'The luck of the draw - I was lucky enough to zig when they zagged’

28 November 2022
It’s just the luck of the draw - I was lucky enough to zig when they zagged’

Profile on Irish Traveller Lawrence Ward - Firefighter and Youth Justice Worker

“I had my share of setbacks growing up,” says Lawrence Ward, 26, an Irish Traveller based in Cheshire. “A lack of stability, hardly any education, tonnes of violence, exposure to substance abuse, economic hardship, and peer pressure,” he continues. “I realised a while ago that the main thing that sets me apart from a lot of the boys I work with, is just the luck of the draw. I was lucky enough to zig where they zagged. I had the right influences at the right times to make the right choices when it mattered. When you look at what I was faced with growing up, it’s a statistical anomaly that I’ve been fortunate enough to end up where I am today.”

One of the ‘day jobs’ – Lawrence Ward at his fire station
One of the ‘day jobs’ – Lawrence Ward at his fire station

And where is Lawrence Ward today? After missing most of school because he was out on the road travelling with his dad, then initially working as an air conditioning engineer before progressing onto sales and joining a team that built and sold a successful start-up business, a stint in to sales for a major retail company, and picking up a degree in Business Management and Marketing from the Open University along the way , Lawrence Ward is now saving lives by working as an on-call firefighter for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, and helping to rehabilitate young offenders – some Travellers and some not - in his other job as a Youth Justice Worker. And those are just the ‘day jobs’ for this driven young man.

“In my spare time, I train in combat sports and I’m working towards getting more involved in combat sports in a professional capacity,” says Lawrence Ward. “I regularly commentate on boxing and MMA shows. I recently had the opportunity to present my first live boxing broadcast. Boxing and combat sports in general have been a huge part of my life since as far back as I can remember, so it’s great to have these opportunities to remain close to these sports and use my skills and knowledge to earn a few extra quid doing it too.”

In his spare time Lawrence Ward regularly commentates on Boxing and MMA shows
In his spare time Lawrence Ward regularly commentates on Boxing and MMA shows

The statistics - of which Lawrence Ward describes himself as an “anomaly” - can be grim reading for anyone concerned about the future for young Gypsies and Travellers growing into adults. According to the Department for Education, Gypsy/Roma and Irish Travellers have the lowest levels of educational attainment of any ethnic group in school. In 2019-2020 15.85% of Gypsy/Roma children were excluded from school and 10.12% of Irish Traveller children – the highest of any ethnic group. In 2014 a prison service report found that one in 20 prisoners - about 4,200 people - identified as Gypsy, Roma or Traveller. Yet statistics are not individuals, many children from those communities do well at school and many more young Traveller men and women do not end up in prison than do end up there, and Lawrence Ward’s story is impressive and unique – but it is by no means unusual.

The sixth of eight siblings born into the ‘Mountbellew’ Ward family in Manchester, Lawrence Ward spent most of the time travelling with his family in between intervals of “settled” living in houses. “We travelled around England, Ireland, Spain, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany primarily until I was 14,” says Lawrence Ward. “Like a lot of Traveller boys growing up, there was a significant amount of time in which my old man wasn’t about because he was serving time in custody. At those times, my mother would usually settle us in a house and we would get some schooling,” he adds.

As soon as he left school, Lawrence Ward moved out of the family home and started work travelling around the country installing air conditioning. “I had to pay my way so I put long hours in from the very start of my professional life,” he adds. Following this job, Lawrence’s professional career ‘zigged’ and he started work in sales, and then project management, for a venture capitalist-backed start-up company that was looking to revolutionise the home improvements industry. “We were quite successful and ended up selling the company to a major retail brand who were looking to break into that industry,” says Lawrence Ward. “But then the Covid pandemic hit and my role stopped being about travelling the country to attend trade shows and gathering investments, and instead turned entirely into working from home, which did not suit me at all,” he adds. “My mind just isn’t wired up to cope with stagnation and I’m not capable of doing the same thing every single day and I stopped enjoying the job.”

Lawrence Ward worked in sales until Covid hit
Lawrence Ward worked in sales until Covid hit

Facing “stagnation” in his work, Lawrence Ward and his girlfriend, Alex, sat down and discussed what skills he had, what he wanted to do, and then what jobs fitted both. Being “good with people” was a definite skill, but Lawrence Ward no longer wanted to use that skill in sales. “I always did well in sales and I wanted to continue working with people, but I didn’t want to sell anything or leave work each day feeling like I have used those skills only to make people part with their money,” he explains. “I wanted to help people and hopefully leave the world a bit better than I had found it that day.”

Lawrence and Alex came up with a list of jobs where that applied and came up with a few like police officer, paramedic, fire service, prison officer, teacher, social worker and military. Lawrence Ward then started looking at what recruitment opportunities were out there. Youth Justice was recruiting for an establishment not too far from him, and his local station was after an On-Call Firefighter so he applied for and then eventually got job offers from both. Within the space of a few months from the job offer, Lawrence joined Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service in March of 2021, but the prison service recruitment process was massively impacted by Covid so he eventually joined them in January, earlier this year, ending up with not one, but two public service jobs. “I have a brother doing well in the Marines and my youngest sister is studying towards becoming a Police Officer and we’ve always been a driven and hardworking bunch,” laughs Lawrence Ward.

Lawrence Ward at his Firefighter passing out ceremony
Lawrence Ward at his Firefighter passing out ceremony

The role of an on-call firefighter for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service involves being ready to get called to the fire station you are based at and arriving there within five minutes. Lawrence Ward is on-call like this for shifts totalling 50 hours a week. There is some choice in shift availability and Lawrence Ward’s shifts are mostly in the evenings, nights and weekends as this has to work around his other job as a Youth Custody Worker. This means that most of his calls to get to the fire station – which come through on a loud, vibrating pager/alerter - happen when he is asleep in bed. “When that alerter goes off, I must immediately stop whatever it is I’m doing and drive straight to the station,” he explains. “As soon as I arrive there, I check what the job sheet says and then grab my kit and jump on the fire engine. Often that means going from a deep sleep in nothing but my boxer shorts, to getting kitted up in the back of a cramped speeding fire engine within just a few minutes,” says Lawrence Ward.

Once the incident is dealt with, and it could be a fire, a road accident, a medical emergency requiring rescue services or even an animal entrapment, the fire firefighters drive back to the station, get cleaned up, and then hopefully, for Lawrence and other night shift on-call firefighters, its back to bed for a few more hours sleep before the ‘day job’ starts. However, during the summer heatwaves earlier this year, fire services across the UK where at – and sometimes beyond - full stretch, and it was literally all hands to the pump. “Luckily – although I don’t know if ‘luckily’ is the right word – I already had time booked off from the Youth Custody Service,” says Lawrence Ward. “In Cheshire we got it quite bad with grass fires, house fires and a chemical storage facility that went on fire,” he continues. “It was kind of back-to-back-to-back for about four days and the service was in spate conditions so everyone had to really muck in.”

A Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service fire engine on call © CFRS
A Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service fire engine on call © CFRS

As the heatwaves subsided, for Lawrence Ward, it was straight back to work in Youth Custody with none of the “things he had planned to do” for his ‘holiday’ done. I ask him if he is proud of his work as a firefighter. “It’s a very well-respected role in the community, and it is nice to know you are valued by the public and that comes with a sense of pride,” answers Lawrence Ward. “But every firefighter I know will tell you that they do it because they just want the opportunity to help people.,” he continues. “Sometimes it means I start work at the prison after having very little sleep the night before – but you just persevere and get on with it because being a firefighter is not something that I ever want to give up. You receive loads of fantastic training and meet and work with lots of good people in the Cheshire fire service, plus the service has a great record for equality and diversity. My fire station is arguably the most helpful, progressive, and supportive working environment I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of and being part of a local station that is so heavily involved in the community is a perfect opportunity to challenge and change the perceptions of Travellers in my local area.”

‘Challenging perceptions’ and commonly held beliefs held by non-Travellers about who and what the UK’s Gypsies and Travellers are has been a major and unfortunately  inescapable part of Lawrence’s life – as it is for any Traveller in school or college, or working in a professional or non-professional job, or even just out shopping, trying to book a venue for a wedding reception or booking a holiday at Pontins, or even just wanting to get served in a pub or restaurant, or allowed into a bowling alley or leisure park.

One might spend six months working with somebody and you think – you are a nice person and I get on with you - and then out of nowhere they suddenly say the craziest thing about Travellers, Gypsies or Roma

“I’ve never hidden my identity in my professional roles, but there have been some unfortunate incidents in previous roles that I have had,” says Lawrence Ward. “I endeavour to make my ethnicity clear to colleagues early on as not to allow them to sleepwalk themselves into an awkward situation. Being A traveller in a professional setting today is a unique experience. We are oftentimes a heavily misrepresented and ostracized minority, but we are invisible in a sense. We barely have any visual indicator that informs people of our ethnicity. Therefore, it’s easier to let colleagues know early on about my culture and ethnicity, so that way I shouldn’t have to hear them saying things that I find offensive, only to plead ignorance after the fact. The alternative is that one might spend six months working with somebody and you think – you are a nice person and I get on with you - and then out of nowhere they suddenly say the craziest thing about Travellers, Gypsies or Roma. It’s happened before and I have had to correct people from saying things that I don’t want to hear them saying in front of me. In these instances, I always hope that rather than lose my cool, I can use it as a teachable moment for that individual and positively impact their view of our people.”

Lawrence Ward explains that he often the racism can sometimes be unintentional and the result of ignorance, but not always. “Often, it’s a matter of a colleague using a word like “p*key” without fully realising the connotations,” he explains. “Chances are they’ve heard it from the film Snatch and think it’s a fine thing to say. At other times, the context in which people use these slurs are too damning for such a forgiving response.  For instance, the sales team for the large retail chain I used to work for had some equalities training. The lady who was delivering the training package spent the whole day explaining inclusion and diversity to us. Then after lunch she was just chatting away and explained that she was getting ready in a bit of a rush that morning and said she “felt like a right g*ppo today,” says Lawrence Ward. “Some people don’t really understand how offensive words like g*ppo and p*key are, so, sometimes I might feel the need to say things like, ‘I am a Traveller myself, so please refrain from saying anything offensive and we are going to get along just fine.’ Before they get the chance to slip up.”

They’re curious about where I come from and my experiences and that’s where rapport is built

Lawrence Ward’s other full-time job is as a Youth Justice Worker working with young offenders aged 15-18, for the Youth Custody Service at a Young Offenders Institute. “We have a child first approach at all of our establishments, concentrating on supporting their mental health, education, and rehabilitation,” explains Lawrence Ward. “My role is about understanding their journey to offending and trying to work with the lads so that they don’t re-offend,” he adds. “On the occasions when they are in for a long sentence, then my role is also about preparing them for when they move onto an adult prison. Since I have been at the establishment, I’ve also taken on responsibility for the equalities and diversity role, and as we have had a few Traveller lads, I am also the prisons Traveller liaison Officer. This role involves working with the Traveller lads, other non-Traveller lads and advising the other officers about Traveller culture that they might not yet understand. I was a bit unsure when I took on the role and I was I bit worried about being called a ‘p*key’ etc. These are young teenage boys and anything they can arm themselves to insult you with, they will. But with the non-Traveller lads, once you let it out what you are, and bring it up in conversation, it generates a healthy interest, and helps to educate the lads who aren’t Travellers about what it means to be a Traveller and where we come from; about our ways and our culture. It’s actually become my “in” with a lot of the non-Traveller lads. They’re curious about where I come from and my experiences and the opportunity to have those conversations and share those stories and that’s where rapport is built. With the Traveller lads it also helps them to see a Traveller Officer because then they see that they don’t have to make life-decisions that may ultimately end up with them in custody, and that there are different decisions that they can make that will give them a more positive outcome.”

Lawrence Ward is of course keen – even driven – to support Traveller lads when they are inside and to help them make better and “more productive” choices in life when they are released, as his Youth Offender Institute’s Chaplain, the Reverend Canon Vanda Perrett, will attest to.

“Coming into custody for any young person is obviously a traumatic change, and the restrictions on their freedom and lifestyle is a real challenge,” says the Reverend Canon Vanda Perrett. “Within the Traveller traditions, this is a sharper change. Loss of outdoor space, family, loss of the opportunity to travel around, and a very different way of life, alongside missing out on relationships in a community that marry at a young age, are all part of the experience of our young GRT community. In our establishment we find that the faith community, especially the Roman Catholic service, is a space where our GRT boys find friendship and time to be a group with a shared background,” she adds.


“Lawrence’s place in this community is a vital link, not only for the boys here but also for staff, helping them understand some of the pressures of our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller boys, but also showing how life for them looks ‘normal’ which is not always the same for others,” continues the Reverend Canon Vanda Perrett. “He is a pleasure to work with, and he has a clear vision for supporting our GRT while being a cracking Youth Custody Officer with all our boys. Lawrence offers a positive role model to the GRT boys about how to behave in custody, and that they can choose other ways to live on release which may make it possible for them to stay out of jail. GRT community is overrepresented in the prison system, we need more officers like Lawrence to help the boys, women and men, through their sentence, and help prevent reoffending behaviour."

Lawrence Ward with his two nephews (l-r) Martin Ward and Michael Ward at an open community day at his fire station in Cheshire
Lawrence Ward with his two nephews (l-r) Martin Ward and Michael Ward at an open community day at his fire station in Cheshire

“Generation by generation, whether Gypsy or Traveller, an itinerant lifestyle is becoming less feasible,” says Lawrence Ward.  “Young Travellers are increasingly disillusioned when they reach an age of independence and see what the world expects of them. As the world makes an itinerant lifestyle more and more unachievable, so many Gypsy and Traveller children, boys, are pushing back against a sedentary life in unhealthy ways. I want to set the example that traveller lads can find the adventures and experiences they crave in healthier and more productive ways,” he adds.

For Travellers and non-Travellers alike, my aim is to show these boys that where you’re coming from does not dictate where you’re travelling to. I want to share my experiences with these lads and show them that it’s possible to break the mould instead of breaking the law. So many of these young men have been convinced that they are inherently bad human beings. If we can change their perceptions of themselves and instil some self-pride and confidence, then maybe we can change the way they express themselves.”

Interview by Mike Doherty

(All pictures except where otherwise noted are courtesy of Lawrence Ward)