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The Origin & Evolution
The Birth Of The Living Wagon

The best horse-drawn living wagons
were built in Victorian England, in particular the final quarter of the 19th century and also the first part of the 20th century. House-dwellers (gaujo) called this house on wheels a caravan, but to England’s travelling people they called their home a wagon, van or vardo. The word caravan is derived from the Persian word ‘Karwan’ and it is perhaps this eastern word, along with the original belief that the Romani~Gypsies originated in Egypt, that lead people to wrongly assume that it was they who first introduced the living-wagon to England. It is more likely, however, that the living-wagon originated from France rather than England in the 18th century. This is mainly due to the fact that England’s roads were considered among the worst in Europe before and in 1760, whereas France boasted around 15,000 miles of what was back then considered to be first class roads, while England was relying on water transport. In fact, before the Turnpike Road Acts of 1730 to 1780 it took on average six strong horses to draw stage-coaches and stage-wagons over England’s terrible roads. Things did not change or alter until the 1820’s when the engineers Thomas Telford and John McAdam began work, and England’s roads became more hospitable for allowing people of simple means to live on them in wagons.

So when did Romanies actually take to the vardo?
Evidence suggests that is was the travelling showmen who had had living-wagons from around the 1820’s and that it is not until almost thirty years or so later in around the 1850’s that Romanies first began living in vardo’s. The earliest engraving of a vardo with Romanies is dated around 1879, and the earliest photograph 1874. In the very early days, many of the travelling people journeyed in tilted carts, though Romanies were usually always on foot, preferring their bender tents. In truth Romanies were very reluctant to give up their bender tents for living-wagons. However, in around 1815, although still living in bender tents, it was not entirely unusual for some Romanies to sleep in tilt carts. In George Borrows book Lavengro (1851) he describes a Romani encampment dating around 1815:

Beneath on of the largest trees, upon the grass, was a kind of low tent or booth, from the top of which a thin smoke was curling; beside it stood a couple of light carts, whilst two or three lean horses or ponies were cropping the herbage which was growing high. Wondering to whom this odd tent could belong, I advanced till I was close before it, when I found that it consisted of two tilts, like those wagons, placed upon the ground and fronting each other, connected behind by sail or large piece of canvas which was but partially drawn across the top; upon the ground, in the intervening space, was a fire, over which, supported by a kind of iron crowbar, hung a cauldron; my advance had been so noiseless as not to alarm the inmates, who consisted of a man and a woman, who sat apart, one on each side of the fire …

It was Walter Simpson, who got a little closer to the living-wagon when gathering material for A History of Gipsies in the 1840’s:

In no part of the world is the gipsy life more in accordance with the general idea that the gipsy is like Cain – a wanderer on the face of the earth – than in England; for there the covered cart and the little tent are the houses of the gipsy ..

In his book, Borrow first gives mention to caravans when in the 1820’s Lavengro goes to what is said to be Greenwich:

I reached in about three-quarters of an hour a kind of low dingy town in the neighbourhood of the river; the streets were swarming with people, and I concluded from the number of wild beast shows, caravans, gingerbread stalls and the like, that a fair was being held.

In Borrows book The Romany Rye (1857) it describes how Ursula Herne says to Lavengro: “We are not over-fond of gorgios, brother, and we hates basket-makers and folks that live in caravans.” So while some Romanies did take to the tilt carts quite early on, many kept to their tents and despised travellers who lived otherwise. It was definitely not unusual for tinkers, basket-makers and other such travellers to sleep in tilt carts in the 1830’s.
It was not until Wild Wales (1862) which was set in the 1850’s that Borrow makes his first certain reference to a living-wagon, when Lavengro meets Black Jack Bosvile, The Flaming Tinman, a half-and-half travelling pugilist:

After walking about half an hour I saw a kind of wooden house on wheels drawn by two horses coming down the hill towards me. A short, black-looking fellow in brown-top boots, corduroy breeches, jockey coat and jockey cap, sat on the box, holding the reins in one hand and a long whip in the other. Beside him was a swarthy woman in a wild flaunting dress. Behind the box on the fore-part of the caravan peered two or three black children’s heads …

It is not clear from his description if it had a stove or not, but either way, as it was described as a ‘house on wheels’ it is clear that by the 1850’s they were not a common sight. However, Dickens described a chimneyed caravan some ten years before this in 1840 in the Old Curiosity Shop:

It was not a shabby, dingy, dusty cart, but a smart little house upon wheels, with white dimity curtains festooning the windows, and window shutters of green picked out with panels o a staring red, in which happily-constructed colours the whole concern shone brilliant. Neither was it a poor caravan drawn by a single donkey or emaciated horse, for a pair of horses in pretty good condition were released from the shafts and grazing on the grouzy grass. Neither was it a gipsy caravan, for at the open door (graced with a bright brass knocker) sat a Christian lady, stout and comfortable to look upon, who wore a large bonnet trembling with bows. And that it was not an unprovided or destitute caravan was clear from this lady’s occupation, which was the very pleasant and refreshing one of taking tea … the steps being struck by George, and stowed under the carriage, away they went …
When they had travelled slowly forward for some short distance, Nell ventured to steal a look around the caravan and observe it more closely. One half of it – the moiety in which the comfortable properties was then seated – was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board a ship, which was shaded, like the little windows, with fair white curtains, and looked comfortable enough by what kind of gymnastic exercise the lady of the caravan ever contrived to get into it, was an unfathomable mystery.
The other half served as a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It held also a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking utensils and articles of crockery …

Dickens points out the difference between this chimneyed van and the lesser wagons of other travellers, including Romanies. Also you will note that both the van described here and the van Borrow described which belonged to Jack Bosvile, both needed to be drawn by two horses, as it was not until the second half of the century when the roads had improved that the vans were drawn by only one horse. The van in which Dickens describes is actually not unlike the later ones which we are now familiar with. So, by the beginning of Victoria’s reign, the kind of living-wagon with which we are looking at was in use in England by showmen, which was at that time a novelty.

England’s roads were fast becoming the best in the world by the 1830’s and coaching was in its hey-day causing the coach-building industry to boom. It was in the 1830’s that the Hansom cab was introduced, and Robinson and Cook’s brougham, named for the Lord Chancellor. Passenger-carriers had already improved by being suspended on metal springs, which were called ‘spring vans’ and the old connecting pole or perch was done away with. The word cab became an abbreviation of cabriolet, and van was abbreviated from caravan, meaning any common box-like vehicle with an arched roof, whether carrying people or goods, so caravan began to be used as meaning a wagon in which people actually lived.

Between 1821 and 1841 there were quite a few changes, for a start England’s population had increased by around a third and concentration in towns intensified. Where the fairs, for centuries had once been the place where people would buy and sell things they could not obtain elsewhere, they were now becoming more and more obsolete as trading was focused within the towns instead and shops began springing up more and more within them. This caused great concern to the showmen, who then began to concentrate more on the entertainment, fun and amusement side of their trade rather tan with buying and selling. Their occupation had always been highly competitive and fast moving, and their competitive natures began to spill out into some of the fairs causing many to be closed down because of some boisterous and ill-behaved individuals. Showmen raced on narrow roads to get into the best positions on the tober, or site, often resulting in fights between the wagon trains.

Both the showmen and the Romanies prided themselves in keeping separateness, even from each other; both classes had a close community which contained economic interests. Both were itinerant, both depended on and spent much time travelling between the great fairs. The showman relied heavily on horses, and few equalled the Romani horse dealers (Gryengro’s), also the Romani women were renowned for their fortune telling (Dukkering), so each were an integral part of the whole system which worked both ways, keeping the two classes together, however, in general each held the other very much at a social distance.

In addition to the Romanies and the showmen, who had their own language, customs and traditions, there were of course other groups of travelling folki on the drom, such as tinkers, basket-makers, brush-makers, half-and-halfs, didikais, broom-makers, potters, muggers, peg-makers, bagmen, chapmen, peddlers, the hoi-polloi of the highways. Some had Romani blood, most had none at all. To the settled folki (gaujo) all these wanderers, having no fixed abode, lacked respectability and were all classed as ‘one and the same’ and all called Gypsy. (A mistake which has been carried through right into the 21st century!) Hence the name Gypsy Caravan regardless of who lived in them.

It was natural for the showmen to be the first to live in wagons, just as it was for Romanies to be the last. The showmen had money and already employed the relatively heavy conveyances necessary for his equipment and wild beasts. It was more common for the showman to build their wagons themselves, whether they were a large or small business concern. They probably built their wagons on drays made by Cartwright’s or bought second hand for the purpose. The showmen by nature were eccentric, adaptable, quick to sense change in taste and eager to modify his attractions to suit the paying public. Whereas the Romanies were a conservative people, changing their ways only when they had to in order to live and survive. Materialistic ways were despised by Romanies. However, as time moved on, the vardo became the Romani~Gypsy woman’s most coveted possession, the paramount domestic status symbol. The few that over a long period of time retained their condition and charm were often owned by showmen or the more wealthy Romani families, who cared for them with persistence, pride ad skill of the most house-proud of the gaujo societies. Romanies generally returned their vardo’s to the gaujo builders, whose craftsmen repainted and reconditioned them, much the same was true with showmen, although this class of traveller, who’s lifestyle was also a business, usually employed craftsmen to keep equipment in tip top condition, painting and even refurbishing the wagons.

Rodney Smith, better known as ‘Gipsy Smith’ the evangelist, was born in a tent in 1860. His autobiography records that in the spring of 1877 the family travelled from Cambridge to London in their wagons:

The young gipsy couple start their married life by purchasing a wagon. This costs anywhere from £40 to £150 and is obtained from a gorgio wagon-builder. Oddly enough, the gipsies never learn the trade of making their own wagons. The wagons are very warm and very strong, and last a great many years. The young husband is, of course, the manufacturer of the goods, and his wife the seller. When she leaves the wagon in the morning to go her rounds she arranges with her husband where the wagon shall be placed at night, and thither she betakes herself when her days toil is over. If the husband has been refused permission to stand the wagon on the arranged spot and has had to move on, he lets his wife know where he is going by leaving behind him a track of grass.

It is hardly strange that Romanies didn’t learn the trade of wagon-building as the crafts involved were more skilled perhaps that Rodney Smith appreciated, and their rudiments took some years to master, also it was highly unlikely that any wagon-builder would accept Romanies as apprentices. It demanded an investment in tools, timber and premises, and above all a settled, steady way of life, which was definitely not for Romanies.

Compiled and derived from The English Gypsy Caravan by C.H. Ward Jackson & Denis E. Harvey
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