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Berkshire Family Historian
September 2002

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, September 2002 Contents

The Reading Wagon

by Janet Keet-Black

Do you remember those halcyon days when the sun always shone, the corn was always golden and the itinerant harvesters always mysteriously arrived at precisely the time the hops needed pulling, or the strawberries picking? When the Gypsies' caravan of horse-drawn wagons rolled over the hill in the gathering dusk, just as it had for centuries past?

Well, actually, not for centuries past. When Gypsies first appeared in these islands they moved about on foot, sleeping out in the open or in barns, or maybe in benders, those improvised tents now favoured by many non-traditional travellers. The wealthier may have been fortunate enough to own a donkey on which to transport the family's belongings, or even a horse or two to pull a cart, but my own Cooper great-great-grandparents, even as late as the early l900s, had nothing more than a pushcart on which to pile their temporary home, and my late father, born in 1915, spent his entire childhood in a bender tent.

A Reading Wagon (illustration)

A Reading Wagon from an Illustration in the London Illustrated News, 1879

In this country, the 'Gypsy caravan' (van, wagon or vardo to a Gypsy - never a caravan) with stove and bed, did not make an appearance until at least the mid 1800s, the forerunner being little more than a bender tent erected on a fiat cart, and bore small resemblance to the brightly coloured, richly carved wagon that some Gorjers (non-Gypsies) romantically equate with the 'real' Romany. Walter Simpson, in A History of the Gipsies, wrote:

'In no part of the world is the gipsy life more in accordance with the general idea that the gipsy is like Cain - a wanderer on the face of the earth - than in England; for there the covered cart and the little tent are the houses of the gipsy ...'

However, it is obvious from Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, that by 1840 living wagons, complete with stove and bed, were in use by non-Gypsy travellers. He placed his Mrs Jarley, wax-works proprietor, in:

'... a smart little house upon wheels ... with window shutters of green picked out with panels of staring red ... partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship. ... The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof.'

It is probable that some Gypsies adopted living wagons as a mode of travel and accommodation round about 1850, although the earliest I have found any of my ancestors - my Keet great-great-grandparents - recorded in one is in the 1871 census, by which time country wheelwrights were being commissioned to build them, the various designs limited to the amount of ready cash available.

By the late nineteenth century, living wagons had evolved into those we have come to identify as the Gypsy caravan - the Reading, the Ledge, the Burton, the Bowtop - but although the Reading is synonymous with Dunton and Sons of Reading, it was also built elsewhere; the 'kite' wagon dating back to 1870, lovingly restored by the late Peter Shallcross and now on show at the Gordon Boswell Romany Museum at Spalding, Lincolnshire, was built by Wicks of Wisbech, and other builders of the Reading included F. J. Thomas of Chertsey, Surrey, Williams of Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, and D. Macintosh of London.

The town of Reading during the mid-nineteenth century, perfectly situated as it was on the highway from London to the West Country, boasted many wheelwrights and harness-makers and seven coachbuilders were established there by the 1870s. Although it is unclear when Dunton and Sons built their first living wagon, in 1874 they were to be found at 30 King's Road and Highbridge Wharf, trading as 'coach and cart wheelwright and general smith' and by 1884 were recorded as 'van builders'.

Samuel Dunton appears to have founded the firm and, after him, his son Alfred was the mainstay of the business. The late Ferdinand Huth remembered that from the 1914 period, another son, Samuel Eber, attended to the business side and made the contracts, while a third son, William, or 'Bill', worked on the bodies. The firm employed other members of the family, including Alfred's son Albert and a nephew, George, who did the painting and gilding.

Of all the wagons, it was the Reading that the Gypsies favoured most. They required a vehicle which was best suited to pulling off onto rough ground or crossing fords, and the tall wheels of the Reading, between which the straight-sided, high arched body was slung, suited their needs better than those with wheels situated beneath the body.

A Colchester stove (illustration)

A Colchester stove

The early models were not ornate, although the internal design is similar to that found in most types of wagons, with a double bed taking up the entire width of the van at the end opposite to the door. Beneath this is a shorter bed designed to accommodate children, the length dictated by the outward lean, from bottom to top, of the sides. Entrance is gained through a door at the shaft-end which opens outwards, as do the two hinged windows above the door, and the stove, (a Colchester in the earlier models, known as 'the policeman in the corner') is situated to the left as one enters, so that, when travelling along the road, the chimney is on the offside thereby missing any overhang of trees.

The Reading is approximately 10ft in length but a front porch adds another 18 inches and a back porch 14 inches. At 5ft in diameter, the back wheels are larger than those in front by 18 inches, with the body clearing the ground by 4ft 3ins. After 1900, mollicroft roofs (raised skylights) started to appear. The body itself would have originally been made from beaded tongue-and-groove matchboard, painted deep red picked out in red, yellow and green. If it boasted lion heads or gargoyles, these would have been painted gold or were gold-leafed. Side and back windows were shuttered.

Internally, the decoration and fittings reflected the wealth of the Gypsy for whom the wagon was originally built, as did the amount of carving and gold leaf used externally. By necessity, cupboards and locker-seats were built in to prevent movement whilst travelling. On either side of the bed space, quarter-inch thick bevelled mirrors may be found, perhaps lavishly decorated with red, cream and pink roses, with blue birds in each corner. Peter Shallcross, when restoring his old Reading, discovered what he thought was the original linoleum but which turned out to be a very rare example of hand-painted oilcloth. The Victoria and Albert Museum identified it as the type used for the sails of the old sailing ships, and would have been made in one of the ports. With the Thames close to hand, it is possible that Dunton's used similar material.

Gypsies ordering wagons from Dunton & Sons would stop on Ascot Heath and drop by to discuss their specific requirements with the builders. Measurements were written down on any convenient piece of paper and it was from these the craftsmen worked; no detailed drawings or plans were made. In their last six years, before being taken over by Froud, Rivers and Kernutt in 1922, Dunton's built six or seven wagons, taking six months to a year to complete. As the work progressed, they were paid in gold sovereigns, five at a time. In 1904, a simply built and decorated Dunton Reading cost approximately 70. In 2001, a more lavishly decorated one exchanged hands for 30,000.

During those years, which today's Travellers still refer to as 'wagon-time', the Gypsies took great pride in their homes on wheels, yet they seldom slept in them, preferring instead to sleep in tents or beneath the wagon itself. They also lacked sentiment in times of need, having no hesitation in selling them or 'chopping' (exchanging) them for something else.

Today, most surviving Reading wagons are to be found in museums or private collections, but of all the many and varied four-wheeled vehicles which trundie their way to the few surviving annual horse fairs of England, it is perhaps the Reading which epitomises the golden age of horse travel. One of the best publicly owned examples is in the Bristol City Museum; another is in the possession of the Rural History Centre at the University of Reading. The Rural History Centre is also home to the Robert Dawson Romany Collection, an extensive archive of books, journals, papers, videos, music and artefacts donated to the Romany and Traveller Family History Society by the collector.

Anyone with an interest in the history and culture of Gypsies can access the collection by appointment. Contact the Rural History Centre, Whiteknights, P0 Box 229, Reading RG6 6AG, or ring 0118 931 8664.

The Romany and Traveller Family History Society was founded in 1994 for the descendants of Gypsies, travelling showmen and other travellers, and now has over 500 members. For details contact the Membership Secretary, P0 Box 432, Walton on Thames, Surrey KT12 4WJ.

Further reading:

Dickens, Charles, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1840

Pearce, John, 'Horse drawn gypsy caravans' in Model Engineer (25 September 1998)

Shallcross, P. Our Vardo, 1996

Simson, W. A History of the Gipsies, 1865

Ward-Jackson, C.H. and Denis E Harvey, The English Gypsy Caravan, Its origins, builders, technology and conservation, David & Charles 1972

Wilson, Nerissa, Gypsies and Gentlemen, 1986

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created 27th October 2002