Gypsies and Germans -Albert Meltzer

The following extract is from:

The Box Scandal; Gypsies and Germans; The Film Scandal; The Road to Salvation: In the Van; Lost Millions; Paradise Lost and Regained

from the book: 

I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation


Gypsies and Germans

Somewhere I read as a child that a gypsy woman stole two bags from the Roman soldiers at the Crucifixion, containing fifty nails intended for nailing Jesus to the cross, and ever since gypsies have been allowed to steal fifty times a year; but presumably since their confusion with the tinkers and didecois and other travelling people they have ceased to count the exact number.

In our time gypsies have been the subject of the most audacious theft since Manhattan island was bought for a few mirrors. The whole gypsy way of life, as celebrated in the operettas, its independence of money values, its preservation of tradition, depended on two things: movement and gold. Not only movement has been restricted until there is practically no place to go but on and out, during the various gorgio economic crises of the twenties gypsy camps all over the Continent were raided and their gold confiscated. In return they got currency valueless a few years later. Once the gypsies had to disgorge the loot of centuries it was the end of burning caravans when people died and setting up in them when they married. They had to settle down in slums or as travellers become tramps on horseback — later traded in for old bangers of discarded cars.

By the outbreak of World War I there was a broken-down gypsy encampment on the marshes near Joe’s house; the people changed but the site remained until well after I, their third grandchild was born. As he handled old clothes off and on, an old gypsy woman used to come to sell him scarcely worn men’s clothing, which she claimed came from her brothers, cousins, in-laws, until after a few months he came to wonder how she had acquired so large a family who never seemed to wear out their clothing. Most of them, too, seemed to be seamen.

One day Joe read in the newspaper how drunken seamen were lured to out-of-the-way spots by the promise of sex by gypsy women whose accomplices then knocked the punters on the head and robbed them of everything, even their clothes. He challenged the woman next time she came. She looked at him with immediate horror.

“You’re a German”’ she screamed. “I always knew it! You’re a Hun spy spreading pro-German propaganda.” A crowd gathered. Someone had sent for a policeman. She became more vigorous in her assertions. “I’m not standing here listening to him saying the Kaiser is right!” she cried, and ran off with her mackintosh and seaboots.

“And what have you been saying to upset this patriotic lady?” asked a policeman, as the crowd muttered menacingly. He told him. The mood changed, gypsies being perceived as a more immediate threat than Germans, even in November 1915. They still considered the war might end by Xmas, whereas the gypsies might go on forever. That same evening the police raided the gypsy encampment, and, being Friday, not only found a lot of new loot but two drunken and naked sailors who hadn’t yet been dumped on the highway. On Saturday morning fifteen able-bodied gypsies armed with horsewhips attacked my grandfather’s house shouting anti-German slogans (it was reported in the local press as ‘Renewed Local Anti-German Riots’).

Nobody could have been more indignant than Joe. Neither he nor Nellie had ever even been in Germany, all the family who hadn’t been born in London had been naturalised anyway, except Sid — who had come over as a babe in arms, so although his older brothers had been naturalised, it wasn’t thought he counted and they had lost his birth certificate anyway. For this offence he spent thirteen months in a prison ship at twenty years old, amongst Germans who thought this Englishman had been sent to spy on them. He got out of it by volunteering for the Army.

He was on leave at the time of the raid, and he and his father fought off the raiders, while Nellie poured water from the top floor over all indiscriminately, Sid’s girlfriend Rose ran for the police, Mrs Noel gave ineffectual whacks with her umbrella, while Mrs Nathan next door on the other side persuaded the neighbours not to join in as the police were coming — though this was a mistake, as she thought the crowd were going to help the gypsies, not having noticed Mrs Cummings running around screaming “The gypsies are attacking the soldiers!”

Of the two younger children, one was howling throughout adding to the panic and the other was afterwards criticised for sitting there reading, though there wasn’t much else she could do, being only eleven, and her book did explain what to do in times of civil commotion.

The affair collapsed suddenly, chiefly because the gypsies felt surrounded, and not because of the eventual arrival of a policeman on a bicycle. But afterwards a dignified statement in the window, with photographs of Joe, and two sons in uniform, proclaimed: ‘Certain people passing through the neighbourhood, without homes of their own’ — an obvious backhander — ‘have put about the foul lie that I am a German, on the contrary. My two sons are in His Majesty’s uniform. I myself am a former sergeant major.’ He omitted to say his youthful service was in the Austrian Army.


Retrieved from on August 31, 2011

Read Albert Meltzer’s Biography at:


You may buy the book at:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: