Henry & Isabella Wilson. Their son
Jacob Wilson was born in the ledge
Another rai at work - vardo artist the late
Jim Berry decorating the ledge, 1961

 

Harriet and "Old Jake Winter" had the waggon built in 1897

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


William "Bill" Wright
of Leeds
with his "Creme de la Vardo"


By Perigwyn Tilston

If you ask about "Gypsy waggon makers" probably one of  the first names to spring to people's minds would be the great northern builder  William "Billy" Wright (1844-1909) of Leeds.

He gained special recognition amongst the Romani foki for his unique bulbous-styled bowtop design, which was often copied by other envious builders.  Although Bill Wright was renowned for his eye-catching bowtops he and his flat-capped northern crafts masters were also skilfully talented when it came to constructing wooden-sided vardos, and they easily equalled any of the other notable living waggon builders at the time in Britain.


Which waggon builder was having too many brown bread sandwiches for dinner before pondering on the tapered style of  a "Hovis loaf on a trolly "?  Round smooth top and tapered sides - admittedly they do look similar.  But what if they had eaten muffins?  Doesn't bear thinking.  Bill Wright's pride and passion for his craft is unquestionable, and it's evident for all to see that he was without doubt one of  the greatest vardo rai both in design and build ever known.




Probably one of the most popular visited examples still in existence today in the UK is the Bill Wright ledge waggon at York Castle Museum.  This vardo was one of the first to be constructed by Wright, and legend has it that it was amongst the best in the country - it was classed as the "creme de la vardo" in its day.  As he may have remarked to Jacob Winter:  "Your palace is ready, my kushti pral"!


It's a fine example of a Leeds-type waggon with wheels under the ledge in which a Reading waggon chassis and wheel assembly is fitted beneath a ledge-style body.  Wright liked mostly Yorkshire drabble axles - short axle stubs matched up to each wheel and fitted to the wooden axle case with large staple bolts and iron plate.  The axles date the waggon to 1897 and are stamped J Woodhead & Sons, Leeds.  Wright also purchased drabble axles from another supplier, Kendricks of Leeds.  His axle cases were symbolic too - neatly turned like no others, and his early waggons often characteristically displayed sunflower carvings on the doors or grapes.

Wright built many ledge-type waggons in his day and was also noted for his excellent pot waggons and carts, but he only ever made a handful of Reading-style waggons, and they are extremely rare today.  Billy Wright advertised himself as a van, wagon and cart builder.  He lived in Rothwell Haigh, Leeds, where he had his wheelwright business.  His sons, Herbert and Albert, carried on the family business after his death until 1926 when the last waggon was made.  The workshops were finally sold off in the 1950s and demolished to make way for new buildings in 1962.

 

York Castle Museum's waggon was originally bought in 1897 by Jacob and Harriet Winter from builder William Wright for £42 10s 0d.  Their nephew Jacob Wilson (son of Harriet's sister Isabella) was born in the waggon at Thornton-le-Dale at Christmas the same year.

The vardo passed on to Tommy Harrison, who sold it in turn to Dick Cunningham of Tadcaster in 1915.  Dick kept it for twenty years before selling it on to Bob Dixon in 1935.  Bob had it on a site at Tadcaster and let it out at 10 shillings a week until the Second World War.


In 1941 the wagon was bought for £24 by Bob Farrow, a horse-dealer and the brother of Jacob Winter's wife.  He washed it down with hot water and Vim then varnished it back up to a "Romany glint".  After keeping the vardo for a couple of months to attend a fair, he made a nice profit by selling it for £40 to Harry Robson, a farmer of Bishop Wilton.  Harry Robson used the waggon to house a farm labourer.  It was painted green, with wartime paint inside and out, the wheels and axles were removed, and it was stored in a barn - a clever move at the time.  In 1957 Harry sold it to York Castle Museum.

The Museum bought the wagon for the token sum of £10 and then began the arduous task of carrying out restoration work - this turned out to be mainly repainting.  By going round horse fairs and Gypsy foki the Museum's Curator eventually found the vardo artist - master waggon painter and traveller Jim Berry, appropriately addressed "of anywhere", who agreed to carry out the intricate decoration work.


 

Research was carried out on the paint layers by Museum staff to determine the original colour scheme.  This was eventually confirmed by Bob Farrow (who owned it in 1941).  Of some interest the cost of restoring the exterior was £150 and of restoring the interior £35, with painting materials being £9 8s 2d.  Jimmy Berry was happily paid on an occasional basis as the work proceeded.


The exterior decoration is a wine red ground with a bottle green scroll and white outline.  The wheels, axles and springs are in yellow with red line.  The interior was completed by Jimmy's wife in authentic style.


A waggon indoors in warm dry air is like a "fish out of water", and being of a wooded nature timber shrinkage is inevitable due to the lack of moisture.  Still it's perhaps better than being outside all year in our flooding country.  Sadly, Bill's ledge waggon can no longer be moved very far even in the Museum because the wheels and axles are now in poor condition. 





These waggons have seen off the Titanic and two world wars, quite an "atch" - ievement (atch is Romani for "stay"), so well done Mr Wright.  The ledge waggon at York is an important epitaph to the legendary Vardo Rai, and for many waggon foki it is: "The eighth wonder on wheels".

 

 

 

Images strictly copyright - York Museum Trust (York Castle Museum), ValleyStream Media, and Ron Burniston.
Additional info:- very special thanks to York Castle Museum Trust's Assistant Curator Sarah Maultby and Registrar Melanie Baldwin, the William Wright Family, Ron Burniston, and Wilson family.


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"Young Jake Winter", son of Harriet and Old Jake, in front of the ledge

The great vardo builder "Bill Wright"
A Bill Wright ledge waggon in York Castle Museum
William "Bill" Wright and good lady on his trap
Typical Bill Wright pot waggon
Interior of the ledge waggon fit for a King
Original Bill Wright bowtop