Bristol Museum's Romany wagon and the power of museum objects

The Romany wagon (or caravan) is one of the most popular objects at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. For some people, it’s particularly special because it evokes memories from the time it was lived in. Amber Druce, Curator of History, takes us through what we know of its story so far.

When the wagon, known as a vardo, was bought by the museum in 1953 it was displayed outside Blaise Museum, at that time a folk museum. It came to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery in 1957. We didn’t have any information about original owners, just the people from 1950 onwards.

Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve been able to piece together its earlier history thanks to several people related to Noah and Annie O’Connor, some of the first people to live in it. If you look closely, you’ll see an ‘A’ on some of the windows; A is for Annie.

The couple lived in the wagon with their family from about 1916 until Noah was killed in a road accident in 1925. At that time Annie sold the wagon and the family lived in a smaller wagon.

A photo of the couple and pictures of their family are displayed inside in the wagon.

Image: Noah and Annie O’Connor c. 1900

Thanks to recent information, we now understand that the wagon was in Bristol after that, at Lock’s Yard (aka Dorney’s Yard) in Bedminster. We recently had a visitor who was born there, in the caravan, in 1943. Her Grandmother was Annie O’Connor! She’s just donated Annie’s woollen blanket and some photos to the museum.

Another branch of the family has visited several times over the past few years, bringing in different family members each time and donating material for the wagon. A Grandson of Noah and Annie has donated a horse whip, a neckerchief, photos, and some cooking pots.

The personal connection has been really helpful for understanding the wagon’s history and the people who lived there.

It was a huge honour to be able to connect the family and host a gathering for them at the wagon. We had about 14 people, and the atmosphere was amazing. Stories were swapped, the family tree was shared, and happy tears were shed.

Image: The O’Connor family reunion in 2019

A shared love of the wagon was what brought everybody together and it’s a powerful reminder of how public museum collections can be so special, and why visitor information is so crucial.

Our wagon was built in about 1900 in Reading. After its time in Bedminster, in 1950 it was bought by a Miss Cunningham of Dorking. At this time the caravan was known as ‘Ela’ – the name ‘Ela’ was painted on the door. She wrote:

‘I love this van but I do realise that it is a responsibility.’

She sold it in 1951 to a holiday camp in Glamorgan.

Image: Photograph of ‘Ela’ c.1950

Bristol Museum bought the caravan in 1953 and it was displayed outside Blaise Museum. After the wagon was burgled in 1957, it came to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as part of a transportation display.

Image: The wagon displayed at the back of Blaise Museum, near the dairy in around 1955

Horse-drawn caravans have been used as homes by the Romany community for about 160 years. Before that they were used by travelling showpeople.

Parents traditionally slept on the bed, children in the cupboard underneath it. Older children sometimes slept under the wagon, protected by a tarpaulin round the wheels.

Life in a vardo was hard. There was no electricity, water or gas and every time the wagon was moved, belongings had to be secured so they didn’t fall and break. Door-to-door selling was most successful when it rained as Gorgios (non-Gypsies) took pity. The down side was that wagons often got stuck in the mud.

Gorgios tend either to romanticise or demonise Romany Gypsies without much understanding of the culture. Traditional Romany life is about close family and community bonds and the freedom to travel for work.