Dr. Gordon Stables

His Contribution to RV History


Dr Stables with his dog Hurricane Bob (1886)

(All images from The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer (1886) and Leaves From the Log of a Gentlemen Gipsy (1891) both by Dr. Gordon Stables)


The man who conceived of the horse-drawn caravan called The Wanderer in about 1884, Dr. William Gordon Stables, is sometimes called 'The Father of the RV'. Is this title justified? rvhistory.com believes so.


Stables designed and commissioned what we currently believe is the first purpose-built RV. He did so at a time when the only other people using horse-drawn caravans were gypsies, circus folk and itinerants. None of these groups were using their caravans for leisure. Stables' most important contribution to RV history was as the first person to conceive and use a vehicle that could be used solely for recreation.


His second major achievement was to popularise this new hobby through his books. His best known book is The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer written in 1886, but he wrote many others. The accounts of his travels were reviewed by newspapers and read widely as far as Australia and New Zealand. Stables' writings inspired many others to try out the RV lifestyle for the first time.


Having an idea, carrying it out and then writing about it was not everything Stables achieved. These are some of his other contributions:


1. Using Ship Accommodation to Inspire RV Design


As a former naval surgeon, Stables had slept on a number of ships. He recognised that a ship's cabin needed to use space efficiently and contain only items essential for survival or basic comfort. He was the first to use nautical design in a land-based vehicle. He described The Wanderer as a 'land yacht', called his holidays 'cruises' and used terms such as 'fore' and 'aft' for the front and rear of the caravan.


The layout of The Wanderer was sparse, with everything that could break stowed away in cupboards as on a ship. Some items had multiple uses - his single bed was a sofa during the day. Others were portable - his cooking appliance, a 'Rippingille' oven, could be taken outside when the British weather allowed.


The terms 'road yacht' or 'land yacht' were used extensively by RV designers of the early 20th century to denote an RV with an efficient, ship-shape interior. Stables was the first of these - a pioneer of maritime-inspired RV design.


2. Recognising the Health Benefits of the RV


Stables was discharged early from the navy, possibly because of the long-term impacts of 'jungle fever' (typhoid) contracted whilst sailing along the east African coast. His decision to spend his enforced early retirement in an RV was probably made for health reasons.


In nineteenth century America, so-called 'health seekers' had sought to escape the diseases of crowded eastern seaboard cities (mainly consumption, or TB) using converted wartime ambulance wagons. So the health benefits of an outdoor life were already known to some.


Stables wrote extensively on health matters and included a section on the health-giving properties of a caravan holiday in his book, The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer in 1886. The restorative properties of an RV holiday continue to be recognised to this day.


3. Using an Ancillary Vehicle


Stables' valet Harmann with his 'tender' (1891)

Stables often took with him on his travels a valet and a horseman. The valet used a tricycle to ride ahead of The Wanderer to warn other road users of the impending arrival of a large, slow vehicle and to scout out possible overnight camping sites. In true nautical fashion Stables called the tricycle a 'tender'. It was lighter, faster and smaller than the main RV and went where the RV could not. Does that sound familiar?


Many of today's RV users carry bicycles for local exploration, including folding or battery-powered ones. Some motorhome owners go further and tow a small automobile. For those with caravans, the tow vehicle becomes the 'tender' once a destination is reached. What a clever idea - pioneered by Stables in 1885 and based on the concept of a yacht tender.



4. Conceiving the idea of a Caravan Club


The Wanderer in Bognor (1891)

In 1891, Stables wrote,


'I cannot help saying that my holiday at Bognor has been one of the most refreshing and restful any man could enjoy. So convinced am I of the amount of health and pleasure derivable from a caravan and camping tour, that I have under consideration a scheme for the formation of a Gentlemen-Gipsy Club, to tour and camp in the loveliest parts of our own lovely land.'


from Leaves From the Log of a Gentlemen Gipsy by Dr. Gordon Stables (UK, 1891)


So, as far as we know, Stables was the first person to conceive the idea of forming a caravan club. The idea was premature however, and it was not until 1907 that the UK Caravan Club was formally created, with Stables as its first Vice President. The Caravan Club still exists today.


5. Combining RV travel with Creativity


Stables was one of the first to combine creative pursuits with an RV holiday. In his case it was writing. The Wanderer became Stables' mobile writing studio where he wrote dozens of books. These were boys adventure stories, travelogues and non-fiction books on pets and health.


Escaping from everyday life to write, paint or make music is common amongst creative communities. Escaping in an RV is one way of unleashing one's creative juices. The change of scene, the different people and places encountered along the way, the soothing impact of nature - all these can inspire new creative ideas. Stables was one of the first to get creative in an RV.

So, while Stables may be remembered most for The Wanderer, his legacy is far richer than this one vehicle. He should rightly be known as 'The Father of the RV'.


Andrew Woodmansey