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The First Caravan Holidays

The Wanderer on Bognor Beach (from Leaves on The Log of a Gentleman Gipsy by W.G. Stables, 1891)

Whilst Dr. Gordon Stables is perhaps the best-known early leisure caravanner, he was not the first. Others were taking caravan holidays much earlier than the maiden journey of Stables' Wanderer in 1885. They did so in gypsy, hired or self-built caravans pulled by horses.

We know of these first caravanners from early newspapers. Here is a sample of these reports from the first two countries to host such holidays, the UK and the USA.

1872 (UK)

The first known account of a caravan holiday appeared in the Illustrated Land and Water newspaper of 20 March 1872:

A Novel Expedition

(from Illustrated Land and Water, 20 March 1872)

"It is intended, we are assured, by a party of gentlemen not unknown to the sporting a literary world, to shortly embark on an expedition round England and Scotland, visiting and sojourning in some of the most untrodden districts of the island. This grand tour is to be made in caravans, built expressly for the purpose. They are to be fitted up with stoves, mirrors, couches, cooking utensils, and every other requisite, to which may be added guns, angling rods, and a flight of trained falcons."

No further reports have yet surfaced to confirm that these caravans were ever built, but this account shows that the concept of taking a leisure tour in caravans "built expressly for the purpose" was in existence in Britain by 1872.

1874 (UK)

The use of gypsy caravans taken on holiday by non-gypsies was in evidence during the 1870s, as evidenced by this account:

How to Spend a Holiday

(from The Hasting and St. Leonards Observer, 1st August 1874)

"The present age is one of novelty and sensation. Only the other week we were treated to the novelty of witnessing a nobleman grinding an organ through the streets for his daily subsistence, and more recently we have been visited by three gentlemen who are making a summer holiday tour in a gypsy's caravan; but we were given to understand in bold and legible letters on each side of the vehicle that the above named trio had "no connection with the organ grinder," and unlike the latter, they did not shun declaring their name and address, for on another part of their temporary residence was inscribed - "C.E. Goodheart, Esq., Beckenham, Kent." Holidays are essential to civilisation. We are all agreed that they are good, and we must have them; but the question is often asked "How shall we spend them?" This query no doubt occurred to Messrs. Goodheart and Co., before they set out, but having solved the problem, they purchased the equipage of some gypsies, barring the horse - this was supplied from the stables of their seat at Beckenham, and was not the skin and bone description of animal usually seen attached to these vehicles - fitted it up with every requisite and "set sail" for a land cruise round the south coast, "dropping anchor" in Mr. I. Wright's field at the Crown Inn, for a day's rest. The usual duties appertaining to the household, including washing and cooking, were performed by the gentlemen themselves, who appeared to be of the jolly Mark Tapley stamp. A peep into the interior of their abode, disclosed a scene of comfort, as luxurious as could be expected where space is limited, and to make everything complete, household pets, consisting of a cat, dogs, a bantam &c., shared the life of their rowing proprietors. On Saturday the caravan started en route for Hythe, Dover &c., and, we have no doubt, at the termination of their peregrinations these gentlemen will have nothing to regret at having spent six weeks in a Bohemian style, which will afford pleasing reminiscences in the future."

The reference to this holiday as a "land cruise" is an early indication of the association between yachts and caravans, with the term "land yacht" later becoming a common expression for a caravan.

1875 (USA)

By the mid 1870s Englishmen were exporting the habit of taking caravan holidays to America. Newspaper reporters likened this habit more to the newfound custom of taking vacations on Pullman railway coaches.

Travelling Extraordinary - A House on Wheels

(from The Nebraska State Journal, 12 November 1875 - extracts only)

A Gentleman's Adventure in search of Health and Pleasure

"Yesterday we had a pleasant interview with an English gentleman who is travelling through Nebraska spying out the land. We are used to the "prairie schooner", in which home-seekers from the States across the river penetrate every nook and corner of the prairie; but in these days of 'Pullman' it is a novelty to find a gentleman mounting his house on wheels, and nightly pitching his bachelor establishment a day's nearer to the setting sun...

We found the vehicle in front of the store of Mr. Franklin & Son's - a roomy, comfortable covered conveyance bed room and kitchen in one, with a little cooking stove, and glazed windows, and a due complement of carriage lamps. The two horses were good and sturdy Canadians, three-fourths blood; and they travel at the rate of 30 miles a day, drawing 2,300 pounds. The owner of the "trap" - as an Englishman would call it - was in Mess. Franklin's store replenishing his commissariat. He is a kindly, well informed, and manifestly companionable gentleman, "hailing" from beautiful north Devon, and here in search of health and that pleasure which attends health. He said that this is his ninth visit to the States; and that he thinks that he knows the map of the country as well as that of his native land...

Mr. James K. Newcombe accompanied by his son, started last spring by Allen steamer for Quebec. Thence he proceeded to Toronto, and had his wagon "fixed;" and from that point he his journey has been at his own sweet will, paddling his own canoe, or rather, handling his own lines, boiling his own coffee pot, broiling his own steak or wild game, making up his own bunk, and grooming his own horses."

Also referenced in this report is the search for good health. So-called "health seekers" were some of the first users of leisure caravans in the USA.

A Gypsy Caravan (from Leaves from The Log of a Gentleman Gipsy by W.G. Stables, 1891)

1883 (UK)

By the 1880s the caravan was seen as a novel means of taking a holiday by the British aristocracy. These perambulating aristocrats were the forerunners of the British "gentlemen gypsies" who took caravan holidays in small but passionate numbers from the 1890s until the start of World War One:

The Tour By An Earl's Sons in a Caravan

(from The Sheffield Independent, 3 August 1883)

"The sons of the Earl of Essex, who have for some time been travelling through North Wales in a large caravan, arriving in Ruabon gypsy fashion, have wended their way through the valley and over the mountains, via the Vale of Llangollen and the Snowdonian district. Halting on the Castle square at Carnarvon, however, the visitors were ordered to "Move on" by a zealous policeman, because of the large crowds collecting. Their tour in the Principality has created much excitement and amusement."

Other reports of this holiday suggest the caravan in question was a hired gypsy caravan.

1884 (USA)

By the 1880s caravans were being imported from the UK to the USA for holidays and the term "land yacht" was being used to describe them:

"Land Yachts"

(from The Hub, January 1884)

"Two "land yachts" in which their owners recently made a trip through New-England, are large, stoutly built Vans, containing all the requisites for camping out. The travelers thus journey along comfortably until they come to a delightful spot, and then make a stay of such duration as their fancy fixes upon. Each vehicle is fifteen feet long by seven wide, with a cover like a tent, but lined with felt as a protection against bad weather, and roofed with zinc. In transit the sides collapse, and everything is packed snugly. Four servants are taken along, and the cookery is all that skill can accomplish, and the stock of horses includes two for the saddle. These Vans were imported from England."

It was common for early caravan owners to take servants along with them. The servants would typically sleep in a hammock slung under the caravan or in a separate tent.

1885 (UK)

Scotland was a popular destination for early caravanners:

A Tour In a Caravan

(from The Herald, 8 August 1885)

"A party of gentlemen have just returned to Edinburgh after an eight days' tour in a caravan through the Highlands. The party started on Friday, 24th ult., and, crossing the ferry to Burnt island, proceeded in easy stages by way of Perth and Blair Athol to the Pass of Killecrankie. Thence, proceeding south to Loch Tummel, Loch Tay, Geln Ogle, Loch Earn, and the Pass of Leny, they returned to Edinburgh by way of Callander, Stirling and Linlithgow. The caravan, which was fitted up inside with hammocks to accommodate ten persons, was drawn by two good horses, and its novel appearance attracted attention and excited a good deal of curiosity along the line of route."

So from these accounts we can see that the caravan holiday is about 150 years old. Further research among local but not yet digitised newspapers of the late nineteenth century may reveal more accounts of these first leisure holidays on wheels.

Andrew Woodmansey

September 2021


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