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Our pilot project will take place in the New Forest, England, on the site of a former 'compound' once located at Thorney Hill. We will be working alongside the descendant community of the former compound to uncover the history of the area together.


Although it is unknown when the Romani community first started stopping in the New Forest, their history can be traced back for many generations. Romani had worked and lived in harmony with other New Forest communities for hundreds of years, selling fruit, vegetables, horses and crafted goods – or working as agricultural labourers cutting wood, heather and holly.


However, rapid increases in tourism, infrastructure and the attendant gentrification of the area in the early 1900s brought urbanites in search of a romantic wilderness. The 'Gypsies', formerly an intrinsic part of Forest life, were often viewed by these newcomers as ‘thieves and vagabonds.'


New laws were quickly introduced banning Romani from stopping in one place longer than 48 hours. However, when this soft “solution to the Gypsy problem” failed to make them leave, a further law was introduced in 1926 confining them to seven compounds spread throughout the Forest.


These compounds, one of which was set up at the traditional ‘stopping-place’ of Thorney Hill near Bransgore in Hampshire, had little or no running water or sanitation and although Romani could stop there for longer than 48 hours, they were still subject to Forest By-Laws, including the rule that no dwelling was allowed a fixed floor. The inhabitants therefore either lived in tin shacks (with a soil floor), or ‘bender’ tents (canvas stretched over bent sticks in the ground forming a tunnel).

Bender tents in the New Forest

Bender tents in the New Forest from

At its height in the 1930s, nearly 400 Romani people were living in the Thorney Hill Compound with only one water tap. This number had dwindled to 161 by the time another census was taken in 1942. During the early part of 1960 the Romani community still camping in the compound were provided with 22 second-hand prefabricated houses built on the site with water and electricity, as well as a warden and social worker.


Eventually, all of the families were either moved into permanent houses in Thorney Hill or nearby Ibsley. Due to the inherently temporary nature of the settlement, there are no standing remains of the compound visible today. The area is currently a mixture of holly bushes, small semimature trees and open heathland.

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Location of Thorney Hill Compound in the New Forest National Park


While no structures are present, the footprints of the prefabricated houses erected in the 1960s can be clearly seen in satellite imagery from 2018 (a very dry year, leading to substantial crop- and parch marks). As well as the footprints of the 1960s prefabricated houses, earlier aerial photographs from the 1940s appear to show a collection of small huts distributed across the area of the compound.

Earlier aerial photographs from the 1940s also appear to show a collection of small huts distributed across the area of the compound. The National Park’s NFKnowledge website shows a number of rectangular building outlines that have been digitised from those photographs as part of English Heritage’s National Mapping Programme. These structures have been interpreted as buildings relating to the Second World War aerodrome at Holmsley nearby. However, given their location and configuration, they are more likely to be the huts and tents of the compound dwellers.

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The footprints of the prefabricated houses can be clearly seen in the clearing. Google Earth 2018.

Screenshot from NFKnowledge website, showing digitised structures in blue.

A large number of artefacts representing Romani use of the area are visible when walking across Thorney Hill Holms. Many of these objects are still used by today's Romani people. Some examples are shown below. Of particular interest is the fragment of Imari-style pottery. Imari china is a style traditionally collected by Romani communities and is a clear indicator of Romani activity. Royal Crown Derby eventually began to produce china pieces in the ‘Old Imari Style’ specifically to cater to the Romani market, therefore this fragment could represent an early piece in the Imari style (before it was produced by Royal Crown Derby).

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Artefacts from left to right: Fragment of 'Imari' style china, Numberplate of a vehicle registered in Hampshire between 1951-1953, Sloan's Liniment bottle, an ointment used on horses, a kettle.


With initial investigation at Thorney Hill proving positive, we will return to the site at various stages during 2022. Working alongside the local Romani community, we will undertake fieldwalking, geophysics, and excavation within the site of the former compound. These phases will be documented through artwork, film, and a museum exhibit at the New Forest Heritage Centre.

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