Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Travellers after the Criminal Justice Act
Hebden Bridge site. Photo: Richard Heys

Ingham Vs The Travellers

Thatcher's ex-press secretary spits more of his infamous vitriol on Yorkshire Travellers. Report by Sally Chesworth.

Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pg. 17.

IN RECENT WEEKS Maggie’s former media guard dog has been baring his teeth at a Travellers’ camp which he’s accused of being parasites “terrorising” his old Yorkshire home town of Hebden Bridge. Sir Bernard, now of Purley, launched his offensive from his column in the mill town’s weekly rag, The Hebden Bridge Times, where he began his career.

The encampment of around 100 Travellers has been shocked and incensed by his toxic tirades against their lifestyle and by allegations which have followed in the local press that they have been responsible for numerous misdemeanours which its readers might be forgiven for concluding were destroying the social fabric of the nation.

Sir Bernard began his public spleen-venting in May, a couple of months after the site started on a quarter-of-a-mile belt of derelict, tree-screened land running along the Rochdale Canal, below the trunk road in from Halifax.

When the ‘Britain in Bloom’ judges surveyed the town and bestowed only faint praise, Sir Bernard was quick to spot a culprit. His first diatribe described the site as resembling a “refugee camp” which was putting off tourists, populated by “slum dwellers, flotsam and those who think we owe them a living”. The itinerant visitors were, he said, “opportunists” who were languishing in “unemployment and deprivation (usually self-imposed)” and creating an eyesore.

He claimed that Travellers were never wanted and that permanent sites were a blight that gave towns “rubbish dump status” with attendant sanitation problems and health risks. “Travellers can turn a paradise into a tip almost overnight”, he opined. The Daily Express sent a reporter to sniff around - he reached a similar conclusion.

Angered by such venom the Travellers sought their right of reply and one of their number, Alexi, made the front page with his retaliatory strike. The Hebden Bridge Times aired his view that forcing Travellers to move on was ethnic cleansing and that comparisons with refugees missed the point that Travellers wanted the life they lived. Sir Bernard, he said, was an “old busy body” who had no right to give Travellers a bad name just because he disagreed with their creed.

“If people are willing to take the piss out of us then we have to answer back,” he told Squall. “After the article went in, there were letters printed agreeing with us. One person who wrote said he would rather have us as neighbours than Bernard Ingham.”

Travellers after the Criminal Justice Act
Hebden Bridge site. Photo: Richard Heys

But was it just a verbal snarling? It seems to the Travellers that when Sir Bernard barks, the local establishment bites. They believe that his comments have hastened their enforced departure. They understand that the landowner was content to leave them be until Sir Bernard’s complaints put them in the headlines and calls for their eviction ensued. The county court has ordered them to quit the site and by the time Squall 14 appears the community will have disbanded.

The granting of the eviction order prompted a second savaging with sharpened claws. Ingham’s column in early August lashed out that the Travellers were “yobs” who were “shamelessly exploitative”, “grossly antisocial”, guilty of “assorted intimidations” and kept by tax payers “in their booze, fags, idleness and provocation”.

But in this latest attack Sir Bernard worried some new and unexpected prey. He growled that the “Traveller crisis” had been a “disgraceful episode” in the history of Hebden Bridge for which several parties must bear blame - the townsfolk should not have acquiesced to the “occupation”; the landowner should not have waited six months before going to court; “wet, flabby” liberals in the town should not have supported the Travellers in the face of criticism; and the borough council and the police should not have sat back and watched it all happen.

In recent weeks Travellers have been accused in the press of assaulting a cyclist on the canal tow path, marauding fully clothed in a public paddling pool, smashing bottles and stirring up bother by taking refuge in a mini-market from, according to the Travellers, a gang of drink-steaming locals who’d been haranguing them in a pub. Some of the group concede that the behaviour of a few new arrivals has fuelled the tension.

Sitting out on a sunny afternoon, camp members licked their wounds:

“Since these articles, we’ve become good scapegoats for everything that goes wrong here. The coverage has definitely stirred up local feeling and made it worse for us. The police helicopter is always flying over now. But not everyone in the town feels hostile towards us. It’s actually more tolerant than most places. At the train station and in some of the shops they’ve been great with us and the people on the barges feel more secure with us nearby because it stops them getting their windows smashed.

“He should get a life if he’s got nothing better to do than slag off people who live their life in a different way. It’s just a power trip”.

“He goes on about who pays for us but many of us have worked for years. And who pays for people when they’re in politics anyway? That’s all public money and we’re the public.”

And if Sir Bernard popped round to pass on his views jowl-to-face? “We’d cover him in jam and let the ferrets out.”