from the February 1936 edition of The Caravan magazine, by kind courtesy of Warner Publications.
The following interview with Bertram Hutchings of Winchester Caravans was published to celebrate the company's 25th anniversary in 1936. The interview is significant not only for the detail it contains on the company's early years and products but also because it reveals the challenges faced by early British caravan manufacturers in the transition from horse-drawn caravanning to motor caravanning before and after the First World War. Bertram Hutchings was a true gentleman in the field of caravan manufacture and his self-effacing personality shines through in the interview.
25 Years of Caravan Building
The History of Winchester
Bertram Hutchings (In an Interview)
"Yes. Twenty-five years have elapsed since the first Winchester caravan was built. In 1911 I became bitten with the caravan craze, and I have it as badly now as I had all those years ago when Mrs. Hutchings, then a bride of a few months, sportingly fell in love with my whim to live all through the winter in a van we had used for a summer holiday.
"It was a big and cumbersome caravan built many years before, in the days when brute force and ignorance were the principal stock-in-trade of the caravan builders. It needed two powerful horses to draw it - and was only a two-berth model! Furthermore, it was single-skinned, being built of tongued-and-grooved pine boards with the framing outside.
"Inside, this 18-footer was very comfortable, having two single beds at the back with a writing-desk between them, the arrangement being very similar to that of many present-day caravans except that a table nowadays, of course, takes the place of the writing-desk. This back compartment was curtained off from the rest of the van, which consisted of a sitting room containing a Hostess coal stove and a table, and chairs arranged as you see them in the photographs.
"After living some months in this van, we decided to build a 14-footer, which it seemed to us could provide almost equally generous accommodation whilst being light enough to be drawn by one good horse. This caravan saw the light of day early in 1912, and was the founder of the Winchester family.
"At that time we had relatives in the coach-building business, and their experience and equipment, allied to our enthusiasm, made a very good and presentable job of this pioneer lightweight van.
"A second van of similar design was then built, and so enthusiastically were these two vans received by such contemporary caravanning celebrities as Mr. J. Harris Stone, Captain Harvey-Jarvis, the Countess of Shaftesbury and many others, that I then decided to engage myself seriously in the business of manufacturing caravans. The essential need was obviously to concentrate very closely on methods of construction which would keep down weight, and so the first step which I took was to look closely into sources of supply of such light and dependable timbers as silver spruce and white cedar.
"In those days, of course, lightweight synthetic boards for panelling were unknown and three-ply was not considered to be dependable. We used tongued-and-grooved and rebated boards screwed to the inside of the framing, the inside finish being varnish and the outside paint. By the summer of 1912 a small fleet of these lightweight vans had been produced, and were let out on hire at £5 a week plus £1 for the horse. They were 14-footers with two compartments, and our prerogative as builders of light caravans for private use was never seriously challenged.
On War Service
"The business began to grow apace, and Mrs. Hutchings and I continued to live in one van or another until the outbreak of war, when we had a hire fleet of 15 caravans, and stables containing a dozen horses. An early move which the War Office made was to commandeer the horses, and in view of this, it seemed that it might be necessary to close down our workshops, which then had a floor area of 1,500 square feet. Soon, however, it became apparent that caravans had many uses for war purposes. Several of our horse-drawn models were sent overseas for the use of Red Cross detachments, and for officers' quarters.
"In 1915 we built our first caravan body on a motor chassis, and this van was employed by the Royal Naval Division. Other motor caravans followed and were employed in war work of many different kinds.
"To the writer, who had not been accepted for war service on account of physical disabilities, this was a particular pleasure.
"The autumn of 1919 witnessed the beginning of a new era for caravanning when the two-wheeled trailer first appeared. Eccles, of Birmingham, and Piggott's, of Cheapside, began caravan making, and they, together with ourselves, produced caravans of this type within a few months of one another, and it seemed clear from the start that this new kind of caravanning had an important future.
"At first however, we had many difficulties to overcome, not the least of which was the obtaining of suitable axles. Nowadays there are, of course, engineering concerns which specialize in the supply of axles designed for trailer caravans, but in the early days we had to make them ourselves. It was a temptation to employ converted motor-car axles, but even 17 years ago we realized their unsuitability! Strange, is it not, that some enthusiasts have not learnt this lesson yet?
"An unhappy circumstance which attended the birth of the trailer caravan was that the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided a few months later to impose the £1 per h.p. tax. This put a serious brake on the wheel, and from 1920 onwards for several years it seemed that self-propelled motor caravans had a bigger future than trailers. We built a large number of them before it became realized by the public that from the motor taxation point of view it is more economical to run a reasonably powerful motor-car towing a two-wheel trailer than it is to run a motor-propelled caravan.
"During this transition stage we were building large numbers of our well-known Concord models, many of which are still being lived in at the present time. They were 21-footers designed to travel by rail or to be drawn by a pair of horses, and we still occasionally get orders for building them. They are so robust and serviceable that even after they have been in use for several years they often change hands at a price as high as that which they cost when new.
"From 1924 until 1930, when the streamlined vogue came in, our most popular trailer-caravan was known as the "Voyageur", a lantern-roof 12-footer, that enjoyed a long period of popularity. Many of these "Voyageur" models are still in use and one or two of them have been seen, still looking as good as new, at recent summer rallies.
"The first streamlined Winchester is shown in an accompanying photograph, and its lines are continued in the latest Winchester of the present day. Since it was designed, experience has taught us the advantages of reducing the overall height, and we have naturally learned a great deal about the characteristics of different construction materials. This accumulated knowledge has shown the way to important weight reductions and big improvements in exterior and interior finishing.
"In 1932 it was felt that our very long experience of the production of caravans for private use put us in a position to concentrate upon the making of de luxe caravans offering an exceptionally high degree of comfort, good looks, and practicability. The first of what may be termed our super de luxe vans was a 16 ft. 8 in. lantern-roof streamlined model which was adjudged to be the best caravan at the R.A.C. Rally at Cheltenham in May, 1933. It was greatly admired by dozens of our old customers and it made us many new friends.
"This caravan started a vogue for trailer caravans of more impressive dimensions than those which had previously been popular among caravanners of what may be termed the connoisseur class. To-day a large proportion of our output consists of these very big two-roomed caravans, and it is pleasing to be able to report that our customers find them not unwieldy either on the road or in camp.
"The outcome of the tendency towards increasing dimensions is the Winchester "Royal" model illustrated on this page. Although eighteen feet in length, these big models are quite manageable and have been used for long-distance tours.
"We claim down in this quiet little cathedral city of Winchester to have pioneered the use of a lantern-roof on a streamlined model. We were the first to use a ball coupling, a steel tow-pole, and a bogey-wheel. By virtue of the low build of a "Winchester", we were the first to design a caravan which really did give a clear view of the road behind through the fore and aft caravan windows. We consider this one of the greatest safety measures ever introduced for the improvement of trailer caravans.
"And after 25 years of caravanning (I wrote a book on the subject 20 years ago), I still feel that a lot remains to be learnt about this new-old hobby which, as the years pass, is bringing the pleasures of the open air to an encouragingly large number of my fellow-beings. It is good to feel that the seeds one planted long ago have brought forth such a wonderful harvest."