On the scrap heap

Europe’s Romani people, and other ethnic Travellers, have been recycling other people’s rubbish for centuries. Now, a growing association of scrap collecting with crime has led to new legislation that could freeze Romanies and Travellers out of the trade.

By Damian Le Bas

MY great granddad was a “rag-and-bone” man. He had other jobs- selling logs, selling flowers, lighting street lamps- but this was the job he talked about with the most fondness. It was a way of life: the painted wooden trolley; the coloured cob horse; the shout of “Rag-bone!” that told people to bring out their unwanted goods: rags, wood, old appliances, scrap metal. Children would come and run to see the horse. This was long before my time, but when I think of it, I think of people smiling.

At the time, of course, nobody would have described this as an entrepreneurial grass-roots recycling initiative of the Romani community, though that’s exactly what it was. It doesn’t have the same ring to it as “the old rag-and-bone”.

A "rag-and-bone" man calling for scrap in Croydon, near London. Romani people have collected unwanted scrap in this way for over 100 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A “rag-and-bone” man calling for scrap in Croydon, near London. Romani people have collected unwanted scrap in this way for over 100 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The name came from the humble- often poverty stricken- origins of the trade. Henry Mayhew, in the 1851 book Labour and the London Poor, describes a rag-and-bone man wearing a “ragged coat” which was waterproofed “probably with the fat of the bones he gathered”. But by the early 20th century the rag-and-bone trade had become, in many places, a family business. This trade was a way out of poverty, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that without it, many families would not have survived.

By the mid-20th century, most rag-and-bone men (and women, for Romani women were often to be found atop the carts, hollering out for people’s scrap) had switched their focus exclusively to scrap metal[1]. Once again, working with metal was getting lucrative, more so than the rag trade, and it offered a working ladder out of poverty: for many families it brought the money to buy a piece of land to site their wagons on; for others a house, and so they became kerengroes or kennecks– housed people. Whatever impact this had on the culture, it did bring a kind of stability to lives which had been wracked since time immemorial with harrowing child mortality rates and occasional starvation.

As an aside, this narrowing of focus actually marked a return to one of the pillars of historical Romani trade: as the Kalderash Roma took their name from the making of cauldrons, so it was from working with metal that the name Smith (Petulengro in Romani, as some families still prefer to be called) became the most common Romani surname in England.

In the light of this history, this new reaction against the contemporary rag-and-bone trade is beyond a cause for concern. Across the continent, and especially in the East, there are families who cannot buy food without the proceeds from informal scrap collecting. In Britain, the situation may not be so desperate, but the new laws targeting scrap collectors here make worrying reading for those in other lands.

In the UK a new law- the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, 2013- comes into force on the 1st October this year. It has been portrayed in the mainstream media as the law that will bring a welcome end to the phenomenon of scrap metal thefts across the country. The government estimates that such thefts cost the British economy £770 million a year[2]. Beyond this financial cost, there was the moral and emotional argument for action to be taken: a new law was needed to target “thieves who despoil war memorials and wreak havoc on the transport network”[3]. When the infamous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” sign above the gates to Auschwitz was removed and cut into pieces by thieves, Romani people joined in the chorus of anger at such insensitive disregard for those who suffered under the Nazis in that place. Acts like this were now seemingly becoming commonplace. Who could possibly question the need for action, unless they were part of the problem themselves?

Yet again, however, Romani people were to find themselves caught up in the net of legislation which on the surface is not aimed at them, but in reality hits them harder than anybody else. Much like the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which was supposed to deal with “rave” (open air disco) culture but actually impacted almost solely on Romani and other Travellers, the new Scrap Metal Dealers Act is bound to have a disproportionate affect on a community where scrap collection is one of the core traditional trades.

This week, I spoke to a man called Bill Kerswell, who has been involved in the scrap metal business for 50 years. His sons are also in the trade. “Have you heard about this new law that’s coming out that’s going to absolutely stop all Travellers doing anything?” he asked. If your family is in the trade, that’s exactly what it feels like this law will do.

“Apparently you’ve got to have a license for every area in which you trade,” as Mr Kerswell rightly points out. Under Schedule 1 of the Act, a scrap metal collector must have a license to collect in every area in which he or she operates, and a fee- which is set by the local authority, and may cost hundreds if not thousands of pounds- must be paid for each license. So a collector who operates across different areas may have to pay an indefinite number of fees for an indefinite number of licenses. Of course, this will not impact solely on Romani people and Travellers- anyone who travels around to make their living will be badly affected. But for a culture which is founded on, and in many cases still operates through, economic mobility, the impact is going to be disastrous.

My great-grandfather (right) with his brother-in-law, his niece, and his horse and trolley. Many Romani people and Travellers still treasure their trolleys and harness as family heirlooms, even if they no longer use them for scrap collecting. Source: author's own

My great-grandfather (right) with his brother-in-law, his niece, and his horse and trolley. Many Romani people and Travellers still treasure their trolleys and harness as family heirlooms, even if they no longer use them for scrap collecting. Source: author’s own

Mr Kerswell describes a typical route a scrap collector may take, and how it will work under the new legislation. If he collects scrap in Powys (Wales), then travels eastward through Telford & Wrekin in Shropshire to sell his scrap at a yard in Wellington, then he will have to pay three separate license fees in order to sell a single load of scrap: even though he is simply travelling through the second area, he will still need a license to carry scrap there. The more mobile a collector is, the more they will be made to suffer by this new requirement. The sense of victimisation amongst Romanies and Travellers is justified by the reality: for many, the trade will cease to be viable.

“This infringes the human rights of Gypsies and other Travellers who have traditionally carried on the scrap metal trade. From metal working in the Middle Ages they have come through hundreds of years- recycling metal, selling metal, using metal, sorting metal- and this law is going to effectively kill off their lifestyle because they will have to pay for a license in every borough or county which they travel through,” says Mr Kerswell.

Unfortunately there is even more in this law to be worried about. Local authorities “must not issue or renew a scrap metal licence unless it is satisfied that the applicant is a suitable person to carry on business as a scrap metal dealer”. There follows a long list of reasons why a person might not be deemed to deserve a license to carry scrap, and any past criminal convictions may be used in order to refuse the granting of a license. This will not only have a massive impact on the rehabilitation of offenders, as Mr Kerswell points out: it could also actively encourage the theft and export of metal to countries with less stringent laws on scrap collection, since licenses to carry on the trade legally will be so difficult to obtain in the UK.

Search through this new law for words like “Gypsy”, “Traveller” and “itinerant”, and you won’t find any of them used. The legal system has moved on since the Egyptians Acts of past centuries, when Romani people were marked out loud and clear as targets for instant arrest, for deportation, for execution. Nowadays, by enacting laws which take sideways aim at a way of life while seeming to aim only at crime, things are concocted in a way which has the same effect of ethnic targeting, but with none of the dirty associations of racist legislation. Our people will surely adapt, as they always have, to new ways of making a living: we have always had to, and the present doesn’t suggest that this will change.

My great granddad passed away last year. Perhaps it’s for the best that I can’t tell him how the government has decided the trade that fed his children is evil and must be stopped. I only hope other countries can avoid this legal overkill in the name of the law of the land.

The 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act can be found online at the web address below, with links to appendices and explanatory memoranda:



[2] Parliament.UK, retrieved 20th September 2013: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06150