The life and times of a travelling man

Joseph Francis James, my paternal grandfather, was the youngest child of Edward Charles James and Kathleen Amelia Farrall. He was born on the 8th March 1908 in North Sheen, Surrey. He was the last of the family to be born ‘on the road’ and into the travelling lifestyle of the showmen. Travellers would always try to get married and have children during the winter months, as the summer months were when the fairs were active and business was conducted. It is even said that travelling showmen would try to die in the winter too, to cause as little disruption as possible. I am sure that was said with tongue firmly in cheek.

Joseph met my grandmother, Clara, in the mid 1930’s, whilst he was with the fair at Clapham Common in south London. They were married on the 24th December 1935 at the Register Office in Battersea. My grandmother told me that at the time she met my grandfather, she was also being wooed by a policeman who had an eye for her. However, she found my grandfather to be by far the more exciting of the two and so she married him. He was 28 and she was 17 when they wed. After they married my grandfather gave up life on the road and settled at a permanent address. It must have been a very hard thing to do, given the very long family tradition of being on the road with the fairs.

My grandfather could not read or write but that was very common amongst the travelling community at the time, as the lifestyle did not lend itself to acquiring a formal education. However, he had a natural talent for music and at the time he met my grandmother he was playing the drums in a band as well as working the fairs. After he married my grandmother he had to give up his secondary musical career, as she needed him to spend more time at home helping her with the children when he wasn’t out working.

My grandfather worked hard all his life and always ensured that his family were fed and taken care of. Most travellers will not work directly for anybody else as an employee. They are usually self-employed and beholden to nobody but themselves and their families. It is an important part of living an independent lifestyle, unshackled from the fiscal slave chains and corporate bonds that bind so many people in the settled community.

Governments love debt and they love their people to be in debt, such as mortgages, credit cards and personal loans. It all ties people to the ‘money-go-round’ where they can be sold to, tracked, taxed and controlled. Where they become reliant on the big corporations and employers for their daily bread, and where they learn how to be submissive and terrified of losing their jobs, and the baubals and trinkets that keep them pacified, entertained and oblivious.

Many travellers from all sectors of the community are very talented people, and are able to earn a good living from the skills and trades that have been handed down to them through the generations. The females on my father’s side of the family for example were all very talented seamstresses and dressmakers. Travelling people of all kinds have always been very self-reliant, hardworking and flexible. They had to be in order to make ends meet in an often very harsh world that discriminated against them.

My grandparents had seven children in all. My father was the second oldest and was born in 1938. Big families were common at that time and this was especially true for our family, which is Roman Catholic. The Catholicism comes from the Irish side of the family and has passed intact through the generations. My great-grandmother was an extremely devout Irish Catholic but since then, the Catholicism has become more moderate. Our family is very large on the paternal side and I have over thirty cousins. I have a lot less than that on my mother’s side, but then they were mostly Methodists and Salvationists.

My grandparents had a hard life. There was no social security or National Health Service when they began their married life, and of course, they had to go through the privations of the Second World War. My grandfather was an ARP warden in London during the Blitz. His job was to ensure there were no lights showing that could aid German bombers during the bombing raids over London.

During the war, my grandparents lived near Clapham Junction. Their road was very close to the huge railway terminus and marshalling yards. It was a prime target for Hitler’s Luftwaffe and bombing in the area and strafing by enemy fighters was intense. My father told me that on one occasion they were targeted by a German fighter and just managed to dive into the shelter as the bullets tore up chunks of earth and chips of masonry around them.

The Second World War was very hard for the family, especially as most things were rationed and there was rarely an excess of anything. My father told me how my grandparents would often sit at the table during meal times, dipping bread into gravy and eating it, so that the children could have their rations. It is hard for those of us who have never experienced such privations to fully appreciate the hardships they endured.

To this day my grandmother does not hold much affection for the Germans or the Japanese. It is a perfectly understandable sentiment in people of that generation, who faced real terror and emotional pressures that we can barely imagine.

My grandfather died on the 27th January 1986 at St Johns Hospital in Battersea, London. The cause of death being bronchial carcinoma – lung cancer, brought on by smoking. The dangers of cigarettes were not as appreciated when he was a young man and they were suppressed by the tobacco companies themselves for many years. Tobacco killed many people of his generation, as sadly, it still does today despite various governmental health campaigns.

My grandmother, Clara, is still very much alive at the grand old age of 93. She is as bright as a button and sharp as a knife. There are always family members in and out of her home, and she is looked after and lovingly appreciated by them all. In these current times of greed, self-interest and neglect of the elderly, it is so nice to see a family caring for each other as a family should. That is another positive aspect of the travelling tradition. Our family are very straightforward, what you see is what you get. There are no pretensions, no crocodile smiles or the kind of false bonhomie that is all too often seen in the modern world.

My grandfather once said to my father of our family heritage, ‘once a traveller, always a traveller’. It is a maxim that expresses the bonds of blood to a tradition that stretches back down the generations. You are what you are by tradition, circumstance and birth, it is the very foundation of who we are, and it is something to take a great pride in.

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