Caravanning Pioneers

At one time it was largely only the wealthy that could afford holidays, certainly during Victorian times. People generally began moving around the country much more during the 1800s and it was a time of significant investment and development in road and rail building across the nation. This made it more and more accessible and viable for people of different classes to escape the cities and get away.

The word caravan originates from the word ‘Karwan’ which largely referred to merchants who traversed the trade routes of Persia. In Europe, caravans were often used to provide shelter to hired workers on farms, by travelling entertainers and around the mid-19th century communities of Romany gypsies also began to develop a preference for this kind of abode over traditional tents.

One of the best known pioneers of caravanning in the UK was a retired Naval Surgeon, Dr. William Gordon Stables. He was an adventurous man by all accounts and some say more than a little eccentric. He had sailed all over the world and had a penchant for writing boys’ adventure fiction. Stables had an intense fascination for nomadic travellers and gypsies and longed to experience the freedom he assumed they enjoyed for himself. Apparently, he commissioned the British Wagon Works Company to build him the caravan of his dreams during the 1880s. It was fashioned for luxury and had a resplendent mahogany and maple wood exterior and inside it was bedecked with with black and gold decorations and lavishly packed to the rafters with equipment and creature comforts. Some say there was even a piano on board! It wasn’t so much a caravan as a sort of land-yacht!

He set off on his first road trip in 1885 and named the horse-drawn affair ‘The Wanderer’. He recalled that though most people treated him as some sort of novelty as he passed through at the break-neck speed of two miles per hour, others were less welcoming; a few even pelted him with stones!

The trend began to catch on and others took to the road coining the self-appointed label of ‘Gentlemen Gypsies’ for themselves. Some accounts depict vans decked out with running water, libraries and as having servants to tend to the whims of their grandiose inhabitants and tend to the horses that had to pull these monolithic wagons.

About twenty years later everyone was at it and mass produced vans started appearing. Clubs began to form in order to bring like-minded enthusiasts together and although they still relied upon the hospitality of willing landowners to host their lively gatherings, annual rallies became popular and are still at the heart of most clubs even to this day. And the rest, as they say, is camping history…

By: Rachel Redwood

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