History of wagons and wagon building

Travelling people and the wagon

‘Vardos’ were the traditional homes for the Gypsy and Irish Traveller community. They are still treasured and continue to have significant cultural importance.

Horse-drawn living wagons have been in use for at least one hundred and fifty years. Some are very basic but Travellers generally love their wagons to be elaborately decorated, hand carved and ornately painted. Traditional Traveller and Romani symbols such as flowers, horses, vines, grapes and pears are used and elaborate scrollworks created.

As you can see from these photos carved details are often accented with gold paint or, in the most expensive wagons, gold leaf.

Carved details

Gold leaf detail

The windows would be etched with fruit and mirrors would-be high-quality cut glass with images of a vase, flowers and fruit.

The improvement work on British roads by Thomas Telford and John McAdam enabled people to live on them in wagons.

Up until this point Gypsies and Travellers lived in rod or bender tents which were constructed with malleable hazel or ash rods and covered with tarpaulin.

When there were not enough tents for their growing families, they would sleep beneath or in their tilt carts with basic covers.

Country wheelwrights and wainwrights saw the opportunity to build and sell more robust wagons to the travelling communities. This was the start of the heyday of the traditional wagons.

Irish Travellers living in rod tents on the side of the road
Irish Travellers living in rod tents on the side of the road.

The Bill Wright wagon

One of the most famous wagon builders was William (Bill) Wright, 1844-1909. His works were situated near Leeds. Such was his reputation that Travellers would make long journeys to purchase his wagons or to get repairs made to those they already owned.

Bill Wright gained special recognition for his unique bulging Bow Top design. This design was often copied by other envious builders. He also had a talent for constructing wooden-sided vardos. These wagons easily equalled any made by other notable wagon builders living in Britain at the time.

Wagon features

  • Bill Wright wagons have distinctive features such as a larger body and barrel top, and large wheels at the rear.
  • The wagons have a trademark carved sunflower or horse.
  • His sons continued the family business after his death.
  • Elaborate carvings are a distinct feature on Traveller wagons.

Wagon symbols

Symbols typically found on wagons include grapes, apples and pears, horses and scrolls, depicting the rural lifestyle. Bill Wright was famous for always using a sunflower on his wagons.

A Bill Wright Sunflower
A Bill Wright Sunflower

Traveller funeral, burning a wagon

Funeral rites

Although the Travellers and Gypsies adored their wagons, the funeral rite during the 19th and 20th centuries included burning the wagon and belongings after the owner’s death.

Some of the deceased’s possessions, jewellery, china or money would be left to the family. The rest, including the wagon, was destroyed.

Wagon types

Wagons can be categorized into six main styles. The Burton is the oldest example of a wagon used as a home in Britain.

Open-Lot wagon


Ledge wagon




Reading wagon

Bow Top wagon

Bow Top

Burton wagon


Our wagon is based on a Bill Wright Bow Top. These can also be known as the Midland, Leeds, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Bell and Barrel Top.

About our wagon

  • It is light and durable and the best for crossing fords and pulling off road onto rough ground.
  • It is least likely to topple over in a strong wind.
  • It is built with ledges and a round canvas top on a bowed wood frame. The wagon’s interior is typically fitted out with built-in seats, cabinets, a wardrobe, bunks in the rear, a chest of drawers, and a glass-fronted china cabinet.
  • A small cast iron ‘queenie stove’ is always on the left on entry to the wagon so that the chimney is in less danger from low-hanging tree limbs at the side of the road. The stove is used primarily for heating, the quality and ornateness indicates the family’s wealth.

Example of an early motor vehicle

Demise of the horse-drawn wagon

In 1900 there were 40,000 horse-drawn omnibuses and 4,000 tram-horses in London. By 1924 they had all gone.

The reasons for this included the fact that thousands of horses were killed in the First World War and the rise of the motor-car and petrol driven vehicles which totally transformed modes of transport.

Living history

There will always be a special place for the traditional Bow Top wagon in many Travellers’ hearts; such an object of beauty and romanticism is hard to forget!

Many wagons have become museum pieces like this Bill Wright Ledge Wagon and interior on display at York Castle Museum.

Wagons today

Many Travellers still live in modern ‘trailers’ (caravans) on private land or official sites. However, many Travellers have moved into housing. This is often out of necessity not choice, due to a lack of available land or for health and education reasons.

Travellers still take their traditional wagons out when they can, on sunny days and special occasions like horse fairs.

Holiday companies offer Gypsy/Traveller style breaks, where people go on the road with a wagon and horse and really ‘feel’ the Traveller lifestyle.

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