|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Four wheeled vehicles have been made from the first days after the invention of the wheel, that is in the region of 5,000 years. The earliest British representation of a four wheeled wagon is probably the one in the Bayeux Tapestry, a special vehicle carrying a large barrel. This has wheels of equal sizes on the two axles, which suggests that it may not have had a turning forecarriage, the earliest four wheeled prestige carriages in this country, such as that in the Luttrell Psalter, were certainly made without one, in spite of the invention being known to the Hallstatt wagon builders and the Romans, though the Roman archaeology is a bit arguable, backed by some oblique textual references.
The farm vehicles of Britain in the dark ages and middle ages were mostly two wheeled carts and carts continued to be the main farm vehicles right up to the introduction of tractors.
Turning forecarriages had been introduced into British carriages by the end of the 16th century, and in the 17th century wagons were being built with them, but there is no clear evidence for their use in Britain before then, though continental ones seem to be attested by legislation and literature. The idea seems to follow the development of late medieval vehicles on the near continent, arriving in England coincidentally with industries like brickmaking and it has been said that immigrant workmen from the low Countries brought the idea. The strongest evidence suggests that wagons started the development into their final form in the Eastern counties, for use in road transport. Wagons grew in popularity with farmers through the 18th century, presumably because they could demonstrate their prowess by displaying a fine wagon. Strong local design traditions grew up and became a leading expression of the country’s craftsmanship. Wheelwrights’ workshops could demonstrate a flair for making them and some would grow to specialise more than others in producing wagons and carts. Some firms that grew in this way still exist, grown into modern agricultural engineers. Most are now gone.
The economy of a wagon making workshop ran better in the larger workshops. Wagon making was a collaborative enterprise, which is not surprising, at the very least a blacksmith needed to work with the wheelwright to make a cart. Apart from this kind of enterprise the usual route for wagons to be built was that a wheelwrights shop, busy with repairs through the summer months was gainfully occupied in the winter making a wagon or two.
In the Victorian period firms acting as factoriess grew up, supplying parts to wheelwrights much as motor factors do to garages today, and this enabled them to make a range of vehicles with fittings such as springs. Hovewever, specialisation was no new thing, as in the 15th century there were 10 or 11 or so wheelwrights shops in Lullingstone, Kent, selling wheels at a rate which apparently undercut rivals.
Wagon and cart builders from one county to the next would have made distinct designs, which were locally acceptable.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Changing tastes – in the 1980s there was a demand for brewers drays which has now disappeared.
- Market issues: Farm wagons are not worth the amount they cost to repair (value of £3,000 – £4,000 compared with £7,000 – £8,000 to repair), so very few people are repairing them and so there aren’t many wagons left. This will eventually turn a corner and wagons will become so rare that their value will increase and the demand will rise.
- Loss of skills: The skills that are most in danger of dying out are those needed to make a new vehicle from start to finish. The main market for wagon making is in restoration – very few people buy new English vehicles, they either buy English vehicles to repair, or new Eastern European vehicles. Most wheelwrights can repair a wagon (how it always was), but there are perhaps 3-4 places who can make wagons from scratch.
- Dilution of skills: Anyone can buy a workshop and call themselves a wagon maker, without necessarily having much experience or skill.
- Business rates: Need big workshop to fit the vehicles in, so business rates are very high.
Craftspeople currently known
- Mike Rowland & Son, Colyton, Devon.
- Crofords Coachbuilders, Ashford, Kent.
- Gloucester Wheel and Carriage Co, Uley, Gloucestershire.
- The traditional progress of the craft was from wheelwright to wainwright to coachbuilder. The work of a wainwright is not as fine as that of a coachbuilder, with fewer trimmings etc.
- In the 1960s/70s wheelwrights were principally wainwrights as well but this is no longer the case as wagons are rarely built, certainly not new and restoring an existing vehicle/wagon is far easier than building from scratch.
Information provided by Robert Hurford.
- Jenkins, J Geraint, The English Farm Wagon
- Arnold, James, Farm Wagons and Carts
- David Viner, Wagons and Carts
- Sturt, George, The Wheelwright’s Shop
- McNeill, C A, (1978) Technological Development in wheeled vehicles in Europe from prehistory to the sixteenth century (unpublished PhD thesis, Edinburgh University)
- Museum of English Rural Life, Wagon Walk