An ocasional series on eminent Scots forgotten or largely ignored
This is the tale of a travelling man who invented the caravan to make his life on the road more comfortable, a Scot, a man who without knowing it, was the forerunner of every caravan lover and the bete noir of every frustrated driver making their way along Scotland’s narrow Highland roads behind a caravan. He had gypsies to thank for his ‘invention’. In his day, he was celebrated.
You might think William Gordon Stables one name too many, and a surname as unScottish as jellied eels, something of an excentric dressed when he could in full Highland regalia. Then you might remember John Brown playing the role of John Brown also in full Highland dress, professional Scotsman and archetype, all to please Queen Victoria. Brown’s idea of freedom was to be an employee, but Stables was beholden to no man or woman, a free man, free to go where he pleased. As it turned out, ‘Stables’ is the perfect name to associate with a man who uses horses for travel most of his adult life.
Stables was a man of his time, only today we think a Scotsman in a kilt an odd thing to see in the street unless he’s lost his wedding car, or not playing the bagpipes for tourist money. Born in the Aberdeenshire village of Aberchirder, near Turrif, in 1837, he was the son of a farmer. His passion for exploring the outdoors began as a child, running across ploughed fields and chasing plovers among the furrows to check where they had made their nest. He was most at home wandering in the countryside gathering wild berries and mushrooms. He could name trees by their leaves or bark, and wildflowers and grasses without a handy pocket-sized guide to check, often seen sitting by a campfire communing with nature.
Anyhow, painting him as a wee boy among brambles, faced smeared in blue juice isn’t enough. We have to take note of the ‘doctor’ in his name. After attending Aberdeen Grammar School he studied theology at the University of Aberdeen but hasd enough sense to switch to medicine, a case of not worring about the afterlife and more attending to saving lives. He took a special interest in natural nutritional foods, not boiled till the goodness was drained out of them, probably a specialism born of his childhood days foraging for food. And so, he rejected the pulpit for pulp it.
A life on the ocean waves
On graduation from Aberdeen, Stables went to London with the intention, once again, of joining the Army. He ran out of money but was too proud to ask his father for more. In a sign of a sense of humour, it is believed the old poem was his coinage: ‘Dear Dad, no mon, your son – Dear son, too bad your dad.’
Royal Navy exams came round before those for the Army and his poverty caused him to take the first chance. He went on to serve as a surgeon in the Royal Navy, which, when you think about it, is another outdoor life mingled with adventure and travel. He was commissioned as an Assistant Ship Surgeon in February 1863 to the 39-gun frigate Narcissus.
He harboured literary ambitions and his naval experiences encouraged him to write his first book Medical Life in the Navy. This is possibly the only surviving work that detailed shipboard life from a medical perspective during the transition period from sail power to steam. However, the navy being a standing example of the English class system, officers were not supposed to write of service matters. In short, the uppity Scot was ignored for promotion, and never attained appointment to HMS Captain.
Still, Scots being of a practical bent, loss of status had Stables look for a new avenue of challenge and he left ship. This was doubly fortuitous, the tub turned over in the Bay of Biscay and all hands were lost. Moreover, to suppliment a meagre service’s pension, he went on to write over 130 books, largely boys’ adventure fiction, a kind of latter-day JK Rowling only without the plagiarised bits. They are probably hard to find these days, but the proceeds from them were never used to deny Scotland its own freedom.
His life on the ocean wave satified his compulsion for travel. He saw service in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the seas off West Africa. For colonial readers keen to make Scots guilty of everthing, especially helping to run the British Empire, Stables revolted. Off Africa he took part in suppressing the slave trade and apparently led a few raids on small ships carrying slaves, described by a colleague as a ‘a most piratical life’. So much for Scots aiding the nefarous and cruel goals of England’s imperialism.
So-called jungle fever invalided him home in 1871 on half pay. He then served in the Merchant Service for two years, during which he travelled around the world twice and gained first-hand experience of South America and Australia. He might have settle in any one of the countries in those continents had he not fallen in love. In 1874 he married Theresa Williams and settled in Twyford, Berkshire where they raised four sons and two daughters. He must have been something of a novelty in that sleepy village, dressed to the hilt in his chosen taratan. By then he was a pensioned naval officer. I found little information on Theresa, (apologies to female readers), other than they were a devoted couple, but the sight of a Scotsman in full regalia must have been the attraction, a real man., she was, after all, of the Fraser clan.
To supplement his pension he turned to his writing and published works on diverse subjects such as health (particularly for young people), and the natural world around him. He also professed expertise in the breeding and husbandry of a number of species of domestic animals – particularly dogs, on which he soon became a world authority. There must have been an element of self-promotion in his claim because his farm days were limited to his childhood and youth, but his dog essays are erudite.
As befitting a man who likes journies on rural roads, Stables found other hobbies to fills the gaps. The Caravan Club describes his output as: “A keen cyclist, published poet and amateur musician (playing violin, guitar and squeeze box – the harmonium), and a member of the Humanitarian League. His afrticles on dog breeds saw him Kennel Editor of the Livestock Journal and wandering secretary of the Sea Bird Protection Society was also reflected in his writing.”
His main works, as I mentioned earlier, were real life adventure stories for boys, drawing on his experiences at sea. Of the two I’ve seen, there is an element of the Baden Powell Boy Scout in the plots and upright moral attitudes. They are full of cheerful courage and kindness to animals. What is missing, and healthier to my mind, is a lack of an adherence to the English class ethos that epitomises the Victorian age. His short stories appeared in serial form before publication as novels. He wrote for a number of publications including two of the best in their day, Chambers Journal (then located in Edinburgh), and Cassell’s Magazine for Fiction, a journal for pulp fiction. Cassells line up included some illustrious contributors: Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Quiller-Coucch, Sheridan Le Fanue, P.G. Woodhouse, Marjorie Bowen, Arnold Bennett, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, a man who knew the money and fame lay in London. Stables kept good company.
He contributed both stories and his medical expertise to the Boy’s Own Paper from its first edition in 1879 until his death, and to the Girl’s Own Paper for more than 30 years. His popularity is unquestioned. He came top in a poll of readers of the Boy’s Own Paper in March of 1899 ahead of competition that included the great science fiction writer Jules Verne, who came fourth.
The ‘Wanderer’ Land Cruiser
So where do caravans fit in to this story? One summer day as all good stories begin, Stables was travelling in his pony and trap through Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, when he stopped close to a Gypsy encampment. Not in the least recoiled by travelling folk, he stopped because his horse shied and ‘made a determined attempt to enter a Draper’s shop’. Minor damage to the trap meant that he had time to kill while repairs were made. He got talking to the gypsies who mending his trap’s damaged wheel. He recalled that, as a boy, he had “envied Gypsy children who he saw leaning over the windows and doors of their brightly painted family caravans”.
The gypsies invited him to take a look inside their travelling homes. The navy man and the inveterate traveller were inspired all at once. He could, with some ingenuity, create his own ‘land yacht’ to roam the highways and byways. He soon roughed up sketches and visited a coach builder, Bristol Wagon Company, renowned for building Pullman saloons for the railways. They took a look at his drawing, shook hands over a deposit, and the Land Yacht Wanderer was born. As one Anglo-centric magazine put it, The Gentleman Gypsy took to the road.
The Wanderer measures some 18 feet long, 6 feet 7inches wide and a maximum of 10 feet 8inches high. Built of double-skinned walls of panelled mahogany – a wood plentiful in those days and not banned – it weighs about two tons, about the same as a moden Bentley car. Entry is up wooden steps at the rear into the small pantry. To the right is a portable wash stand, to the left (for caravan anoraks), a Rippingille’s oil cooking stove. Sliding doors give access to the saloon, furnished to the right with a fixed sofa bed with storage beneath and to the left by a folding table. At the far end a door gives access to the dickey where the driving seat doubles as a corn bin, feed for the horses. It was pulled by two work horses English cobs, and I think Clydesdales later,
The Wanderer usually had a retinue that included the doctor’s valet, together with his coachman, favourite dog and a cockatoo, and was completed by his ‘Navy cutlass and a good revolver’.
After preliminary short trial runs, the first major tour in 1885 was a 1300 mile (2100 kilometre), journey to Scotland that was chronicled in his book The Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer. Thereafter The Wanderer was used each year for a summer ‘cruise’, principally along the south coast and through EastAnglia, during which he would write features, reserving the winter months for writing his novels – which he did in an unheated wooden cabin at the end of his garden.
William Gordon Stables the independinista
Stables was known to tackle anybody who dared talk of Scotland as a second-class nation, or deride its right to exist, an unfashionable thing to do when living in merry England, and prospering from English fans and readers. The Scottish National Party was a mere idea in the head of some Scottish intellectuals and writers, but Stables was known to them. When he wore Highland dress people knew what his politics might be, he did not have to make a song and Highland dance about them. He was fiercely proud of his Scottish heritage; of the Clan Gordon on his father’s side and the Robertsons and Frasers on his mother’s. He lived in an era when my own grandfather hired a charabanc pulled by horses to take his large family a day’s picnic up to the Pentland Hills from the centre of Edinburgh and back again.
As his fame and lifestyle spread so did an interest in carvanning by horse and wagon. To encourage the faithful he wrote: ” It is time for those who have no caravans to build, and for those who have to see to varnish, gold leaf and paint. Anyhow I wish the best of good luck, good roads, good weather and nice pitches to all good caravannists”.
Stables died on 10 May, 1910. The Wanderer remained with his family until the early sixties when carvaning became ever more popular for themasses, and we drivers ever more annoyed to find one of the ‘land yachtys’ swaying in front of us. It was gifted to The Caravan Club by the will of his daughter Ottoline, now housed in the Industrial Museum at Bristol. In his book Caravanning and Camping Out (1931) J. Harris Stone says of Dr William Gordon Stables as ‘… a great apostle of life in the open air; … he may fairly be considered the pioneer of modern caravanning”.
Stables always described himself as a Scot and a born wanderer. In fact, he even reached the Arctic, twice, while still a student. During the first trip his vessel became stuck in pack ice and was reported lost. After weeks of a journey, he returned home to be met by his father and sister dressed in deep mourning. ‘Which of the family is dead?’ he asked apprehensively. ‘You are,’ was the shocked reply!
Further Reading: Graham Gordon Stables, W., 1886. ‘Cruise of the Land Yacht Wanderer‘ or thirteen hundred miles in my Caravan. London: Hodder and Stoughton.