gypsywaggons.co.uk is the website of a unique project dedicated to Romani waggons and the many past craftsmen who built them, also to bring about awareness of the historical importance of these wooden relics.
The project’s creator Stef says: “It’s time the rich and beautiful heritage of the British vardo, the traditional home of Romani folki, was respected more. Too many waggons have rotted in gorger gardens, often with no respect that these vans are iconic monuments on wheels to past struggles. There are many stone homes designated as grade listed buildings throughout the UK, but what of the Vardos - are they just to be forgotten? How many original waggons will be left in a hundred years time if this trend carries on, most have gone already? Regardless of the hardship of Romani life, Roms still often marinated themselves with rich artwork, colour and beauty”.
The Gypsywaggons website, features the world’s largest online gallery, a kaleidoscope of Gypsy waggon photographs with over 200 vans and it is rapidly growing. It is visited yearly by more than 5.5 million people worldwide who are often in awe of what the British Romani culture has created and it is a fascinating insight into the ornate wooden wheeled homes of Travellers for over 100 years.
Links for further information:-
The time when people lived in wagons is often called WAGON TIME, but before wagons most Romany people lived in tents or slept in barns where they could. At that time, they mainly moved around on foot, sometimes with a donkey to carry their tent rods and blankets. Eventually some began to have wagons specially made, but at first most could not afford to and they began to use a covered cart with a hooped top called a WHOOPY WAGON. A whoopy was not the same as an OPEN LOT as it usually had only two wheels and was either pulled by people or sometimes a donkey. They were mainly used to carry tent rods and other belongings. Some Gypsies who hawked earthenware or fish used a four-wheeled version of a whoopy that more resembled an Open Lot. OPEN LOT WAGONS were built by numerous people but Hodgsons of Halifax are regarded as one of the best. Uusally based on a four-wheeled cart with bowed hoops and a ridge top, over which decorated cloth, blanket and canvas are secured, OPEN LOTS are probably the commonest wagons today and come in many styles. The average hight for an OPEN LOT is ten feet (3.3m), usual body width about five feet, five inches (over 1.65m), length nine feet, two inches (3.25m), weighing 700kg.
Lots of different wagons were made before 1900, but one that proved very popular was called a KITE WAGON, named so because some people felt the shape from the front looked like a giant kite. The design of the READING WAGON was based on the early Kites. READING WAGONS acquired their name from one of the most famous wagon builders, Dunton's of Reading. These very high quality wagons were owned by wealthier Travellers. The best were beautifully made with much fine and elaborate carving, and a body of tongued and groved matchboard and chamfered ribs. They also had a high arched roof with a mollycroft skylight. Usually eleven feet high (3.30m), with a body width of four feet five inches (1.35m) a Reading wagon often weighed 1450kgs, if not more, and was distinguished by two large back wheels that were usually outside the body.
Two of the best LEDGE WAGON builders were Dunton and Orton. Called a Ledge because a ledge juts out from the sides of the wagon above the wheels, it also has a mollycroft. Slightly smaller than a Reading, a LEDGE WAGON was usually about ten feet seven inches (3.50m) high, body width about 4 feet 3 inches (1.30m) and usual lengh, including porch just under 3.7m. or twelve feet four inches. It weighed 1250kg and usually had two large wheels at the back that were outside the body.
BRUSH WAGONS on the other hand, had straight sides and no mollycroft. They also had doors at the rear and spindled racks and cases for brushes etc., and racks on the roof. It is said there are no original Brush wagons in existence, although reproductions have been made. One of the commoner wagons still to be found are BOW TOP WAGONS, many originally made by Wright (of Leeds), or Hill. The usual height for a bow-top is just under ten feet (3m), body width just over five feet at the floor (1.58m) and is uaually about ten feet long (3m). Average weight is 930kg. with wheels that are under the body with two slightly larger at the back.
SQUARE BOW-TOPS were usually homemade wagons, with a square top built onto a Bradford cart or something similar, so they are sometimes referred to as a type of Open lot and sometimes even a Bow-top, although their shape is rectangular. The usual height for a SQUARE BOW TOP is about ten feet (3.3m) with a body width of five feet five inches (over 1.65m). Weighing 700g, SQUARE BOW TOPS usually have wheels under the body that are all the same size.
BURTON WAGONS were mainly built for SHOW (Circus/Fair) families. T he main builders were Orton & Spooner of Burton-on-Trent, Howcroft of Durham and Watts of Somerset. Designs vary, but they were usually straight-sided with a mollycroft and were often of a similar construction to a Reading wagon. Usual height was just under twelve and a half feet (3.75m), usual body width six feet (1.80m), length approximately twelve feet five inches (3.75m), weighing 1410kg. Wheels were almost always under the body with two slightly larger ones at the back. SHOW WAGONS were probably only ever used by show people. The most famous builder was Howcroft of Durham. Usually a far bigger than traditional wagons, they were designed to be pulled by two or more horses. Show wagons usually had a mollycroft and were about the same height as a LEDGE WAGON. Usual body width was over six feet (1.80m), length was rarely less than fifteen feet (5m) and weight around 2,000kg. Sometimes wheels were all the same size but some had two slighter larger ones at the back.
There have been and still are, many famous men who renovate and decorate wagons. Probably the most famous names are:-
Charles and Bob Farrow
With sincere thanks to Robert Dawson for allowing us to use information from his booklet SPOTTING OLD VARDOS - A Moving On Book For details of Robert Dawson's books - see the section on Gypsy Book Sellers