The farm waggon has become an iconic symbol of England’s rural past. The recognition of different types of waggon, specific to local counties has engendered a sense of place and belonging in the rural landscape. They look back to a bygone age before industrialisation and intensive farming. To a time when there was a greater role for the skilled craftsman, and a slower pace of life on the land.
Why the English farm waggon? What is now seen as the ‘traditional’ waggon has a long history of development. By the eighteenth century the four wheeled waggon had become the primary vehicle for transport on roads and fields. As early as the sixteenth century both the Low counties and England had developed similar spindle sided vehicles. It was however in England that the farm waggon developed to be quite distinct from the rest of Europe.
In Britain the distribution of waggons was restricted from the upland and hill areas on practical grounds, where carts and sledges proved more useful. In the rest of England several designs developed associated with different areas. In the northern and eastern counties a box type body was developed, whilst in the south midlands and south western counties a more elaborate form emerged having more curvaceous lines, earning them the name bow waggon. [Jenkins, 1961]. For a detailed history of the development of farm waggons, see Viner 2008. Many of the countries waggon designs are illustrated in James Arnold’s publication. [Arnold 1969].
Bow waggons are characterised by the curve of the edge section, the out rave, over the rear wheels giving them their graceful lines. This feature was introduced as a practical measure to extend the width of the waggon thereby increasing the carrying capacity for bulky loads. To accommodate this extension and keep the sides low, the side sections were curved up and over the large rear wheels in a graceful arch.
Waggons have large wheels in order to pass over soft and uneven ground. Large wheels, however, give a restricted turning circle. To improve this, an inset is built into the side of waggons to allow greater wheel movement. This waist can be seen on the Jones waggon and is built into all Oxfordshire waggons. The Jones waggon is painted with a yellow body and wheelwright’s red for the undercarriage, wheels, shafts and body interior which are the less showy, harder wearing parts. The front board is painted 'Charles W. Jones, 1918'. This is the date that the waggon was last painted not when the waggon was made. It originally also read ‘Blackthorn’, but this was painted out during World War II for national security, to confuse an invading enemy.
Berkshire waggons are a type of bow waggon also seen in Oxfordshire. They come from the south of the county and the Vale of the White Horse. That part of Oxfordshire was originally in Berkshire before the local government reorganisation of 1974.
Berkshire waggons have many similarities with the waggons built in the southern Cotswold area and Wiltshire. Berkshire waggons and Oxfordshire waggons also have many similarities, in that they both have spindled and boarded sides. One major difference between the two, however, is the construction of the raves. The Oxfordshire raves are always spindled while those of the Berkshire waggon are boarded. This gives the Berkshire a heavier and more substantial appearance. There is also an important difference in the construction of the outer rave. The Berkshire out rave curves around the rear wheel in an arc forming a hoop. The Oxfordshire rave by contrast continues to the rear of the vehicle where it is supported by a bracket.
At the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century a lighter vehicle, the trolley, began to replace the large and grand farm waggons. These were smaller and had a flat bed unlike the high sided traditional waggons.
Trolleys were more adaptable but carried a smaller load. They were however more manoeuvrable than their predecessors as they had smaller front wheels that turned underneath the bed increasing the lock. The rear wheels of these trolleys were also fitted beneath the bed bringing the loading edge to the side of the vehicle. Trolleys were fitted with ladders at harvest to carry bulky loads.
The adoption of the trolley was also a move away from the traditional colour schemes. Red continued to be used for the running gear but blue became common for the body. This colouring echoed the colours used in the west by the Bristol Waggon Company. These were much plainer vehicles than the large traditional waggons and gave little opportunity for embellishment.
English farm waggons are a testimony to the skill of the village wheelwrights. Their skilled use of tools and knowledge of different woods enabled them to shape all the parts of the waggon, reducing weight, making it stronger and more durable as well as producing a most elegant finish. See George Sturt, 1958.
Axle arm, or stub axle: the end of the axles on which the wheels are fitted. These were of wood and part of the main axle beam but later replaced with more hard wearing iron.
Bed: The floor and interior of the body
Body: The section of the waggon that carries the load
Bow waggon: a design of waggon with extensions over the sides to increase the load capacity. These sections or raves curve in an elegant hoop over the rear wheel. Bow waggons also have a curved top rail on the front board.
Crooked bed: the inset section or waist, built into the side of the waggon to allow a tighter lock
Dish wheel: Waggon wheels were built with a concave section that gave them more strength and allowed the top of the wheel to stand out wider from the side of the body.
Felloe: The wooden rim sections of a wheel, there are usually six to form the complete rim. Each felloe has two spokes fitted into it. They are made from ash a timber with a natural spring.
Front board or Head board: the front section of a waggon body often with a concave bow top rail and lettered with the name address and date of the owner.
Hub, also known as the knave: The central part of the wheel where the spokes come together and the wheel is fitted on the axle arm. The hub is made from elm for its ability to withstand stress without splitting.
Ladders: A gate like frame fitted to the front and rear of a waggon as an extension to carry larger loads at harvest time.
Long board, planks that run the full length of the bed. Elm was the most common timber used for these boards, cut by hand in a saw pit by two men using a long pit saw.
Lock: the ability of a waggon to turn in a tight circle, the lock of a waggon was increased by an inset section being built into the side of the bed, ‘crooked bed.’
Out rave: Section at the top of the body side extending outside over the wheels this extension increased the carrying capacity of a waggon
Spindles: section of doweled wood, used to support the waggon side boards and to make up the out rave. These were made by hand using a rounding plane or ‘stale engine’ usually made from ash but replaced by iron on some later waggons.
Spoke: the radial section of a wheel that takes the full weight of the vehicle. There are usually twelve on a farm waggon. They are made from riven oak which has a high compression strength and riven, split not sawn, so as not to cut across the natural grain of the wood.
Strake: Sections of iron tyre rim fitted in section each overlapping two felloes.
Tail board: at the end of the bed, in many cases this was formed into a ladder for easy access to the waggon.
Tyre: An iron rim fitted to waggon wheels to prevent wear and give added strength.
Undercarriage: the structural framework underneath the waggon.
Waist: an inset section built into the side of the waggon to enable more movement for the wheel and greater lock.
Oxfordshire Museums holds a comprehensive collection of farm waggons from Oxfordshire and several large collections of wheelwright’s tools.
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds collections of wheelwright’s tools including a comprehensive collection from Oakhill in Somerset.
 Frances J. Pullin is recorded as working as a wheelwright in Charlton-on-Otmoor in 1881, 1891 and 1901. (Census)
 Corby’s, advertised themselves as ‘trap van and trolley makers’ in the early twentieth century.
 Frances William Turner is recorded as farming at Allbutts and Shorter’s Farm, Sutton Courtney, in 1915. Kelly’s Directory.
Young Arthur, Board of Agriculture Report for Oxfordshire in 1813.
 Richard H. Hollis is recorded as an implement maker at Coggs (sic) in 1891 and 1901 (census), by 1920 the firm, although still in operation, was under a different name. Hollis and sons of Cogges, who made the Hollis waggon, also produced farm implements such a seed drills and winnowers. This shows the development of farm implement makers starting with wheelwrights.
Arnold, James. Farm Waggons of England and Wales. John Baker, 1969.
Bristol Waggon & Carriage Works Co Limited. Bristol Waggon & Carriage Illustrated Catalog (sic) 1900, reprinted by Dover Publications 1994.
Jenkins, J, Geraint. The English Farm Wagon. Oakwood Press, 1961
Sturt, George. The Wheelwrights Shop. Cambridge University Press 1958.
Viner, David. Wagons and Carts. Shire Publication 2008.
Heritage Search. Many of Oxfordshire Museums Collections can be seen on Heritage Search. www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/HeritageSearch
Oxfordshire County Museums collections can be seen at Museum Resource Centre, Standlake and at Swalcliffe Barn.