By Freda Matthews

Gypsies in Local History

Gypsies in Leeds and Yorkshire

Leeds and Yorkshire has a history rich with the presence of Traveller and Gypsies.

In fact the first recorded mention of Gypsies in Leeds was in 1572 and the Romany Collection in the Brotherton Library, Leeds University has books and images that go back hundreds of years.

These communities now live across the city. Some families still live in caravans on the official site at Cottingley, on privately owned sites, or on the roadside. Most families have moved into housing across the city.

The Roma communities in Leeds

These are families that have chosen to come to Leeds and make a new life here since the enlargement of the European Union. Most of these families come from Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland and learning English is essential.

Follow the links on this page to find out more about the presence of Travellers in Yorkshire now and in the past.


It is now widely accepted through linguistic studies of the Romany language from as early as the end of the 18th century that the Gypsies originated in India. It is thought that they left around the 10th century, passed through Europe in the 14th century and arrived in England, calling themselves followers of the Princes and Dukes of Little Egypt, around 1514. The Leeds reference is therefore relatively early in the history of the Gypsy people in England.


From Leeds Parish Registers First and Second Books 1572-1612 ed, by Samuel Margerison: 1891 Vol 1 publications of the Thoresby Society.

The first recorded Gypsy presence in Leeds is in the Leeds Parish registers of 1572. The baptising of "Elizabeth, child of Anthony Smawleye, the Egypsion" is entered on 29th June 1572. A footnote in the transcript published in The Publications of the Thoresby Society Vol 1 reads "Egyptian, now corrupted to Gipsy".

Original now kept in the West Yorkshire archives Leeds.

1612 - 1628

Tinkler Leas near Pontefract Lane Knowestrop

The manor of Leeds was surveyed in 1612 and 1628. Tinkler Leas near Pontefract Lane is mentioned in both surveys. Was this an early Gypsy stopping places? Traveller Gypsies stay near Pontefract Lane nowadays on the Cross Green Industrial Estate.


A group of Russian Gypsies stayed in the Leylands Road area of Leeds in 1904. Their presence was covered in the local press of the day. The presence of sixty Gypsies living in three houses in the Leylands district of Leeds caused much hostility. They had been refused admission to the United States and had come to Leeds from Liverpool. Their eventual departure by train to Manchester, on their way back to Russia, was watched by a large crowd, the platform from which they departed having to be barricaded off.

In 1911 about twenty Russian 'Circassian' Gypsies were living in Cobourg Street in Leeds. The men were apparently tinsmiths, making copper pans in the back yards whilst others were singers and dancers. They had been travelling in Europe for two years. Newspaper photographs suggest that these two groups were Kalderash Gypsies (who spoke Romany as well as East European languages), who had begun to migrate round Europe in the later 19th century, partly as a result of the abolition of Gypsy slavery in Romania in 1856 and moved to Western Europe in the early 20th century. The Circassion Gypsies mentioned above had come to Leeds because there were Russian speaking Jews there. They were engaged to entertain them at the Jewish Institute during their stay.


The Gypsy Parties Baildon


Baildon Public Library, posters etc. of Baildon Gypsy Fairs.

One place where Gypsies gathered every year, in June, was Baildon. It seems to have been a gathering of families and no doubt weddings took place as a result. A report of 1929 says these annual events, 'Gypsies Parties', had started two to three hundred years before- records are said to go back to 1770 when it was even then an ancient custom. Up to 5,000 people are said to have paid for admission in 1881 when 200 gallons of 'Gypsy broth' were sold! By this time the encampment had been enclosed and a charge made for admission.

Gradually the event was being taken over by local residents who dressed up as Gypsies and formed 'tribes'. It was advertised as a 'Gypsy Carnival (proceeds to the Horticultural Society)'. After 1897 the tradition died out, it is assumed from local accounts that the 'real Gypsies' had disappeared. In 1929 however the 'party' was revived, in September instead of June, to raise funds for Baildon Hospital and Charities Week. Old local Gypsy Travellers confirm that 'real' Gypsies attended these 'parties' alongside locals dressed up as Gypsies.


John Keen, one of those to revive the Gypsy parties of the 1930s, went to Leeds for advice from 'Gypsy Smith' and, being unable to find him, enlisted the help of Xavier Petulengro, a Romany Gypsy, who was living in a caravan in Manchester. This was the beginning of the involvement of Petulengm culminating in the Carnivals of 1937 and 1938 which were reported in the national press and appeared on cinema newsreels.

PetulengroPetulengro became a famous broadcaster as a result of the publicity. He never forgot his Baildon friends and it is said that places were reserved for them at his funeral in 1957. The Gypsy Parties ended with the start of the Second World War and were never revived although Gypsies still occasionally camp near Baildon Moor.


In January 1969 six Gypsy leaders went to Strasbourg to find somewhere permanent for their people to live. One of these Gypsies was their "King", a Mr KTB O'Doherty. The ultimate outcome of the negotiations began that week was the provision of the permanent site at Cottingley. You can read about Tommy Doherty and the history of the Cottingley permanent site elsewhere on this website.

Cottingley Site

Tommy, the chairman of the International Gypsy Council at Cottingley Springs, the Leeds Corporation site.

Local interest

Lee Fair

Lee Fair is the oldest chartered fair in the country dating from 1136. Gypsies first went to the fair in the 1540's and have been supporting it ever since.


Brotherton Collection

The Brotherton Collection includes the Romany Collection, which was developed by Lord Brotherton's niece-in-law Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (Mrs McGrigor Phillips) and is one of the two principal collections on Gypsies in the United Kingdom.

Read more


Also read about

Tommy Doherty

I was born in Dublin by accident, not by choice. My mother went up there and I was born in 1937.

Read more


Tributes to the late Tommy Doherty

The late, great Tommy Doherty did an incredible amount to promote Travellers and seek justice and equal treatment. His death was upsetting to everyone who knew him.

Read more


Cottingley Site

The original Cottingley Springs Caravan Site was the first 'Official' site for Travellers built by Leeds City Council in 1969.

Read more


Top of page    Mail page    Print page