Fringe Box



Dragon Interview: Billy Brazil – Surrey Gypsy

We might imagine that Gypsies and Travellers always come from far afield but it is not always the case. Some despite their wandering ways have their roots firmly in Surrey.

Billy Brazil, a father figure within his community, who now lives in Effingham, is one.

Guildford Dragon reporter Chris Dick looks back with Billy on his long life…

Billy Brazil

Can you tell us a little about your early life?

My mother gave birth to me in a tent in 1943 in Peasmarsh near Guildford. I was one of eleven brothers and six sisters who were all born and raised in tents at the side of the road. At the time it was a smallish group that consisted of both sets of my grandparents as well as my parents, brothers and sisters. Whilst we lived in tents we used horse-drawn wagons for transport as the adults worked their way around the south of England to where the work was. [Billy lent me a book on their lives and history]

The Gypsies: Waggon-time and After –
27 Sep 1979 by Denis E. Harvey

Depending on the time of the year my father worked on the land picking potatoes in Surrey or hoeing and picking hops in Kent. We used to meet hundreds of people out of London picking those hops. As a child, I loved that time best when we were moving around and meeting new people. There was the odd disagreement, the odd fight but we always ended up best of friends. We made friends with the Irish, Scots and Welsh Gypsies and Travellers.

Even now in my mid-70s, I would rather be on the road travelling. But that is not possible. The law changed about 40 years ago. Loads of fences went up, ditches were dug and our way of life came to an end.

Why are you referred to as “Uncle” Billy in the Gypsy Romani Traveller (GRT) communities?

It just means you are older than the person you are dealing with.

Billy’s wife Rose as a very young child sitting on right of picture. Photograph taken near Ezlers Farm Effingham Common.

How did you meet your wife to be, Rose?

We first met 56 years ago. It was just by chance that both our families were pulled off at the side of the road in Send. Rose had been born in the area and lived for the most part in a horse-drawn wagon.

Rose went to St Lawrence School, Effingham and in those days she and the other Gypsy kids were picked up by coach and taken to and from school. Of course, all that has changed now and if kids don’t go to school nobody cares or comes to find out why they aren’t at school.

What about your schooling?

Because my father was always doing farm work we had to move where the work was. So yes, I did go to school in places like Elstead, Lockwood and Bramley and I really enjoyed it.

Can you describe your early life growing up on the move?

I loved being on the road with the whole family. But it was a simpler time and simpler life. As I said, I would rather be on the road now as I met all those different families but you can’t stop anywhere now. We made so many friends with strangers in those days. Often in those early years, I would work on Pound Farm with my dad in Ockham for John Maiklem, Andy Maiklem’s dad. [See: Farmer Reflects on 300-year Family History at Harvest Time]

Whilst I would prefer to go back and live the nomadic life on the road it is virtually impossible with all the councils and politicians out to stop us using common land.

Tell me your memories of the Epsom Derby.

Yes, it is a good example of how life has changed. During Derby week the Lord of the Manor gave permission for Gypsies and Travellers to camp on Effingham Common. On his death, the land was taken over by a Mr Skinner who charged a small amount of £75 per trailer [caravan] for a week.

Of course, that didn’t last long, so later we used to approach Eddie Crouch. We all thought he was the chairman of Effingham Parish Council but actually, at the time he was the clerk and only later became the chairman. Mr Crouch used to grant us permission to graze horses or for a trailer to go onto Effingham Common. Nowadays that’s virtually impossible.

Prohibition Order banning “moveable dwellings” on Effingham Common

The trouble started back in the 1930s when Surrey County Council made an order, that came into effect in 1953, preventing any camping on Effingham Common. And then more recently Guildford Borough Council dug ditches and installed metal gates.

But you managed to get round that didn’t you?

Yes, about 15 years ago, when I was much younger and I felt strongly about the prohibitions over camping on the Downs and Effingham Common, we had over 40 trailers to stay for three weeks on my land in Effingham. They were in four groups. They paid for the portaloos and nothing else. As part of the arrangements they just had to agree to leave on time and leave my fields tidy.

Then Guildford Borough Council stepped in and threatened us with an order to remove them.

But before the order came into force all the trailers had departed. Five trailers did stay in the area and went to Plough Lane, Cobham under a different arrangement and stayed on for another week, the rest departed. There was no trouble at all even though there were some rather tasty characters who didn’t particularly wish to leave, but they all did and the place was left immaculate.

Shortly afterwards Guildford Borough Council tried to send in a digger to dig a trench to prevent me from using my fields in the same way again. However, I knew the driver, who came from Bookham, and told him that it was my land and that the council had no right to dig a trench. The digger operator departed. And nobody ever came back.

But then on the other side of the coin, I was given permission by Guildford Borough Council to take all the refuse bags used by our visitors to the tip – and I was not charged for that. It just goes to show that there can be flexibility from councils if they chose to exercise it.

I remember that the old king [George VI] wrote a letter saying that Gypsies should be allowed to camp on Epsom Downs because it was common land. Sadly this letter was never followed up and today we are where we are.

Billy and Rose Brazil today.

Share This Post

3 Responses to Dragon Interview: Billy Brazil – Surrey Gypsy

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    March 8, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    Perhaps Billy Brazil should be asked to speak to the more transient members of his community and ask them to tidy up after themselves? This would go a long way to change the attitude of the general public.

  2. Valerie Thompson Reply

    March 10, 2018 at 10:11 am

    I remember the Gypsies who settled in Mayford, where I lived as a child. They used to dig up primroses and sell them door-to-door in well-crafted baskets made of hazel twigs. They also used to sell “lucky” sprigs of heather, which in those days was real heather. More recently, Gypsies in Guildford were selling bits of papery, everlasting flowers, not true heather.

    There was never any trouble with them in Mayford and their children went to the local schools in Westfield.

  3. David Roberts Reply

    March 10, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    What an interesting interview! The “raggle-taggle Gypsy” is central to our traditional idea of the British countryside, reminding us of a freer, wilder way of life. But the romantic images preserved in John Masefield’s time have been tarnished by urban, high-tech life and our (usually exaggerated) anxieties about petty crime.

    Let’s remember that Gypsies and Travellers (including those in Effingham who I’m told are good neighbours) bring welcome diversity to Surrey, which sometimes looks as if it has been ethnically cleansed – so unlike most parts of the UK. We are all worse off for such uniformity, which breeds a narrow mindset and racist reactions to instances of anti-social behaviour. If we don’t engage with minorities, we can’t expect them to understand our norms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *