In Britain a traditional Gypsy home is thought to be a gaily decorated wooden caravan pulled along by a plodding horse. But in reality caravans have only been used by Gypsies for 150 years. Before then, they walked on foot, used carts to convey their possessions, and slept in tents called 'benders' made out of hazel twigs covered with canvas. Lacking tents, they would sleep beneath the tilt (cover) of the cart.
Waggons built to live in, not just to carry persons or goods, developed about 1810 in France. In England these were probably first used by showmen travelling between fairs and with circuses in the 1820s. Gypsies only began living in them about 1850.
The Gypsies' name for their waggon is a vardo (from the Iranian word vurdon). It was highly cherished, but they rarely built their own. Instead, newly married couples commissioned them for £50-150 from specialised non-Gypsy coach-builders. Building a vardo took between 6 to 12 months and used the wood of oak, ash, elm, walnut and pine.
They were ornately painted, decorated with carvings, and often enriched with goldleaf.
The waggons can be divided into 6 main types: the Brush, Reading, Ledge, Bowtop, Openlot and Burton. They evolved over the decades, their names deriving from their home-owners (Brush), the style (Ledge, Bowtop and Openlot), or the towns whose builders were noted for making them (Reading and Burton).
The Brush waggon or "fen waggon" is the "Dodo" of the Gypsy caravan world - or so was thought, it's now known there is one hiding amongst the trees after all! The waggon had racks and cases fitted on the outside to carry the brushes, brooms and baskets in which its owners traded. These were quality waggons but lacked ornate wooden carvings. Doors and steps were at the rear, there were straight-sided walls and no mollicroft on top. It was a travelling "superstore" for mats, brushes, wicker chairs, etc, often with glass showcases on the sides to display its wares.
The Reading, Ledge and Bowtop were mainly used by Gypsies. They all had narrow floors encased between tall wheels so that they could trundle safely over fords and rough ground.
The Reading is a wooden van with windows at the sides and back. Characteristically, it has sloping walls (4" wider at the top), thus earning it the nickname "kite waggon". At both the front and back, porches with carved side brackets give a little shelter. Portable steps lead up to the front door, which opens separately at the top or bottom. At the back a cratch (hay rack for the horse) is fixed beneath the back window, and a kettle box swings between the wheels to carry ironware or even bantam hens. The front wheels are about 3'6" high, the back ones much bigger at 5'. Running along the centre top of the van is a raised roof with small side windows, called a mollicroft, which runs short of the porches. Lastly, a chimney pokes out of the main roof on the right, keeping clear of nearside trees and overhead bridges.
The Ledge is similar to the Reading in many respects. However, this time the walls only have a 2" slope. Also, there is an even narrower floor, so to gain elbow room both sidewalls widen out at knee-level via a ledge over the wheels. Outside, a spindle rack for keeping vegetables or bantams is tucked in between each ledge and front wheel.
The Bowtop - Like both the Reading and the Ledge, the Bowtop has a front door and a rear window, but it differs by not having side windows or wooden walls. Instead, a weatherproofed canvas is tightened over an arched wooden frame. Inside, the ceiling is richly patterned to add elegance, and any wood is cheerfully painted.
The Openlot developed from the pot waggon in the 1930s. It is a more basic version of the Bowtop and has a similar canvas top but is built on to an existing cart. It doesn't have a door, but the open front has one or two supporting pillars and is closed up with canvas.
The Burton - Showman. These were originally fairground travellers' waggons as showmen chose vans like the Burton. They were for wealthy travellers, who had them specially built to taste. They are often elegantly adorned, with angel lamps, elaborate carving, eye-catching cut glass, and heavy goldleaf. They nearly always have a mollicroft roof, and the wooden side-walls are usually straight. The wheels are tucked beneath the floor, enabling it to be broader. Historically, the Burton was driven on better roads over smaller circuits.
Lovely Reading wagon at Appleby
The interior of a waggon - In larger wooden waggons of special importance was a cast iron stove, usually a hostess type, for both cooking and heating. In lighter Bowtops a queenie stove was fitted but was only used by Gypsies for cooking in bad weather as a campfire was always preferred.
There is only one room really, but behind sliding doors at the back is a raised double berth for adults with a smaller berth for children to snuggle in below. Cupboard and storage space was designed in every conceivable location, some wagons even having a hidden safe hole.
The usual day's travel was about 15 miles.
Normally, a single horse of about 14 hands pulls the vardo, with a second horse being added for hills. After travelling the roads for about 10 years, Gypsy vans were returned to
the builders to be repaired and repainted. When their owners died, vardos were sometimes burned. This was because of a belief that the dead were bound to their belongings until their possessions were burnt, buried or sunk.
Vardos proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century, when hundreds were built and travelled throughout Britain. Eventually, several factors contributed to a decline in the numbers of Gypsies living in waggons: the dominance of the motor car, the growth of cinema and television (which resulted in fewer large fairs and circuses), and less seasonal farmwork. Although the Openlot developed for Gypsies between the two World Wars, showmen had already swopped their Burtons for petrol vehicles. By the end of WW2 and the 1950s most of the specialist waggon-builders had died out anyway.
Monuments on Wheels - Sadly, today very few original vardos have survived the evolution of time: wear n tear, scrap-yard mentality, the great British woodworm, and the worst culprit of all, the weather, are mostly responsible for the vardos near-extinction. But it's not all doom and gloom - fortunately, there is a steady revival taking place in the UK, with an upturn in interest once more in Romani caravans. The few remaining original "lucky" waggons are safely in private collections or museums, either fully restored or under restoration.
Also, often working to original plans, a new generation of waggon builders and painters are up and coming, attempting to replicate the craftsmanship and construction of past masters. It's a challenge today for anyone trying to build a new waggon and get it right, especially using modern timbers which rarely have the robust character of yesteryear's seasoned wood. Will they last 100 years? We'll have to see! But to be fair, conditions of use and the UK climate has changed over the last 20 years. You could say the "missing ozone layer has upset the Gypsy cart", so the answer is more than likely an obvious one.