'They did their bit' - Remembering the Gypsies and Travellers who served in the forces
On Saturday 13th of November, the Travellers’ Times visited a very special event put on by Kushti Bok, the Dorset based Romany Gypsy and Traveller rights charity. The event was to honour the Romany Gypsies and Travellers who served in the forces during both the World Wars and some of the conflicts that followed. Amid tea, biscuits and lots of old photos our editor sat down with the people who came along to event to record for posterity the stories of their relatives and ancestors who ‘did their bit’ in the UK’s armed forces.
Betty Smith Packman-Billington, the Romany Gypsy head of Kushti Bok explains:
“Every Remembrance Day the photos come out and go on Facebook. We love putting them on Facebook and telling people about all our ancestors. They were in the war and they played their part. This is the thing; I want them recognised. I spoke to one lady a couple of days ago who wants me to help with the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Dorchester. She was a lovely lady, but when I told her what I was doing, she said ‘ooh Betty, I never knew that Gypsies played their part in the armed forces.’ This is what people believe.”
Betty Billington: “Isaac White served in the First World War; we don’t know what regiment. This is the thing that we are trying to find out. I am working on it. He’s my Granny’s first cousin, I’ve had that photo for a long-long time. Every year on Remembrance Day it goes up.
When Isaac White went into the army, he had a wife and a lot of daughters. He had quite a bit of money and he sent a lot home as well and when he came home from the war he said ‘where is all my money?’ His wife had brought a lot of property. She had brought nearly all of Livingstone Road, Scotts Hill Lane (Local to Kinson in Dorset). She had brought land and all the property around there. She was a very rich woman. We always laughed because he wanted his money, he wanted to drink his money (chuckles).”
Betty Billington: “Mark White married Isaac White’s daughter. He was my great-uncle and served in the Second World War. He got injured at Monte Casino fighting the German army in Italy. He had to have a plate put in his head. He suffered, he suffered for many years, but he still stayed a handsome man as you can see from that picture. I spent a lot of time with him. I was very friendly with his son and I am in touch with his grandchildren. Mark White’s son died recently and Tyson Fury went to his funeral. Mark White’s grandchildren are going to try to find out more for me but all they know is that he was a gunner in the Scottish Regiment and that he was very badly injured at Monte Casino.”
Betty Billington: “Tom Thompson is Canadian and he came over here with the Canadian Army during the Second World War. Nellie is my dad’s cousin. Nellie eventually went back to Canada with Tom. I am in touch with their daughter. It is a lovely story and I am trying to get all the details. What we do know is that Nellie’s dad met Tom Thompson in a pub and took him home to meet Nellie, because she wasn’t the type to go out, she didn’t go out anywhere, she didn’t have any boyfriends or anything, she was home all the time. And her dad took Tom home with the purpose of getting them tied up together. And it worked!"
Betty Billington: “Samuel White is the son of Isaac White. Both served their country. Samuel was in the navy in the Second World War and he served for a while on HMS Winchester. One the other ships Samuel served on was torpedoed and he was in the water a long time before being rescued, he lost a lot of friends. Nine years he served in the Navy. Samuel is another one we are looking for more details on.”
Betty Billington: “Caleb Smith is my Dad. He was a Royal Marine number EX1469. He is my Daddy and I am quite proud of him. Can’t you see the smile is the same as mine (laughs)? I’ve also got his discharge papers. He was at Topsham naval base in Exmouth and that’s where he met my mum. On Topsham Station platform. My mum was a Londoner and went to Exmouth because some of her younger brothers and sisters were evacuated from London to there during World War Two to escape the air raids. We don’t know if he served abroad. He was an acting sergeant and a small arms instructor.”
Brian Keet: "Solomon Keet is my great-grandad. I didn’t know that he served in the First World War until I saw that photograph here today! I brought in the photo of Joby Cooper and he is my great-uncle. He’s pictured with my great-grandmother Mary Jane Cooper-Pidgely and my grandmother is also in the picture. The photo was kept by my grandmother. I always thought my nan and aunts look very pretty in the picture. Nan was always a bit cagey about her history so we didn’t find the photograph until she passed away. I remember Joby Cooper. He was quite a character. We think that’s a Second World War uniform because of the ages of the people in the photograph. I couldn’t find any war records for him though. Which is a shame."
Ray Wills: “Reginald Rogers was my grandfather. He was in the 1914-18 war in the trenches on the Western Front in the Dorsetshire Regiment. When he came home, because of what happened to him and shell-shock, he used to have fits. He served in the whole war, I think, for the whole four years. He went back over their a few times. He came back and he had been shot up a bit, recovered from his wounds and then went back over their again. I lived with him as a kid, he brought me up as his, so as a kid I saw that. He told all these stories about what happened in the trenches. He said that lots of soldiers couldn’t take it anymore and used to put their hands above the parapet to get shot so they would then be sent back home. He was a brickmaker and him and his three brothers they started off with a small-holding and kept pigs and they made enough money to start a brick company. They ended up with five brickyards. A lot of Romany Gypsies used to work in the brickyards and the potteries. They were skilled brick makers.”
Ray Wills: “Bill Rogers is my uncle, on the left, the little one. The guy with him was also a Romany Gypsy. He was a Stanley. This is from the Second World War. I think the picture was taken in Aden (North Africa/Middle East). Uncle Bill was a joker, a story teller. He could sit down and talk to you for a good hour and tell you a tale, and it would rhyme. The kids loved him. He lived until he was 91. I was brought up with him. He didn’t really talk about the war though. The only thing he told me was that when I was a new-born baby he carried me down the bottom of the garden because he wanted me to see the Royal Engineers disarm and remove an unexploded bomb that had been dropped from a German aircraft and had lain there buried until it was discovered. Our property was a small holding near the brickyard and next to a Gypsy camp."
Christina Allen: “The soldier standing up is George James. He was a Chindit. He fought against the Japanese Army in Burma in the Second World War. He was my great-uncle. I do remember him. He married Dorris and lived locally in Poole and they used to keep chickens. George James was a quiet man, very quiet and humble. He had a narrow escape in Burma. He was in an outpost and up a hill somewhere and he wanted a cigarette. And his superior said no you can’t smoke because the Japanese would see the smoke. So he went down the hill and had a cigarette and while he was down there the outpost was wiped out in an attack.”
Christina Allen: Liberty James fought in the First World War. He died in 1929.
Christina Allen: “This is Liberty James’ brother Sampson James who is my great-uncle. He survived the First World War. He had a gunshot wound in his hand and when he smoked he always held his fingers out straight and as a kid that always fascinated me. We didn’t know he had been shot in the war.”
Christina Allen: “Terence Hope is my great-grandfather on my paternal side. He was in the Army Veterinary Corps in the First World War. I haven’t found any army records on him because they got burnt out. I would love to know if he went to France. That I don’t know. My mother knew him. They lived in Colchester in a Romany wagon.
I don’t think people do know that (Romany Gypsies and Travellers) fought for their country. I don’t think a lot of people do realise they were in the wars. Which is sad really. I think it’s a lot to do with the stigma. Even I don’t tell all people my background. I’m proud of it but…
Anne Gregory: “These are my great uncles in a family photograph. Uncle Mark James (second from left), he was called that because he was so dark. And Uncle Bob, although his real name was Oliver James. And that’s my mum Mary in the very front as a little girl. None of them talked about the (Second World) war. Even my dad who was in the Navy never talked to me about it. I think it was so horrific for most of them.
I do know that the men all served in the army and not the navy. Almost certainly in the Dorset Regiment. And my mums younger brother Tommy James who is not in that photo served in the Dorset Regiment and definitely served in the Korean War in the 1950’s.
Mike Doherty for Travellers' Times Features