The story of Eileen – a Romani gypsy

Did you know Romani gypsy families have been living in Dorset since the 16th century? Let’s find out more about them and their fascinating lifestyle – through the remarkable story of a lady who spent most of her life on the road.

Travelling for fifty years by horse and waggon might be difficult to imagine for many.

But not for the niece of the Queen of the Gypsies, Eileen Ika Rawlings (née Hughes) – born in 1943 – who lived this lifestyle with her husband, Dave Rawlings.

Eileen had a fascinating family history. Her aunt, Caroline Hughes became famous outside the traveller world in the 1960s – not only because of her beauty, but also for her fine singing voice. After being recorded by the BBC for Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads, she was known by many as the ‘Queen of the Gypsies’. 

Dave was a non-Gypsy or ‘gorja’, and marrying someone outside of the community was rare in those days, but they had a love match – so the couple got married in 1961.

Discovering the highways and byways of Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire might sound promising, but it certainly wasn’t an easy life to live.

Eileen and Dave would spend much of their day collecting water and firewood, making a living by the work of their hands fashioning clothes pegs and paper flowers, and helping with the elderflower and blackcurrant harvests.

Thanks to Dave’s fine baritone voice and ability to play the mandolin, additional income came through for the couple from busking.

They would travel as far north as Stow-on-the-Wold for the twice-yearly horse fair and would over winter in Chalk Valley in Wiltshire.

Eileen in particular would love to talk to locals as she sat on the steps of the waggon, while the couple journeyed around the countryside.

When they moved on, they would always leave their overnight stopping place cleaner than when they had arrived.

Since they had many relatives who had settled on sites and in houses around Dorset, at one point they decided to hang up the harness and settle in a house near Dorchester. However, just like many other travellers, Eileen couldn’t stand living in bricks and mortar.

After three weeks of feeling hemmed in, they decided to move to the council-run traveller site in Piddle Hinton – where, by keeping a small horse, Eileen could feel like back in the days when they were still travelling.

Eileen Ika Rawlings died on the 15th May 2020. Their four children, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren keep her legacy alive.

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