Irish Travelers and Their Tiny Houses

If you are going to live small, why not live in a work of art? Photo by AngusKirk/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic

Tiny Houses are a popular part of a worldwide movement to minimize and mobilize their lives – but the craze is not a new one. Being mobile was a way of life for Gypsies (Romani and Irish Travelers), who started out on foot, then to horse, then horse and carts called “Vardo”…the first mobile homes! 

(Editor’s note: HRL is aware that “gypsy” has come under scrutiny in recent years as a deeply hurtful slur against the Roma people. Usage in this article was considered and ultimately left as-is because it’s a discussion of history and a widely recognizable descriptor. Our commitment to celebrating the diversity of the equine community all over the world remains unchanged and our aim with this article is simply to tie the past into the present day.)

Around 1850 the vardo came into existence and became the first “mobile home”. According to Wikipedia, these particular wagons were introduced by the French in 1810 and carried non Romani circus troupes. Pulled by teams of horses and created initially for living accommodations, these wagons became necessary to transport both people and goods with combined living space. In the mid-19th century, the Romani put smaller vardos with living quarters into use.

The Romani (Romanichal) and Irish Travelers bred horses that were substantial enough to pull their now mobile homes. For the Irish, it was the Colored Cob, Gypsy Vanner, Irish cob and and Tinker Horse.

The vardo were rolling works of art, featuring wood carvings and elaborate painting; they became an iconic symbol of the gypsy travelers way of life for nearly 70 years. They are still used at gatherings and events although they’re no longer permanent housing for those initially responsible for its creation – but the tiny house craze has been increasing the popularity of the vardo once again.

After all, if you are going to live small, why not live in a work of art?

There were initially six styles of the vardo: Brush Wagon, Reading, Ledge, Bow Top, Open Lot, and the Burton

The Burton is said to be the original vardo design; it was elaborate and colorful, but due to smaller wheels was not suitable for off-road. 

The Brush wagon is considered a standard, with straight sides and wheels outside of the body.  A half door with shutters at the back of the wagon, with steps of which both were positioned away from other wagons.  There was also no skylight, a feature in other vardo designs.  Three rails encompassed the roof allowing for extra storage.

The Reading (also known as the kite wagon) dated from 1870 and were named for their build location. Originally built by Dunton and Sons, it was the all wheel drive of vardos and prized by those who traveled – lightweight, but built tough enough to go off-roading. At 10 feet long, they feature straight sides sloping outwards and upwards, towards the eaves and high arched wheels, with the back wheels 18 inches larger than the front wheels. Skylights were added in the 20th century. The insides were both practical (with cupboards and locker seats as built ins) and highly decorated, with beveled mirrors, decorated windows, and tongue and groove matchboards painted bright red or green. Highly decorated wagons were indicative of wealth, and included elaborate opulence such as carved lion heads or gargoyles painted with gold leaf. An example of the Reading can be found in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life.

The Ledge was built with a stronger frame and is shaped like a cottage.  The living area extends over the rear wheels of the wagon.  The roof is arched and about 12 feet in height. It extends over both ends of the wagon to create porches.  Brass brackets support the frame, the porch roof by iron brackets.  It too was a rolling work of art, decorated with scrollwork and carvings the entire length of the wagon.

The Bow Top was based on the design of the Ledge, but higher so it became more stable in high winds.  It was also lighter and topped off by a lightweight canvas roof. It was also highly decorated – and painted green, it vanished into the landscape.  

The Open Lot was the same design as the Bow Top, only without a door.  A curtain was put in place for privacy.

After the cast iron cooking stove was invented, in the 1830’s it became a standard feature in most vardos. You can’t have a cook stove without a chimney, so it too became a standard feature, positioned on the left side of the vardo, protecting it from elements such as tree limbs.  Travel was always on the left side of the road.

Most all vardos featured built-in seating, cabinets and a chest of drawers, with bunk beds in the rear. Windows were always on the right, and never on the rear.

There are actual artists known in history as vardo artists, and they were responsible for the elaborate wood carvings and painting such as birds, lions, and scrollwork accented with gold.  These artists include Jim Berry, John Pockett, Tom Stevens, Tommy Gaskin, and John Pickett. Yorkie Greenwood and Lol Thompson are more contemporary and modern decorators.

While most vardos are no longer being pulled by horses, they are still being produced in the 21st century – and you can have one of these rolling works for art for your own! The tiny house craze has brought back to light a way of life backed by history and while you won’t find many “original” vardos in the USA, there are companies producing the same way of life in more modern versions of this art for living. 

Craftsmanship as well as innovation and beauty can be found at Bateman Gypsy Wagon Co., located in Eaton Falls, Michigan.  Offering a variety of traditional and modern vardos, Bateman also offers the quality and artistic values known for traditional gypsy wagons, or vardos. With homage paid to the original design, they have also added modern options such as solar panels.  

So, if you have a craving for a life on wheels, or you just want to live differently, Bateman Gypsy Wagon Co. is a good place to start. Tell them HRL sent you!

This horse-drawn bow-top living van regularly stays for a few days on the wide verge beside the lane from Broadwell to Long Itchington. Andy F / CC BY-SA 2.0

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel.