The World is Your Workshop

In Britain and Ireland, the Romany Gypsys and the Traveller community are often associated with low-skilled work such as scrap dealers, horse traders, musical entertainers, or more nefarious activities outside the societal norms.  However, there were plenty of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen providing goods and services to people around the country.

Below is an image of a couple, working together making footstools outside their vardo while another couple looks on from the comfort of their wagon.

Gypsy carpenters making small and large stools for market. From an early 20th century postcard.  Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

Other Gypsy families were blacksmiths, basket weavers, or similar occupations that could be taken on the road, required little stock or overhead, and could be performed independently or with a minimum of family help.

Gypsy Basket Weavers on Skyros. Source: http://from-hand-to-hand.org/.

There is more to wandering people than the romantic or demonized images we carry.  People are just people after all.

Gypsy Blacksmith. Source.

Gypsies France 1930s-1960s

Encampment on a pitch somewhere in France, early mid-20th century.

Tents and the Vardo Life; What is a Bender?

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The bender tent provides shelter from the damp while keeping the living space outdoors.

Travellers in Europe and Britain have always been associated with a style tent called a bender.  This comes from the construction technique of cutting saplings and bending them into a dome, elongated dome, or half cylinder shape,  These frameworks were then covered with tarps and made watertight in the temperate damp.  The origins of this design are lost in the mists of time and are believed by archaeologists to be one of the earliest style of recognizable tent structure used by humans.

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This size bender can more than double the living space of a vardo in a matter of minutes.

Even after a certain level of affluence allowed some Romany and other Travelling folk to own living wagons, the bender continued (and continues) to be a way to extend the living space without the need for a lot more gear.

In England, Gypsy women often used their homes for fortune-telling, especially around the Gadjo (non-Gypsy) vacation centers. Image, early 20th century. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

The fact that a tent becomes the subject for a Blackpool post card shows the ongoing fascination with “Gypsy Culture,” especially in the British Isles where Travellers are simultaneously suspect and romanticized.

Fortune Teller

The front or vestibule provides a place to do business in relative privacy. Source: Romany & Traveller Family History Society.

If you have family that me be Romany, Traveller, or Fairground folk in Britain or just want to learn more, check out the Romany & Traveller Family History Society at http://rtfhs.org.uk/.

A Romany Family in Scotland

Near Boglehill in Midlothian, Scotland, n.d. late 19th century. Source: Romany and Traveller Family History Society.

I really like everything about the image above.  We see three very different types of wagon-home-conveyances and a family, wearing clothing of the time.  Travellers on the margin of mainstream society have been shunned, persecuted, and culturally dismissed while at the same time romanticized for their freedom and seeming lack of attachment to a more mundane life.  I am glad to see a revitalization and pride from reconnecting with family roots.

Legal Documents.

People who have lived “off-grid” so to speak often have few documents or any official standing, making family histories more difficult to trace.  Hospital records, cemetery documents, or government permits, such as the Pedlar’s Certificate above, are the only way for many to trace their ancestry.

 

Diaper Family Portrait.

Fortunately, there is a concerted effort in Britain by the Romany & Traveller Family History Society (RTFHS) to create a clearinghouse for descendants of those often overlooked by the mainstream.

About the RTFHS:  Back in the early 1990s, a group of keen family historians with British Gypsy ancestors first met at a Gypsy family history conference organised by the historian and author, the late David Smith. Until that moment we’d all thought that we were pretty much alone in trying to trace our travelling ancestors and that there was no-one out there to learn from or share our experiences, trials and tribulations with.

Caravans

Here’s another excellent photo of a pack of vardos (caravans) in the wild.  It looks like everyone came out and maybe even spruced themselves up for the photo.  I couldn’t find any metadata on this one but it looks fairly early, probably late nineteenth century.  These appear to be high-end models in great condition still.

Caravan

Happy travels!

Motor Car Tool Kit ca. 1907

I keep a couple tool rolls for specialty fixes but I really like this setup from over a century ago.  I think I need to make and “essentials” kit like this for general travel to keep the tings I truly need in need place and handy.  It might be a little heavy for the rambler on foot but could be invaluable on the cycle or in the truck.

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From The Army and Navy Co-operative Society Store, London 1907.

I think I would need to make an image of each tool in its place as I have found in my other bespoke tool kit that the loops and pockets all start to look alike when there are too many empty ones at once.  The only potential problem with tool rolls is that they can get thick and bulky in a hurry if you aren’t careful with what you put in them.

Fire Hose Tool Roll

Duluth Trading Company’s tool roll available for about $50 US.

I find that tool rolls aren’t that valuable when working from the home shop as they take up a lot of surface but are a very handy way to travel and stay organized on the road.  I use four tool rolls myself currently, one for holding large brace bits, one for wrenches (mainly for working on the scooter or truck), one for chisels, and one for carving tools.

With a little forethought, I think a traveler’s kit like this could be very useful.

Gymnacyclidium

That’s quite a velocipede indeed!

Gymnacyclidium

Gymnacyclidium – This sounds like something for which you could be administered a shot to clear it up.  I thought these monstrosities worth looking at for the danger factor if nothing else.  Let’s hope the young lady is wearing adequate undergarments as it seems certain she will be taking a spill or two in the very near future.  I do like the curly cue fender thingy on the front though.

A bit of history about the bicycle: Invented more-or-less as we know it around 1817 with various propulsion systems added from about 1839 through the 1860s when bikes became more like what we know today.  A major step forward occurred in 1888 when Dunlop developed the pneumatic tire, making cycling more comfortable and practical.

The Rover Safety Bicycle 1886.

More Historic Caravans in Art

Copyright The Munnings Collection at The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Copyright The Munnings Collection at The Sir Alfred Munnings Art Museum.

Here are a couple final Alfred Munnings images of Romani caravans in an English countryside.  As a keen observer, he definitely caught the important details of each type of caravan and the essentials of camp life.  The watercolor above is somewhat unusual for Munnings as it shows no animals, people, or campfire.

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Alfred Munnings.

Above is a rarely shown rounded square-top among other carts and caravans with livestock milling about.  The variety detailed in these historic images should be helpful for those desiring to design and build a similar living accommodation.  The previous post gave a glimpse of Laura Knight’s work on the subject and her subjects are remarkably detailed and informative.

Gypsy Camp, ca 1938, Dame Laura Knight.

Gypsy Camp, ca 1938, Dame Laura Knight.

This is one of my favorite scenes of a camp in the countryside; two beautiful ledge wagons and a marquis tent in a field.  I could picture this in a high parkland of the Rocky Mountains.  Many people don’t know that the outlier tent, awnings, and tarps are almost ubiquitous with the old caravans.  This allows for a very flexible and expandable living arrangement or a sheltered kitchen area.

Young Gypsies 1937, Dame Laura Knight.

Young Gypsies 1937, Dame Laura Knight.

If you look closely at the sketch above, you can see that this is the same encampment from another angle, focusing on the kids at play.  It looks like a fine way to grow up.

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Gypsy Wagon and Tent, Dame Laura Knight, 1962.

And finally, another favorite of mine.  I suspect it’s the same little yellow wagon next to the sketchiest bender tent ever.  Probably a makeshift shelter for work or cooking.  A wagon wheel in the foreground seems to await repair while the kids look on.  Note the size of these caravans relative to today’s “needs” and remember that whole families lived and were raised this way.

If you missed the previous post about historic caravans in art go HERE or check out a whole page of images I have curated HERE.

Historic Romani Caravan Paintings

These images might whet the appetite for summer days, picnics, an caravanning off into the great unknown; or it might just be a bunch of pretty pictures if the former isn’t your cup of tea.  Anyway, these are generally labelled and classed as Gypsy images although we know that this is often seen as an offensive word to many Romani (Roma, Romany, etc.), I don’t think it was intended this way in many cases.  For that matter, when not applied to an actual people, the word gets thrown around in art, aesthetic style, dance, music, and many other ways.  I have only known a few “Gypsies” in my lifetime and that was the term used; maybe out of simplicity, maybe just as resignation to the common language.  But enough of this digression, enjoy the paintings.  There will be more to come.

Dame Laura Knight, Gypsy Caravans, 1935. LONDON.- Trinity House.

Dame Laura Knight, Gypsy Caravans, 1935. LONDON.- Trinity House.

“Knight … bucked trends through depicting liminal sites, such as circuses and gypsy settlements, from the very beginning of her career. An example of this is her delightful work Gypsy Caravans (1935).”

The caravans depicted above are the Rolls-Royce’s of their day; highly ornamented Reading Wagons with mollycrofts, awnings, windows, and fine paint work.  They would catch they eye of any artist.  I am particularly fond of the domestic scene around the hearth; laundry being done and hung out to dry in the background.

The paintings below are by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), a British artist who made many beautiful watercolor paintings of horses, encampments, and caravans.  What better, more colorful, and dynamic subject matter?  Alfred Munnings’s biography states that he clearly considered himself accepted among the gypsies when he was able to persuade several of the older women to bring out the brilliant shawls, boldly coloured aprons, and flamboyant ostrich feathered hats that were special occasion wear for the women.”

ALFRED-MUNNINGS

Sir Alfred Munnings.

The ubiquitous fire hook and kettle rest as the true center of this scene.  Everyone is done up in the Sunday best at Epsom Downs.  We see all kinds of accommodations from a bender tent to various quality of living wagon.  And no camp is complete without a lurcher (dog) and the milk goat.

Munnings became president of the Royal Academy and was made a Knight of the Victorian Orderwhile Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) served on a panel of European judges for an international exhibition at the Carnegie Institute and was appointed as an official artist for the Nuremberg War trials for her technical abilities.  In other words, good documentary artists.

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Sir Alfred Munnings.

Travellers and their goat gather ’round the morning tea.  I envision Mick’s garden will look like this once Jim and I get our ‘vans parked for the summer.

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Gypsy Life, the hops pickers, Sir Alfred Munnings..

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One of my favorites.  So much going on here and a great color scheme.

More images added HERE.

A few more Vardos (sort of) from Around the Web

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I’m always keeping an eye out on the web for interesting living vehicles, rolling homes, and related Traveller – Modern Nomad stuff.  The right key words and a little luck on historic image sites land a lot of photos, but often with little real information about the vehicle in question.  As I was rummaging through my old image files over the weekend I decided to start throwing some of the images up here; for inspiration and ideas if nothing else.  Where possible, I’ve linked to the source where I found it.

carnieconversion

This is an interesting conversion for a Carnival or Circus worker. Wood burning stove, mollycroft, and transom windows. I like it.

earlycaravan

I’ve posted this innovative little beast on Facebook.

I like this early fifth-wheel design for several reasons, not the least of which is the hitch.  This is the earliest image I have of a “slide-out” expandable space.  I suspect they actually fold up but they already deal with increasing space while keeping the traveling width narrow.  The final feature is the dogtrot effect created by the opposing doors.  I think this caravan was built with summer travel in mind.

coffee

Recycled “canned-ham” caravan.

Interesting propulsion.  Looks like post-apocalyptic servitude?

Interesting propulsion. Looks like post-apocalyptic servitude?

Atkisson's Wagon.

Atkisson’s Wagon.

The above wagon aesthetic has a Persian feel to the decorations.  From the pillows right down to the slippers.  Click the photo for an article about this wagon.

Found over at the Voice of the Monkey.

Found over at the Voice of the Monkey.  An eclectic image blog.

Okay, I just posted this cool little goat wagon as I would have loved this as a kid.  Who wouldn’t?  There is a clear attention to detail on this one down to the wheel spokes and fine paint work.  Apparently there is some tie to Kansas City.   Maybe a carriage maker’s model?

And finally, the best part of all… exploring a 1914 Dunton Waggon, Part 1 with historian John Pokkett.  You can find the next parts on Youtube if they don’t auto-follow.