Travellers kept slaves 'in concentration camp'

Four members of same family guilty of forcing destitute people into brutal servitude

The victims were the destitute that society forgot: the addicts, the desperate and the suicidal. Discovered at soup kitchens, benefit offices and wandering the streets, they were put to work by an Irish traveller family under threat of ferocious violence and forced to live in squalor.

In the first quasi-slavery trial in Britain for more than 200 years, four members of one family were yesterday found guilty of servitude and forced labour of some of the country's most vulnerable men in a test case of new legislation designed to protect exploited British workers.

Tommy Connors Snr, 52 – the head of the family – fronted a block-paving business built on the labour of men forced to work for up to 19 hours a day for little or no pay and hardly any food, the trial was told.

While the Connors family lived in a series of lavishly furnished chalets on the Greenacres site in Bedfordshire, the labourers shared squalid converted horseboxes and huts and used a standpipe to clean themselves, Luton Crown Court was told.

One man described the site as a "concentration camp" where the labourers' heads were shaved and they were forced to work despite some suffering debilitating illnesses and broken bones. One man was recruited after being talked out of killing himself from jumping off a bridge at a service station and went on to work for the family for seven years, the court was told.

The 13-week trial heard of brutal tactics employed by the family. One man recounted how he was badly beaten after he dropped a vase worth several thousand pounds while he was cleaning the family chalet.

Connors' oldest daughter, Josie, 31, threatened to break the arms and legs of one man if he used the family's lavatory, the court heard. She wept in the dock yesterday as she was convicted along with her husband James John, 34, – known as Big Jim – of servitude and forced labour. Another member of the family, Patrick, 20, was also convicted of similar charges. They face maximum jail terms of 14 years.

The exploitation came to light after police raided the site in September 2011 and found 23 dirty and emaciated men, one of whom had been there for 15 years. In a series of police interviews, one man told police that he had been warned he would be "murdered" if he ever tried to leave. Most of the workers managed to escape but were fearful of being recaptured, the court heard.

Frances Oldham, QC, for the prosecution, said during the trial: "They were controlled in such a way that in many cases they could not see it. They became conditioned to do what the defendants wanted. The reason for their exploitation was money. They may not in the strict sense have been slaves… but the prosecution say this: they were not free men."

One man told police that one labourer working for the family fell through a garage roof and broke his ankle. But he was forced to carry on working and was prevented from going to hospital, the court heard.

Romana Cacchioli, from Anti-Slavery International, said: "That even physically fit British men can be forced to work under coercion and without pay shows the reality of anyone's susceptibility to modern day slavery."

A total of seven members of the family were on trial but the jury failed to reach verdicts on some counts regarding Tommy Junior, 27, Johnny, 28, and James Connors, 24. It cleared them of other counts. Prosecutors will say today if they will seek a retrial.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there