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Gypsy War Heroes

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Gypsies and Travellers haven’t just lived in Britain for centuries, they’ve defended it and died for it too, writes Janet Keet-Black.

In the Second World War a direct hit destroyed 60% of the records of soldiers who served in the First World War, but amongst the records that remain, many Traveller names are to be found. The Medal Rolls are further evidence of Traveller participation including a number of Military Medals and at least one Victoria Cross.

Henry Keet Junior

Right: Henry Keet Jnr 1915-1979, Janet’s father, just one of many Gypsy and Traveller men who fought for Britain.

Whilst many stories from WW1 have been handed down through families, Travellers today may not speak of military service in WW2 and later conflicts, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. Many photographs of fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins in uniform are to be found in treasured family albums.

And while the men were away fighting for their lives and this country’s liberty, many Traveller women did their bit by joining the ATS, ARP or the Land Army. They also drove ambulances or became auxiliary nurses, or went to work in munitions factories. “They all ran off to Ireland,” “Gypsies didn’t go to war,” and “You can’t imagine Travellers being in the Services,” are the kind of ill-informed statements, often spoken with conviction, that dishonour those who served, particularly those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Barbara Walsh records the loss in WW1 of two of her great uncles, cousins who had grown up together: “Everyone went out of the yard to see them off. The two young Abrahams laughed as they waved and walked away into their uncertain future.

The family stood in silence until the two had disappeared, then they went back to the yard until only my mother stood looking down the empty lane, even after the sound of their boots and their laughter had died away.”

“The name Abraham Ripley is recorded twice on the memorial at Hailsham, Sussex, and their young lives were just two amongst the millions that were lost in that dreadful conflict.”

A Few Amongst Many:

Samuel Brazil, died 1918.

Benjamin Lee, died 1917.

J Ripley, died 1916.
Awarded the Military Medal.

Alfred Riley Scamp, died 1914

S Scamp, died 1915. Brother to the above.

Sidney Harris, died 1918.
Awarded the Military Medal.

Leonard Page, died 1945.

James Keet, died 1944.

John ColeJanet Keet-Black is editor of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society, 6 St James Walk, South Chailey, East Sussex BN8 4BU.

Janet would like to hear from anyone who has served in the services, and would welcome photographs.

John Cole who fought in World War 1, picture Courtesy his nephew Peter Cole.

About this story

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This story originally appeared in the first Gypsy Roma Traveller History events Magazine of last year. Demand far exceeded supply of this publication, so we've reproduced some of the stories from that issue on this website.

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