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Vardo (Romani wagon)

File:Romanichal wagon.JPG
Reading style of traditional Romanichal Vardo late 19th Century.
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Reading Vardo interior, as used by the Romanichal sourced from family in Rhu donated to a museum.

A vardo is a traditional horse-drawn wagon used by British Romani people (Gypsies).

The design of the vardo included large wheels running outside the body of the van, which slopes outwards considerably towards the eaves. Originally Romanichals would travel on foot, or with light, horse-drawn carts, typical of other Romani groups or would build "bender" tents - so called because they were made from supple branches which they bent inwards to support a waterproof covering.



Wagons were first used as a form of living accommodation (as opposed to carrying people or goods) in France in 1810 by non-Romani circus troupes.[1] Large transport wagons combined storage space and living space into one vehicle, and were pulled by teams of horses. By the 1800s wagons became smaller, reducing the number of horses required, and around the mid- to late-nineteenth century (1840–1870), Romanichals in Britain started using wagons that incorporated living spaces on the inside, and added their own characteristic style of decoration. In The Old Curiosity Shop (ch. xxvii), Charles Dickens described Mrs. Jarley's well-appointed van:

'One half of it... was carpeted, and so partitioned off at the further end as to accommodate a sleeping-place, constructed after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the windows, with fair white curtains... The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof. It also held a closet or larder, several chests, a great pitcher of water, and a few cooking-utensils and articles of crockery. These latter necessaries hung upon the walls, which in that portion of the establishment devoted to the lady of the caravan, were ornamented with such gayer and lighter decorations as a triangle and a couple of well-thumbed tambourines.'

These smaller wagons were called "vardo" in the Romani language (originating from the Iranian word vurdon) for cart.[2] The Romani vardo evolved into some of the most advanced forms of travelling wagon, and are prized for their practicality as well as esthetic design and beauty. There is no more iconic or recognizable Romani symbol than a highly decorated Romanichal vardo, and the time of its use is often affectionately called "the wagon time" by Romanichal travellers. The vardos were typically commissioned by families or by a newlywed couple from specialist coach builders. Building the vardo took between six months to a year; a variety of woods including oak, ash, elm cedar and pine were utilized in its construction. Prized by the Romani, and later by non-Romani, including other traveller groups, for their practicality as well as aesthetic beauty, vardos can be categorized into six main styles; these being the Brush wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open lot and Burton. The general design evolved over time and were named after the home's owners, as in (Brush), for their traditional style (Ledge), for the town of its construction (Reading), or for the name of the builder.

Burton wagon

Popular with Romanis, as well as Showmen families, and circus people, the Burton wagon is the oldest example of a wagon used as home in Britain. Originally, with its undecorated van, the Burton wagon evolved into an elaborate Romani vardo, but due to its smaller wheels it was not suited for off-road use.

Brush wagon

The Brush or fen wagon as it was also known, consists of a standard Romani vardo, with straight sides and the wheels located outside the body. The Brush was similar in construction to the Reading vardo, but unlike other styles, the brush wagon had two distinct features: a half-door with glazed shutters, located at the back of the vardo, with a set of steps, both set around the opposite way from other wagons [3] and lacked the mollycroft (skylight) on the roof. The exterior is equipped with racks and cases fitted on the outside frame and chase of the wagon allowing the owner to carry trade items like brushes, brooms, wicker chairs and baskets. Additionally, three light iron rails ran around the entire roof, and sometimes trade-name boards, used for stowing bulkier goods. The wagons were elaborately and colorfully painted.

Reading wagon

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Romanichal Reading Vardo early 20th century

The Reading or kite wagon is so named due to its straight sides that slope outwards towards the eaves, high arched wheels, and relative light weight; there is no other vardo that epitomizes the golden age of Romani horse travel. It dates from (1870) and is synonymous with the original builder Dauton and Sons of Reading where the vardo takes its name. The wagon was highly prized by the Romanies for its aesthetic design, beauty and practicality to cross fords, pull off road and over rough ground, something smaller-wheeled wagons like the Burton were unable to do. The Reading wagon is 10 feet long, with a porch on the front and back. The rear wheels were 18 inches larger than the ones on the front. At the start of the twentieth century the design incorporated raised skylights. On either side of the bed space, quarter-inch thick bevelled mirrors were common, and were lavishly decorated. Cupboards and locker seats were built in to prevent movement whilst travelling. Side and back windows were decorated and shuttered, and the body of the vardo itself would have originally been made from beaded tongue-and-groove matchboard, painted red picked out in yellow and green. As with other vardo, the extent of the elaborate decoration reflected the wealth of the family, boasting carved lion heads and gargoyles; these would have been painted gold or extensively decorated with gold leaf.[1] Today, surviving Reading wagons are prized exhibits in museums or private collections.

Ledge wagon

The characteristic design of the ledge or cottage shaped wagon incorporated a more robust frame and living area that extended over the large rear wheels of the wagon. Brass brackets supported the frame of the wagon and solid arched roof usually 12 feet high, extended over the length of the wagon to form porches at either end and panelled with tongue in groove boards. The porch roof was further supported by iron brackets, and the walls were highly decorated with ornate scrollwork and carvings across the length of the wagon.

Bow Top

Based on the design of the Ledge wagon, the Bow Top is significantly lighter, and less likely to turn over in a strong wind. The design incorporated a light weight canvas top, supported by a wooden frame: a design reminiscent of the older “bender tents” used by the Romanichal.[1] Both back and front walls of the wagon were decorated in scrollwork and tongue and groove and the wagon was painted green to be less noticeable in woodland. The inside of the Bow Top also contained the same high scrollwork or Chenille fabric, with a stove, table and double bed.

Open lot

Almost identical in size and construction of the Bow Top wagon, the Open lot or Yorkshire Bow featured the same design but with a curtain instead of the door characteristic of other wagons. [1] The wagon's entrance was covered by a curtain for privacy.

Decoration and Painting

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Door carving of a traditional Romanichal Chiriklo bird. Reading Vardo early 20th century

Vardos were elaborately decorated, hand carved and ornately painted with traditional Romani symbols. Romanichal would participate in the ornate carving and decoration, being skilled woodcarvers themselves, but would leave the main construction to a professional specialised coach builder.[1] Examples of famous Wagon Artists responsible for the early development of vardo art are Jim Berry, John Pockett, Tom Stevens, Tommy Gaskin, John Pickett, modern contempory decorators continuing to shape this colourful tradition included artists such as Yorkie Greenwood and Lol Thompson.

Much of the wealth of the vardo was on display in the carvings, paintings incorporated aspects of the Romani lifestyle, including horses, birds, lions, griffins, floral designs, and vinework including elaborate scrollworking heightened by the extensive use of between 4-15 books of gold leaf applied as decoration.[1] Each individual maker was identified by their particular designs.

Funeral rites

The Romanichal funeral rite during the wagon time of the 19th and 20th century, included burning the wagon and belongings after the owners death.[4] The custom was that nothing whatsoever would have been sold, preferring to leave some possessions; jewellery, china or money to the family, the rest including the wagon was destroyed.

Modern Traditional use

The Romani travellers in the (1920s) proudly clung to their decorative vardos, although the economics of their way of life was in upheaval due to the contraction in the horse-trading industry and the changes from their traditional crafts.[5] In the present day, Romanichals are more likely to live in caravan. However the tradition does survive and it is estimated that 1% of Romani travellers still live in the traditional horse drawn vardo.[5]

Other uses

The famous British writer Roald Dahl acquired a traditional Vardo in the 1960s, which was used as a playhouse for his children; later he used the vardo as a writing room, where he wrote Danny the Champion of the World.[6]


  • Nicolae, from the online role play game Gaia Online, owns a Vardo
  • Stardust (2007) – A fantasy film, where Madame Semele/Ditchwater Sal: A witch, and a member of the Sisterhood travels around in a yellow Vardo.

See also

  • Gordon Boswell Romany Museum

External links



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 The New Gypsy Caravan, Timothy Lemke. Published by Lulu.com, 2007
  2. The Gypsies, Angus M. Fraser, Blackwell Publishing, 1995.
  3. The English Gypsy Caravan, C.H. Ward-Jackson & Denis E. Harvey, 1973
  4. In the Life of a Romany Gypsy, Manfri Frederick Wood, et al. Routledge, 1979
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gypsy caravans in Journal of the GLS (3rd series), 19 (4), pp 114-146, F.G. Huth, 1940
  6. http://gypsywaggons.co.uk/varsuk.htm


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