A fine, restored, kite-style Leonard van, again, with rear wheels underneath

Leonard of Soham

Elias Leonard was born in Soham in 1848 to Robert, a brewer and seller of beer. After learning the carpentry trade in Nottingham and Leeds, Elias moved back to Soham and set up his own business. By 1881 he was a master carpenter and coal merchant, employing 1 man and 1 boy.

At the end of the century the following entry appeared in Kelly’s 1892 Directory:

As a youngster, Elias's son Arthur Robert (Bob) had another career in mind. Bob won a scholarship to the grammar school and dreamt of becoming a solicitor or lawyer. Instead he had to work in the yard, but he developed into one of the loyalest team members.

In time, Bob's son Tom became a carpenter and worked on the waggons as well. George was another son of Elias, and he also joined the family business.

Elias died in 1924, and Bob carried on the business. He had nine children but only five of them survived to adulthood. Perhaps that’s why he made miniature wagons to collect money during the annual Addenbrooke's Hospital parade.

Bob retired in 1934, and the stock was sold off, including a portable forge and anvil, a spring cart, hand cart, and 1 hundredweight of nails. He did retain some of his carpentry tools though, and he continued painting carts and waggons in his leisure years.

Elias advertised "travellers’ house vans and waggons built and repaired", and he established a family firm with a reputation for building good-quality straight-sided showmans (often called Burton-style). He also built kite-shaped Romany caravans constructed from pennyboard, sometimes referred to as Reading-style.

Rear wheels could be ordered either under the body, as with showman vans, or running on the outside, as preferred by most Romany folki.

Elias rented his yard from The Bishop Laney's Charity, which provided financial help for young men learning a trade.

He took on three apprentices paid for by the Charity: George Bishop, Arthur Fincham and John James Gillson.

Both Elias and son Bob had inherited the brewing gene. Elias would drink heavily on Saturday, stagger home to smash the house windows, and have to repair them on Sunday. Bob celebrated selling a waggon by spending money in The Jolly Gardeners ale house just across the road.

George, Bob and Elias Leonard (l-r)

Grand-looking Leonard showman

Bob Leonard about 1925

Bob and son Tom

The Pratt Street yard

A straight-sided Leonard showman. Unusually, this one has large rear wheels running outside the body

Possibly a showman taking possession of his new van

Bob's sons: Jack, Percy and Tom (l-r),

plus mini-waggon with a top box for collecting money

Bob's sons: Percy and Jack (l-r) about 1925

Stock auction upon the retirement of Bob

Some of Bob's tools, still with his family today

Leonard, Elias. Builder, wheelwright, smith, and dealer in paints, glass, etc. Waggon & Cart Works, Pratt Street.

In 1908 Elias went bankrupt. He called himself a carpenter in the 1911 census, and now Bob put himself down as the caravan-builder/employer at Pratt Street.

The Leonards with a Romany kite-style waggon outside The Jolly Gardeners in Pratt Street. Note again, this one has rear wheels under the body, although this type mostly had large rear wheels outside. Because Leonards purchased Thomas of Chertsey underworks, mainly built for showmans with rear wheels beneath, this could explain why Leonard kite-style vans often had non-typical unders

Like many builders in South-East England, Leonard selected Thomas of Chertsey unders to support the heavy showmans. Typical Burton-style vans were anything from 10 to over 12 feet.

Interestingly, one particular style of carvings and distinguished weatherboard profile, lions’ heads, etc, were often to be found on both Leonard kite-style wagons and those of another renowned regional builder: Stubbs of Barrowden. An example today can be found on one of their fine ledge waggons.

This suggests that both builders were using the skills of, or purchasing sets from, the same carver, often referred to as a journeyman. This indicates the two builders may have experienced a friendly, professional relationship.

Leonard kite-style waggon with rear wheels on the outside. Correct for this type of body, the Romanies preferred the wider wheels as they provided more  off-road stability. Owned by the Dennard and Beldam Gypsy families, Epsom Downs, 1923

This Leonard kite-style waggon has seen better days. The axles and wheels are incorrect and really belonged to a brewery dray. At some stage, the originals have been replaced


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Brother George had already left, feeling slightly aggrieved - the men were often paid with meat, and as George was single he didn't come out of the deal as well as family-man Bob.

Bob’s son Young Tom went to work on Sprites after the Second World War, exchanging the world of wooden waggons for the hardboard caravans of the 1950s.

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With special thanks to :- Denise Leonard for family information.

Images copyright Leonard family, Adam Breakwell, A J Shepherd and unKn.

Article GypsyWaggons / UK Vardo Heritage

© ValleyStream Media 2012.