When I first began to investigate the common horse drawn farm vehicles of the Welsh uplands I realised how little I knew. The gambo I had encountered much earlier than my interest began to surface but there were other common vehicles.
Whereas the long flat bed of the gambo was great for hauling crops from the field it had limitations when it came to general haulage. A fully sided ‘tub’ was what was needed but it was necessary for it to be an interchangeable vehicle with the gambo, which was already on most farms. That meant the same horse had to be able to manage both, which is to say the wheel size had to be the same or near as damn it.
The answer came in the form of a ‘Scotch cart’, a two wheeled, double shaft frame on which sat a simple box car with fixed front and sides but a removable rear ‘tail-gate’.
I have two of the type, locally known as ‘tip-cart’ or ‘tumbril’. They are more often called a ‘muck-cart’ by farmers whom I have interviewed as that was the most general use that they seemed to have been put. However that may be because that job was least enjoyed – the manure had to be cut and carted out from the cow-house or calf cot and barrowed to the ‘midden’. Then it heated and rotted for months whilst the winter rain soaked it and the frost broke it down. Come the sunshine of spring the ‘muck’ was loaded – by hand fork – onto the tub of the tumbril and taken out to the designated field. Once the cart got to the field the manure was then off-loaded in one of two ways; either it was scattered in a flinging action straight from the back of the cart with the labourer standing on the ground at the rear or it was or it was ‘dragged’ off using a ‘dunook’, a right angled four tine fork, into piles on the ground dispersed around the field. Later on it would have been scattered about using a crom which was a hoop on the end of a long wooden handle.
Depending on age and place of manufacture the tumbril either had a wooden axle with the stub ends integral or it had stub axles of steel fitted into the ends of the wooden axle. One of my examples has the wooden axle, it spent its working life in the hamlet of Llanwenog (famous for an eponymous sheep breed) west of Lampeter in Ceredigion. It has a four feet diameter wheel, the same as my other example, and a 5 x 3 feet bed. The larger of the two, even though it sits on the same size wheels, has steel stub axles which are set into a large nine inch square ash axle tree. That particular tumbril came out of the same cart shed as my gambo, at Aberduhonnu in the Wye valley some three miles downstream of Builth Wells. Although it too, like the gambo, had spent its formative years at Ysciog a farm downstream at Abernant. Both were most probably made at a workshop in Erwood.
I acquired both the gambo and the tumbril at the same time back in from the then owner of Aberduhonnu. Both were retrieved from an open shed and although they were stacked around with all manner of detritus of farming they were in salvageable condition. An open shed is by far the best for preserving wooden items, many are the carts and gambos I have seen tucked away in old stone barns which seem sound but closer examination or attempts at movement quickly reveal the rotten condition especially the bottoms of the wheels, the felloes, which invariably have been submerged in wet manure or mud for decades.
The tumbril clearly required a new floor, decades of manure has the duel effect of preserving the surface but providing a wonderful habitat for wood boring beetles. The wheels were generally sound albeit there was some deterioration of the hub outers but nothing untoward. The shafts looked rather brittle and indeed one had clearly already been strengthened with iron plates. There is an inherent weak-point where the forward cross member on the subframe is tenoned into mortices in the shafts and itself has a mortice dead centre to receive the tenon of the centre bar, itself weakened by a large mortice which accommodates the tipping support. This is not to be critical of the original design or the craftsmen, they weren’t building a working vehicle which was supposed to survive for over a century at least half of which was a hard working 50 years !
Neither of the tumbrils have yet been restored and the Aberduhonnu example now requires much of its oak frame replacing although both the tub and the wheels are in good order. The Llanwenog cart is sound and complete including the extensions to front and side. Both of these tumbrils are ‘tipping’ carts. I will write more on these as they undergo restoration – which I am hoping will be this year.
January 2021 – began restoration of Aberduhonnu tumbril. See post titled ‘Tumbril Transformed’
Another two wheel cart which I have restored is the common ‘market float’. A lightweight vehicle which was used by farmers and tradesmen alike. My example has had the ‘modernisation’ which was often applied to such vehicles in the early decades of the twentieth century; the wooden wheels have been replaced with an old car axle and the pneumatic tyres on steel ‘artillery’ type wheels.
This float came from the same village as my Cardiganshire tumbril. Llanwenog, and it’s very possible it was on the same farm, as a faded name can be seen painted on the side – the panel which remain unpainted. I am hoping someone will confirm what I think it says and so. for the moment. I’m leaving it visible.
The float was in the original oak stain finish which almost all floats and gigs were dispatched from the wheelwright shop in. Whilst, for authenticity, I should maybe have refinished it the same, I wanted to make it a little more vibrant and interesting to my visitors hence the dual blue tone and red highlights.
When I got the float the tyres were perished and whilst such sizes are available – the vintage car owners require them – the cost is prohibitive. I thought that I could maybe find some old tyres somewhere but wasn’t too hopeful. Astonishingly, while perusing in an excellent antique centre just west of Pocklington on the York to Hull main road, I spied something of interest under a cluttered table. On extracting the hidden tyres, I found they were both the correct size and were unused with just a small amount of perishing around the inner edges. My wonderful friends at Llandovery Tyres (Sammy Tyres as he is known to us all !) got me two new tubes and fitted the tyres to the old rims.
I might, one day, come across a similar float still on its original wooden wheels but I am happy with the one I have; after all, it was what was common in the pre-war years in upland Wales and further afield.
The final ‘working’ horse drawn vehicle in my stable is a four wheel wagon still on its wooden wheels but having both horse-shafts and a tractor tow hitch. It is of the type often referred to (especially in the border counties such as Radnorshire and Montgomery) as a ‘trolley’. I suspect my particular example started life as a delivery trolley possibly for Great Western Railways. I did have another example which still had the sign writing visible. On one side it read Great Western Railways and along the other side it read British Rail ! Clearly it was used by GWR prior to nationalisation and BR afterwards. It had been retro-fitted with rather a botched set of lorry axles and the same artillery type wheels as my float. An altogether unpleasing apparition, so much so that I abandoned it once the present one arrived.
This ‘trolley’ sits on 3ft diameter wooden wheels the hubs of which are cast iron. That little variation – from a standard elm hub – gives a guide to the date of manufacture as post about 1860 through to the 1940s, so not much of a help really ! The bed is 12ft x 5ft 6ins. It is a fully rotational turntable which suggests it was designed for urban use as well as more general haulage work in the rural areas. A tight turning circle was needed in small streets in towns. The original shaft for a horse sits on the bed but it is fitted with a tractor draw bar for ease of movement around my yard.
The style of this vehicle is suggestive of the type used by a number of general haulage firms, including GWR and BR. I found this example in the border county of Radnorshire and the colour scheme as it is today, black with white or possibly cream spokes, may be original. I won’t know for certain until I get into the restoration and that could be some time off !
Currently I only have one more horse-drawn vehicle in my collection and that arrived but a few weeks ago. A local farmer whom I had called with to discuss some work on a nearby sheepfold, persuaded me to ‘acquire’ from him a couple of stationary engines. I have a few in the shed (I will report on them soon no doubt) and was not seeking to add to them but he was very persuasive and his price was far too reasonable to refuse, notwithstanding they will need some expensive attention. But in the follow up meeting – to count out the money I gave him – he offered me a long-time family treasure, his wife’s ‘gig’. The story was intriguing enough, the little trap had served the gentry in a nearby grand estate for many years before being sold off at the auction of the live and dead stock when the end for that particular piece of local history had arrived. It was bought by the parents of my friend’s wife (she was just a young girl at the time) and somehow then got transported by goods train on what was then the LMS line to Shrewsbury (now the ‘Heart of Wales’ line, Swansea to Shrewsbury) and on to Ashbourne in Derbyshire. There it served as a much loved family gad-about while the daughters of the owner were growing up. When my farmer friend got married to one of the sisters the dowry was the little gig and when subsequently they moved down to the area to farm, back came the little vehicle to its original homeland !
Alas the ravages of time, woodworm and a few rodents, as well as nesting chickens, have resulted in the poor condition it now finds itself. The shafts had rotted away and snapped off, the internal padding and braiding has long gone but the cushions remain intact (only by virtue of being set aside as a summer bench softener). However, generally the body and running gear are in good condition and far too salvageable to condemn the old gig to a flaming end. Also, it fits very nicely with my general overview of upland farming during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for most medium size farms had a little trap or gig such as this for trips to town and chapel.
I gratefully accepted his kind offer to take it away (and restore it!) but I had my doubts; they vanished when some days later, I came across an old box spanner in a crate of rusty tools I had been given, it was the first thing I picked out. It looked a possibility and so I took it around to the shed in which I had put the sad little specimen and can you believe, it was the exact fit for the brass nuts which secure the wheels to the axle – clearly ‘it was meant to be’ !
Shortly thereafter I managed to acquire a pair of unused shafts of some antiquity from a nearby farm. The farmer had at one time thought he might restore the gig which languished in his barn for half a century and he came across the shafts at an old coaching inn in Trecastle. Alas when he finally got around to more than thinking about restoring it and went to pull it out the wheels collapsed due to the ravages of the dreaded woodworm.