Teaching Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history

On this post you will find the resources from the HA conference sesssion in Bristol, May 2022. Richard Kerridge and Helen Snelson have worked with the historian Professor Becky Taylor to produce a range of teaching resources for teaching the history of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. There are made freely available here and they are adaptable.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people are the largest minority ethnic group in some communities (and therefore in some schools) in the UK. Yet the past of Gyspy, Roma, Traveller people may rarely be part of history lessons. The result is that pupils of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage may not encounter their past in history classrooms and myths and stereotypes may take root in the minds of others. 

The HA is keen to help teachers with this problem. An HA page to support teachers is here.

The workshop resources:

A four lesson sequence that focuses on the history of Gypsies and Travellers from the start of the first industrial revolution period to the eve of the First World War. This was a time of great social and economic change in Britain. By completing this sequence pupils will not only learn about a period of British Gypsy and Traveller history, they will also learn about some of the social and economic changes in Britain in the period. They will consider how much changed in society and how much changed for Gypsy and Traveller people. 

By completing this sequence of lessons pupils will learn:

  • How life changed for Gypsy and Traveller people in Britain in the 150 years up to the First World War
  • An outline history of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain before 1750
  • Some of the social and economic changes that occurred in Britain 1750-1914
  • Hinterland knowledge that will help develop their sense of period and place for further study of the years 1750-1914
  • To evaluate the ‘extent’ of change and to learn that changes are not experienced in the same way  
  • To collect notes from a variety of sources and interpretations, to organise them and to frame them as an answer to a historical question. 

Jack Cunningham VC source material

Jack Cunningham was born in 1897 into a Traveller family. He volunteered for the Hull Pals in 1914. In 1916 he won the VC at the very end of the Battle of the Somme. He served to the end of the war and was permanently disabled as a result. He struggled to return to civilian life. 

The various materials here present a complex, human story of World War One. They can be used as a short activity with students. They could be printed off, laminated and given to small groups of students:

  • At the start of learning about World War One to stimulate student engagement and hypothesising. Students could piece together Jack’s story and then ask questions about the First World War and its impact. The teacher could then teach the topic, providing answers to students’ questions and referring back to the story to ask ‘how typical was Jack’s war?’
  • While studying the Battle of the Somme to introduce a human story to the big narrative and to take away from the focus on the first day. The story can provide a bridge from 1916 to the later part of the war on the Western Front. 
  • Following a study of the course of World War One, Jack Cunningham’s story could form part of an enquiry into the impact of the war on the survivors. The problem of veterans settling back into civilian life and the consequences for people around them is still a current issue in the 21st century. 
  • As part of a battlefields tour when visiting the Serre Road, Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval. Jack Cunningham won his VC for action just north of the village of Serre. 

What does the story of fairs reveal about life in Britain over time? 

Fairs are a useful device to study in a particular time or over time. Their economic function was very important in the pre-industrial age. Over time the fair has lost its importance as a hub of economic activity, but it has kept other functions. Fairs continue to exist in many parts of the country and are part of local culture, from the Nottingham Goose Fair to the Appleby Horse Fair, and from St Giles’ Fair to Hull Fair. Gypsy and Traveller people have long been associated with fairs.

The text, task and images are fully adaptable to your setting. You can transfer them into other formats. You might:

  • Use the information in separate sections as you teach the different time periods, either directly with students or just to inform your teacher talk. 
  • Set the work in one lesson, or as a homework, as a mini thematic context to help students link periods of learning together. 
  • Use the information in your curriculum to ensure that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people do not just appear as victims of oppression in history. 
  • Use the information as context to learning about a local fair and the local economy in your area.

Teaching a more representative and coherent British 17th Century

Ruth Lingard and Helen Snelson have presented their work on teaching a representative and coherent British 17th century for the HA at the 2021 Virtual Conference. All the resources accompanying the session are free to download from this blogpost.

You can find the link to a folder of all the resources here. In the folder you will find life stories of people who lived in the period 1625-1714 written in the first person. Some of them are names that are more popularly known, others are less familiar. For each person there is an accompanying worksheet. There is also a summary of the 16 stories and a suggestion for a summary activity. All the resources can be downloaded and adapted. Some exemplars of stories adapted for SEND have been provided. The resources as presented can be used to teach a coherent overview of the period in 2-3 lessons. This might be, for example, to bridge between topics, or prior to a depth study on a particular aspect of the period. However, colleagues may decide to use just a few stories, or parts of stories, and they could be used at the end of a depth story.

The enquiry question that frames these stories could be ‘What matters about the 17th Century?’ That is, what mattered to people at the time and what matters were they concerned with. The first person stories written as narratives enable pupils to be introduced to key knowledge about the period 1625-1714, including:

  • The importance of religion to people’s lives, the way it divided people and how that drove a civil war and its aftermath.
  • The impact of a civil war on all the people and the country, both at the time and its legacy.
    The impact of England’s growing trade and settlement of the Americas, as a place of emigration, domination, hope, horror and change.
  • The substantive concepts of power, parliament, monarchy, liberty, rule of law and how they develop in this period.
  • The interplay of science and religion – new understandings of space and time.

The stories are diverse in their range of place and people. (For example, the people whose stories they tell lived in different parts of the UK and beyond, lived across the time period, had different backgrounds and roles in society.) They enable an exploration of relationship, in its widest sense, and they avoid oversimplification of a complex world. History stays messy!

Stories are popular with history teachers – they are engaging and ‘sticky’ – but they can be problematic. Sometimes a story can be so powerful that it makes a broader, deeper and richer understanding more difficult. For example, the story of the assassination at Sarajevo that sparked war in 1914 can take up too much space in students’ minds when they are trying to make sense of what caused the First World War. For example, perhaps the key stories of Rosa Parks’ bus ride and Martin Luther King’s speech, while rich and important in themselves, have hindered a more nuanced understanding of the struggle US Civil Rights’ struggle of their period? For example, a focus on the killing of Wat Tyler at Smithfield obscures the more complex story of the People of 1381 and can make it harder to make meaning about the greatest uprising in England (and some historians assert Tyler didn’t even exist!). We do need to be careful with story. However, stories which are carefully crafted to lead our students to a wider and deeper understanding of people and place can be very powerful teaching tools. The stories here are crafted so that they, hopefully, do some of that. The stories are not inward looking, they reach out to the wider issues. That means that they are not written in a way that only includes what is exactly known about the people and their concerns. They also include detail that is historically accurate about the places, events and cultures that existed around these people. It is in this way that they help students to think about what matters about the 17th century and to learn what mattered to its people.

The stories are also rich in the disciplinary concepts of change, and similarity and difference. The stories introduce many people, but the ‘lead’ characters are more likely to be people from more privileged positions. This should be brought to the attention of pupils. It will enable teachers to draw out issues relating to the fragmentary nature of what survives to us from the past and how this can shape our sense of who and what is historically significant. The meaning that people in the 17th century gave to their lives may sit oddly with 21st century popular perceptions of what was significant in British history from that period. By raising these issues with pupils we can explore the silences and the gaps in our knowledge.

We hope these resources will be useful and that they will also serve to increase teacher, as well as pupil, knowledge of the period 1625-1714.

Update October 2021: huge thanks to Natalie Kesterton for adding a PDF of two lessons and SEND materials to the Drive folder!