Travellers On Trial Accused Of Slavery

A court's heard how vulnerable men were enslaved and exploited by a family of travellers who made them work from sunrise to sunset with no pay, live in tents and suffer beatings.

One of the alleged victims said that his life was like that of a serf in the Middle Ages as he did hard labour for the family firm of brothers John and Jerry Connors and their brother-in-law Billy Connors.

The men, who were homeless or had drink problems, were approached by the Connors and told they could work laying block paving or Tarmac for £40 a day and they would also be given food and accommodation.

But instead, most received no cash at all for up to 80 hours' work a week - including one man who worked for them for eight years, jurors at Southampton Crown Court were told.

And one person who had work done at their home described the mens' behaviour when they were supervised by the Connors as of ''a timid dog in the presence of an owner who mistreats him''.

The men were routinely slapped, beaten or threatened with violence, discouraged from speaking to family or the public, had their heads shaved and had to wear a uniform, the court was told.

They had to do menial and degrading tasks like pick up cigarettes butts at the campsites and collect the rubbish the Connors would throw out of their caravans, it was alleged.

When police raided an illegal traveller camp in Hamble near Southampton, the four alleged victims were found living in tents with no running water or toilet facilities, the court heard.

Meanwhile, the three defendants were living in luxury caravans cleaned and washed by the workers, Charles Thomas, prosecuting, said.

''There was a stark difference between the quality of accommodation these three defendants enjoyed in their caravans and the accommodation 'enjoyed' by the workers,'' the barrister said.

One victim, Victor Romain, 56, led police to the men after his probation officer alerted them and he said he had been beaten by John Connors for losing some diesel money.

Mr Thomas told the jury: ''Substantial control was extended over him and other workers.

''Restrictions were placed on who they could talk to and they were discouraged from talking to members of the public or other members of other gangs so they would not start comparing notes and decide it was exploitation.

''These men were kept in servitude.

''He (Victor Romain) was too scared to leave on his own.

''He believed that if he did, he would be tracked down and beaten up.''

Mr Thomas said one alleged victim, Christopher Groombridge, had been tracked down when he left and threatened with a beating and told he must work off a debt.

Another man, Krzysztof Bilski, 26, from Poland, and Mr Groombridge said they had been forced to box three rounds in boxing gloves for the ''entertainment of the travellers'' and their families.

''He (Groombridge) did not want to do but he felt he could not say no and others were betting on it,'' Mr Thomas said.

Mr Bilski received half his pay - £20 a day for working for Jerry Connors, but the other half was kept by the bosses, the jury heard.

Mr Groombridge, 32, told police he was glad they had come because he ''could not take any more'', Mr Thomas explained.

''He said he was scared of John and Billy Connors.''

He said he was ''worked like a horse'' and was taken to a tattoo parlour to have a tattoo of a Ferrari horse put on his back.

But instead, John and Billy Connors pressured him into having a travellers' horse put on with a large phallus on it.

''As a matter of common-sense,'' Mr Thomas asked the jury.

''If someone really had the choice would he voluntarily choose to have that tattooed on his back?

''It was a graphic emblem - almost a branding: a permanent marker of their control over him.''

The oldest alleged victim was 61-year-old William Turner, who had worked for the men for seven or eight years and the Connors used to joke that ''they owed him a lot of money''.

Mr Thomas said Mr Turner had not complained of his treatment but he described being at his bosses' ''beck and call from sunrise to sunset'', either labouring laying paving or tidying up the many sites he lived at.

The barrister asked the jury to consider to what extent he had been habituated into his life at the hands of the Connors.

When arrested, John Connors, 30, from Stopley, Luton, Bedfordshire, denied he was a boss and said the workers had been paid.

Jerry Connors, 30, from Chertsey in Surrey, replied no comment as did Billy Connors, 38, from Bulwell near Nottingham.

All three deny four counts of holding the men in slavery or servitude between April 6 2010, and June 24 2011.

The trio also deny four alternative counts of requiring the men to perform forced labour between the same dates.

The trial is expected to last four weeks.