The Ladies and Gentlemen of the World's First Recreational Vehicle Movement
Made in the UK
The recreational vehicle hobby was born in Britain towards the end of the nineteenth century. We know of intrepid hunters, explorers and photographers using horse-drawn wagons, caravans and trailers in Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand from the 1870s onwards, but it was in Britain that a group of people first came together to undertake caravan travel for its own sake – for recreation.
The group was known as The Gentlemen Gypsies. This group included many ladies whose early contributions to the growth of the hobby is only now being recognised. It is sometimes thought that the term 'gentlemen gypsy' was coined by the group's founder, Dr. Gordon Stables, in his 1886 book The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer. But the term is in fact an English translation of a Romany gypsy term, riah nawken, meaning 'a noble gypsy', referenced in Walter Simson's 1865 book, A History of the Gipsies: with Specimens of the Gipsy Language. The phrase was probably used by the Romani to refer to respected members of their own race, but Stables repurposed the term to apply to non-gypsy men of status loosely adopting the gypsy way of life.
Rebels With a Cause
Dr. Gordon Stables was without doubt the first gentlemen gypsy. Rather than any close affinity with gypsy culture, his appetite for the nomadic way of life came about as a result of the search for better health. Stables suffered from rheumatism. One of his first books called Health Upon Wheels, published in 1880, espoused the benefits not of caravanning but of cycling. The Wanderer, completed in 1885, was his first caravan. Stables' writings about his caravanning adventures around Britain sparked interest among thousands. But in the late nineteenth century only the wealthy could afford recreation, so it was left to them to follow Stables' lead.
The late nineteenth century was a time of great turbulence in British society. The industrial revolution was leading to a mass migration from country to city and from field to factory. Cities were unhealthy, so for those with a choice, country life was preferable. At the same time rural skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing, horsecraft, thatching, house construction and many others were being lost as workers became urbanised and different skills were needed.
The first Gentlemen Gypsies were motivated in part by a desire to retain traditional skills such as wagon building, carpentry and horsecraft. They became part of the larger Arts and Crafts movement of Britain which rebelled against the over-mechanisation of the country. They commissioned caravans from traditional carriage builders and invariably employed staff to cook, clean and tend to the horses. That's why the caravans of the Gentlemen Gypsies nearly always have a tent nearby – for their staff to sleep in.
Many of the first wooden caravans of the Gentlemen Gypsies used the ornate designs of gypsy caravans for their exteriors and interiors, but as a result they were also very heavy. Builders wanted to show off their carving skills and cared little whether the caravan would get bogged in the first field it crossed. Railway carriage makers were also some of the first caravan builders, but they too had no need to consider weight. In the early twentieth century caravans became lighter and smaller, allowing owners to venture further away from main roads. Bertram Smith and Bertram Hutchings were two of the first lightweight caravan builders.
A Club for Gentlemen Gypsies
In 1891 Stables wrote "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."
In 1907, shortly before Stables' death in 1910, his wish was fulfilled. Due to ill-health Stables was not able to play an active role in the new club, so it was left to the club's secretary, J Harris Stone to bring his organisational skills to bear on the new body. It would become known as The Caravan Club. Harris Stone organised annual caravan meets, kept a list of 'pitches' where club members could pitch their caravans on private land and promoted the club through newspaper articles and photographs.
Horse-drawn caravan owners dominated the early membership of the club. From about 1910 motorhomes began to appear at annual club meetings, much to the consternation of the more conservative club members who saw motorhomes as symbols of what the movement was seeking to escape – noise, pollution and discomfort. Over time however, motorhomes became accepted.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club is today Europe's largest touring organisation.
Gentlemen (and Lady) Gypsy Gallery
Some of the best historical images of Gentlemen Gypsy caravans are in the archives of the UK Caravan and Motorhome Club Collection. A visit to their site is recommended.
The following images are mostly taken from J. Harris Stone's 1914 book, Caravanning and Camping Out. Harris Stone was not only the first secretary of the Caravan Club, he was also an accomplished photographer. Thanks to him we have good records of some of the caravans of The Gentlemen Gypsy movement as well as their owners.
Tap or hover over each image for further information.
It was essential for the caravans of The Gentlemen Gypsies to have names. Naming a caravan personalised each vehicle and brought a sense of domesticity and homeliness to these houses on wheels. Most names evoked a romantic sense of exploration or escape. Below are just a few examples of the names used. Dr. Gordon Stables' The Wanderer remains by far the most popular RV name in use today.
Adventurer (Mr. J. Johnston Green, J.P.)
Antelope (Mr. Edgar A. Innes)
Aphis (Dr. J. W. Pettinger)
Arcadian (Mr. L. Richmond)
Content (Mr. Arthur Burden)
The Crimson Rambler (Mrs. A. Kerner-Greenwood)
The Cruiser (Mrs. Margaret Gibbs)
Crofton (Mr. Harry Webster Green)
Daffodil (Mr. T.S. Palmer Dane)
The Doctor (Mr. H. Barnston Daubeny)
Egypt (Miss C. L. Sheppard)
Escape (Mrs. Edith F. Towers)
The Fox (Mr. W.R. Hugh Inglis)
The Greenfinch (Rev. H.A. Soames)
The Green Van (Mr. Charles William Thomas)
Gypsy Queen (Mr. Bertram Hutchings)
Halcyon (Mr. J. Johnston)
Harfraja (Mr. Harold G. Nelson)
The Hawthorn (Mr. F. Mackintosh)
The Hut (Mr. J. F. Rose)
Ivy (Mr. T.S. Palmer Dane)
Joan's Ark (Miss Joan Kathleen Moriarty)
The Lady Go-lightly (Rev. Richard William Wilson)
Lindeth (Miss E.H. Caldwell)
Lorna Doone (Miss H. S. Manfield)
Mainstay (Miss Susie Hardy)
Narcissie (Mr. T.S. Palmer Dane)
The Nomad (Mr. Walter Illington)
Olympia (Miss E.F. Hamilton)
Perinik (Mrs. Coucer Green)
Rail Saloon (Mr. Fred M. Barber)
The Rambler (Mrs. Skerrett-Rogers)
Romanly (Mr. Claud H. J. Evershed)
Shelta (Mr. Ernest Van Homan)
Tally Ho! (Miss Grace A. Simmons)
Tortoise (Miss Catherine E. Johns)
Vagabond (Mr. H. Pentreath Richards)
The Wanderer (Dr. Gordon Stables, R.N.)
Wandering Willows (Mr. E.G. Peck, M.A., M.R.C.S.)
Wayfarer (Mr. W.G. Brett, M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P.)
Zeppelin III (Mr. Henry George Wheeler)
The photograph from New Zealand at the top of this blog is an example of the international coverage The Gentlemen Gypsies received in the early twentieth century. Just like well dressing, cheese rolling and more recently Brexit, wandering the countryside in an imitation gypsy caravan was seen overseas as another example of mildly eccentric British culture.
But The Gentlemen Gypsies were onto something. Reports back from caravan owners were full of praise for the health-restoring qualities of a caravan holiday. Reconnection with nature was good for the mind and the body, whilst the fully-enclosed caravan was far more comfortable than tent camping without the cost of staying in a hotel or dependence on the railways.
After the First World War horse-drawn caravans declined in popularity due to the wartime decimation of the horse population and the rise of the automobile. Horses would be replaced by horsepower, and the automobile-drawn caravan and camping trailer became the dominant RV designs in Europe, North America and Australasia.
Nevertheless it is worthwhile paying a modest tribute to the group of men and women who started a hobby that today comprises more than fifteen million vehicles worldwide. RV owners today are in some ways all descendants of The Gentlemen Gypsies. Although we use very different RVs today, we follow their lifestyles and spirit in our travels – minus the servants.