Gypsy Roma Traveller Leeds
The permanent site of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Communities
There have been Gypsies and Travellers in Leeds for over 500 years. They have their own heritage, language and long established cultural traditions and are recognised minority ethnic groups.
Travellers’ problems are complex and are often caused or exacerbated by the environmental living conditions. Many families live with a tremendous amount of anxiety – fear of eviction, finding a place to stop and the constant battle against discrimination and poor access to medical care in some parts of the country.
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.
Tommy was a great source of support and advice to us all for so many years that it is very difficult to believe he is no longer with us. He did so much to promote Travellers and seek justice and equal treatment both in site provision as well as in education. He campaigned for the site in Leeds back in the sixties and insisted that schools made provision for Travellers' children as they had been refused schooling here as elsewhere in those early days. He was a founder member of the Gypsy Council and travelled the country supporting Travellers, helping them to organise and fight their cause. He travelled to Strasbourg to the Court of Human Rights in 1968, which helped lead to the passing of the 1968 Caravan Sites Act, making it a duty to provide sites for Travellers.
Everyone at Leeds TES will miss his support, advice and friendship. He told his life story and provided fascinating photographs that illustrate the campaigns he was involved with from the fifties in Ireland for the book 'Gypsies and Travellers in their own words' He spoke at the launch of the book at Leeds Civic Hall in August 2000, when the Banqueting Suite was full with over a hundred Travellers in attendance amongst the 200+ audience and celebrated the achievements of their community.
He helped families on the roadside in the face of hostile evictions. He contributed to raising the awareness of Travellers at many meetings, Conferences and Committee meetings - at local, national and international levels.
At the funeral last Tuesday, many Travellers I know said that they there because Tommy would always come out and help them when they needed it. Many remembered him from when they were children and there were no sites and nowhere to go and he always came out and gave them support.
Monsignor Kieran Heskin, a friend of Tommy's for many years gave a moving tribute to his life and his work for the Traveller communities.
The Evening Post 24th September 2003 published this commemoration 'Travellers Mourn Gypsy King Tom' 'Mourners from across Europe gathered in Leeds to pay their respects to a Travellers' champion. They arrived in Leeds from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to pay their last respects to Tom O'Doherty whose tireless efforts for Travelling folk earned him the title of King of the Gypsies ... from his base in Leeds, he was active in many campaigns for a fair deal for Travellers. For more than thirty years he travelled the country championing the cause of the families who make their home wherever their homes arrive. He was a spokesman for their problems and a tireless campaigner for social and educational rights. Mr. O'Doherty also led a movement for permanent sites for Travellers in an effort to avoid the conflict synonymous with illegal parking. The sites were built across Britain, many of them with toilet blocks and showers. Tom was respected throughout the travelling world and much further afield...'
The family published this in the Evening Post: 'Tommy Doherty - The family of the late Tommy would sincerely like to thank all Relatives, Friends and Neighbours for all their kind messages of condolences, beautiful floral tributes, Mass cards, donations for the Holy Family Church and kind acts of sympathy. Thanks to all those who attended the funeral and especially to those who travelled great distances.
Special thanks to the Staff at Leeds General Infirmary for their care, extended thanks to Fr. Francis McGrath and Mgr. Kieran Heskin for their kind words of comfort, prayers, funeral Mass and beautiful tribute to Tommy. Thanks to you all.'
We used to know each other when we were kids, our families used to stop together in Northern Ireland and then we didn’t see each other for a while and met up when I was 18 or 19.
This is an early photograph of Tommy taken 1956, when we were stopping on the Bog Meadows in Belfast. there's Tommy in the middle with his friend for many years, Bill Doran on his left, and Bill's nephew Gossie Connors. We all stopped together in those days before we came to England.
We got married in Dungannon Cathedral, County Tyrone and Bill Doran and his sister stood for us, he was our best man. We travelled around in caravans we stopped with George and Sarah, me mother and father-in-law for a while, around Dungannon, Coal Island, Omagh, Cookstown all round Northern Ireland.
We came over to England then.
Tommy’s father,George, died when all the kids were young. Tommy helped his mother, Sarah, and brought them all up. There was only 4 married at the time Tommy, his brothers, Bobby and Paddy, and sister, Nellie. There was seven brothers still at home Johnnyboy, Marty, Charlie, Anthony, Joseph, Jimmy and Timmy and his three sisters Winnie, Rosie and Maggie.
Tommy brought up two families. He always done his best for them and made sure they went to school. He always seen to his mother, first class.
He was good to everybody and he would help anyone.
I miss him. You think it’s bad when it happens to someone else but you don’t know how hard it is. We spent all our live together and he’s gone when he had everything to live for.
I know how much he did for Travellers all his life and I hope that his story will live on and others will be like him and put others first and make sure everyone has a decent life with respect and a place to live without being persecuted.
Tommy Doherty with Vanko Rouda, who was the President of The International Committee together with other committee members: Mehmet Sakirovic and Cuna (Yugoslavia); Lola (Spain); Venni, Grattan and Corin. Tommy is on the far left with Grattan immediately on his left.
Tommy Doherty, who died on Tuesday (16 Sept), was an outstanding leader and a pioneer activist. He founded the Society of Travelling People in 1959 and for the next forty years worked ceaselessly for his cause.
He was already well-known when I first met him in Ireland in l964. We were stopping in a little public park known as the Landsdowne Valley, occupied in defiance of the Dublin Corporation's determined campaign to rid the capital of the Tinkers.
Looking over the barrel-tops and the benders, Tommy remarked. "They won't leave you here long - but I like your cheek."
I told him we'd been shifted four times in ten days and intended to teach the Corporation a lesson. He wondered how the dozen wagons had got passed the gate and was amused to learn that four fellows had ridden ahead of the column on bikes and demolished the concrete bollards with sledgehammers.
Thus began a lifelong friendship during which we shared many a scrape and a joke.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, Tommy learnt his lessons in the school of hard knocks and never received a formal education. He joined the Gypsy Council at its formation in l966, set up a North of England branch and was chairman for many years.
During the intense resistance to evictions and "move-on" operations which led eventually to the passing of the Caravan Sites Act, Tommy Doherty brought together a powerful combination of Travellers willing to make a stand wherever he would lead them.
Later, from his home in Leeds, Tommy continued as an activist at both the national and international level. He took part in the first International Romani Committee delegation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in l968 and attended meetings on the continent.
One of his last public appearances was at the Irish Travellers Heritage Day in London in February this year. He shared some colourful anecdotes with us and then in a quieter tone remarked, "Things were that bad when I was a boy. But most of the buffers were half-decent. Today, I don't know, there's a lot of 'em would as soon kill you as be kind."
Tommy felt that in his time he had seen the gap between Travellers and buffers, the house-dwellers, substantially widen. Tolerance of the Travelling way of life was disappearing as the decades passed. Yet his courage and daring, matched with reason and great negotiating skills, has set us an example which if followed may help us all through the present troubled times.
Condolences to his widow Biddy and son Tony.
I knew Tommy for many years. One of my memories is when - following some problems - he abandoned his house in Leeds and lived for several months in a caravan on the roadside in South London. He and Biddy had readapted to a life without running water and electricity but were as welcoming with a cup of tea as they had been in their house when I has visited them some months before.
Another memory is of arriving at a large unauthorised site on waste land in a Midlands town at the peak of the forced evictions of the 1970s. Gypsy and Gorgio activists from the south had driven to meet Tommy there and when we arrived he was standing defiantly in the middle of the caravans daring the police and bailiffs to evict them. This day had a happy outcome as during the stand-off a delegation went to the Council and came to an agreement on a temporary site.
Forced evictions from unauthorised sites - sometimes when the men were out working and the children at school - are a largely a thing of the past as councils now go to court and often agreements are reached for a peaceful end to the occupation. They still take place -incredibly - from Gypsies' own land - as at Woodside.
One of Tommy's most important achievements was back in1970 when the 1968 Caravan Sites Act was coming into force. Most of the towns in the north of England were claiming that they had never had any Gypsies and so were 'exempted' from providing a caravan site under the Act. Tommy drove many miles to talk to Gypsies and Travellers about where and when they had stopped in those same towns. The dossier he then presented to the government resulted in most of these claims for exemption being turned down.
I was pleased to meet Tommy for the first time in 2001, when I first approached him as a potential advisor to the Department of Health funded study of Gypsy Traveller health.
Tommy showed a keen and immediate interest in the study and it’s aims. At Tommy’s invitation, I had gone over to Leeds to visit him to discuss the research and what being a member of the advisory group would involve. Both Tommy and his wife Biddy received me with great warmth and hospitality. He readily agreed to be an advisory group member and was very excited that the research was taking place.
It was clear from that first meeting how much Tommy was devoted to his family and how passionate he was about his commitment to the rights and welfare of Travellers generally.
Yet, despite his commitment and his passion as an activist, the attributes that struck me most about Tommy were his humility, quiet strength, his warmth, kindness and humour.
He was clearly, first and foremost, a loving family man. I already knew how much Tommy was loved and respected by extended family from the many conversations about him with his relatives in Sheffield.
I also witnessed, at first hand, Tommy and Biddy’s devotion to each other. This was borne out by the home video that they shared with me. Tommy had taken lots of cine film over the years and had it all put on to videotape. They shared this with me in order to show me old film of wider family members who I knew. The video as a whole is an unassuming celebration of Tommy’s life and his priorities in his life: his family, travelling life with his extended family, the church, and the many places in Ireland and England that he had lived and travelled. It also documents the success of some of his passionate campaigns, most notably, in obtaining education as a right for Traveller children.
As an advisory group member Tommy contributed with sound down to earth advice and with his usual humour. He willingly came to the meetings whenever he could and also contributed as an interview panel member when we recruited our research interviewers. The research team greatly appreciated
Tommy’s commitment to the study, knowing as we did that he was also busy with other work and family commitments.
Most of all we enjoyed Tommy’s presence, as his warmth, wisdom and humour gave a special dimension to the meetings.
We are very sad that Tommy is not here to see the successful conclusion of the research and to take part in the dissemination of the results, but he will always be remembered for his contribution and dedication to it. This is only one of many legacies that Tommy will have left for Travellers in the present and the future. Most of all we miss Tommy as warm, kind and genuine human being whom we were privileged to know and work with.
"Tommy Docherty played a truly great and historic role in the development of Traveller politics, his work was and should be an inspiration to us all.
He will will be remembered for many years to come and the best way we can honour him is to continue in the campaign for justice and equality for Travellers, a campaign which he gave so much to"
Tommy was indeed a great man. A man of the calibre of Eli Frankham and Tom Lee. Lets hope they are all getting together in heaven.
All of us here today have our memories of Tommy. I have been invited by Tony to talk about mine. My first memories of him go back to the mid-seventies in Huddersfield. It was then that I first heard some of his great stories told in his inimitable way.
Years later I was appointed to Holy Family Parish, Armley. Tommy was a parishioner who became a regular visitor to the presbytery, an obliging neighbour when things went wrong with the property and a good friend. When I moved from Armley, Tommy did a great deal of quality work for me in the Presbytery at Moortown and more recently he gave me much appreciated help and advice in Eccleshill, Bradford.
Tommy was gifted as a storyteller and some of his most powerful stories were gleaned from his own life and experiences ? stories about hardship, heartbreak and survival on the roads of Ireland. There were times when Tommy would travel back in memory to some heartbreaking scene of his youth and reveal a very hard side to the human nature of those who made life so difficult for the Travellers. It was memories such as these that no doubt drove him to be the great campaigner that he was and the great spokesman that he became for the rights of his own people in this country and further afield.
There were also stories of human kindness. One that comes to mind is that of his friendship over many years with a man who shared Tommy's surname: Bishop Eugene O Doherty of Newry. Bishop O Doherty and his household were very kind to Tommy during his childhood days in Ireland. A lifelong friendship was to follow. The Bishop always took great interest in how well Tommy was getting on in life. He loved to hear stories of Tommy's success in the world of antiques, in providing television props and in refurbishing the homes of some well-known stars. Some years ago when Tommy got what he considered the status symbol of success - a new Mercedes car - he proudly went to show it off to the Bishop. To his great sorrow and disappointment, on getting to Newry, he discovered that Bishop O Doherty had died.
Tommy frequently reminded those of us who had spent many years in schools and colleges that he never had the privilege of schooling and that he could neither read nor write. This did not, however, mean that Tommy was without education. He was a living example of the truth that education is not restricted to the classroom. His business skills were not picked up in University lecture halls, they came from his own lived experience. His knowledge of antiques and of church artifacts did not come from large coffee table volumes, they were absorbed into his fine memory from keen observation and trading experience.
Tommy, we gather in this church this morning where you worshipped so often. We thank God for your life and now we ask God to take you to himself. May you who came to be known as "the King", because of your tireless efforts for the Travellers, now receive a royal welcome. As you enter the pearly gates may your father and mother with other members of your family be there to greet you and may Bishop Eugene O Doherty, the friend of the Travellers, welcome you, who came to be known as their king, to the Kingdom of Heaven.
May God grant eternal rest to your noble and generous soul.
Gypsies and Travellers in their own words compiled by the Gypsy Roma Traveller Achievement Service is a fantastic read, and gives amazing insights into the lives and times of Travellers in this country.
Unfortunately this book is no longer available.
The collection of stories and personal histories in this rich volume creates a vivid picture of life within the Gypsy and Traveller communities.
I was born in Dublin by accident, not by choice. My mother went up there and I was born in 1937. On my Register of Birth it says – "Caravan, so-and-so". Funny thing is that I was born in Dublin and never, ever lived there. My father always stuck to the North of Ireland.
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