Bristol, where the caravan was invented

15Feb13

GordonStablesThings I did today pretending it was proper work department …

What is now an industrial estate in Easton was once the site of the Bristol Waggon Company, and this is where the first caravan for recreational/holiday purposes was built, in the early 1880s.

This was the brainchild of William Gordon Stables (1839?-1910). He was born in Banffshire, Scotland, studied medicine at Aberdeen University and later joined the Royal Navy as a ship’s surgeon. Ill-health, however, eventually forced him to quit life at sea and he married and settled down in Berkshire where he turned his naval adventures and experience to good use as a writer.

He became one the pioneers of stirring adventure yarns for boys, in which spunky British lads, usually from humble backgrounds, succeed against the odds through pluck and self-reliance. He was also a great nature lover, writing about cats and dogs, as well as writing what would nowadays be called science fiction – the sort of tales of the future that made the fortune of his contemporary Jules Verne.

In the ‘Boys’ Own Paper’ he wrote an advice column, recommending cold baths, hot porridge and long walks as the cure for most ills. He hated drugs of all sorts, mostly on account of his struggle to overcome addiction to the sedative chloral hydrate.

But the main reason William Gordon Stables deserves his footnote in history is that he invented recreational caravanning. At some point in the 1880s, he commissioned the Bristol Waggon (sic.) Works Co. to build him ‘The Wanderer’ a custom caravan for £300.

Obviously there had been caravans before this, but this was the first one built for leisure, rather than work, purposes. Bristol Waggon Works was a successful and well-known firm at this time, and a major employer in East Bristol, building everything from posh coaches for the very wealthy all the way to farm carts. The company also had a flourishing export business, and Gordon Stables’ caravan was partly based on its “Bible Wagon” design based on the wagons used by travelling preachers in America’s Wild West. While the story of Gordon Stables and the Wanderer is known well enough, every account fails to correctly identify the firm that made it, and it’s taken me all afternoon to work out where it was. It was a big site that’s now the industrial estate just to the east of Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Gordon Stables took the two-ton Wanderer, drawn by two horses on an epic journey to Scotland with his manservant Foley to do the cooking and washing. He wrote up his adventures in a book called ‘The Cruise of the Land-Yacht Wanderer‘ (1886). In addition to the skivvying, the hapless Foley didn’t even get to ride in the caravan; he had to scout ahead of his master (to make sure the roads were OK) on a tricycle.

This book pretty much started the craze for caravanning, although in its early decades it was exclusively the domain of wealthy people who could afford to get the things made for themselves. One of the early customers for the Bristol firm’s new line was the Duke of Newcastle, who commissioned a vehicle he called ‘The Bohemian’ for a trip to Europe.

Gordon Stables – that’s him in the picture, along with his children, Wanderer and the long-suffering Foley – was later elected vice-president of the newly-formed Caravan Club, which he added to his busy list of civic duties, which also included helping to run the Sea Birds Protection Society and the animal welfare Humanitarian League. He was a familiar figure at dog, cat and agricultural shows, usually turning up in full Highland dress. He died at Twyford in 1910, while the Land Yacht Wanderer remained in the family’s hands. His grand-daughter Ottoline donated it to the Caravan Club in the 1960s and it used to be on display in the Industrial Museum. Anyone know where it is at the moment?

Caravanning fell into decline after WW1 until the appearance of new lightweight caravans which could be towed by car. So caravanning as we know it nowadays really began in the 1930s, as it came within the financial reach of the middle classes – although it was prompted as much by the American craze for “tin can tourism” as by Stables. Nonetheless, it did all start in Bristol, and indeed caravans remain one of the few tangible things that are still manufactured in the city. See http://www.bailey-caravans.co.uk

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One Response to “Bristol, where the caravan was invented”

  1. An absolute golden nugget of information this, thanks for sharing. Of course it could transcend into the old horse and carriage that goes back centuries, but as far as I know they didn’t make them with sleeping quarters so the leisure caravan as you rightly put it, does originate from Bristol.


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