Justice Eve & his Summertown Waggon
Pioneering Vanner of Early "Land Yachting"
This tidy little kite waggon, often referred to as a reading-style, was commissioned in 1906 by enthusiastic "vanner" Justice Eve (The Right Honourable Sir Harry Trelawney Eve). Evidence collected indicates it was built by local coach builder Percival J Jones of Summertown, Oxfordshire. Jones advertised his services as: "Every description of vehicles built to order". Strangely, he was also a retailer of beer.
Eve is little acknowledged today but at the turn of century he was amongst a handful of ra ra who became the first practitioners of a new upper class hobby - "land yachting" or recreational caravanning. These early waggons became know as leisure vans, and many were specially designed by several prominent builders, who turned them out for this new market trend. Though Eve clearly stuck with a traditional Romany kite style.
Some of these early enthusiasts tried to travel and even dress like Gypsies, such as Lady Arthur Grosvenor under the guise of Syeira Lee. However the likes of Eve and Dr William Gordon Stables aimed to tour the country as they were, gentlemen but in a mansion on wheels. Stables even took his butler along with him, top hat & tails and all.
It was a sight for many, and you can't help thinking whatever did the Romani fokendi make of these lordly characters rolling up in the opposite lane, slap in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps one or two Roms had even met Judge Eve before in unsavoury circumstances? However, it does make you wonder if passing hands swopped a few pegs or a game bird for a fine Cuban cigar, bantered by a reel of jokes.
It's well established that WG Stables was the instigator of early leisure caravanning, designing the first bespoke leisure caravan. In 1884 he commissioned the Bristol Waggon & Carriage Works to build his land yacht "The Wanderer", a 17 ft van. And in 1885 he travelled, complete with full entourage (photographer included?), from Berkshire to Scotland, posing for stills along the way.
Being an ex-sailor this explains the terminology he invented for the sport, land yachting, and so it was launched. People bought his books in plenty, however it took till the cusp of the century before the vanning craze really took off.
Stables undoubtedly holds title as the first advocate of early leisure caravanning back in the 1880s, however credit must be given to John H Stone who actually founded The Caravan Club in his front lounge, June 1907, where ten other "vanners" were especially invited to attend.The now elderly Stables was not involved. But at the third meeting held a month later he was present, and out of great respect was made vice president of the Club, although he died 3 years later in 1910.
In keeping with their refined ideas, Harry Eve's 1906 Summertown waggon was absent of traditional Gypsy colours and bright decoration, nor was it heavily embellished with gilt carvings.
Instead it was black for the body colour with "commercial red" unders, and the porch brackets displayed simple Celtic crosses. Nevertheless it was still structurally a finely made caravan.
The interior was painted pale green with blue fine-lining, although later on it was repainted in shades of white. It was made light with reflections from nine mirrors, some with chip-cut edges. For convenience a table folded down into a desk, and a brass-railed mantelpiece topped a Smith & Wellstood Queenie stove. Gilded handles and fleur-de-lis added a flick of glamour to cupboards and drawers.
The waggon was built tall, with a headroom of 6' 10", and had two adjustable leg-props to aid stability when parked up. The body was 11ft long plus overhangs and double skinned for extra warmth - this added more width, so a wheel arch was shaped into the ribs, a feature often seen on French Gypsy caravans.
Eve also owned another caravan, a showman van - wheels under - described by a writer in the 1960s as equally heavy but painted yellow and lantern-roofed. Eve probably bought this one in Devon.
He kept both vans in a barn at his home, The Old MIll in Oxfordshire, along with two barges on a nearby canal.
Born in 1856, Eve studied at Oxford University before taking law at Lincoln's Inn to become a barrister.
For a few years he stood as Liberal Party MP for Ashburton in Devon, where he owned a cattle farm. From there, he went on to serve as Justice of the Peace for Devon from 1907 until his retirement in 1937.
Throughout the years, Justice Eve continued to travel with his caravans, and regular articles appeared in newspapers and magazines about his adventures. When he died in 1940 both caravans plus the two barges were bequeathed to his ward, Colonel John Clarke.
For a couple of years the yellow showman van was used at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire, where Sir Peter Scott set up his wildfowl centre in 1946. Perhaps it was then that plovers were painted on the outside and swooping swallows inside on the ceiling.
By the early 1960s both vans were stored back in The Old Mill. The yellow showman was decidedly worse for wear, but the black van was still in excellent condition. Nobody knows what happened to the showman, and it may still be around today. One of the barges was destroyed, the other turned into a hen house.
The black waggon, as it was referred to because of its dark colour unless freshly painted, was probably more of the deepest blue. It became part of the Gerrald Freeguard Collection before passing on to Les Oakes about 1974. Sadly, the "great waggon man", who probably had the largest collection of horse drawn vehicles in the country, was killed in a tragic road accident in 2000.
In 2009 part of Les's vast collection was auctioned off by Thimbleby & Shorland, and Eve's "Summertown caravan" again saw daylight for the first time in many years - as it stood relic on parade, by now a faded blue.
The van sold swiftly to a keen-eyed punter and was trailered away by Jonathan. It underwent careful restoration, and is now back to full glory, including new wheels, the exterior finished in dark green enamel, and the interior creamed out in eggshell. Traditionally, nearly all the leisure vans were finished cream or white inside - for brightness and a feeling of cleanliness.
Little tampered with from the day it was built, today it's a fine example of a basic kite waggon which still carries the essence of the early living van builders' design. However, 1906 is a late construction date for this simple style, which boasted plain features and was void of flash.
We must not leave uncredited as to how the early leisure caravans evolved, for the concept of wooden sided living vans was all down to the travelling circus & fairground showmen and later on the Romanichal Gypsies in Britain.
The distinguished kite-shape seen in many waggon-builds, including Dunton's reading, was undoubtedly developed much earlier by others unknown - even by a lone coach builder tucked away in the back of beyond.
Dunton & Sons and the likes simply repeated this graceful kite-style. However, Dunton's took it much further by developing their own unique distinction, elaborating flamboyantly with extensive improvements and swept carvings galore. Notches above most, their eye-catching vans were soon renowned nationally for sheer quality of design and craftsmanship. To own a Dunton in 1910 was like today "to own a Bentley". Their caravans were soon in high demand - the best a Rom could afford.
In my opinion though, there was just one other builder better - Messrs Orton and Spooner. But there we go, that's just a matter of personal flavour. They made few kite-shaped waggons, but when they did - mm you'll know when you see one.
The wheels may now be silent and the lock idle, whilst Justice Eve has long gone, but thanks to Jonathan's hard work, the Summertown caravan is arguably one of the finest kite waggons in existence in the country today - more or less in its original condition.
It's a little known fact that during WW1 Field Marshall Haig urgently requested John Stone of the Caravan Club to send him "as many caravans as he could" so Stone sent large amounts to the battlefields of France; sadly most never returned. The Summertime van stands lucky as ever, a monument along with The Wanderer to the early leisure vanners.
With Special Thanks to:-
Jonathan Shepherd and WM Whiteman for information supplied.
Images copyright Jonathan Shepherd, Colonel John Clarke, WG Stables.
Article by GypsyWaggons / UK Vardo Heritage Project.
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