ENGLAND: THE OTHER WITHIN

Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

The English farm waggon and the Oxfordshire tradition

Philip Platt,
Curator of Social History Collections, Oxfordshire Museums Service

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.

Origins and distribution

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

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.

Oxfordshire Bow waggon

Woodstock Waggon Arthur Young 1813

Woodstock Waggon Arthur Young 1813

The epitome of the bow waggon was the ‘Woodstock Waggon’ which was described by Arthur Young in 1813. Most of Oxfordshire’s surviving waggons are of this type, with out raves that extend in a curve over the rear wheel. These waggons have spindled and boarded sides and spindled side raves. The spindles are a feature that looks back to the spindle sided waggons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Another distinctive feature of the Oxfordshire bow waggon is the bowed top rail of the front board.

Charles Jones Oxfordshire Waggon

Charles Jones Oxfordshire Waggon

The vehicle from Mr. Jones, [OXCMS: 1964.5863.] is the oldest waggon in the Oxfordshire Museums collections and dates from the early nineteenth century, probably as early as 1820. It comes from Blackthorn, near Bicester, where it was used by Mr Charles W. Jones. It was donated by the Misses Jones, the daughters of the last owner. The body of this waggon is cross boarded, with elm planks, indicating that the body needed renewal after almost 100 years of work. The sides are boarded and it has spindles. The out raves are also spindled. The Jones waggon wheels are on wooden axles, a feature of the earliest waggons. The wheels are also dished, this adds to their strength. The wheels have strakes, sections of tyre, nailed into place around the rim of the wheel, rather than having a continuous iron tyre. Strakes enable the wheel to be re-shod without recourse to a wheelwright.

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.

V W Tompkins Oxfordshire Waggon

V W Tompkins Oxfordshire Waggon

The Oxfordshire waggon, OXCMS: 1964.3051, was made by Pullin, a wheelwright of Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oxfordshire.[1] It was built in 1889 for Mr. V.W. Tompkins who used it at New Inn Farm, Stanton St. John, Oxfordshire. It was acquired by Oxfordshire Museums from Mr Tompkins grandson. The Tompkins waggon is long boarded with elm planks which run the full length of the bed. It has spindled and boarded sides and the out raves are also spindled. Unlike the Jones waggon the Tompkins waggon has iron axle arms these were introduced in the latter part of the nineteenth century as they were harder wearing than wooden ones. The Tompkins waggon also has iron tyres and is a half lock waggon. Its paint scheme follows the Oxfordshire tradition and the head board is lettered ‘V. W. Tompkins, Stanton St. John’.

Corby Oxfordshire Waggon

Corby Oxfordshire Waggon

The Oxfordshire Waggon, OXCMS: 1964.1833, was made in the latter part of the nineteenth century by Corby Bros. of Headington, Oxford. [2] This waggon is very like Arthur Young’s Woodstock Waggon in the 1813 illustration. The Corby waggon has iron spindles on the side raves replacing the wooden spindles common on earlier waggons. This indicates that by the time this waggon was built it was becoming more economical to fit machine made spindles, rather than to turn wooden spindles by hand. This waggon was restored to show condition. Timbers that were replaced were replaced like for like and the paints used were prepared using original materials made to an original recipe.

Mawle Oxfordshire Waggon

Mawle Oxfordshire Waggon

The Oxfordshire waggon, OXCMS: 1978.19.1, was purchased from Mr G. Cyril Mawle, who had used it at Cogges Manor Farm near Witney, Oxfordshire. He farmed there between 1929 and 1958. The waggon was purchased as an accompaniment to the newly opened Farm Museum at Cogges. The waggon’s front board is lettered 'G. C. Mawle Manor Farm Coggs (sic) Witney'. G.C. Mawle was a member of the Mawle family who farmed at Cogges Manor from the 1870s until the 1970s. This waggon probably dates from the 1870s. The Mawle waggon has spindled and boarded sides and the spindled raves of an Oxfordshire waggon. The out rave however is hooped over the rear wheel as with a Berkshire waggon. This feature may show the transition of waggon building traditions from one area to another or possibly a repair of an Oxfordshire waggon by a wheelwright with a Berkshire tradition. The Mawle waggon shows all the signs of hard use, in that its long boarding has been replaced by cross boarding. The body also shows signs of hard wear.

Berkshire Bow waggon

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.

Turner Berkshire Waggon

Turner Berkshire Waggon

The Berkshire waggon from Sutton Courtney [OXCMS: 1983.29.1] is long boarded and it has boarded and spindled sides, however the spindles are flattened. The waggon has fully boarded raves, with outraves that sweep over and behind the rear wheels in a full hoop. The interior, undercarriage and wheels are painted red, while the exterior is painted yellow. The front board has a bowed top rail, as with all bow waggons and is painted blue with a yellow cartouche with black lettering. It reads 'F.W. Turner Sutton Courtenay, Berks' and is dated '1914' the date when the waggon was last painted.[3] The blue on this waggon’s front board is a colour used in the west and south of the Vale of the White Horse in West Berkshire, South Cotswolds and also in Wiltshire.

Sharpe Berkshire Waggon

Sharpe Berkshire Waggon

The Berkshire waggon from Mr. Sharpe of Stanford-in-the-vale, OXCMS: 1978.41.1 was built in 1870 for Mr. D. Sharpe of Spinage's Farm, Stanford-in-the-Vale. It is built to stouter proportions than the Turner waggon. It is long boarded and waisted with a crooked bed. It has boarded and spindled sides and solid planked raves and a full hooped outer rave arching over the rear wheel. The body of the waggon is painted yellow as are the ladders and tailboard. The interior of the waggon and undercarriage is red. The front board is all blue, as with other Berkshire waggons and is lettered ‘D Sharp’ This waggon was acquired from Mr. J. Sharp of Stanford House.

Box waggons in Oxfordshire

Rose Oxfordshire Box Waggon

Rose Oxfordshire Box Waggon

In the north west of Oxfordshire, adjacent to the Cotswolds a waggon, more suited to upland terrain is found. One such waggon in Oxfordshire Museum collection is OXCMS: 1964. 304.1 This was made by Gardiner, a wheelwright of Chipping Norton, in the middle of the nineteenth century, probably between 1825 and 1885. This box waggon does not have the elaborated sweeping raves found on bow waggons of the rest of the county. It does however has a side rail but one that is relatively straight. The sides of this waggon are spindled and boarded and strengthened by a mid rail. It is long boarded and has a higher front board than the bow waggons. The front board is sign written ‘T. A. Rose 1885 Churchill Heath’. The Rose waggon is painted in the colours common to Oxfordshire and the North Cotswolds with a yellow body and red undercarriage, shafts and wheels.

Druce Oxfordshire Box Waggon

Druce Oxfordshire Box Waggon

A box waggon similar in style to the Rose waggon was built by Aubrey Long of Aston. [OXCMS: 1964.3040.] This was made for Mr. Holton, a miller. Aubrey Long was a prodigious wheelwright and waggon builder of West Oxfordshire and built many Oxfordshire bow waggons and carts. This waggon, however, did not need the extra width added by an out rave as did the bow waggons, what was required was a waggon with straighter sides and a level front board, better suited to carry sacks. The tail board is constructed as a ladder to aid access to the waggon bed. Like other Oxfordshire waggons this is painted yellow, with a red undercarriage. The waggon was sold to and used on the farm of Mr. H Druce of Ducklington. He fitted it with harvest ladders and had it sign written, H Druce. Oxfordshire Museums purchased this waggon from Miss L. Druce.

Decline of a tradition

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.

Hollis Trolley

Hollis Trolley

This design of vehicle followed a pattern that became widely used in towns for all manner of haulage. Similar trolleys were also produced by volume, by companies such as the Bristol Waggon Company. Many were however still made by local village wheelwrights such as Hollis of High Cogges, Witney. Hollis made the trolley, OXCMS: 1964.3039 in Oxfordshire’s Museums collections early in the twentieth century before 1920.[4]

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.

Wheelwrights

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.

Glossary

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.

Museum collections

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.

Notes

[1] Frances J. Pullin is recorded as working as a wheelwright in Charlton-on-Otmoor in 1881, 1891 and 1901. (Census)
[2] Corby’s, advertised themselves as ‘trap van and trolley makers’ in the early twentieth century.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.

Further reading and resources

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.
Contact: museum.resource.centre@oxfordshire.gov.uk

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