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2011/29/1 Caravan, horse drawn, gypsy, Reading type, timber / metal / glass / cotton fabric, made by Samuel Dunton & Sons of Reading, Berkshire, England, c.1914. Click to enlarge.

Gypsy caravan

Made by Samuel Dunton & Sons in Reading, England, United Kingdom, Europe, c 1914.

Gypsy caravans are the evolutionary forerunners of all recreational motoring caravans. This vehicle is a rare surviving example of a Reading type horse drawn gypsy caravan, and perhaps the only one in Australia. As a classification of horse drawn passenger vehicles, gypsy caravans were developed in their archetypal form in England and, of several main types, they were best represented by Reading vans. This caravan was made by the best known builder of vans in Reading, Dunton & Sons. The highly...


Object No.


Object Statement

Caravan, horse drawn, gypsy, Reading type, timber / metal / glass / cotton fabric, made by Samuel Dunton & Sons of Reading, Berkshire, England, c.1914

Physical Description

A large four-wheeled enclosed caravan drawn by one horse, with a straight-sided body converging towards the wheels. The body is built of beaded matchboard (tongue and groove with chamfered edges), probably of light weight pine, strengthened by chamfered ribs. The off-side of the body features a centrally fitted sash window with two glass panes and two sliding shutters. At the rear is a similar centrally mounted window also with shutters. The high arched roof features a clerestory skylight. The body is painted elaborately with decoration typical of the style of all gypsy wagons or "vardo(e)s" (Romani for "living wagon") with crimson base colour with light green, light blue and light caramel features, with lining-out in white. The wheels, undercarriage and brake gear are painted in a cream base colour with blue, light caramel, green and red lining-out. The carved porch brackets are of sycamore or mahogany and are typical of a Dunton design and are painted in a light caramel base colour with red and light green highlights. The arched front door is a three piece construction (like a horse stall) with two hinged glazed top sections and a single lower section (fitted with a slot letter box) hinged on the left hand side. The red crown board over the front door is finished in green, blue, red and light caramel scrolling. The roof is painted in cream base colour with red highlights on the skylight and green lining-out. A chimney projects from the roof on the off side. A curved and chamfered ladder painted red with cream and green lining provides access to the front door.

The interior of the caravan conforms to the typical layout of the Reading style and employs pine or mahogany depending upon cost factors and ash where strength and resistance to damage is required. Approaching through the front door, one's attention is drawn to the cast iron stove on the left. The stove is flanked on the left hand side by a full height cupboard and on the right by a red upholstered padded seat. Above the stove is a mantle with an inset mirror. The stove is missing its flue. Across the end of the body under the rear window is a bed under which is a storage cupboard with two hinged doors. The right hand side features a large mahogany-coloured chest of drawers above which is mounted a mirror. To its right is another padded seat. Closer to the door is a red-cushioned locker seat. The interior is painted in light caramel ground colour with red and green lining-out and scrolling.

At the rear of the body is a hinged rack called a "cratch" which served as a hay rack for the horse. The cratch is supported by a chain and hook on either side. A pan box (also called a kettle box) and used to carry ironware or even hens is suspended under the body. It is fitted with two hinged doors which open to reveal a central dividing panel with the left side being further divided by a half-height shelf.

The body is mounted on an undercarriage to which is fitted Collinge patent axles mounted on semi-elliptical springs. The 3'6" (1067mm) diameter front wheels have twelve spokes and the 5' (1524mm) hind wheels have fourteen. All wheels are fitted with plain steel tyres. The front wheels turn under the body on a steel fifth wheel. A brake is operated by turning a brass handwheel mounted on the bottom plate of the front porch. This turns a square-threaded rod and turnbuckle which progressively applies brake shoes to the rear wheel tyres. At the front of the forecarriage is a splinter bar to which is fitted two steel eye brackets through which passes a steel draw pin which secures the shafts is place.

The separate shafts and ladder have both been damaged by dry rot. The shafts are joined by a U-shaped steel bracket that is bolted to each shaft . The shafts are painted yellow with green detailing along the sides, and light caramel lining out and maroon ends. The cross-framing header of the shafts is fitted with threaded eye brackets through which passes the steel draw pin when the shafts are attached. The ladder is painted maroon with chamfered features down the sides in light caramel, green and red with white lining out. All but one of the seven steps have either broken away or been damaged. The top step is fitted with a brass chequer plate tread.


On the brass hub caps on each front wheel is stamped "DUNTON & SONS READING" inside and around the circumference and "BUILDERS" across the centre.



3800 mm


2150 mm



This gypsy caravan bears the key features associated with a van built by Samuel Dunton of Reading, Berkshire, England in the 1910s and is sometimes referred to as the "Dunton Reading Wagon". Dunton was the most widely reputed builder of these vehicles and the Reading wagon was probably the most characteristic form of the gypsy caravan.

As a general rule, gypsy caravans in England were built by specialist coachbuilders who were known for building one of the many types, the most common and popular of which was the Reading. Others included the Ledge, the Bow-top, the Brush, Burton and the Open-lot. These same coachbuilders also built travelling vans for showmen and their families and these were also highly decorated.

The tall rear wheels of the Reading caravan were designed to traverse fords and other crossings on the travellers' route. The two small front wheels turned under the body to allow full lock.

Dunton was taken over by Rivers, Kernutt and Froud in 1922 but it is unlikely that the new owners made any gypsy caravans. However, the company did continue in wheelwrighting until the 1940s and there is evidence that they repaired gypsy caravans made by Dunton.

A van of this type would have cost about £150 when new, although cheaper, plainer ones could be purchased for as little as £70.

Reading was a town well-placed in the centre of southern England to initiate the production of these vehicles. In 1846, the population was 19 000 and, at only 40 miles (64km) from London, was a central resort town for travellers at the time. Large quantities of timber were shipped down the Thames from Reading which boasted six wheelwrights, seven harness makers and, by the 1870s, seven coachbuilders. By the 1860s the design of the Reading type van had evolved, surviving until the 1920s.



Relatively little is known about the history of this gypsy caravan. It was built by by Samuel Dunton of Reading in c.1914, nothing is known of its early ownership. Its last owner in England was a Mr Lee, who restored gypsy caravans in Sussex. Mr Lee used the caravan for guest accommodation and he may have done some work on it, more likely to the interior. It was as guest accommodation that the caravan came to the attention of famous Australian actor Jack Thompson while he was in England in about 1990. Mr Thompson purchased the caravan from Mr Lee for about £5 000. Mr Lee advised the new owner of a titillating gypsy warning: "Mr Thompson, it makes babies." While Mr Thompson was not able to confirm the reputation of the caravan as a symbol of fertility in the years of his ownership, the remark reflects the kind of gypsy folklore that surrounds these vehicles.

The caravan arrived in a crate at Mr Thompson's property near Dorrigo NSW during 1991. It was to become a treasured possession for almost two decades until its donation to the Museum in 2008.

Following receipt of the caravan by the Museum in April 2009, discussions were held between the staff of the Powerhouse Discovery Centre and the elders of the local gypsy community about a ceremony to "bless" the caravan. The purpose of this ceremony was to release the spirit of a previous Romany owner, a necessary and important procedure in gypsy folklore and tradition.

At an Open Day at the Discovery Centre on Saturday 13 June 2009, Jack Thompson posed for photographs with the caravan and spoke to staff and volunteers. At 12.00 noon, Manager of the Discovery Centre Christopher Snelling introduced Roseanne Truman who provided a narration as her partner Michael Brien, a local gypsy elder, cautiously entered the caravan to leave a gift for the spirit of the deceased former owner. Michael was joined by fellow gypsy Romano Yehudi Solo who burned incense and sprinkled herbs as he circled the caravan to release the spirit. Meanwhile Australian gypsies Maria Hill and her daughter Shandi stood at the front of the caravan in their colourful traditional costumes to ensure that the blessing was fulfilled.

* * *

In the evolution of horse drawn vehicle types, gypsy caravans represent a large proportion of living vans that were owned and occupied by a significant cohort of "travelling people". It was in Victorian England that the best gypsy caravans were constructed, mainly by a small group of coachbuilders in the various counties who specialised in one of six main designs or types. Of these, it was Samuel Dunton of Reading Berkshire, who made Reading caravans (or "wagons"), thought to be the archetypal form of the gypsy caravan.

One of the earliest references in print to an English built caravan is found in Charles Dickens' book The Old Curiosity Shop, published in 1840, in which a Mrs Jarley lived in a caravan. Because Dickens was familiar with circus life, we can assume that he knew of the use of caravans for circus people before 1840. At that time, caravans in England were of timber construction, painted gaudily and were designed to mimic the features of a small cottage. They were fitted with cooking stoves and mounted on a four wheel lorry (a wagon with small diameter wheels) and drawn by one horse.

The term "gypsy" is used in the context of travelling people in a generic sense: the term came to be used by non-travelling people to refer to any who travelled by means of horse drawn living quarters and had no fixed abode. Hence "gypsy" people may have no gypsy blood at all and may have merely adopted this lifestyle. Among them were fairground and circus families, pedlars, tinkers and so on.

The word "gypsy" derives from the false belief that people who were of this cultural grouping originated from Egypt. In fact the so-called "Romany" people - of full blooded gypsy stock - are thought to have come from north-west India which is the geographic source of their native language, Romani. Among travelling people were those with some Romany blood, such as "poshrats", a Romani word meaning "half-bloods" but from the gypsy perspective, people who travelled were united by their lifestyle rather than their ethnic origins. Part of the reason for this sense of internal loyalty may be the mystique and the controversial reputation that grew about people who identified themselves as "gypsies": at the one time attracting romantic admiration and suspicion and prejudice.

Much gypsy folklore is associated with gypsy caravans and the knowledge and practice of this folklore and its symbolism is still cultivated by Romany people today, including in Australia. This usually relates to food, death and women. One belief was that if the lintel over the door of a caravan was made of unseasoned ash, the fertility of the womenfolk in the caravan was assured. Another more broadly held belief was of the importance of burning the possessions of the deceased: this resulted in the loss of many gypsy caravans, largely accounting for their relative rarity today. Other reasons include continuous heavy use leading the deteriorated condition and the use of soft timber in their bodywork.

Another English book popularised the image of caravans. Readers of Kenneth Grahame's children's classics the The Wind in the Willows (1908) followed the adventures of several main characters in the form of anthropomorphised animals such as Toad, Mole and Ratty. Toad is prone to passing obsessions, including one for horse drawn caravans. After the horse drawing his caravan is frightened by a passing motor car, he loses interest in the caravan, but the story remains immortalised in the book that is never out of print.

The word "caravan" derives from the Persian word "karwan" and originally referred to an English vehicle of the 16th century designed to carry servants and fare-paying passengers. These primitive passenger vehicles were drawn by six strong horses along roads that were often in the most appalling condition. It was only with the introduction of the Turnpike Road Acts in 1730 and 1780 and the later development of road construction methods by Telford and McAdam that Britain's roads became passable by most horse traffic. In those days, travelling people either walked or used tilted (covered) carts and lived in tents.

Travelling showmen of this era (1820s-1840s) were experiencing a change in their primary role which had been to provide manufactured goods for sale at county fairs. The industrial revolution was accompanied by a migration of country working people to major towns and cities, which greatly reduced the need for showmen to provide goods to sell at fairs. They adopted a role of providing fun and amusement at the fairs and re-purposed their vans and wagons for this new profession. Brightly painted, their vehicles traversed the narrow roads to get to the best positions at the fair, sometimes passing slower wagon trains en route. Just as the gypsy caravan is the ancestor of the modern road caravan, so these showmens' caravans or wagons contributed to the design and appearance of gypsy caravans from the 1850s.

A naval surgeon and writer of boys' books, William Gordon-Stables, is credited with having drawn the potential of the caravan for general recreational use to Britain's population. He commissioned the building of what is regarded as the world's first recreational caravan and in 1886, set of in his "land yacht" The Wanderer to tour Britain. A horse drawn caravan club was founded in England in 1907 but it was many years before motor caravanning became established. The first caravan body mounted on a motor chassis was displayed in Paris in 1904 and the first trailer caravan was probably one made by Frederick Alcock in England in 1914. After World War 1, a motor caravan building industry emerged in Europe and the United States. Styles varied from trailer tents to mobile cottages and it was many years before a standard form could be identified. The 1930s saw the advent of streamlined designs, more in keeping with the new aerodynamic forms of the cars that hauled the caravans.

In Australia, caravans were often home built, based on a timber chassis and running on the wheels, springs and rear axle retrieved from an old car. The first commercially-built caravans were manufactured by engineer John Jannison in 1932. Jannison maintained production of his Jannison Caravans and Nomad Cruisers until joined in the industry by Properts, Ambassador, Southern Cross, Don and Castle. In 1947, Eric Wheeler and Nev Cook built the first so-called "Gypsy" motor caravan in Australia. These were possibly the same as the "Gypsy" branded caravans such as the "Gypsy10" (meaning 10 feet in length) sold by the Gypsy Caravan Company of Herbert Street, St Leonards, NSW in the 1950s. Caravan manufacturers proliferated in Australia in the 1960s with familiar brands of aluminium-bodied 'vans being Millard, Franklin, Coronet, Chesney and Viscount. Motor caravanning has since evolved in Australia and other western countries into a complex industry offering options to private motorists from off-road camping to the most luxurious self-contained homes on wheels. Today the burgeoning caravan industry is represented in all states and the Northern Territory by the Caravan, Recreational Vehicle & Accommodation Industry of Australia Ltd.

The mainstream popularity of a road travelling lifestyle in recent decades (e.g, the "grey nomad" phenomenon in Australia) has gradually lent an air of respectability and even pride to the itinerant and travelling culture of the gypsy, whose horse drawn caravans are the predecessors of every motor caravan, trailer, van and motor home of today.

Andrew Grant
June 2010


Credit Line

Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program by Jack Thompson, 2011

Acquisition Date

31 May 2011

Cite this Object


Gypsy caravan 2019, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 31 March 2020, <>


{{cite web |url= |title=Gypsy caravan |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=31 March 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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