When in March, 1953 Dr. Aubrey Westlake of Fordingbridge, asked me to speak to a meeting of the Rural District Council of Ringwood and Fordingbridge, on behalf of the New Forest Gypsies, I spoke mostly what I have written here. The meeting was held to consider the problem of a Gypsy compound, known as Tin Town, which had become infested with wire-worm and over-crowded with humanity owing to far too many homeless Gypsies having settled there. Dr. Westlake wanted to obtain from the council a resolution restoring to the Gypsies their traditional right to wander in the New Forest, which had been revoked since 30 years. Two true friends of the Romanies, Augustus John and Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald, wrote in support, and I made my speech! I found it a true ordeal having to address, and then be questioned by, such a gathering: Officers of Health, Education, Sanitation! – and so forth: the civilised. But I had friends amongst the Gypsies of Tin Town, and thus was given courage. All the council, with one exception, voted in favour of restoring to the Gypsies the right to wander in the New Forest. A great victory gained for the freedom of the individual.
A flat-cart was being well cleaned, the garlands of red hedge berries woven for the horse which was to draw it: for the coffin of the child was to be borne on a Romany cart to the cemetery gates where it was then to be given up to the cemetery authorities for a church burial on church ground.
Once Gypsy corpses had always been interred in lonely places, on the heaths where the wind blew sweet and fresh, but such burials are prohibited by the present day law and have become too difficult for the Gypsy, and consecrated church ground is now almost always used.
The winter evening settled quickly over the downs, and by the time that White Will and his companions had the cart clean and ready for the morrow, the sun was westering, turned into the angry hue of a winesap apple and shrunken to the size of one, strange-looking in the plumbago frost-bound sky. White Will told me that yesternight the backs of the men keeping vigil had been whitened with frost, and the hair of their heads below their hats or caps frozen hard: snow might well fall. He pointed out to me the homecoming procession of Gypsy men who had been far afield foraging wood for the night’s funeral fire. The figures of the men were etched against the sky, their backs bent low by the weight of the bundle of tree-boughs and brushwood that each one carried for the feeding of the ever-ravenous red horses of the fire.
The women by then were all in their caravans, only the men were to keep vigil: many of the women weeping shrilly for the dead child, their voices coming from the vans shuttered against the cold of the night. I believe also that they wept because the encampment was under police dispersal orders, and most of the families knew not where they could go to live out the winter until the spring made road travel possible again.
I did not want to be present when the coffin came, I was made sad enough without that further pain: so I said my farewells to the Gypsies and went from the light of their fire into the gloom of the night and the cold and long journey back to Leatherhead. I thought in some bitterness that White Will was wise to be buying forgetfulness in beer and ale. For me forgetfulness of the sad scene would not be possible: it would remain nailed into my memory. “crowded and keen the country grows….”