Have all the fun of the fair in your own back garden
grandiose; fairground operators would compete over who had the poshest wagon,” says Willem Middlemiss, a steam engines specialist from Cheffins’ auctions team. “They evolved with the era, too: in the Twenties they reflected the art deco trend, then the minimalism of the Thirties, while the Forties and Fifties saw larger vans, as lorries could tow them, rather than horses or traction engines.”
Today, it’s not only collectors of vintage steam engines who are looking to buy showman’s wagons, but city types who want something a bit different, says Jeremy Curzon, director of vintage auctions at Cheffins, which sold three wagons for between £7,000 and £13,500 in its April sale, and another for £11,600 in the summer.
“People buy them for personal use, but also to rent out through Airbnb or on glamping websites,” he says. “One buyer in Cambridgeshire got one to use as a poker den at the bottom of his garden. But you have to think about getting them in place. A lady spent £1,000 craning one into her garden as a Wendy house for her children.”
A showman’s wagon hit the headlines in 2003 when Bonhams auction house listed Jools Holland’s 1921 model for a guide price of £11,000 to £13,000. This is average for restored vans, says Curzon, although larger ones can cost £15,000 to £25,000. He knows of one that sold for £40,000: “That one was full of period furniture and restored to all its former glory.” Bargains can also be found; last year, a 100-year-old wagon in need of some attention was listed on eBay for 99p, eventually selling for more than £5,000 following multiple bids.
You can find these wagons at steamfair auctions (Cheffins’ next vintage sale is in April), the Great Dorset Steam Fair every August – Glastonbury for living wagon enthusiasts – or through a steam-engine dealer such as Preston Services, run by Michael List Brain. He points to a couple of leading brands in vintage showman’s vans: “There is Brayshaw & Sons of Leeds, and also Orton & Spooner, a company from Burton upon Trent, who made some of the most expensive examples.”
The vans can be sympathetically modernised with discreet wiring, plumbing and sewage, for personal use or holiday rentals. John Eastwood, a farmer who rents out a beautifully restored 1894 showman’s wagon overlooking Bodiam Castle in Sussex (from £338 per week via mulberrycottages. com), spent around £25,000 installing all the mod cons including a bathroom with hot shower, Wi-Fi, television and a music system. “It’s very popular, with a charisma all of its own,” he says. “But you have to invest properly to let professionally, including heating, insurance, gas and electric certificates, planning consent, and insulation in the floor and walls.”
Greville Worthington, an artist and curator, has installed two woodburners in his 30ft-long wagon, The Mollycroft, which sits in bamboo gardens at his home in Tunstall, North Yorkshire. “I bought the van on eBay for £4,000 in 2005 and restored it, insulating it with sheep’s wool,” he says. “It was built in 1946 for the White family on the Glasgow circuit – one day Christine White came down to see it and told me she grew up in it.” It is available for £95 a night through canopyandstars.co.uk.
But you can’t just park your showman’s wagon in the garden and expect it to prosper, advises List Brain, who owns three himself. “They need regular maintenance and ventilation as these are delicate objects that are susceptible to the weather.” Less robust than the shepherd’s hut, admittedly – but so much more fun.
A 1925 living van, below, was sold by Preston Services and has been used as accommodation at Glastonbury Festival
The artist Greville Worthington with his wagon The Mollycroft, main and below right; this showman’s wagon, below left, was used by Lord and Lady Leicester