TGT: The Final Furlong

3 June 2011

Gypsies and Travellers have been going to the Epsom Derby for hundreds of years. But this year, the annual Gypsy holiday on Epsom Downs will feature a 30 metre square enclosure showing the best of traditional and modern Gypsy and Traveller culture.

The space has been donated by the Epsom Racecourse and has been organised by members of the local Gypsy community and Surrey County Council purely to celebrate Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month.

Old and classic Gypsy wagons and trailers will be alongside a fully functioning stage featuring the best of amateur and professional Gypsy and Traveller performers.

From Gypsy Rumba guitarist Cristofe Sors and modern Romany songstress Kerieva to the Polish Roma band Romany Diamonds, many of the Investec Derby's 130,000 visitors will get to see the best of Romany music.

But from 2.50 until 5.00pm, in between the races, the following 15 entrants will compete to win the south east final in this year's Travellers Got Talent. Come and watch them compete for free, we'll be where the TGT logo is on the map below.

The History of Gypsies at the Epsom Derby

1514. The first reference is made to Gypsies in Surrey, where families have arrived after crossing from the Netherlands  to land on England’s east coast. Their fashions catch on and in 1545 a pub landlady in Leatherhead is wearing a turban ‘like an Egyptian’.

1769. The first mention of Gypsies on Epsom Downs. The trial of the great racehorse Eclipse took place so early that no-one saw it apart from an old Gypsy woman. She told the touts that no other contestant could catch up with him ‘if they ran to the world’s end’.

1778. New rules are given for racing on the Downs. Contests between gentlemen, to see whose horse was best, had been taking place since 1661 but they are now beginning to attract crowds of bystanders. Drinks stalls are run by people from as far off as London.

1780. The first Derby is run – a short, exciting race to test the quality of three-year-olds, dreamt up by the 12th Earl of Derby and his fellow turf enthusiast, Sir Charles Bunbury. The toss of a coin decrees that it will be called the Derby – not the Bunbury.

1820. Jack Cooper, a Gypsy prize-fighter from Windsor, takes on West Country Dick at the Derby and knocks him out after 29 rounds. A contemporary map of the racecourse shows an area set aside for ‘Gipsying, Pugilism, Rings for Horses’. 


1830. Fortune-telling becomes profitable. ‘The gipsy woman, with the flashing red or yellow handkerchief about her head, and the strange silvery-hoarse voice’ works the crowd, often carrying a baby with her while the children mind the tent.

1858. William Frith exhibits his picture Derby Day, with two carefree Gypsy children in the foreground. Other artists show life in bender tents with the chores of fetching water, minding animals and collecting firewood. Donkey rides and coconut shies are popular.

1863. The first evidence for waggons at the Derby. At first these are simple tilt carts with a tarpaulin roof, but within twenty years expensive Reading and Burton waggons appear on the Downs. Many families continue to live in benders – not so interesting to artists!

1874. Epsom has become a major Romani centre, under the name of Boro Nashimescro Tan – ‘the place with the big racecourse’. Evangelists from London book a tent and give Gospel addresses to 120 Gypsies, who listen politely and eat a large tea.

1896. The Prince of Wales (to be Edward VII) wins with Persimmon. He had a kindness for Gypsies; ‘to the sound of tambourines the women swirled about in their colourful skirts performing for the King while his friends threw coins from the Grandstand’.

1902. Lord Rosebery wins his second Derby with Cicero, and provides a memorial drinking trough along the steep climb up Chalk Lane. Gypsies gratefully make use of this nearby water supply, and sell drinking water at a mark-up to the crowd.

1910. Edward VII dies, shortly before the Derby. Next year George V maintains the royal tradition of tipping a sovereign to the fortune-teller Old Kate. Her memories of the Derby go back to the snowstorm race of 1867, and she continues attending until 1930.

1928. The Derby becomes a magnet for artists. Alfred Munnings accompanies Gregorys, Lovedays and Lees from Binstead; Laura Knight meets up with Smiths from Iver. Their portraits show men and women dressed at their best beside elaborately carved waggons.

1930. The mystery of the Amato first appears in print. Every Derby morning, the name of the winner (?) will be found chalked on the well beside this pub in Chalk Lane, named after the 1838 winner. Some attribute this to Gypsies, while others suspect the landlord.

1934. Sybil Grant, the daughter of Lord Rosebery, acts as mediator in disputes over the cleanliness of Gypsy camps. Special Carolus certificates are awarded for keeping a clean site, the first ones going to Levi and Leonard Cooper, accompanied by food baskets.

1937. The Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators, under the authority of a new Act of Parliament, attempt to ban all Gypsies from the Downs. Prevented from pulling on, the Gypsies find a refuge in the nearest field owned by Lady Sybil, at the Durdans estate.

1953. After a string of wet years, the Coronation Derby is the first gathering to recover the pre-War spirit. Most Gypsies arrive in trailers instead of horse-drawn waggons – ‘glittering motorised things’ as seen by the Conservators, who try to keep them away.

1967. A thousand Gypsy families assemble each year for the Derby, according to estimates from the Gypsy Council. The Downs Conservators fail to drive them off despite enlisting private security firms, 24-hour patrols and hundreds of summonses.

1971. Agreement is reached with the Conservators with an authorised Gypsy site set up to the west of the Grandstand. Fortune-telling is still carried on by the grand-daughters  or great-grand-daughters of Rose Lee but the Derby is increasingly a Gypsy holiday.