Article by Thomas Baurley © 2013 – Technogypsie Productions – All Rights Reserved.
There are always discussed a lot of pros and cons about “Gypsy” culture, and we’ve always been on the side of admiration for the talents, beauty, and charm portrayed by Gypsies, rather than the disgust that their under-culture of thieves, beggars, and trash that many towns fear when they hear the term. One of the beautiful elements of Gypsy culture in my eyes is the “Vardo” or the “Gypsy Wagon”. They are also called a van, living waggon, caravan, house truck, or waggon. Originally it started out as a traditional horse-drawn wagon upon which was built a house that the British Romani people lived in. Today, they are mostly mechanized, without horse, and is usually an artistic masterpiece that has some of the same utilities as an RV, motor home, caravan, or camper van. They often have a wood fire stove within, having a chimney or a pipe, and consist of fine decoration, woodwork, intricate carvings, gilding, and painting on the inside as well as the outside. The woodwork of these masterpieces are fantastic. It is said that amongst the British Romani, the vardo is seen as a masterpiece of wood-crafter’s art and artistic design, representing their culture and way of life. They were very popular for well over 70 years recorded as early as the mid-1800’s upwards into the 20th century C.E. (common era) With the motorized age, they’ve been replaced by Recreational vehicles, caravan’s, and house trucks. They are still around, but not used for year-round living like they were in the past. You’ll find them at alternative festivals, Romanichal horse fairs, and country fairs being displayed as the exhibit they are.
The Original Vardo
The Romani arrived into the British Isles by 1500 C.E. (common era) but did not live in the vardos until the early 1800’s. Before the 1800’s they traveled in traditional tilted carts or horse-drawn carts, on foot, and sleeping in the carts or in small tents or bender tents (made of branches like willow that bent inwards to support a waterproof cover). The original vardos were drawn first by cast-off horses and then after World War II replaced by breeds of horses suitable for the work such as the Gypsy Cob, Coloured Cob, Gypsy Horse, Gypsy Vanner, Tinker Horse, and Irish Cob. The first recorded use of a vardo as a living accommodation was in 1810 by non-Romani circus troupes in France which were much larger vehicles pulled by teams of horses allowing for maximum capacity for storage and living spaces. This was replaced in the 19th century by a smaller caravan that current vardos are found to be styled after. The Romani Gypsies only lived and highly utilized the vardo for just over 150 years. By 1840-1870 the Romani in the U.K. incorporated their living spaces within them, required less horses to pull them, and added their own characteristic art and design elements to the inside and outside. These were designed with large wheels set on the outside of the wagon’s body with sloping sides outward as they rise towards the eaves. There have been recorded to be six original types that differ in shape, placement of the wheels relative to the bed, size, by maker, and location manufactured. Doors are usually located in the front. The bow-top roofs and open-lot types usually consist of canvas stretched over a curved wood frame, while the others are roofed in wood. Designs were pretty much standardized by the 1850’s with common features shared amongst them all. Cast-iron cooking stoves from America where imported in and incorporated within them from the 1830’s onward. This led to the incorporation of a chimney to draft out the smoke. Chimneys are placed on the left side in American and European vardos, while usually placed on the right side since the caravan in the UK, Ireland, and Australia travels on the left side of the road in order to prevent damage from trees, shrubs, and other items sticking out over the road. The stove will also be found within a wooden fireplace outfitted with fire-proofing and protection surroundings. The inside of the vardo often has built-in seats, a wardrobe, cabinets, bunks in the rear, chest of drawers, and sometimes a glass-fronted china cabinet. Windows are often found on the left side and rear in UK, Irish, and Australian vardos, while on the right side in American, European, and Canadian versions – again as protection from damages along the side of the road. Some are built with clerestories to allow air and light in for ventilation and natural lighting. Brackets for oil lamps can be found mounted over the chest of drawers opposite the fireplace, while the dresser top is used as a table.
Charles Dickens’ describes a vardo in the Curiousity Shop (Chapter 27) as:
- “One half of it… was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the windows, with fair white curtains… The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It also held a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking-utensils and articles of crockery. These latter necessaries hung upon the walls, which in that portion of the establishment devoted to the lady of the caravan, were ornamented with such gayer and lighter decorations as a triangle and a couple of well-thumbed tambourines.”
The Romani termed these caravans as “vardo” within the Romani language deriving from “vurdon” the Iranian word for “cart”. In its age of popularity, they were commissioned by families or newlywed couples from coach builders that specialized in their construction which took upwards of 6 months to a year to build. They were artistic treasures to the Gypsies and included much customized work and design around their construct. They often included ash, elm, pine, cedar, and oak with gilding of gold and/or silver. Created first by the Romani, they were incorporated by later non-Romani Gypsy types such as tinkers and travelers becoming a theme for the nomadic lifestyle they all share in common. The wagons were often named after their owners (such as ‘Brush wagon’), their style (such as ‘Ledge wagon’), town of its construction (such as ‘Reading Wagon’), or the builder’s name (such as the ‘Burton wagon’). There are six main styles today of the vardo with a variety of designs, these are:
- Brush Wagon (or fen wagon) – Was a standard Romanic vardo with straight sides and wheels located outside of its body. Sharing the family name “Brush” of its owner, it was very similar to the “Reading vardo” but unlike other styles had a half-door with glazed shutters located in the back of the vardo with a set of steps arranged the opposite way from other wagons. It did not have the molly croft skylight on its roof. It had exterior racks and cases fitted on the outside frame as well as its chase so that the owner could carry trade items and merchandise such as wicker chairs, baskets, brooms, and brushes. It had three light iron rains around the roof and sometimes trade-name boards used for storing bulk goods. Later wagons were elaborately decorated and colorfully painted.
- Reading Wagon (or kite wagon) – sharing the name of the town it was constructed in and represented a design that was the epitome of the Romani’s golden age. It had straight sides that sloped outwards towards the eaves with high arched wheels. They were relatively light weight dating from 1870 C.E. and synonymous with the original builder “Dauton and Sons of Reading” where they were made. These were probably the most cherished of vardos by the Romani because of its weight and aesthetics, ability to cross fords, able to pull off road and over rough ground. They were 10 feet long with a porch installed on its front and back. The rear wheels were 18 inches larger than the ones on the front. By the 20th century they had raised skylights and on either side of the bed were installed quarter-inch thick beveled mirrors with lavish decoration. The locker seats and cupboards were clasped to prevent movement during travel. The back and side windows were shuttered and decorated. The body was made from beaded tongue-and-grooved match boards, painted red picked out in yellow and green. The extent of the decoration varied with the wealth of the family and represented as such, sometimes with gold gilding, gargoyles, carved lion heads, gold painting, or gold leaf. A good video demonstration of this wagon can be seen at http://youtu.be/RKY3lNRmYpE.
- Ledge Wagon (a.k.a. “cottage shaped wagon”) – This wagon was named after its unique style of construct and design. The wagon had a more robust frame and living area extending over the large rear wheels. To support the frame, brass brackets and a solid arched roof upwards of 12 feet in height would extend over the wagon’s length forming a porch at both ends of the vardo. This porch roof had support by iron brackets. The vardo’s walls often had ornate carvings and scroll work design along its length. The tongue would be paneled in groove boards for extra support and structure.
- Bow Top Wagon was named after its unique style of construct and design. It was designed to be like the “Ledge wagon” but significantly lighter and less likely to topple in strong winds. The roof is a very light weight canvas top with wooden frame supports reminiscent of the old “bender tents”. The front and back of the vardo are decorated with ornate scroll work and the tongue/groove with the rest of the wagon painted green to be more invisible when camped in the forests. The interior had the same high scroll work design or was covered with Chenille fabric. Often inside was found a table, double bed, and a stove. Before World War II the canvas was said to be teal-colored because only cotton duck was available at that time.
- Open Lot Wagon (a.k.a. Yorkshire Bow) was named after its unique style of construct and design. It was almost identical to the “Bow Top Wagon” with same design except there was no door – a curtain was hung instead for privacy.
- Burton Wagon was named after its builder and is one of the oldest examples of wagons used as a home in the U.K. It was often found undecorated in its origins evolving into the elaborate design it is now. It wasn’t suited for off-road use because of its small wheels. In the later evolutions they became very ornate and well decorated. Later nicknamed “Showman” as they became used by tinkers, travelers, and gypsies that hit festivals, fairs, and shows – exhibiting wealth from their intricate carvings, adornments, cut-glass, heavy gold leaf, and angel lamps. Most have a molli-croft roof.
Life in a vardo was a tight fit. The vardo is a one-room wagon, sometimes with a sliding door installed for privacy and bunks that pull out under the adult bed for children to sleep in. Every nook-n-cranny was used for storage and as a chamber to stuff things. The original wagons were horse-drawn and a days travel would never be more than 15 miles in a day (except a rare instance). Often the vardo is pulled by one large horse, with a second added for hilly terrain. Every 10 years of use, the vardo was often returned to the builder for upkeep and maintenance, re-structuring, and a check-over.
Vardo artwork almost always is of ornate and elaborate design, hand carved, and painted with traditional symbols. Sometimes this was used to exhibit the owner’s wealth, their lifestyle, or trades. The exquisite nature was to represent the fine craftsmanship, artistic skills, and wood carving that they were notable for as an example of their skills when looking for work. They rarely constructed the wagons themselves though, as they left that to task to specialized coach builders. Besides notable Romani symbols, artwork included gargoyles, lion heads, vine work, floral designs, griffins, birds, lions, horses, and foliage. Sometimes upwards of 4-15 books of gold leaf were added to the decor. Some of the artwork have raised attention to the specific artist for their style and beauty – in the early days these were Tommy Gaskin, John Pickett, Tom Stevens, Jim Berry, and John Pockett as notable artists. Today artists like Lol Thompson and Yorkie Greenwood continue the tradition.
Death of a Vardo – The Romani would often burn the vardo and belongings of a owner when they pass from this realm. This was very traditional during the 19th-20th century. No possessions would be sold and would be burned or few items of jewelry, money, china, and personal effects left to the family. Today they are rare and far few in-between but represent a revival culture on the move up. Popular in the 18th-20th century, the Gypsies began to lose ability to keep them from the mid 1900’s as economics, environment, technology, and a lack of interest in traditional ways/crafts became common place. The auto replaced the horse, motorized caravans replaced the horse drawn vardo. It is estimated that less than 1% of gypsies today live in traditional horse-drawn vardos. They have been converted into conversation pieces, art exhibits, collector items, play houses, garden plant potters, museum pieces, lawn decoration, writing rooms, art studios, and festival vending booths. Some old vardos have been restored and salvaged with an upsurge of use in festivals and horse shows.
The Motorized Vardo or Truck House
As revitalized interest has developed over the vardo and Gypsy Wagons as an art form, many have began to modernize the construct while keeping an avid interest in preserving the art, design, hand carvings, gilding, and painting upheld. They can be built atop pickup trucks, trailers, carts, and wagons. Many have rubber tires. A modern manufacturer of these tells easy-to-do-it-yourself instructions here: http://www.instructables.com/id/Building-a-Gypsy-Wagon/.
Nick Dow Gypsy Wagon Restorer
Article by Thomas Baurley, Technogypsie Productions © 2014.
- American Vardo undated “The New Gypsy Caravan”. Website referenced on 1/6/14 at http://www.amvardo.com/.
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- Fraser, Angus 1995 “The Gypsies”. Wiley-Blackwell.
- Gypsywaggons.co.uk undated “UK Vardo Project Website”. Website referenced on 1/6/14 at http://gypsywaggons.co.uk/.
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- Wood, Manfri Frederick 1973 “In the Life of a Romany Gypsy.” Routledge & Kegan Paul Books.