Gypsies, Travellers and Showpeople: A tale of bad blood in Beighton
Plans for a site in the neighbourhood have led to a massive political row. But there are untold nuances around the story and unanswered questions
By Mollie Simpson
Reputation is a fragile thing, Barry Turvill tells me, raising a vape to his lips. “It took us two generations to get a reputation, but we can ruin it in five minutes.”
Turvill started working from a young age, and he still remembers being nine years old and helping out at his family’s fairground in Sheffield. Somehow, seventy years passed and he didn’t stop working. His wife, and his sons are also in the fairground trade and he describes a proud legacy as one of Sheffield’s most respected families of Travelling Showpeople, which is the term for people who organise circuses, fairs and shows and who tend to be bracketed with Travellers and Gypsies by public authorities and the media. For the last several decades, the family has lived at a site in Chapeltown, nestled in a thicket of trees.
Bad memories surface every so often in our conversation. He tells me about a time when his daughter was working the dodgems at a fairground they’d set up in a field in Sheffield. Nearby, her baby daughter was asleep in a pram. The baby didn’t like strangers to touch her, so her mum would place some netting around her to deter people from coming near her. A customer noticed, and reported the family to the police for child cruelty. (The Turvills received a visit from a social care worker the following week, who, after observing the family for a few hours, apparently said: “If everyone looked after their babies like you, I’d be out of a job.”)
None of this made Turvill want to withdraw from society. If anything, it seems to have instilled a kind of resilience. Even when faced with abuse, he says his message to his family was simple: just be respectful, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. They were charitable and generous, working throughout the pandemic to keep people fed and watered, making sure their neighbours knew to come to them if they were struggling for food. Now, he says the Turvills are closely enmeshed with the local community and have a good relationship with Sheffield City Council.
Prejudice towards Gypsy, Traveller and Travelling Showpeople communities tends to flare up from time to time, usually whipped up by negative media coverage and nowadays multiplied by social media. But in recent weeks, Sheffield’s Travelling Showpeople have become more concerned about tensions rising again. I went to meet them to find out why.
‘Horrible, unpleasant, confrontational’
To understand the roots of this trouble, you need to go back not to an inflammatory article in The Sun but to Sheffield’s “Local Plan” — a long-awaited council document that set out a blueprint for how the city will look in the next 15 years. Within the Local Plan, the council announced a new development in Beighton, a sprawling suburb in southeast Sheffield, for Travelling Showpeople. The development would build on Springwell Field in Beighton, creating 16 acres of space for Travelling Showpeople to live and store their equipment while they’re on the road.
The proposals for the site caused immediate backlash. Michael Chilton, a Labour candidate who stood in the local elections in Beighton, circulated a petition among local residents that gathered nearly 3,000 signatures, calling for the council to move it elsewhere. In a public consultation, 115 residents objected to the site.
Some people have accused the protesters of racism and suggested that their concerns over increased traffic and congestion in the area are a respectable smokescreen. Ian Horner, a Liberal Democrat councillor in Beighton, who has been a prominent voice against the development, denies this. “On the site itself, there’s an underground gas pipeline and there are also overhead electricity power cables. You wouldn’t build houses on it, so why would you dump Travellers on it?” he says. (The council says they do not anticipate any issues with developing a site with an underground gas pipeline).
The widespread sense that the council has ignored residents’ concerns seems to have exacerbated the tensions. “No one is going to be happy if you do something like this and don’t consult people properly,” Horner says. “Of course it’s not going to be joy all round.”
Comments under articles in The Star hint at more hostile attitudes. On Facebook, one resident suggested living near a Traveller site would make the area less desirable and asked if the council would be compensating residents for the depreciating value of their homes. Another asked: “Isn’t there enough high crime already?”
Then the situation escalated further. In a full council meeting in September, the Local Plan came to a vote. Behind closed doors, Labour councillors had been told they were expected to back the motion. Not doing so would constitute breaking the whip and could risk suspension from the party. At a Labour meeting behind closed doors, all hell broke loose.
Asked to describe how the meeting went down, one councillor who spoke to The Tribune on condition of anonymity chose three words: “horrible, unpleasant, confrontational”. Labour members hurled accusations at each other about all sorts of things, they added. “There are some of the old timers who’ve seen councillors having shouting matches and going at each other hammer and tongs in the past,” the source added. “But even they say they’ve never seen it this brutal.”
On the day of the full council meeting, seven long-standing Labour councillors voted against the Local Plan, arguing that they were standing up for the voices of residents.
Several of the rebels had been caught up in the Sheffield street tree scandal, and there's some debate about how much their actions were a principled stand against the loss of green space in south east Sheffield or a way of getting their own back over Terry Fox's ousting as party leader in May this year. Nevertheless, all seven were immediately suspended from the Labour Party. Since that meeting, Labour councillors have split off into two camps — those loyal to the new council leader Tom Hunt, and the rebels, who overwhelmingly represent the southeast areas of Sheffield. Some no longer speak to each other. (The Tribune is working on a story about the political implications of this split — please get in touch if you know more).
Since then, the facts have become increasingly muddy. Questions linger, about the people who might move into the site in Beighton, and whether they might have misled the council about who they really are.
‘Everyone is against us, all the time’
The Local Plan says the site in Beighton is for Gypsies and Travellers, but then, last month, the local magazine Now Then reported that “it is anticipated that this site would be used by travelling showpeople, incorporating both business use and static caravan”. Gypsies, Travellers and Travelling Showpeople are not a homogenous category — they are distinct groups with different cultural identities, and it’s important to understand which group we’re specifically talking about when we refer to the site in Beighton.
But this is something I’ve found difficult to pin down. In off-the-record conversations, one councillor told me the site was for Travellers; two others said it was for Travelling Showpeople.
“It’s not true,” says William Percival, one of the chairmen of the Showmen’s Guild, a trade association representing the UK fairground industry, dismissing the idea that the site was developed with Travelling Showpeople in mind. “The site is nothing to do with the Showground or Fairground People.”
Percival explains the request hasn’t come from any members of the Showmen’s Guild. He explains you need fairground equipment to be a Showman and to apply for membership in order to be a member of the community.
When I pointed this out to a few councillors on Sheffield’s South East Local Area committee, they said they didn’t know what happened. “As far as we know, we’ve been told it’s for Travelling Showpeople,” said one.
So what’s happened? It could be a breakdown in communication due to the heavy political tensions dominating Sheffield Council at the moment. Then Percival suggests an interesting theory: that the council has been misled by the people who expressed an interest in a site.
Percival explains it’s not uncommon for Gypsy and Traveller communities “to lean a little bit towards us” when they need help with housing. Travelling Showpeople are usually allocated larger sites with a mix of accommodation and industrial units for storing equipment, and tend to have a good reputation. Broadly speaking, Gypsies and Travellers tend to be associated with a reputation for crime and antisocial behaviour, something which is fiercely disputed by the communities and their advocates. In fact, a study from Cardiff University in 2010 found that Gypsies and Travellers abide by a strict moral code, and there is no evidence to suggest that Gypsies and Travellers engage in a higher level of crime than other communities.
However, Travelling Showpeople have become a celebrated part of Sheffield’s history. “We have a good reputation and good contacts,” Percival says. “Everyone appreciates what we do and we don’t have a lot of opposition.”
Travelling Showpeople have a long and storied role in Sheffield history. The earliest recorded presence of the presence of Travelling Showpeople in Sheffield was in 1296, when Edward I gave Sheffield the right to hold an annual fair on the feast of St Simon and St Jude. Sheffield’s fairs began as a way for tradesman to exchange goods and services, and by the 19th century, they became known for merry-go-rounds and amusements. In the introduction to John Ling: Memories of a Travelling Showman, the writer Steve Smith describes strong solidarity between Travelling Showmen and Sheffield’s working-class, particularly during the First World War: “Travelling Showmen supplied the amusements to a hard-pressed working-class, glad of any relief, any escape from the drudgery of labour.”
Professor Vanessa Toulmin from the University of Sheffield is the founder of the National Fairground and Circus Archive, which she describes as a celebration of the contribution of Travelling Showpeople to British society and “one of the most important collections in Europe”. It’s also a statement of pride in her own roots: Vanessa hails from a Showground family from Bolton. “She supports us and sticks up for us,” Percival says. “She’s done a lot for our community.”
Toulmin’s work has highlighted the stories of Showpeople and celebrates the contribution of Travelling Showpeople to British culture. Speaking on the Outside The Box podcast, the archive’s collections manager Aruntzia Barrutia makes a strong case for fairgrounds as part of “the democratisation of knowledge” — during the Victorian era, fairgrounds functioned as places where the uneducated working classes could easily access fine art exhibitions, moving images and books.
I wanted to understand a bit more about the nuance being drawn out by Percival — that difference between the Showpeople and the Gypsy and Traveller communities. So on a cold day last week I took the tram to Crystal Peaks and walked to a Gypsy site on the edge of a large industrial estate.
I meet three men arriving home in a van. They are tired from work and vaguely irritated that I’ve turned up out of the blue, but they let me stay and teach me a bit of Gypsy slang. (They tell me to say “Chum Mandy’s Bull” if I ever need to stand up to anyone, which literally translates to “Kiss my ass”).
I ask them about the local community and they pause. “Everyone is against us, all the time,” says one man, while a few kids careen past us on bikes. “It’s the same if you’re Black or a Muslim in this country. Anywhere you go, they treat you wrong.”
The men seem weary and eventually indicate I should let them rest, so I say my goodbyes and leave.
It’s striking how different this is to my interview in Chapeltown. Barry Turvill can readily recall a few bad experiences, but overall he describes Sheffield as a welcoming and accepting place. In contrast, the Gypsies I meet near Crystal Peaks feel as though they have no one in their corner.
Another thing I picked up on: Barry was keen to stress he’s a Travelling Showman, not a Gypsy or a Traveller. This distinction feels important to him, not because he harbours any prejudice towards the other groups with which his people are often bracketed, but because he knows that they face awful discrimination, and he doesn’t want to be victimised too.
In response to our reporting, a spokesperson for Sheffield City Council says the council has been in “regular dialogue” with a representative from the Travelling community and created the site in Beighton to meet the needs of the community. They also stressed that the site in Beighton “is purely a site allocation at this stage”, which seems to indicate the site has been developed without a specific family or group of people in mind.
In a statement released to The Tribune by Sheffield City Council, Councillor Ben Miskell, the chair of the transport, regeneration and climate policy committee, said: “Sheffield is a city on the up and the Local Plan will help guide our ambitious vision for future growth. It is a plan that will see the development of underused brownfield land, protection of the green belt and high quality homes for the next generation. It is a blueprint for the development of future employment sites, allowing us to grow our economy, attract new businesses to Sheffield and ultimately put more money into people’s pockets through well paid, secure paid jobs. We want to get Sheffield building and make Sheffield the number one place to live in our region.”
Still, the Showmen’s Guild maintain they have no interest in the site, and on Thursday, Percival said the Showmen’s Guild would be writing a letter to the leader of Sheffield City Council seeking to distance themselves from the people moving into the site in Beighton, and specifically asked me to make it clear in this article that the site isn’t associated with Showmen. He seems to share Turvill’s concerns about reputation. “Reputation can soon go,” he says. “It just takes one bad apple in the box.” There seems to be a feeling that if there is any trouble on the Beighton site, the Travelling Showpeople can’t afford to risk their reputation, which has been hard-won.
Whether there will be any trouble on the Beighton site remains to be seen, but you can’t imagine, after all the petitions and screaming matches in council chambers, that it will be easy for whoever does move there to settle in.
In an interview with The Tribune, a new councillor in South East Sheffield admitted the reason they think they won the local election with such a large majority was because they were vocally opposed to the Beighton site. But the issue with using the plight of a community as a political football is that they have to live with the real-world consequences. Percival says he’s concerned that this row “is not going to be good for the area in Beighton.” He sighs. “But that’s the way it is.”
This article was updated on Monday, 30 October at 12.25pm to include a statement from the chair of Sheffield City Council’s transport, regeneration and climate committee, Councillor Ben Miskell.