Nowadays, people might mainly think of shepherd’s vans as romantic holiday hideaways or useful garden offices but, during the nineteenth century, they were an important part of farming life and were regularly seen dotted around the countryside.
It’s tempting to think that they were rarely used before about 1800 but this may just be because very few old ones survive. In fact, a farming book dating from 1596 refers to them: ‘in some places the Shepheard has his Cabbin going upon a wheel for to move here and there at his pleasure’ and, even older, an illuminated manuscript from 1480 clearly shows an image of a wheeled hut.
Obviously, shepherd’s vans could not be used on mountainous or swampy land but they were ideal for use on lowland farms and were common throughout the east of Wales and the south of England. They were also widely used in other countries in different forms, sometimes being so small as to be little more than a hutch in which a shepherd could lie down out of the rain!
In the early days in England, there was no standard design for the vans and a farmer might ask the local blacksmith to build something. This might have been extremely rudimentary, with no lining or insulation and hardly enough space to stand up properly – just somewhere to keep tools. However, medium scale farmers could afford something better and, often, vans were bought from suppliers such as Farris Brothers or Tasker Ltd, who followed a standard design. Increasingly, after 1829, vans were made from corrugated iron but wooden ones were also still popular. They had substantial wheels with a front steering axle. This raised the van above ground level and, together with a timber lining meant it was much warmer and more comfortable than earlier, more basic versions.
Inside, the furnishings were simple but usually included a cast-iron stove which allowed the shepherd to dry his clothes and heat food. It also meant that he had hot water for washing – very welcome after he had completed some of the dirty tasks that his job required, such as scraping larvae and maggots out of scabs and infections, picking out sheep’s hooves or clipping manure-covered wool from sheep’s behinds. The van also included a simple raised bed, made of just a wooden platform and a straw-filled mattress. Under the bed, a small gated pen was often included, in which the shepherd could keep any sickly lambs that he was nursing.
At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have a traditional shepherd’s van, dating from around 1915 and thought to have been originally used at Boot Farm, Little Kingshill. It was donated to us in 1985 and, since its restoration, has been used for its original purpose, allowing our own shepherds to remain on-site during lambing. The van is typical of the design of its age, being built of rebated feather edge boards, with diagonal tongued and grooved boards internally, which brace the structure. The wheels are cast-iron and the barrel-shaped roof is covered with corrugated iron. The van is painted in battleship grey, which was its original colour. Internally, the cast-iron stove was too badly damaged to be used but has been replaced with a similar one.
During lambing, one of our shepherds stays overnight in the van, following traditional methods as far as possible. There is no electricity, so lighting is provided by candles and lanterns (supplemented by torches where necessary!) and heating comes from the cast-iron stove which is also used to heat water used for sterilising equipment.
The two priorities of the shepherd are to help the ewes give birth and to care for the newly-born lambs. During the night, the shepherd wakes every two hours to check them. Two hours is the longest that a ewe should be left in labour without help. Ewes can usually deliver without assistance but our Oxford Down sheep tend to need more help than other breeds, partly because of their size. If they are in labour too long, the shepherd will check for problems such as poor presentation of the lamb: lambs need to be in the ‘Superman’ position, with nose and two front feet all facing forwards.
New-born lambs are very vulnerable and it is important that they get enough to drink and are warm enough. The shepherds keep a detailed lambing diary which includes information about how often each lamb suckles and for how long. If there seems to be a problem with feeding, the shepherd will pass a tube into its stomach and feed it with lamb-formula milk. If a lamb needs to be kept warm, infra-red lamps are used, rather than the lamb being put in a box of straw by the stove. Concessions to modern ways are important when a lamb’s life is at stake!
Plenty of stamina is needed for shepherding! It involves broken sleep, physical exertion, worry and considerable strength; however, these are more than outweighed by its rewards. At the Museum, the work provides a welcome chance to get close to the old ways and understand how Victorian and Edwardian shepherds might have felt in the fields with only the sheep and their dogs for company. Our shepherds talk of the peaceful, special feeling they experience in the lambing folds. They become aware of the wildlife that comes out when the people leave the Museum, of the sun rising above the cherry trees and the birdsong at dawn.
The shepherd’s van is so much more than just a curious wooden hut on wheels. It is a connection to tradition and to nature and we count ourselves lucky to have one.