do keep ourselves to ourselves, but usually on campsites you always still get the odd one shouting as they drive past.
In a lot of places, I very, very rarely let them know what I am. When I get to know people, then I tell them, coz then they’ve got a different outlook about ya. But here, they still speak to me the same they did before they known I was a Gypsy.
My children don’t tell people. Especially my daughter. When they went to school h’obvioulsy they knowed, because the bus used to come to the caravan site. They’ve had a bit of grief on the bus, yeah, and a bit of grief at school. But nothing really major.
I’ve been to the fete a couple of times, in this first village, and I would like to go to church. I’ve got no religion at the minute. I’m christened Church of England, and my ex-husband was Catholic. A lot of travellers are Catholic – the Irish side. Although now they’ve all changed into just Christian. And there’s a lot of them, lots of Gypsy Pastors with really strong faith.
I can’t go to church because I can’t read and write, because I never went to school. We weren’t allowed to go because of the grief we used to get if we did, from teachers and non-gypsy children. I don’t know if my parents wanted me to be able to, but I wanted my children to be able to read and write. That’s why they went to school and it’s the reason I changed my lifestyle. My kids hated it, but I made sure they got there, nearly every day. Coz I know what it’s like to not read and write, and it’s one of my biggest wishes.
I used to do Easy Read when they used to come down to the shed and do a few of us. Because my generation on this site can’t read, can’t write. I’ve tried, but I do find it very, very difficult. Very. Tried for years. I had a lady that did teach me good, so I do know a lot of words. But she lost her husband, suddenly.
To us, looking at writing is just like looking at Chinese. So everything has got to be memorised, like the food shopping. You take for granted when somebody can read. They just glance at something and know exactly what it is. We’ve gotta memorise all that. Beans in a tin? Give us blank tins and we can’t do nought because we don’t know what’s in ‘em.
We can still get food, so I don’t know if it would make a great deal of difference. But it’s just something I’ve always wished I could do. If I had the chance of winning the lottery or reading fluently, I’d pick reading.
I ask her about this year and Covid, and am not surprised when she says it hasn’t really affected her that much.
I wouldn’t say this year has been very different to other years. My life has literally just carried on as normal. But I see things changing and I feel sorry for some of the people, losing their houses, jobs and that like. Money will be tight, a lot more poverty, I think. But then I have thought, ‘We’ve survived, so they will.’
I do know of a lot of Gypsy people who’ve had it and died. Including young people. It’s that word of mouth, going round Gypsies – who has died and who hasn’t.
Well… young. When I think about, they weren’t young. They were young when I knowed them, and so was I, like in the 50s. But yeah. Quite a few.
I suppose if I lived in a town or a city, obviously there’s big changes there. But as I say there’s no change for us, coz we’re here as, like one community and we only go into town for shopping.
Some of the men socialise in town, go to pubs and clubs and that. Me daughter used to go, even though I didn’t agree. In my generation women didn’t not drink alcohol and women weren’t allowed in pubs, and I still stick to that tradition.
I can drive, which is good, coz we’ve had no buses or anything coming here for a long time. But really and truthfully we don’t really mix on a daily basis outside of our community.
I’m not worried about it personally, but obviously in any kind of death I wouldn’t like to leave my kids. Not alone. I know what it’s like to lose a parent. I lost me dad when I was 27. If you get married and you go h’on to your own life, they are still the head of the family. Parents are always the head of the family.
I do listen to the rules – masks and hand washing and the two-metre distance an’ all. Obviously. You’ve gotta do, haven’t you? I don’t go around saying I’m not doing it. I’m not nervous for me, but I just don’t want to pass it on to the kids and that.
My children mean everything, I mean literally everything to me. I’d be killed, with no hesitation, and I’d kill for them, with no hesitation.
When I ask how she felt when the village started bringing food to the camp, there’s a long pause.
At first I was a bit mixed feelings about it. Because I thought, do they think we can’t support ourselves? That we got no money and no food? Do they think our children, like done bad to? It’s very hard for us to accept help from outsiders. We think they’ll make fun of us or whatever.
And then I thought, ‘Oh, they are very nice people, so have included us. And yeah, obviously I like being included in the village. But then I thought to me’self, ‘Well why haven’t they thought about us before the lockdown, if we are all right for food? D’you understand that bit?
But I am pleased that the village included us.
I ask if Covid-19 hasn’t particularly affected her – unlike a lot of the rest of the world – what’s been her highlight of the year?
I don’t have any highlights in my life, but I am happy. I was talking about this to my daughter the other day and she said to me, ‘If you were dying in three months’ time and you could do anything you want, what would it be?’
And I could not name one good thing that I really, really want to do. Well, except one thing, and that would be Fine Dining, coz I love food. She laughs. So, a fine dining restaurant, that’s what I would love to do. But holidays? No. Nothing.
I ask what food?
It would be seafood. Probably in London. A big fancy restaurant. I’ve been to Harrods, fifteen year ago. I think we had tea, scones and a sandwich. Round here we used to go to Poole, the Toby Carvery. Coz that’s good value for money. You can eat whatever you want for £10, so that’s one of the main places Gypsies go. Because we’re big eaters. Especially the men.
And so, her silver lining?
I think community within society has strengthened. It’s similar now, with this virus (although maybe not in the big cities), as we ‘ad years ago within the Gypsy community. Always help one another. The way we were brought up, you always included your neighbour, your friend, whatever it was.
I don’t know if I’ve felt closer to the village, but I have got the feeling that we have been included. And that makes me feel good. I’ve never been included in any village life in all my upbringing, it’s the first time ever. They’ve thought about us. So that’s my silver lining.
And if she could say anything to the wider community?
I’d say that I’m proud to be a Gypsy. My kids won’t be, coz they’ve been brought up differently, but I am.
We’re not bad people and all we really want to do is live our life, as simple as possible. Do what we wanna do, like on roadsides, camping out, instead of just getting abuse and being told to move on.
I do see myself always living here. I like it here. But you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe tomorrow I’ll move on.