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The Bohemian (UK, 1892)

The first accessible caravan

The Bohemian caravan of the Duke of Newcastle (c1892)

In the unfortunate vernacular of the period, Henry Pelham Archibald Douglas-Pelham Clinton, the seventh Duke of Newcastle (1864-1928), was a "cripple". He suffered a fall in childhood which severely damaged his spine. He had great difficulty walking, sometimes used a 'cork leg' and nearly always used a walking stick. Nicknamed, "The Little Duke", as an adult he was only five feet tall.

The Seventh Duke of Newcastle c1890 (source: Wikipedia)

The Duke's disability forced him to lead a different life to that of his predecessors. He would shy away from public office and instead pursued his private hobbies, chief among which were photography and caravanning.

A friend of Dr. Gordon Stables, the Duke decided in 1892 to commission a caravan to use on photography trips around Britain. Similar in appearance to Dr. Stables' Wanderer and from the same coach builders (the Bristol Wagon Works), the Duke named his caravan The Bohemian. Given the Duke's walking difficulties, he designed a 'land yacht' that was wider than usual for improved access and with a retracting table. These details are from an interview with the Duke in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1892:

"The Bohemian will carry a beam of six feet nine inches, which is fully nine inches wider than any other caravan yet built; and as she is nearly fifteen feet long from bow to stern, she will require some careful steering to get through narrow lanes without running aground, and, in passing through gateways, without wrecking the posts.

"The table will be unique, as, to gain space in the saloon, when not required it will disappear into the floor, leaving a good clear gangway in which to walk up and down and entertain our friends, not to mention room for the morning tub. There are, in addition to the sleeping berths, hammocks and a tent, and accommodation at a pinch for six or eight persons."

Although not explicitly described as such, this design suggests that The Bohemian is likely to have been the first ever accessible pleasure caravan. In addition it contained a cooking range, a small piano, a typewriter, fishing rods and guns and a photographic dark room. It is said to have cost £1,500 to build, five times the cost of The Wanderer built seven years earlier.

Despite his disability, the Duke kept a sense of humour. According to one newspaper report,

"The sides of the van are adorned by quite an unconventional crest. It consists of a brown jug with a foaming head, cross clays (church wardens)*, and quite a tempting-looking cigar."

*clay smoking pipes

The Duke's initial travels in the van took him to Kent, Sussex and the New Forest in Hampshire. Remarkably for a photographer's van, no photos have yet come to light of the caravan in use. In 1893, accompanied by fellow photographer Gambier Bolton, the Duke left The Bohemian at home to tour the world, visiting America, Canada, the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), Japan, Java, Malay Peninsula, Burmah and India.

By 1898 it seems that the Duke had amassed a small caravan of caravans:

"The present Duke of Newcastle is the proud possessor of no fewer than three travelling caravans. Two of them are comparatively plain, and are rather smaller, if anything, than an ordinary gipsy's van. The one used by his Grace, however, when setting out on a long journey is fitted up to accommodate three persons, and is one of the most perfect specimens in existence of the carriage-builder's art."

from The Otago Witness, 6 October 1898

By 1900 however, the Duke's preferred form of transport was, like most of of British nobility, the automobile. Below is an image from The Autocar of the Duke taking delivery of a new Locomobile steam-driven automobile in front of his home at Clumber Park in 1900.

source The Autocar 22 Dec 1900

The Duke's photography interests were diverse but included wildlife photography. He was commended in the press for preferring to shoot animals with a camera rather than a rifle. It is said that he owned over 30 cameras, but very few of his photos, including any that he may have taken of The Bohemian, have come to light.

A sketch of the Duke in The San Francisco Call of 24 Dec 1901


News of the exploits of members of the British aristocracy was eagerly lapped up nationally and across the commonwealth. The seventh Duke of Newcastle was no exception, and his travels in a caravan were met with curiosity and sometimes ridicule.

Normally overshadowed by its more celebrated predecessor The Wanderer, The Bohemian is less well known because the Duke gave little publicity to his nomadic travels and instead just got on with the job of photographing whatever took his fancy. But The Bohemian is important because it was adapted to suit a disabled person, and with or without his caravan the Duke showed that travel in all its forms was no barrier to someone with a physical disability.

He showed that caravanning was for everyone - and for that we should doff our hats to the Duke.

from The Pictorial Australian 1 Aug 1892

Andrew Woodmansey

August 2022


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