A Caravan Philosopher
“Caravanners are primarily divided into three classes: those who can caravan, those who can’t, and a small group of true nomads and vagabonds, who must.”
from The Whole Art of Caravanning by Bertram Smith (1907)
I have an apology to make to Bertram Smith. When I was writing Recreational Vehicles: A World History, I didn't have enough space to do justice to Smith's life and his impact on British caravanning. I also misunderstood the quote above, thinking that those who "must" caravan were compelled to do so by a love of the outdoors or respect for gypsy culture.
In fact it was Smith's doctor who compelled him to caravan, for he suffered from tuberculosis. Like many others at the birth of the hobby, he "had" to caravan to improve his health. The all-too-delicate obituaries of the period as well as Smith's own writings did not mention this important fact. Sorry, Bertie.
Smith's contribution to early caravanning in Britain is often overshadowed by other, better-known caravanners of the period such as Dr. Gordon Stables and J Harris Stone. When it came to horse-drawn caravan design, both Stables and Harris Stone were traditionalists, relying on heavy, railway-carriage-like or ornate, gypsy-inspired wooden wagons to carry them through the British countryside.
(from left to right) The horse-drawn caravans of Dr. Gordon Stables, J Harris Stone and Bertram Smith
Smith on the other had was a modernist – perhaps the first. His caravans were box-like and relatively lightweight. As Smith put it in 1907, "one should aim at the greatest possible space, with the least possible weight". He saw no reason to carry lots of luggage and personal effects, since he believed that “one of the chief reasons of the tour is to escape from our belongings, and simplify our existence accordingly.”
This design philosophy allowed greater layout flexibility and reduced horsepower (often just one). Smith's caravans could be easily dismantled for winter storage and required little maintenance. Unlike his predecessors, Smith paid little attention to servant accommodation, since he did most of the cooking himself. When he did take along a horse-hand, he was given a tent, something he himself would never use because it was "an uncertain and ever-changing thing".
Smith's influence on later caravan design can be seen in the early caravans of another Bertram, Bertram Hutchings, and even in some of the first motor-drawn caravans of Eccles and Piggott Bros. Smith released post-war caravan makers from the shackles of gypsy-inspired building traditions and helped give them the freedom to build new types of leisure vehicles.
"A Detestable Removing-Van"
Smith's minimalist caravans were intensely dislike by traditionalists. Here is John Sampson reviewing Smith's 1907 book The Whole Art of Caravanning in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society:
"Personally we think Mr. Smith's invention is a blot on the landscape...there is still hope for him if he could but be persuaded to learn Romani, be less of an epicure, take his bath in the open, burn his detestable removing-van, and replace it by a decent Gypsy vardo."
According to biographer and friend Ward Muir, "when he abandoned gipsy vans and designed his own, he made not one but a fleet of eight". Smith in fact designed rather than built caravans, but he designed them down to the last detail and watched the coachbuilder like a hawk. All of his caravans had trademark half-inch wood panels and beams and canvas roofs. Smith's best-known "removing vans" are his first, Triumvir (16ft long) and possibly his last, Sieglinda (18 ft long).
Sieglinda was a larger van that Smith regarded as the product of the lessons he had learned with Triumvir and its successors. At least six of Smith's vans were available for hire. There are also records of Smith donating two caravans to the war effort.
Triumvir was exhibited at the May 1907 Travel Exhibition in the Horticultural Hall in Westminster, London and generated much interest in the caravanning hobby.
A Man of Many Talents
Smith was born in Cheshire, England and worked initially in the family cotton broking business in Liverpool. He began his caravanning days in England and North Wales in the late 1890s but his consumption forced him to move to Scotland and spend more time outdoors. He became a well know figure in the village of Beattock as he took up farming. He would often be seen walking alongside his caravan talking to locals along the way.
He became a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, Punch and Country Life and wrote a small number of books including two important ones on caravanning, The Whole Art of Caravanning (1907) and Caravan Days (1914). His other hobbies included classical music, punting, curling and farming. During the First World War he welcomed Belgian refugees to stay on his Scottish farm and pioneered the use of tractors to farm in all weathers. It is probably this last trait that accelerated the decline of his heath and ultimate yielding to tuberculosis in 1918.
Because he rarely visited London or mixed with other journalists, Smith himself was regarded as something of a loner. According to Ward Muir in the preface to Smith's book Running Wild, Smith "lived aloof from the world of Fleet Street and the clubs". This trait was sometimes translated as eccentricity, although in fact Smith was friendly, compassionate and thoughtful.
But Smith was certainly happy with his own company, as demonstrated in the photos of his caravans on the road. Smith actively avoided busy roads and the increased number of automobiles that went along them. He was not a fan of motorhomes, calling them "that unholy hybrid", although he did provide guidance on the construction of a Wolseley motorhome in 1914.
Selected photos from The Whole Art of Caravanning by Bertram Smith (1907)
There were a small group of caravanners who at the turn of the twentieth century dramatically improved the forlorn image of life on the road. They included Dr. Gordon Stables, J Harris Stone and Bertram Smith. Not only did these men practice the nomadic lifestyle for recreation, they also wrote about it such a way as to make others want to do it too. Without them, caravanning would not have become fashionable. I call this group 'The Caravan Philosophers'.
Smith's contribution to early caravan philosophy was to strip away the veneer of gypsy caravan culture and to reduce caravanning to its essentials. He explained why humans needed to go caravanning, describing it eloquently as a form of "horizon hunger". He added:
“I am not at all sure that a caravan is not as natural to mankind as is his burrow to a rabbit.”
He was dismissive of those wanting to take along the trappings of a permanent home such as fireplaces, armchairs and even pianos, focusing instead on travelling light. Time was needed to find out what items were unnecessary to take on a caravan journey, whilst rarely needed items could always be borrowed from a local farm.
He also disliked 'fair weather caravanners' and loved being out in the rain:
"Almost all weather is good for caravanning...we need all sorts and conditions of weather to complete the full tale of experience and adventure on the road."
And even though a loner, he loved meeting other people and found the social side of caravanning to be the highlight of any trip.
So thank you Bertram for being an early caravan ambassador and philosopher and for feeding our hunger for horizons.