The First Romani Mayor in the United Kingdom: Inaugural Speech of Mr Charles Smith
10 July 2002
In early May 2002, Mr Charles Smith became Britain’s first Romani mayor. Mr Smith was elected to head the borough council of Castle Point, administrative division of Essex, southeastern England. The ERRC is herewith reprinting his inaugural speech. The text of the speech has been edited slightly.
If you will allow me, I’d like to explain a little of myself and how I have come to be standing here, as Mayorof Castle Point. Born in Rochford, after ten days moved to my Granddad’s tailors shop in London Road, Hadleigh, lived in Hadleigh until I got married, moved to Thundersley and apart from the times my wife and I travelled round to the horse fairs and so on, I have always lived here. My father was born over the top of the family shop in Notting Hill and first came to Thundersley, Hart Road, in the 1930’s when it was not much more than a little rural village.
My mother was born ina bender tent pitched behind the family’s horse drawn caravan in a pea field at Cold Norton, and her family have lived around this part of Essex longer than anyone can remember. So I consider myself to be a true local lad, born and bred.
If someone had said to me when I left school that one day I would be the Mayor of the Borough, I would never have believed it. In fact my Housemaster told me on the day I left, “I give you six months out in the real world and you’ll be in prison.” I’m pleased to say his prediction was not realised. From that, you can take it my
time spent in the local educational establishments was neither one of much pleasure nor one of great educational achievement.
You soon find out when you start school if there is anything different about you, even if you didn’t know yourself, and it wasn’t long before I was informed that “Your Mum’s a Gypsy.” After telling my Mum, as I had no concept at five what a Gypsy was, my Mum told me this, “Remember you are as good as any of them, and probably better than many,” and told me to sing this little song when they made such remarks. First let me tell you the meaning of one of the words in this little rhyme for those of you who don’t speak Romani; Gorgia, meaning non-Gypsy, it can be derogatory or not, depending on how it is used, just like Gypsy. So, here goes, “Gorgia bred, Gorgia bred, half starved and nearly dead, poor little Gorgia bred”. It worked well with the five and six year olds leaving them standing there with there mouths agape, I’m only thankful that no-one asked me what it meant as I thought Gorgia bred was something like ginger bread. Unfortunately it did not work with the teachers and the more subtle actions of the adults left me with a full understanding of prejudice and racism by the time I left school at fifteen.
My ex-wife, also from a well known Gypsy family, experienced much the same thing whilst at school in Rayleigh and, while I am very pleased to say things have improved, there is still room to make things better as my son could tell you.
If you experience this type of prejudice for whatever reason it can have a big effect on the way you interact with the world, some people will withdraw into their shell keeping their head down never confronting people, whilst others may bear resentments and end up hating the world, looking out only for themselves. Others chose to try and change things, some through writing, art or education, some through politics, which is what I decided to do, and having now been actively involved in politics for over twenty five years, I know you can change things, unfortunately, it often takes twenty five years to do it, as I am sure many of you have realised.
One of the people who has influenced me most in my political career has been Thomas Acton, professor of Romani studies at Greenwich University, whose company we have the pleasure of tonight, he convinced me to join the Labour Party. I don’t intend to go on too long, but would just like to warn you how he works. After becoming involved in working with the Gypsy Council, Thomas, about four others and myself attended a public meeting where a site for Gypsy people was to be debated. The room was packed to capacity with about 500 people; to say they were anti would have been polite. The usual views and stereotypes were fully expressed with much vigour from the local residents. Thomas, lacking any sense of extreme danger stood up and spoke with his usual eloquence, in favour of the site, its would be occupants and proceeded in dispelling their misguided prejudices and stereotypes, to much heated booing, hissing and varied insults to his person. Someone then shouted out “There’s no Gypsies got the guts to be here.” “Oh yes there is” said Thomas sticking the microphone in my hand and urged me to speak to these enraged residents. With the call from the irate and heated throng of “Come on lets hear what you’ve got to say for yourself”, I was directed to the front of the hall.
At this point the microphone stopped working but the people called for me to speak up and some laughed at me, as some still do, but as I spoke they listened. I told them that the land on which their houses were built was land that Gypsy families had camped on for hundreds of years. Some of these families still lived in the area in houses and bungalows, the same people they bought their turf from or who had landscaped their gardens, and this site was for their relations who had kept to the travelling lifestyle, but needed a base to return to, as the places they used to camp on no longer existed, being covered with those same houses and factories. At the end of the day, the site was only for six families; families not unlike themselves, struggling to earn a living and support their families, nor indeed the Gypsy families already living amongst them whom they did not seem to realise were Gypsy people at all, despite all their perceived stereotypes. When I had finished I received a round of applause and many people came and spoke to me after the meeting. I realised then that you could change people’s way of thinking by talking to them, having knowledge of your subject and explaining it.
Of course, people who make the decisions don’t always want to talk to the people those decisions effect. National issues like the Poll Tax and the Criminal Justice Act, where public opinion was virtually ignored, and local issues such as the selling off of the place where I live without consultation, was what finally made me get involved by standing for Council.
Something all politicians must do is learn to listen, and not just to themselves. I believe the new Area Forums adopted by this Council will be a great help in the
Over the last seven years I have, as a Councillor with like-minded Members striven to improve our Borough in particular on environment issues both built and natural, tree planting, recycling, conservation, planning, highways, recreation and the arts, social inclusion and equality, and as Mayor, I hope to be able to focus on and promote these issues.
As politicians, I think it is our job to make people feel that they are valued members of society, and can achieve their full potential as citizens. No one should be left sitting at the edge bearing resentment and feeling excluded.
We must always strive for inclusion, openness and equality, and an open fair democracy is the best way to achieve this with everyone feeling able to participate, without fear of prejudice or discrimination.
I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the actress Miriam Margolys who was visiting the Save the Children Fund Gypsy support office in London. We were going out to meet some Gypsy families living around the area. The Save the Children Fund officer said to Miriam, that she would be showing her what prejudice means today, to which Miriam replied, with one of the best comments I have ever heard, “Darling, I’m fat, Jewish and a lesbian, what can you show me about prejudice?” This made me realise that if people want to, they will always find a reason to discriminate against you, and I hope as a Councillor I have helped in some way to have reduced prejudice and exclusion in this Borough and as your Mayor will continue to promote the inclusion and participation of all
I am very proud to be standing here today as Mayor of Castle Point, a place I care passionately about, and I shall endeavour to work hard as your Mayor with all the people of Castle Point, and I thank you for this honour you have bestowed upon me.
Mayor of Castle Point
May 13, 2002