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The Origin of the 'Caravan'

A 'stage waggon' colloquially called a 'caravan', UK,1808 (Source: 'The Brighton Road' by Charles G. Harper,1892)

The word 'caravan' has two meanings in English. Firstly it is a travelling convoy of vehicles or people, often through dangerous territory. A recent example were the 'migrant caravans' of Central America whose members journeyed north to the US/Mexico border in 2018. Interestingly, the US President at the time chose to portray the caravans themselves as dangerous rather than the territory through which they travelled.

A second meaning of 'caravan', predominantly found in British English, is an unpowered, solid-walled recreational vehicle towed by an animal or a powered vehicle. They are the most popular form of RV in a number of countries today including the UK and Australia. This usage of the word also flowed into the 'one box' design of RV. The 'motorhome' (an RV containing both engine and accommodation) is still called a 'motor caravan' in New Zealand. On the other hand, if you ask someone in America whether they have a caravan, they will think you are asking about camels or migrants. And if you search online for images of caravans, about 50% of the results will have humps.

Persian Origins

The origin of the word 'caravan' is Persian. It comes from the the word 'karwan' which means a group of people travelling together for safety through a dangerous place. This helps to explain the first usage of the term but not the second. So when and how did a 'caravan' come to mean an individual, unpowered RV?

The answer lies in seventeenth century Britain. A hundred years or so before the advent of the stagecoach in the mid-eighteenth century, a wagon called a 'stage wagon' or 'long wagon' was used to transport both goods and people between towns. Seen on the mud-laden roads of Britain from about 1640, these wagons were colloquially called 'caravans'.

The name had been brought to England by travellers from the Far East, because the English stage wagons were reminiscent of the covered vehicles they had seen in Persian 'karwans' that carried goods and people together across the desert for safety. Although early English travellers using caravans did not sleep in them (for safety they generally slept at inns along the way) and did not travel in convoy, it was the fact that both people and their goods were carried in a single, covered vehicle for security that led to the wider use of the term 'caravan' in Britain. When the stagecoach arrived, it generally carried people only in order to travel faster - goods were sent separately.

Much later, after 1830 when the advent of the railways led to the decline of public, horse-drawn caravan services between towns, redundant caravans were bought by circus owners, itinerants, salesmen, missionaries and gypsies and converted to mobile accommodation.

When the first purpose-built, horse-drawn recreational vehicles appeared in England in the 1880s, they retained the name 'caravan'. Not because they travelled in groups (which they generally didn't) or because where they went was unsafe (which it often was), but because they contained both goods (now the household goods of the owner) and people (the first leisure travellers).

The 'caravan' was and remains until today a dual-purpose vehicle. It carries household goods and allows its owners to sleep inside. Its shortened form, the 'van', has come to mean a vehicle that carries goods only.

Neither of which, if designed and driven correctly, are at all dangerous.

Andrew Woodmansey


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