The English Gypsy Wagon

C.H. Ward-Jackson & Denis E. Harvey

Gypsy Caravans

The English Gypsy Caravan; It’s Origins, Builders, Technology and Conservation

An educational article extracted for the above book  published in 1973.

An ancient notebook, written for the guidance of young cavalry officer, began: ‘In the cavalry there are two kinds of Management: Man Management and Horse Management. The most important of these is Horse Management.’ This is as true for the van dweller. Manage the horse well, and the van will look after itself–or almost.

First-time travellers with a Gypsy van find the experience very different from their expectation, even within the first few yard if the ground is rough. After several refusals the horse starts off in a series of spasmodic, but seemingly gargantuan leaps and plunges which snap the body about on its springs like a jack-in-the-box. This performance is accompanied by thuds and shocks from the interior and the crash of falling crockery, sounds that persist for some seconds after the driver has pulled up, if he is so able, on level road. When all is quiet and he climbs up on the footboard and looks in, he finds all he possesses in chaos on the floor.

“I sold a van to a gen’leman once,’ one of the Smiths revealed, ‘and I was downright sorry for ‘im. Between you and us it, arn’t a very good one but de wheels was sound and he thought he’d go for a spin on the road wiv it. Well, he disremembered to untie de wireless aerial from up top of a tree by de van, look. When he pulled out, de wireless set jump wack-up fru de sky window and took half de roof off. Quite spoilt his ‘olidays.”

The right kind of horse is a heavy cob of about 14 hands, used to working in harness and in heavy traffic. He will have been accustomed to living waggon from the time he first set hoof on the road. To familiarise a colt to a waggon and motor traffic a Gypsy hitches him with a short rope from the head to the trace-ring on the collar of the shaft-horse, preferably his mother. Thus led, he walks along on the offside, always under the eye of his owner. So apprenticed he learns, for example, that he does not stop halfway up a hill, where there is not enough grip on the polished surface to start from a stationary position.

A Gypsy-trained horse pulls till he gets to the top, knowing from experience that he will enjoy a rest when he gets there.

One of the Dorset Coopers had a story that illustrates that confidence is at least half the need on bad hills.

“We was drivin’ out one day down country when we comes up with a gen’leman with an ‘orse and waggon. He was stopped halfway up a hill and couldn’t get no further. The van was all loaded up with gaujo stuff, campin’ stuff, and as we come up he was trying to get a big tin bath off of the cratch to lighten the load, look. Well it gets stuck, see, and as we come up, the whole cratch comes away and all his covvels comes bouncin’ down the hill past us.”

Cooper went on to say how he told ‘the gen’leman’ to stand away, refixed the cratch, loaded the bath and other things, his covvels-back onto it, spun the van around in the road and drove back to the bottom of the hill.

“I climb up then and start the mare up the hill at a run, my brothers and I got her up over the top before he even felt the waggon behind her.”

To help pull in hilly country a second horse, a ‘ sider’, is often hitched alongside the shaft horse, the traces running back to a swingle-tree or ‘spreader’ linked to a ring-bolt on the underside of the off summer. A rope or strap goes from the sider’s head to a ring on the collar of the shaft horse, the driver having a single rein to the offside snaffle rings.

A horse used to farm work, however powerful, is not qualified to pull a caravan. He can be schooled to work well enough but that takes time and trouble. The unaccustomed, tall overhang of a waggon front discourages some and frightens others. A farm horse has no way of telling that a vardo is hollow and, if he does not mistrust it on sight, he probably takes it for a loaded farm waggon. Not usually expected to pull such a load by himself he quickly loses heart and jibs when the road mounts a hill.

The frightened horse is the worst. He may try to leave his burden behind. We once saw an Irish mare of this kind in the shafts. The sight of the waggon did not appear to worry her, but then some twigs off a roadside sapling scraped the waggon side, slapping each of the uprights in turn. She was off at a gallop, the driver running with her. Had he been riding up at the end of the rein he might have held her, or at least kept her in the road till she tired; but there was no time for him to get back. He managed to hold the road some of the time and keep her headed straight but she kept kicking his legs out from under him. She was trying too to keep track of the waggon behind instead of the way ahead, and when the road swung away to the right the Gypsy couldn’t turn her. The old van was thundering along, and he was still swinging on the bit when they went slap through a hedge and overturned down a bank.

There are ways of staving off this kind of mishap when there is time to act. Controlling the horse from the footboard, at the rein end, is the best. The old hat on the Gypsy’s horse’ head, beloved by the illustrator of children’ book, probably had it origin in a strictly utilitarian purpose. It would be tied on to prevent a ‘green’ horse from seeing back over the top of his blinkers.

Once in a crisis on the road one of the Smiths asked for a peg knife, cut a piece out of a red and white striped tarpaulin over the cratch of his waggon and blindfolded the mare with it. Next he commandeered a green-and-yellow striped necktie from his on, cut it in half and used it to tie the bandage to the throat strap each side of he mare’ head. To the wide-eyed puzzlement of gaujos as we passed. He pulled us several miles in this outlandish millinery.

Most Gypsy horses are unusually well-conditioned, due both to the care they receive and the varied diet of the common and road side verge . The owner of a well-known racehorse stud once told us that when one of his horse was convalescing he would follow the advice of a Romany acquaintance and peg it out by the roadside. The horse will instinctively select from the hedgerows the plant needed to aid recovery, plants not available in most fenced pastures .

Horse that have been kept a long time by Gypsies are often paragons, treated as one of the family. We have known them so  powerful and willing that they will pull a waggon over hill and dale with the regularity of a traction engine, yet so gentle that they will lie on the ground while the infants crawl over them.


We’ve seen a Smith chavvy (child), stroll fearlessly between the shaggy fore-leg of a grazing horse and put a loving arm around each. When her mother called her away it was with’ stop botherin’ the horses!’


Internal facilities usually attract the gaujo’s first attention, but the external are more important. For example, the turntable or ring-plates of the fore-carriage or lock should be wide to afford maximum stability when in motion, and the wheels should be large but not heavily built. Pneumatic tyres are of no help. On soft ground their wide base may be useful but on the road it drags, especially , with a heavy van.

Some Travellers fit motor wheels but only because they have found replacements of the traditional kind too hard to come by or too expensive.

The fore-carriage is such that by sidestepping the horse till he is under the side window the waggon can be spun around almost in its own length, either forward or in reverse. But on uneven or soft ground this can be dangerous and is the commonest cause of overturning.

Though there are some vans without them, a good brake is almost indispensable. It operates on the two hind wheel rims from a brake wheel on the footboard.

A good horse will hold a van on a hill by sitting back in the shafts, but the brake is still needed to take weight off the breeching trap. On a down gradient it can be adjusted to minimise tension on either the breeching or the traces.

To hold the van down steep hills there is the skid-pan, drag or slipper. This iron ‘shoe’ is attached by a heavy chain to the swivel-pin of the lock. It hangs on a hook at the back of the fore-carriage and on bad hills is placed under the near side back wheel. There are other safety measures for supplementing the brake. One is a short length of chain with a snap-hook hitched through the spring-iron in front of the nearside back wheel; in an emergency it can be hooked around the wheel rim to lock the wheel. Or you can pullback on short ropes, or walk behind the back wheel holding a kettle-iron down against the rim by levering against the spring scroll-iron.

One Gypsy family we know had a large rubber tyre that came off an old Lancaster bomber; they kept it stowed on the cratch until starting downhill, whereupon they threw it overboard to drag behind on a chain from the back axle. The children rode on it, sitting around the rim to make weight.

Yet with all this safety-first ingenuity it is horse management that matters. On a steep hill, without his help, you can drag both hind wheels and yet get out of control.

For travelling uphill a useful attachment is a roller or scotch. Held by light chains from the hub-cap and axle-case, this iron- shod cylindrical chock can be hooked in position to jingle along behind the near back wheel. It takes the weight of the van on a hill if the horse should unexpectedly stop halfway. In lieu of a roller, a block of wood on a stick is often kept on the cratch for the same purpose. It’ a good thing to have handy in any event, for if a horse jibs badly on a hill the van can jump the roller and it needs fast work with a block to avoid disaster.

Strap or van harness is always used. The shafts of a vardo are not designed for chain harness like farmers used. Strap harness comprises

  1. a bridle fitted with blinkers and a double ring snaffle bit;
  2. a collar with thick leather traces attached which run back to the trace hooks at the base of the shaft;
  3. the pad with wide tug-loop on the pack strap to hold the hafts up and the girth or belly-band; and
  4. the crupper trap for the tail, fastened to the back of the pad, from which the breeching is suspended with tug-straps that buckle around the shafts and traces through the breeching staple.

All straps, throat-strap, back-strap, belly-band, etc have a buckle on both sides so that the harness can be adjusted to fit. Finally a set of full-length, stitched leather reins (fourteen feet long) are passed through the rings on the pad and collar-harness and buckled through the double rings on the snaffle. Long reins are essential for driving from foot-board or curb.

Gypsies like to use decorated harness with rams-horn hames, horseshoe buckles, pendants of red patent leather and silver, and brass or white-metal in mountings. A coach-whip was often carried, banded with brass down the length of the stock.

About the author

There are no comments so far

Leave a Comment

Don't worry. We will never use your email for spam.

Don't worry. We never use your email for spam.