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Tramps, Camping, Caravans and Camper vans

The tent is perhaps the most basic form of portable accommodation, although ill suited to life in the British Isles, especially in winter. Poor people have lived in tents since before the railways came, usually these were people travelling and looking for employment. The 'Tramp' or 'Gentleman of the Road' (there were very few women) is someone who declines to live in a house, instead they wander about the countryside, earning money by doing odd jobs for people or taking occasional casual work (they are not beggars). They carry their few possessions, usually in the form of a small bundle, sometimes with a rucksack and occasionally in a small hand cart and claim they feel a freedom in this way of life, although living 'outside society' in this way is difficult at best and often dangerous.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 was introduced in the depression after the Napoleonic Wars to force unemployed and destitute soldiers off the streets. It made it an offence for any person to be `wandering abroad and lodging in the open air', it also made begging an offence. Although repealed in Scotland, the act has been increasingly used in England in the 1980's and 1990's against the homeless. In 1989 in London there were 1,386 convictions for vagrancy. English law classifies as vagrants tramps who do not make use of available shelter, but also prostitutes who behave indecently in public, peddlers who trade without a licence, those who collect for charity under false pretences, and those armed with offensive weapons). Under English Law, if you are living on the street and in possession of less than a shilling (5p in modern money) you can be arrested as being a 'vagrant' (an unemployed itinerant), if carrying a knife with a blade longer than (I think) five inches, technically classed as a 'hanger' you can be arrested on suspicion of being a 'footpad' (what is now known as a 'mugger').

By the early 19th century there were quite a few people who had to live an itinerant life by virtue of their employment, notably the 'navigators' building the early canals. Most of these people either stayed in local hotels or with families (if they could afford to do so) or in crude 'shanties' made up of wood and canvas, often half-buried and reminiscent of the trench bunkers in World War One.

Since the 1980s there has been a dramatic growth in people 'living rough' in Britain but most are not doing so by choice and almost all live rough in cities, obtaining money by begging. Few of these people have the luxury of a tent and even fewer would be able to survive off the land in open countryside. Living rough in cities in not a new phenomenon, there are many laws, most dating to the 18th and 19th century for dealing with such people.

The tent as holiday accommodation has been around for some time, encouraged by the romance of expeditions exploring the largely unmapped world of the 19th century. The British climate tells against the tent however and hiring a light wooden shack was probably more popular for those wishing a taste of the outdoors.

The railways saw the possibilities and introduced the 'camping coach', basically a redundant passenger coach re-fitted as a holiday home and parked on a temporary siding at a railway station in the country.

The caravan designed for a nomadic existence has been in use for many years, notably by the Romany folk (usually called Gypsies in the mistaken belief they originated in Egypt) who favoured a distinctive 'hoop topped' caravan often brightly painted. The Irish and Scottish 'Travellers' are a separate group, I am unsure when they came on the scene by the 1960s they were a recognized community. They operate much like the Romany but do not have the traditions and social structures, operating as loose groups. The caravan as a holiday home was the preserve of the eccentric until the early twentieth century, the Caravan Club was set up in 1907 and they suggested a purpose built, horse drawn, design as a workable standard.


Tramps tended not to wander far, they depended on casual work for money and generally lived within an area of a few square miles. Where I grew up we had one old gent who was generally well liked, the local farmers wives (a warm hearted and matronly lot in my experience) would occasionally get him to do a job in exchange for a hot meal, although he was not usually allowed in the farm house as he was rather smelly. On one occasion the woman insisted he take a bath (in the barn, although she did provide hot water) as part payment for the meal, whereupon she took his clothes and burned them, presenting him with a replacement bundle of freshly laundered old clothes she had collected for him. Tramps often lived off the land, snaring rabbits and other game, cooking these on a small open fire along with some potatoes or other vegetables pilfered from the local fields. As the farmers used to sell such game themselves, and owned the rights to catching it on their land, this was 'poaching' and the tramp had to be wary.

Tramps signs


Camping as a recreational pursuit gained in popularity in the later 1920s and flourished on the 1930s with the growing interest in health and fitness, not least because the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides both did a lot of camping and many continued to enjoy the outdoor life as adults.

The Caravan

The caravan, a living van towed by horse or motor car, has been around a long time, the nomadic Romany folk were using horse drawn caravans long before the railways came, and continued to do so into the 1950s in some cases. These people originated (I believe) in Northern India but many of their traditions and art work (notably the castles and roses) appear to have developed as they passed through Eastern Europe in the 15th Century. They migrate along their own selected routes, ignoring national boundaries. The traditional caravans remained in use into the early 1950s, by which time they were increasingly being displaced by more modern designs, increasingly drawn by motor vehicles (although 'Gypsy Caravans' were by that time being offered as holiday homes, in Ireland you could have one with a horse to pull it for a touring holiday). To avoid the problems of modelling movement it is probably best to model these when in camp, during which a simple flight of wooden steps was set up at the front of the caravan to provide access.

Classic 'hoop topped' Romany caravan
Classic 'hoop topped' Romany caravan

By 1907 the use of caravans for recreation and holidays was well enough established for the formation of The Caravan Club, although at that time caravans were still horse drawn. Many were quite modern in design, rectangular and often featuring a clerestory roof (broadly similar to the 'living vans' used by steam road roller crews), however quite a few were a romanticised version of the Gypsy caravan and these tended to get brightly painted.

Horse drawn (fake) 'Gypsy' caravan
Photo of a Typical mid 1930s motor caravan

By the 1950s most people using a caravan as a mobile home as part of a nomadic lifestyle had opted for the more modern metal skinned types and the 'gypsy' caravans were almost entirely the preserve of holiday makers.

The Romany people tend to travel in groups, setting up camp with perhaps three or more caravans, although there were individuals who travelled alone. They earned a living as livestock traders, tinkers, fortune-tellers, and entertainers although in the post war era they have favoured auto-mechanic work, scrap metal dealing and working in fairgrounds or travelling circuses. Confederations of 10100 families elect chieftains for life, but their title is not heritable. Women are organized as a group within the confederation and represented by a senior woman.

The Scottish and Irish 'Travellers' also tend to operate in groups, they have never favoured the Romany style caravans, favouring more modern designs produced for touring holidays.

One group that did travel alone was the 'tinker', selling and repairing pots and pans or other household items (usually in rural areas where shops were few and far between) and often using a one horse van with their wares attached to the outside (and by all accounts making something of a racket as they moved along). In Scotland and Ireland the Romany folk were known as collectively as Tinkers.

Motor caravans (caravans that could be towed by a car) were built by specialist firms by the 1930s, although 'coach builders' would build one for you to your own design, a practice that remained fairly popular into the later 1930s. The law, certainly in the 1930s, was that a motor vehicle was only allowed to pull off the road 15 yards onto moorland or open country, so in open country you would be unlikely to see a motor caravan parked some distance from the nearest road. The example shown below is only about ten feet long, designed to be towed by one of the smaller cars such as the Austin Seven.

Typical mid 1930s motor caravan
Photo of a Typical mid 1930s motor caravan

By the mid 1930s the motor caravan was increasingly the norm, although it was recommended that a car of 12 horse power was advisable for most types of van (there were special small vans, typically 8-10 feet long built for the 'baby' cars and two seater types). By 1935 there were two principal types of van, the rigid (below left) and the collapsible (below right) in which the upper body could be lowered down to produce a more stable tow (the legal speed limit for a car and caravan was 30mph in the 1930s). Both the examples shown below are about 12 feet (3.66m) long and require a larger car to haul them.

Typical mid 1930s 'rigid' and 'collapsible' caravans
Sketches of typical mid 1930s 'rigid' and 'collapsible' caravans

In the 1920s and 30s it was not uncommon, for really epic expeditions, for a small two wheeled wooden trailer to be towed behind the caravan, forming what was called a 'caravan train'. I am not sure when this practice was outlawed but I do not recall ever seeing such an arrangement since the mid 1950s.

The 1930s was the era of streamlining, more to do with style and the suggestion of sleek modern speed than actual aerodynamic efficiency. This produced a caravan with a tear drop rear that was a common theme from the mid 1930s to the immediate post war era. Some vans had a clerestory roof, others did not, white seems to have been the preferred roof colour although the sides tended to be two-tone as shown below. Some of the clerestory roofed types were still in use in the mid 1960s.

Typical tear-drop shaped caravans
Sketches of typical tear-drop shaped caravans

By the mid 1950s the caravan was recognisable as the modern general design, a slab-sided box with a slight curve on the front and rear of the roof running on two small wheels and with a 'ball hitch' tow bar on the front.

Typical mid 1950s caravan
Typical mid 1950s caravan

I am not sure when the first 'caravan park' was opened however certainly by the later 1950s they were an established feature of coastal resorts. They consist of a field in which caravans are parked in rows, by the 1960s a concrete pad for each caravan was common, and roads through the park were often tarred, although the areas between the vans were grassed. Each park would generally have a small building housing the office and a shop, one common requirement for any park is that the residents must buy their bottled gas and coal from the site owner (often a source of friction as the prices tend to be on the high side). Many of these were intended as holiday accommodation but some were residential. Many sites had a brick-built and usually flat roofed 'shower block' which sometimes also contained laundry facilities.

As the caravans in these parks were not (often) moved a larger type was developed (I believe in the 1960s), usually requiring double wheels somewhere about the centre and sometimes referred to as a 'mobile home'. They would be difficult to tow and are usually transported on a low-loading lorry or trailer. These are substantially large inside than a standard motor caravan, allowing families to take holidays in relative comfort.

Dormobiles and Winebagos

The 'dormobile' was a British idea, introduced by a form of coach builders by the name of Martin-Walter. The dormobile started out as a van with folding seats that formed a bed, the key development however was a hinged roof section fitted with a fabric folding section. When raised this gave standing room in the vehicle, allowing them to be used as a self propelled caravan. The original dormobile was based on the Bedford CA van version dating from the mid 1960s.

Fig___ Mid 1960s Bedford 'dormobile'

Typical Mid 1960s Bedford dormobile

One popular design was based on the VW small van. I was not able to find a mint condition original VW dormobile, the one in the photo below is a later type with a single piece windscreen.

Fig___ Late model VW 'dormobile'

Late model VW dormobile

The company changed its name to Dormobile and produced camper vans based on a number of commercial types, as well as the Bedford and the VW they also produced version based on Fords, Landrovers, Commer and Leyland and Toyota vans.

One particular design of 'motor home' was associated with travelling fairs, based on a large lorry but with a clerestory roofed caravan back reminiscent of the later styles of 'gypsy' caravans. The lorry towed the fairground ride, or a large trailer with other equipment. I remember these as being common around fairs in the 1950s and 60s, but do not recall seeing one since the early 1970s.

Fig___ Traveling fair mobile home

Typical Traveling fair mobile home

In the 1980s larger motor homes appeared from America, known at the time as Winebago's as that was a popular make in the US. These then gradually replaced the caravan on the roads (although people who rented a fixed plot for their caravan (which could be left at the site) retained the towed type). The larger examples are as big as a small single decker bus, the example below even has a fold-down satellite dish on the roof.

Fig___ 2007 'motor home' (note the sat dish in the roof)

Photo of a 2007 'motor home' (note the sat dish in the roof)

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