A Classic Source Book On Carts And Wagons

David Viner Wagons and Carts, line drawings by David Wray, Shire Publications, 2008, with pp. 64, black-and-white and colour photographs, line drawings, index, bibliography, sites to see carts and wagons.

Like most Shire publications, this small volume is packed with erudition, outstanding photographs, both black-and-white and in colour, enhanced by numerous line drawings of the vehicles and of their component parts, carefully labelled, so the book punches far over its weight.

It opens with a surprise – to us, perhaps – that is, the suggestion in 1953 that a splendid way to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation would be to mass all the old farm wagons lying around and burn them. Fortunately, this gave rise to vociferous protest from many, including the MERL (Museum of English Rural Life), which mounted an exhibit of wagons to celebrate the event through their elaborate construction techniques and often impressive aesthetics. Both carts and wagons show highly regional, even deeply local, styles and names, including for their components.

The book discusses such technical changes as the rise of the movable fore-carriage in the 17th century underwriting the increased use of horse power, such finesses as why wheels are “dished” (set at an angle) to counteract the sideways pressure of larger and larger loads, as well as the consequent regional variation in dishing.

It was often the fate of the hard-working, exhausted cart not to survive, in contrast to the more prestigious wagons, with their spectacular variation in body design. Their front axle could determine the “lock” (the degree of turn a wagon can achieve: quarter-lock, half-lock, ¾-lock, full lock with a fifth wheel), and dishing does create extra turning space. David emphasizes that there is no obvious linear development in this branch of technology, but overlapping innovation, much debate on whether wagon evolution was pushed by draining efforts and enabled by road improvement through the establishment of turnpike trusts. What is evident by the end of the wagon era is that they were highly recognizable to connoisseurs and one of the highlights today is when they have kept their once-obligatory owner’s ID plates (accident insurance….).

Identifying regional types is one of the main points of the book, for which sketches and photographs abound, with the major division between box and bow types, and where wagons “run out” and “into” carts – in the Welsh hill country. Alas for collectors and museums, some wagon types went “extinct” and are known only by their names. The bow wagons seem to have considerable influence from Dutch traditions, and types of wagons may have “migrated” within the British Isles, but there are few traces to help researchers on this point. It is clear that box and bow wagons were often used side by side, as indicated by the classic surveys by Geraint Jones and earlier sources, such as the drawings by Arthur Young or reports by William Marshall.

The book moves on to boat, barge and trolley wagons, the last for urban delivery which eventually influenced the design of the first motorized lorries. Old catalogues, many of which were carefully archived, show the immense variety on offer, frequently used by the Guild of Model Wheelwrights as a source for their exquisite works of highly precise reproduction. The glossary includes an exploded diagram of a Suffolk wagon and a typical nave, with a detailed diagram of a cart and its vocabulary in the chapter on carts, as well as equal attention to wheel components in photographs.

NB The editor’s statement of rights reserved specifically indicates that for purposes of research and review, reproduction is permitted.